What is the visual system?

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC November 23, 2021

What is the visual system?

Our visual system allows us to not only see what is in our environment but also allows us to process, interpret, and understand what it all means. It’s not just about how clearly we can see - that’s visual acuity - but it’s also about how our brain understands what we see, as well as our ability to formulate a response to what we see.

The visual system is developed in the womb. However, it is the least mature system at birth (relative to the other sensory systems). By approximately two months of age, an infant can begin associating meaning to what they see. By three months of age, an infant can begin visually tracking objects within their environment and may even grasp items and bring those items into their visual field. The infant begins recognizing faces between ages 4-6 months and reaching and grasping for preferred items. By 12 months, the infant has started to understand object permanence - knowing that an object still exists even when it’s not visible.

Visual System

The visual system has a significant impact on social development as well. Think about eye contact and watching, processing, and understanding body language. Additionally, the visual system plays a very important role in learning and education. Everything from walking and running, riding a bicycle, and climbing to reading and writing requires effective visual processing.

Additionally, our visual sense is directly related to our vestibular sense (our sense of motion). When we are in motion, our sense of vision helps us direct and understand that motion or movement. Because our vestibular system is located in our inner ears and is activated by head movement and head position changes, it’s easy to see how our vision is directly linked - when our head moves, our eyes move. Try this: close your eyes and take five steps forward. How did that feel? Probably a bit tricky and maybe even a bit scary. That’s because, without the use of our visual system, our vestibular system and the sense of where our body is in space gets thrown off.

Different types of visual processing

Let’s look at some of the different types of visual processing - what they are, what they help us with in daily life, what it looks like if a child struggles with that particular area, and some tips and tricks to help!

Visual discrimination

Visual discrimination can be defined as “the ability to detect differences in and ability to classify objects, symbols, or shapes. These can be categorized by color, position, form, pattern, texture, as well as size.” This visual processing area is particularly important for children learning to read and write - they need to be able to discriminate between different letters and numbers. Visual discrimination helps to identify similarities and differences in various objects.

What are some signs that a child might be struggling with visual discrimination?

  • Letter reversals beyond 2nd grade
  • Dyslexia
  • Frequently loses their place while reading age-appropriate books/texts
  • Dislike of age-appropriate puzzles
  • Difficulty identifying similarities and differences
  • Challenges with locating a specific item within a group

If your child struggles with visual discrimination, try some of these activities to help boost this skill:

  • Simple sorting games - sort by one category, such as shape or color
  • Complex sorting games (after mastering simple) - sort by two or more categories
  • Complete “find the difference” pictures - help them by asking questions about the pictures
  • Play dominos
  • Sort coins
  • Complete letter/word searches

Visual figure ground 

Visual figure ground is the ability to identify and pick out a specific object within a busy environment. This skill is essential for navigating the environment, reading and writing, and other cognitive tasks. Additionally, this can impact household tasks such as locating a specific item to cook within the kitchen or choosing a weather-appropriate clothing item from the closet.

What are some signs that a child might be struggling with visual figure ground?

  • Challenges with attention to reading tasks
  • Complaints of “getting lost” during reading and writing tasks
  • May be a slow reader
  • Difficulty locating necessary items from a drawer, closet, etc.
  • May have difficulty with organization - may be considered “messy”
  • Dislike of age-appropriate games such as “Where’s Waldo?”

If your child struggles with visual figure ground, try some of these activities to help boost this skill:

  • Use a highlighter strip or paper block while reading, to highlight a specific line or to block out all other lines
  • Play I Spy while out in the community
  • Sensory bins with a variety of items and sort out specific items into cups
  • Complete color-by-numbers
  • Use pictures of how things should be organized to help stay organized - for example, help your child organize their closet, then take a picture of it and place it on the closet door. Every couple of days, help them reference the picture to keep the space organized.

Visual sequencing

Visual sequencing is the ability to organize items in a specific order. This area of visual processing is important for reading and writing, math skills, sports that require specific sequencing of events (such as running bases in baseball, coordinating plays in football, or sequencing cheers in cheerleading), and self-care tasks such as cooking or getting dressed. Visual sequencing is directly related to coordinating the body, planning, and executing a task.

What are some signs that a child might be struggling with visual sequencing?

  • Challenges with reading and writing
  • Challenges with math tasks (potential diagnosis of Dyscalculia)
  • Difficulty and dislike of sports, including single-person sports such as karate
  • Poor motor planning abilities
  • Difficulty with visual tracking (the ability to move both eyes together to smoothly track an object moving through space)

If your child struggles with visual sequencing, try some of these activities to help boost this skill:

  • Use a highlighter strip or paper block while reading, to highlight a specific line or to block out all other lines, or even to block out all but one word at a time
  • Building activities that follow visual, step by step instructions
  • Mazes
  • Flashlight tag
  • Popping bubbles
  • Drawing an infinity loop (figure 8) and tracing it or driving toys around it

Visual memory

Visual System

Visual memory is the ability to recall something that was previously seen; to recall visual information on-demand. This particular skill is necessary for reading and writing. Additionally, visual memory assists with navigating our environment - not just our home, but also out in the community. Visual memory also helps us recall details about people we meet, places we’ve been, and information we’ve read or seen (such as a detail from a book or a scene from a movie). Visual memory also plays into our emotions, as seeing something from our past can trigger a memory and an emotion.

What are some signs that a child might be struggling with visual memory?

