A new visual treatment is on the market, claiming to help children with special needs. But is it legit?
Kate Tuttle: Parents of children struggling with dyslexia, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorders often find themselves struggling to find therapies and specialists to help their children overcome obstacles and succeed in school, home and life. Those of us whose kids have any type of health or learning issues know that we'd do just about anything to help them -- which makes us good parents, but also leaves us deeply vulnerable to being hoodwinked by false promises.
In an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Judith Warner writes of a new therapy that advocates say can cure or alleviate conditions as serious as autism, and that skeptics warn is an unproven, profit-driven batch of snake oil. Vision Therapy, offered by folks who identify as behavior optometrists, focuses on how the eyes work together, especially when it comes to close-vision tasks like reading. Using both regular eyeglasses (often with weak prescriptions) and prisms to "alter sensory input," VT practitioners say they help kids improve their performance in reading, gross-motor skills, and even speech and social interaction. Sites promoting the services contain testimonials from scores of satisfied customers. VT has changed their kids' lives, they say -- bringing formerly non-verbal kids who couldn't make eye contact or catch a ball back to life, making them capable of interacting, playing and learning. And it's non-invasive, non-surgical, and involves no brain-chemistry-altering drugs.
So what's the problem? For one, these therapies can be incredibly expensive (upwards of several thousand dollars, typically not covered by health insurance). For another, as Warner details in her article, no studies have proven its effectiveness. Doctors and scientists who have studied VT say that reported gains could be due to what's known as the "Hawthorne Effect," whereby nearly any patient will find improvement -- even when given totally nonsensical therapy -- just because they respond positively to the one-on-one positive attention and nurturing afforded by frequent visits to this kind of specialist. Ophthalmologists, who tend to poo-pooh VT, say that certain vision problems can lead to learning disabilities -- in particular, problems with binocular vision and close focusing while reading -- but that VT is unproven and not a substitute for evaluation by a medical doctor.
Optometrists, who typically attend a four-year optometry college after (or, in some places, instead of) an undergraduate degree, are licensed to perform eye exams and prescribe vision correction; ophthalmologists are MDs whose post-graduate training includes four years of medical school, four years of residency, and an additional several years of special training in ophthalmology. I'm not sure if VT is snake oil -- I had a lazy eye as a child that was fixed through visual exercises using prisms (prescribed and monitored by an ophthalmologist) -- but I do think it's a red flag any time a medical practitioner claims his or her own specialty can cure such a wide range of problems.
|Kate Tuttle is a writer living outside Boston with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in Babble, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.|