Thursday, January 6, 2011

Listen to the Children: Gifted Children and Vision

Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons (also kn...Neuronal CellsImage via WikipediaDo Gifted Children Choose Their Gifts?

In a provocative article, Dr. Leonard Press, COVD, poses the question of the bright children he sees in his practice who have instinctively understood the limitations of neuronal real estate:  If I get better by learning how to read, will I lose my other gifts?  He cites the example of a boy gifted intellectually and athletically (baseball) and a girl gifted intellectually and artistically (drawing).  Both have wondered whether by undertaking a course of vision therapy to improve reading skills that they will lose skills in nonacademic areas.   Really, all neuroplasticity-- that the brain can rewire itself-- aside, aren't there some sort of tradeoffs that the brain is making as it constructs new pathways with the neurons and prunes old ones?

I suppose,  these children are wondering about the impact of vision therapy activities upon the athletics and arts that they prefer.   Not just the tradeoff made in time spent on vision therapy vs other activities; but, whether the brain will fundamentally not pursue highly visual activities.  Not to knock the importance of having the necessary visual skills for reading, but I think Dr. Press is on to something.  Another way of expressing the limitations of neuronal real estate  is found in the Dr. Stanislaus Dehanae's concept of "neuronal recycling", the idea that there is a reallocation of cortical space from one purpose to another.  Dr. Dehanae expressly points out that the skills used to acquire literacy are perhaps, taking away from cognitive abilities handed down from evolution. The very visual skills needed as a hunter gatherer or cave painter, are very different from the visual skills that get you into college.  Eye doctors of all stripes recommend taking visual breaks every twenty minutes where you stop focusing on a near point activity such as reading and look far away  to preserve distance vision.  In Dehanae's view,  neuroplasticity can be a zero sum game:  what you gain in one area you lose in an another unless you take some preventitive measures.

In a forward to Thomas West's book on dyslexia Oliver Sacks has also suggested a tradeoff between lexical (reading) and visual abilities.  Sacks has noted that many people who have reading problems have compensated for these problems with greatly enhanced visual skills in other areas. 

Dr. Press' conclusion ultimately is to look at vision therapy as an enhancement to existing capabilities:

 "When children ask me the question about trading in the visual gifts that they value for other visual gifts that educators and parents seem to value more, I now explain that the spirit of our vision therapy room is like Liberty Science Center. It is less about right and wrong answers and more about setting up conditions to explore how their vision is working under different circumstances. We will use pencil and paper, we will use letters, we will use balls and lenses and prisms and balance and movement, and probe the visual space inside their minds as much as outside their bodies."

Looking at vision therapy as an enhancement, refrains the children's questions.  I think the children are asking to be valued for themselves, their unique identity and talents.   The children realize that they have something unique and special that may be shunted aside so that attention can be placed on skills that adults think are important.   The children ask us to look deep within our evolution from primates to human beings and understand the need for visual skills that are not tested with No Child Left Behind.

My vision problems are the opposite of these children.  I don't know how my genes ever survived the transition from cave man to 21st Century woman.  For much of my life, I couldn't see clearly.  As a huntress,  I wouldn't have seen the prey lurking in the bush.  I wouldn't have remembered the route to the animals feeding spot.  Running through the woods would have been a blur of trees and open spaces.   Forget about cave painting.

Vision therapy is helping me return to the beginning of man(or woman) in perceiving and relating to the world.  Rather than interacting with a vibrant world, I've leapt over evolutionary stages and have dwelt in the land of the intellect without much innate connection to my body or the living world around me.   I'm trying to take a page from the children and say, "Well, what gift has this brought you?"  "Surely, this rewiring of the brain gave you something... and I don't mean a 'splinter skill' or 'savant' ".   I mean, something vibrant and valued in its own right.

I think as I go through these different therapies, I'll start re-evaluating what and who I am.   Many things that I do may have been done in the light of someone who can't see, hear, or manipulate objects too well.   As vision, hearing, and motor skills become better what does that mean in terms of how and with whom I spend my time?   What things should I keep from my old life and what are now seen as compensations that are no longer needed?

I think the answer to these questions will come when I listen to my own inner child.
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