How Vision Therapy Can Transform a Student from Struggling to Soaring


My mother told me the story over and over again — I was in the second grade and an exceptional reader, but suddenly I started to complain of not being able to see the board from my seat in the classroom, headaches, and a frustration with my vision. Of course, she took me in for an eye exam where I proceeded to try to lie my way through the tests, not in an effort to pass….but to FAIL! I had it in my head that I would look awesome in glasses and was bound and determined to get them by any means necessary. Of course, the optometrist caught on quickly to my deception and broke the news to my mom that my eyesight was fine, but that I was a rotten liar.

In my adulthood, I have laughed about this story several times, until my then 4th grader failed the vision screening at school and I brought him for an exam only to have him pull the exact same shenanigans I had attempted more than two decades earlier!! Here I was trying to be the good mom and get his vision corrected and instead, I was getting my comeuppance for childhood foolery.

Though my anecdotes illicit chuckles now, struggling to figure out what a child might be struggling with when it comes to reading and vision can be much more challenging than one might realize! While many schools now offer free vision screenings that can be the first indicator that something might be of concern, these screenings can also miss other warning signs, like struggles with reading, spelling, erratic eye movement, or unusual sensitivity to light. Sometimes, a standard vision test will even miss something more complicated….a functional vision problem.

According to the American Optometric Association, 1 in 4 children has an undetected vision problem that affects their ability to learn. We teamed up with The Vision Therapy Center in Brookfield (with additional offices in Fond du Lac and Madison) to share the story of one of their patients and how functional vision therapy transformed his vision and educational experience.

If some of his story resonates with you or you have noticed some concerning symptoms or behaviors in your child, check out The Vision Therapy Center or contact them to make an appointment.

How Vision Therapy Helped Ethan Go From Barely Reading to Class Valedictorian 

By Dr. Kellye Knueppel

As a child, Ethan was curious, warmhearted, and obviously bright. But when it came to reading, he struggled. And though he excelled in areas like math, science, and listening comprehension, Ethan remembers that by third grade he could “barely read or spell.”

His parents and his teachers were mystified. Could it be his vision? Ethan’s mom, Beth, says he had gone to an optometrist when he was around five. She was told he had 20/20 vision.

“We were under the assumption that 20/20 means everything was great. We later found out that’s not the case,” says Beth.

Ethan’s parents were on the verge of planning for special education support, but as a last ditch effort, his teacher suggested having his vision examined again. 

Ethan’s 20/20 Vision Was Not the Whole Story

An optometrist confirmed that Ethan did indeed have 20/20 vision. But when she also took the time to do a basic eye-tracking exercise with Ethan, she discovered a symptom of a functional vision problem.

As Beth remembers, “I watched and I saw his eyes bounce all over the place. The optometrist looked at me and said, ‘I think this is the problem.’”

Functional vision is how your entire visual system – the eyes, the brain, the visual pathways – work together to help you interact with your environment. 

Not all optometrists have the advanced training or equipment required to diagnose and treat functional vision problems. Ethan’s parents researched the possibilities. That brought them to The Vision Therapy Center, where Ethan was given a functional vision exam.

Diagnosing Ethan’s Problems and Finding Hope

A functional vision exam goes beyond a conventional vision test, which primarily measures visual acuity, or 20/20 eyesight. For a functional vision exam, a developmental optometrist will first review the patient’s health and eye history, focusing on visual problems and symptoms. 

This information is used to tailor the exam, which can include tests for typical learning-related vision problems. Different tests may be required for other types of issues (for example, developmental delay, brain injury, or sports-related vision problems).

Ethan’s exam indicated he had specific problems with eye teaming and eye focusing – visual skills that are crucial for normal functional vision.

To address Ethan’s functional vision problems, we recommended optometric vision therapy, which helps a patient learn how to correctly process the visual information that the brain receives from the eyes. 

Over a period of nine months, Ethan would need to complete daily at-home vision exercises, along with weekly in-office visits to support his progress. It wouldn’t be easy, but Ethan now had a path of help – and hope.

Ethan’s reading skills (and life) are transformed by Optometric Vision Therapy

Ethan’s mom recalls that within the first couple of months of vision therapy, she started to notice progress, like him being able to sound out words better. “And within six months he was improving in leaps and bounds. It was unbelievable.”

Flash forward to the end of middle school. She says, “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I have to tell him to put his book down because it’s time for dinner!’ I couldn’t believe it was the same kid whose reading challenges were bringing him – and me – to tears just a few years earlier.”

On top of that, the standardized test Ethan took in eighth grade showed he was reading at an 11th grade level.

With the ‘Roadblock’ Removed, Ethan Graduates at the Top of His Class

In the spring of 2020, Ethan graduated from the STEM Institute in Fond du Lac as valedictorian of his high school class. He will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison and majoring in biology, with intentions to become a medical doctor.

“I can remember when he first said he wanted to be a doctor many years ago. I worried that it would never be possible if he couldn’t become a strong reader. Yes, Ethan has had to work extremely hard. But vision therapy has been the key to opening up the possibilities for him,” says Beth.

“Vision therapy took the roadblock out of my path,” says Ethan. “It let me be myself. Without it, I was just stuck. But now I have nothing holding me back!”   

A Vision Quiz Can Be the First Step Toward Detecting a Problem

If you think your child may be suffering from vision problems similar to Ethan’s, the first step toward diagnosis is to take the Vision Quiz. It can help identify if your child is suffering from any of the symptoms associated with functional vision problems.

Click here to take the Vision Quiz.

About the author: Dr. Kellye Knueppel is a developmental optometrist specializing in vision related learning problems, sports vision, and rehabilitative optometry. She is board certified in vision development as a Fellow of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development. Since opening The Vision Therapy Center in 1995, she has dedicated herself to helping people overcome their visual problems.


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