  • May be a slow reader; may dislike reading
  • May be a slow writer; may dislike handwriting tasks and fatigue easily
  • Challenges with timed reading/writing tasks; may cause anxiety
  • May seem lazy with schoolwork
  • Difficulty navigating familiar places as well as giving someone directions
  • Slow processing speed - may take longer to respond or complete a task following auditory or visual instructions

If your child struggles with visual memory, try some of these activities to help boost this skill:

  • Play a copying game - draw or build a shape. Allow your child to look at it for 30 seconds, then hide it while they copy it. Grade this up to make it harder by including more details and colors.
  • Play a memorization game - write or draw a series of objects (numbers, colors, shapes) on a piece of paper. Allow your child 30-60 seconds to memorize the series, then hide it while they verbally tell you the order. Start small, with less than 5 objects, and build up as they are successful.
  • Play the old-fashioned Memory game!
  • Practice reading maps while out in the community.

Visual closure

Visual closure is the ability to see part of an object and know what that object is. This requires visualizing the whole when only seeing a part. This skill is necessary for higher-level reading skills, locating objects within busy environments, and potentially predicting outcomes.

What are some signs that a child might be struggling with visual closure?

  • May be a slow reader
  • Challenges with comprehension while reading
  • Dyslexia
  • Difficulty with age-appropriate games such as puzzles

If your child struggles with visual closure, try some of these activities to help boost this skill:

  • Complete color-by-number and connect-the-dot activities, but ask your child to guess what the picture will be before it’s finished
  • Play shape guessing games - draw part of a shape and have your child guess the shape OR have your child finish drawing the shape
  • Building/construction games
  • Word searches

Visual-spatial processing

Visual-spatial processing is the ability to understand where objects are in space. This includes location, depth, and how those objects relate to each other as well as to you. This skill is essential for safely navigating our environment, from walking to playing sports to driving. This skill is also necessary for reading and writing, tying shoes, and motor planning.

What are some signs that a child might be struggling with visual-spatial processing?

  • Difficulty with reading and writing
  • Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia
  • Difficulty with and possible dislike of sports
  • Challenges motor planning new motor sequences, such as learning a new dance move
  • Challenges with other areas of visual processing such as figure-ground, discrimination, and closure
  • Difficulty with left vs. right, up vs. down, etc.
  • Challenges with daily life tasks, including getting dressed
  • May appear clumsy

If your child struggles with visual-spatial processing, try some of these activities to help boost this skill:

  • Copying 3D building structures
  • Complete obstacle courses - include crawling, jumping, running, climbing
  • Try simple activities without the use of vision
  • Locating objects following visual or auditory instructions
  • Playing games that require left/right, up/down components
  • Playing Simon Says and focusing on specific body movements/positions (such as, “touch your left knee with your right hand”)

Visual motor integration

Visual motor is the combination of several visual perceptual skills as well as motor skills. Often referred to as hand-eye coordination, visual motor integration includes seeing something and coordinating a motor action to complete a task (as well as visually understanding what is happening!). This skill is essential for handwriting tasks, sports, and other ball-skill tasks, play activities such as climbing and riding a bicycle and even navigating through the environment.

What are some signs that a child might be struggling with visual motor integration?

  • Poor handwriting; may be sloppy and hard to read
  • Challenges with coloring and drawing; may dislike these fine motor activities
  • Challenges with throwing and catching games, including sports that involve a ball
  • Difficulty navigating space and one’s environment; may appear clumsy
  • Self-care skills such as tying and buttoning

If your child struggles with visual motor integration, try some of these activities to help boost this skill:

  • Play more games with balls - try larger balls, try rolling instead of throwing
  • Zoomball
  • Tracing or following a path - use painter’s tape to make a “road” on the ground and have your child “drive” their toys on the road
  • Play with Wikki Stix
  • Play balloon volleyball; pop bubbles
  • Flashlight tag

Visual-Vestibular integration

Vestibular integration

As discussed at the beginning of this article, our visual and vestibular systems are connected. When our head moves, it activates the vestibular system and simultaneously moves our eyes at the same time. This integration is required for safely navigating our environment, riding a bicycle or a skateboard, playing sports, and is directly related to visual motor integration.

What are some signs that a child might be struggling with visual-vestibular integration?

  • Motion sickness/car sickness
  • Dislike of movement such as swings or slides
  • Difficulty moving through their environment; may appear clumsy
  • Challenges with sports and ball games

If your child struggles with visual vestibular integration, try some of these activities to help boost this skill:

  • Talk with a trained Occupational Therapist with knowledge of vestibular processing
  • Find out what types of movement your child enjoys and do more of that, while slowly incorporating the non-preferred types of movement
  • Play throwing games while on a swing or sliding down a slide - throw to a target while simultaneously moving
  • Complete obstacle courses with lots of movement such as jumping, running, swinging; try to include a visual activity as well

 

Vision therapy

Vision Therapy

Vision therapy is a subspecialty of developmental optometry that focuses on visual processing and perceptual skills. 

The focus is not on visual acuity, but many of the things this article discussed, including specific visual motor skills such as visual tracking and saccadic eye movements. 

If your child experiences any challenges as mentioned in this article, seeking out a vision therapy center may be beneficial.

 

Final thoughts

While there are a LOT of details that go into visual processing, they are all connected! By completing more activities that require the use of different visual processing skills, you can help your child improve many skills.

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC and Jessica Hill, COTA/L both Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA). They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Rachel and Jessica specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Rachel and Jessica are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Rachel and Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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