Optometrist helps train eyes to process information

Optometrist helps train eyes to process information

Brenda Wade Schmidt, bschmidt@argusleader.com 11:07 p.m. CDT May 27, 2014

In the past year, Stacy Haber has watched her daughter score her first soccer goal, catch a ball with her hands instead of her body and ride a bike without training wheels.

Sabrina Haber, 9, also switched from reluctant to eager reader, so much so that she takes a stack of books and goes to bed early just to have some reading time before falling asleep.

The Habers have witnessed these changes thanks to a growing business in Sioux Falls called the Center for Visual Learning. Dr. Jeff Oakland moved his vision therapy business from Dakota Vision Center, where he is also an optometrist, into its own space at 5023 S. Bur Oak Place in January.

Oakland, an O'Gorman High School and Augustana College graduate, has patients from the age of 5 to 68. He earned his doctorate degree in optometry from the Illinois College of Optometry, followed by a residency in pediatrics and binocular vision, and has been working with vision therapy for eight years.

Roughly 80 percent of learning is through vision, Oakland said. "Vision leads," he said. When considering vision therapy, you have to figure out if vision is leading learning or getting in the way, he said.

"You have to start with your definition of vision," he said. Many think that 20/20, disease-free reports mean everything is fine, but that can be far from reality, Oakland said. Eyes don't always work together to process information, he said. That's where he comes in to diagnose and prescribe therapy.

Once patients who need help developing their vision do therapy sessions and homework, training their eyes to work together, the progress sticks and doesn't have to be repeated.

"There are a lot of skills that are critical to … taking in and processing information," Oakland said.

When children have visual difficulties, even if they have 20/20 vision, therapy helps develop the visual skills needed for learning, he said. Therapy might be needed for eye tracking, eye teaming and eye focus. With success, patients' eyes learn to work together, and patients have better reading, writing and spatial distance skills. Often, their handwriting and spelling make big leaps in improvement.

In short, that's why Sabrina has learned to score a goal and ride a bike. It's also why she can now separate the letters on a page into words that make sense. She has gone from getting one right on third-grade spelling tests to sometimes getting one wrong or even perfect papers.

"It's been a huge difference. It's just been amazing. It's changed our whole family's life," Stacy Haber said. "She doesn't trip over people. She doesn't trip over things. … Her fine motor skills and her large motors skills have gotten better. There's so much she can do that she couldn't do a year ago. We go on family bike rides now."

Those reports are pretty typical among Oakland's patients. The first step is an examination and diagnosis by Oakland. If he decides patients would benefit from therapy, they schedule weekly sessions with therapist Susan Mundt Andersen, a former special education teacher.

"Vision happens in the brain," she said. "Vision is learned. That's why we can change it."

With patient Kenny Schempp, 8, she challenges him to see different images by getting his eyes to work together. The therapy sessions are practiced as homework for 15 minutes a day. In one exercise, he jumped on a mini-trampoline while firing different shaped balls into a plastic hoop. When he started the exercise with therapy beginning in October, he caught the balls by stopping them with his chest. These days, he picks them out of the air with one hand and flings them into the basket, all the while jumping up and down.

The second-grader likes what therapy has done.

"It helps me read, and it helps me by doing sports. I can catch a ball and kick a ball and ride a bike," he said. But he also admits that the activities, although fun in a game-like way, are a lot of work.

Oakland and Andersen are working on getting their patients the tools needed to learn and comprehend in school. Not all students have them when they enter the classroom, and often the reasons for their struggles go unrecognized, Andersen and Oakland said.

"More and more research is showing what vision therapy does," Oakland said of the field that has been around for 80 years. For patients, therapy can take five months' to a year's time, with insurance sometimes covering half or some of the cost.

Kenny's dad, Dale, said he and his wife have seen so much progress in their son's abilities in school and life. In preschool, they started noticing that he was unable to identify shapes. Now, they are noticing his increased confidence, stronger swimming skills, better academic learning and ability to balance on a scooter — all since October when he started seeing Oakland.

"I said, 'When did you learn to do that (ride a scooter)?' He said, 'I can see,' " Dale Schemp said.

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