A visual issues tool



A Queenstown researcher’s working on an app that could be life-changing for children with visual perception difficulties.

Massey University’s Dr Nicola McDowell says cerebral visual impairment (CVI) is one of the most common causes of vision impairment in the economically-developed world.

Research from the United Kingdom shows 3.4% of children in mainstream education have these kinds of visual issues — ‘‘basically, one child in every classroom’’.







CVI can cause problems with higher visual functions that occur in the brain, not the eyes.

‘‘It’s your ability to see more than one or two things at a time, your visually-guided movement, your ability to see movement … and so that’s quite complex,’’ McDowell says.

At present, there is no simple way to screen for those types of difficulties.

‘‘Not many [children] are getting diagnosed and a lot of them end up getting diagnosed with developmental conditions like autism or ADHD, because of the behaviours they develop to deal with the visual issues that no one knows they have.

‘‘On top of that, many children with autism [or] ADHD … can have both [cognitive and visual] conditions together.’’

McDowell, who’s also a lecturer at Massey, was diagnosed with CVI later in life when she attended a conference and spoke to CVI expert, Professor Gordon Dutton.

‘‘When I was 16, I had a brain hemorrhage that resulted in me acquiring CVI … I was in a coma for eight days and in hospital for three weeks.’’

Subsequently, she can’t see in her right visual field in both eyes, but additionally, issues with her higher visual function weren’t picked up.

‘‘It affected my mobility, my social interactions, my education,’’ she says.

She designed the Austin Assessment as a screening tool while she was supporting a child as a vision resources teacher, and noticed he was having difficulty matching playing cards, but knew it wasn’t because of a cognitive issue.

The assessment, which also used playing cards, was ‘‘very effective at identifying children with the visual issues’’, she says.

‘‘The children with these visual issues took twice as long to match the cards and they were often inaccurate in matching them [compared to] children with normal vision.’’

McDowell’s currently validating her research, which includes conducting the Austin Assessment and another already-validated assessment on 150 kids who have conditions known to have visual search issues, including those born prematurely, or living with cerebral palsy, ADHD or autism.

There’s already international interest in using the Austin Assessment as a screening tool, but for an official diagnosis, the child would then be referred to an ophthalmologist.

She’s hoping to get more Queenstown participants involved in the research — those interested can email n.mcdowell@massey.ac.nz