‘You changed our little girl’s life’ read the handwritten note in the thank-you card. It came from the parents of a little girl who had completed 20 weeks of vision therapy at Fitzroy North Eye Centre.
One of the centre’s three behavioural optometrists, Sally Doyle, says vision therapy patients often experience noticeable improvements in their vision within three or four weeks of starting therapy.
Alice is a case in point. Sally first saw Alice when she was five years old. ‘She had been wearing glasses since she was 12 months old. She was +6 in both eyes and was seeing an ophthalmologist every three months, who was patching her “bad” eye,’ Sally said.
Alice wanted to learn a game the other children played in the playground at school. She told Sally that they ‘went down a magic hole in one area of the playground and came up in another.’ Alice could not play this game so she sat on the steps at recess.
‘As well as amblyopia, hyperopia and esotropia, Alice had no ability to track. Her description of the magic hole game was, to her, exactly what she saw,’ Sally said.
Alice underwent 20 weeks of vision therapy. Therapy requires the patient to attend weekly sessions in-office at the practice but also—crucially—to carry out 15 to 20 minutes of vision therapy homework five times a week.
‘After five weeks of therapy, Alice could catch a ball and she no longer had to sit on the steps at lunchtime as she felt more comfortable in her environment. After 15 weeks, Alice’s homework was to go to a 3-D movie. She loved it! Binocular vision was such a novel experience for the five-year-old that she described what she was seeing as “poppy vision”.
‘Before Alice started vision therapy, her parents would take her bushwalking. She would hold their hands and walk step-by-step beside them. Now, she runs 50 metres ahead because she understands where she is in her visual space,’ Sally said.
A photograph of Alice’s smiling face as she proudly holds her ‘Vision Therapy’ completion certificate features on a wall outside the vision therapy room at the practice, along with many more faces.
Inside the vision therapy room, the walls are covered with letters, numbers and arrows, there is a mirror, and there are toys and a mini trampoline.
Sally also works with a paediatric cranial osteopath, to whom she sends patients for treatment. ‘This is beneficial for anyone with a strabismus and works well in conjunction with vision therapy. Frequently there is tightness on the side of the strabismus and parents notice a distinct improvement following a treatment,’ she said.
Sally is regional director of the Australasian College of Behavioural Optometrists (ACBO) in Victoria and conducts weekly vision therapy sessions with her patients, both adults and children, the youngest of whom is three years old.
‘Vision therapy is like building new brain software,’ Sally said.
Last year, television personality Todd Sampson put brain training to the test in an ABC three-part documentary series Redesign My Brain. Vision therapy is related to this field. The science behind it, known as neuroplasticity, is gaining credibility.
Sally’s appointment book includes patients who might also experience behavioural symptoms. She has treated a female patient who suffered car sickness, even when driving herself. After a program of vision therapy, she could comfortably drive with no nausea.
Does vision therapy work for everyone? Sally says it can but is at pains to point out to each of her patients that they must be committed to completing the homework exercises on a regular if not daily basis, otherwise the chances of success will be diminished.
‘I tell all my patients that they need to be conscientious with their exercises. If they are not committed, we don’t continue.’
Her skills in behavioural optometry and vision therapy have evolved over time but she credits one group of courses in particular. ‘The ACBO Optometric Extension Program courses changed the way I practise. This included The Art and Science of Behavioural Optometry as well as Vision Therapy 1 for oculomotor dysfunction, VT2 for learning related difficulties, and VT3 for strabismus and amblyopia.
‘Over the next few years I will do all those courses again as I can still get a lot more out of them. It has been life-changing and integral to my professional development. It changed my thought processes and I cannot recommend the courses highly enough,’ Sally said.
‘These courses are excellent value as the groups are small and it is hands-on learning. All of us participate in the activities so we can experience exactly what happens and why.’
‘Optometrists should strongly consider referring a child who is having difficulty with reading and learning, or with strabismus or amblyopia, to an optometrist who can provide in-office vision therapy,’ Sally said.
Visit www.acbo.org.au for more information about vision therapy.
- Additional reading: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge