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Optometrist to Address Congressional Caucus On Evaluating Children for Eye-Ear Coordination

Mind-Eye Institute Founder Says Current Eye Testing Needs Updates

Standard eye tests do not check how well a person’s eyesight and hearing are coordinated, and this gap in testing is impacting many children’s abilities to learn, says an internationally noted expert, who will discuss the issue before a United States Congressional group on Feb. 25.

Deborah Zelinsky, O.D., founder and executive research director of the Mind-Eye Institute in Northbrook, Ill., will present her case on eye-ear integration testing during the Ninth Annual Brain Mapping Day at the United States Congress, a joint event between the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus, the Society for Brain Mapping & Therapeutics (SBMT), the Brain Mapping Foundation and the National Center for NanoBioElectronics. Dr. Zelinsky is a new member of the SBMT board.

Brain Mapping Day focuses on “educating policymakers about state-of-the-art diagnostics, technology and therapeutics in clinical translational neuroscience.” Main themes of this year’s program are brain health, opioid addiction, mental health and neurotechnology.

“Most states have laws that mandate evaluation of a child’s eyesight and hearing separately but such testing does not determine how well the two sensory systems work together,” says Dr. Zelinsky. Rep. Lou Lang had previously sponsored a bill to amend the current kindergarten testing in Illinois to include an eye-ear integration screening. The House of Representatives voted 111-1 to have a pilot program; the Senate put the bill on hold, allocating requested funding elsewhere.

A percentage of children now labelled as learning-challenged and placed in special education classes could return to regular mainstream classrooms if their visual and auditory signals were properly coordinated, Dr. Zelinsky contends.

“An optometrist may determine a child has 20/20 eyesight clarity with or without glasses, and a hearing specialist conclude that this same child has normal hearing ability, but children are entering kindergarten without knowing how well these sensory systems work together,” says Dr. Zelinsky.

“Our sensory systems are like musicians in an orchestra. Each musician may be highly skilled in a specific instrument, but without a conductor synchronizing what they are playing, the result is simply noise – not music,” she states.

Dr. Zelinsky has long emphasized that state and national laws – and methods of testing – must change to counter what experts are calling a “rise in learning disabilities.”

The longtime Northbrook optometrist was invited to be part of the renowned neuroscience team traveling to Washington, D.C., because of her understanding of how changes in light on the retina can impact brain function. “In the school setting, a student has to maintain awareness of a teacher’s facial expressions, body posture and movements while looking at information presented on a classroom screen or board and simultaneously listening and comprehending what the teacher is saying,” Dr. Zelinsky explains. “Shifting gaze – and attention — from teacher to note-taking needs to be automated, synchronized and accomplished by ‘tuning out’ distractions, such as whispering of nearby students or sounds of others shuffling papers. Many visual and auditory systems must be combined.”

Like eye-hand coordination, synchronization of sight and sound does not fully develop in a child until about age 7 or 8, Oftentimes, learning expectations of children at earlier age levels surpass their developmental stage. Similarly, a child’s struggles to learn after age 8 can be due to under-developed visual-hearing linkage, says Dr. Zelinsky.

Years ago, reading was not heavily emphasized until the third grade, when children had a more solid eye-ear connection. Now, even preschoolers are being taught how to recognize sight words (visual development) and how to sound out words (auditory development). If the child has not linked the two systems, they will either be a poor speller or be unable to sound out words easily, Dr. Zelinsky says.

“If brain circuitry is out of sync because it is under-developed or disrupted by injury or disease, people can become confused about their surrounding environment, have a narrowed perception and awareness and exhibit inappropriate reactions and responses or experience difficulties in learning. When central and peripheral eyesight do not interact appropriately and/or the sensory systems of eyes and ears are uncoordinated, children and adults have to continuously monitor their attention, and such constant effort becomes exhausting,” Dr. Zelinsky says.

Too frequently, a child who struggles to learn is diagnosed as having a neurological problem, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and is transferred into a special-education program, when what the child actually requires is testing to determine how well his or her eyes, ears and other sensory systems are integrated, she says.

Through proper evaluation of sensory systems and use of therapeutic lenses – “brain” glasses, the Mind-Eye team has been transforming the classroom lives of children.

Unfortunately, most current eyesight tests are based on standards established in the 1800s. They evaluate central eyesight by requiring a patient to fix conscious attention on non-moving targets – letters and numbers on an eye chart – and don’t emphasize peripheral retinal processing, which comprises an overwhelming percentage of a person’s visual awareness, including awareness of movement and reaction time.

“Our conscious attention – central eyesight — focuses on only a small section (approximately 6 percent) of our environment, but that limited area generates and sends to our brains nearly one million bits of information. The other 94 percent of our visual surroundings – peripheral eyesight — may trigger fewer signals, yet those signals are processed faster and directed to multiple brain pathways. That’s why we must use peripheral and central eyesight in tandem to scan and shift our gaze from place to place and assess movement, shape, size, color, contour, and details of objects,” says Dr. Zelinsky.

Eyesight screenings today are similar to the testing Ulysses S. Grant underwent when he was attending West Point — cover one eye and identify a letter on a chart, Dr. Zelinsky says. “We are almost 20 years into the 21st century. Time to leave historic 20/20 eye testing where it belongs – back in the 20th century!”