How to Support Visual Discrimination Disorder

Visual discrimination disorder affects one’s ability to process visual information, such as brightness, distance, shape, or size. It is one of the eight subtypes of Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD) and one of many manifestations of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Learn more about SPD and its subtypes here.

See below for some ways to identify and support discrimination challenges.

Those with Visual Discrimination Disorder May:

  • Have difficulty distinguishing between letters, numbers, and symbols.
  • Be slow to recognize characteristics of objects, such as size, shape, or color.
  • Be unable to judge the distance between people and other objects.
  • Have difficulty reading the facial expressions and emotional cues of others.

How to Support Visual Discrimination Disorder:

  • Label or color-code similar objects, such as books or study materials, and keep them in a designated place.
  • Play outdoor games, such as catch or soccer, to practice coordination and gauging the distance between people and objects.
  • Play games to practice grouping like items together. (“Can you find everything in the room that is a circle? Every picture in the book that is related to sports or food?”)
  • Play games to practice distinguishing between numbers, letters, and symbols. (“d and b, 5 and S, S and $—are these the same or different?”)
  • Assign chores that have a large visual component, such as matching socks, putting away silverware, or sweeping the floor.

Keep in mind that no two children are exactly alike, and most people exhibit both seeking and avoiding behaviors from time to time. If you think your child might be suffering from sensory processing issues, you should seek a professional assessment. The STAR Institute’s Treatment Directory is a great resource that can help you find therapists, doctors, and community resources in your area.

Learn to support visual avoiders.

How to Support Visual Avoiders

Visual avoiders are highly sensitive to light, color, or patterns and tend to become overwhelmed or distracted by everyday visual input. Avoiders often have extreme or upsetting reactions to even very mild stimulation. As a result, they can appear withdrawn or defensive and have trouble fitting in with their peers. They also frequently experience symptoms associated with anxiety disorders and engage in repetitive self-soothing behaviors.

See below for ways to identify and support visual avoiders.

Visual Avoiders May:

  • Seek out dark or secluded environments.
  • Avoid messy rooms and busy, crowded spaces.
  • Frequently cover their eyes or hide their heads under pillows or clothing.
  • React strongly or as if in pain to bright, strobing, or fluorescent light.
  • Perceive dim, normal, or natural as much brighter than it actually is.
  • Be bothered or distracted by objects with bright, reflective, or shiny surfaces.
  • Be bothered or distracted by objects with spinning, flashing, or moving lights.
  • Prefer clothing and toys with muted and simple shapes, colors, and patterns.

How to Support You Visual Avoider:

  • Avoid toys and games with flashing or blinking lights.
  • Keep curtains or blinds closed whenever possible.
  • Wear sunglasses, tinted glasses, or hats when needed.
  • Give advance warning of bright or unexpected light whenever possible.
  • Be conscious of colors and patterns in toys, décor, and clothing.
  • Replace bright overhead lights with dimmable floor, table, or desk lamps.
  • Be mindful of clutter, reflective surfaces, and lights from electronics or appliances.
  • Work on calming strategies and develop a plan for how to exit overwhelming situations.

Keep in mind that no two children are exactly alike, and most people exhibit both seeking and avoiding behaviors from time to time. If you think your child might be suffering from sensory processing issues, you should seek a professional assessment. The STAR Institute’s Treatment Directory is a great resource that can help you find therapists, doctors, and community resources in your area.

How to Support Visual Seekers

Visual seekers are desensitized to visual input in their environment and crave sensory stimulation via light, patterns, or moving objects. Seekers may seem to need constant stimulation. However, they tend to become more deregulated as they take in more input. Many seekers experience symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such low impulse control, inability to focus, and behavioral problems.

See below for some ways to identify and support visual seekers.

Visual Seekers May:

  • Seek out bright or busy environments.
  • Prefer toys with bright, reflective, or shiny surfaces.
  • Be distracted by objects with spinning, flashing, or moving lights.
  • Insist on clothing and toys with specific shapes, colors, and patterns.
  • Crave screen time and prefer stimulating movies and games.

How to Support Your Visual Seeker:

  • Play with flashlights and other visually stimulating toys.
  • Encourage a healthy amount of screen time.
  • Sleep with a nightlight or calming alternative, such as a lava lamp.
  • Provide a variety of colors and patterns in toys, décor, and clothing.
  • Use visual aids while studying to help reinforce key concepts.
  • Schedule time throughout the day to watch videos or play with stimulating toys. This can be especially helpful when transitioning from one activity to another.

Keep in mind that no two children are exactly alike, and most people exhibit both seeking and avoiding behaviors from time to time. If you think your child might be suffering from sensory processing issues, you should seek a professional assessment. The STAR Institute’s Treatment Directory is a great resource that can help you find therapists, doctors, and community resources in your area.

Sensory Spotlight: Visual (Sight)

This is the third installment in our Sensory Spotlight series.

The visual system is responsible for the body’s sense of sight. It allows us to perceive variations in the size, shape, color, and brightness of objects. It also helps us gauge the distance and speed of objects and determine where we should focus our attention. Children with visual processing issues may crave screen time or become overwhelmed in bright, busy environments. You can read more about how the visual system works on the STAR Institute’s website.

See below for a quick guide on identifying visual seeking, avoiding, and discrimination issues in children.

Visual Seekers May:

  • Seek bright or busy environments.
  • Prefer toys with bright, reflective, or shiny surfaces.
  • Be distracted by objects with spinning, flashing, or moving lights.
  • Insist on clothing and toys with specific shapes, colors, and patterns.
  • Crave screen time and prefer stimulating movies and games.

Visual Avoiders May:

  • Seek out dark or secluded environments.
  • Avoid messy rooms and busy, crowded spaces.
  • Frequently cover their eyes or hide their heads under pillows or clothing.
  • React strongly or as if in pain to bright, strobing, or fluorescent light.
  • Perceive dim, normal, or natural as much brighter than it actually is.
  • Be bothered or distracted by objects with bright, reflective, or shiny surfaces.
  • Be bothered or distracted by objects with spinning, flashing, or moving lights
  • Prefer clothing and toys with muted and simple shapes, colors, and patterns.

Those with Visual Discrimination Disorder May:

  • Have difficulty distinguishing between letters, numbers, and symbols.
  • Be slow to recognize characteristics of objects, such as size, shape, or color.
  • Be unable to judge the distance between people and other objects.
  • Have difficulty reading the facial expressions and emotional cues of others.

Sensory Spotlight: What Is SPD?

This is the first installment of our nine-part Sensory Spotlight series.

Sensory processing occurs when the brain receives and organizes information from external sources, such as light or sound, and internal bodily cues, such as hunger or balance. Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) do not respond to this everyday sensory information the same way most people do. They may feel bombarded or assaulted by even the smallest bit of stimulation, or they might be unable to recognize even very extreme sensations or changes in their environment. Studies suggest as many as 1 in 20 people have sensory processing issues, and symptoms are typically much more pronounced in children.

Children with SPD often have a hard time fitting in with their peer group. They might show signs of anxiety or depression, be withdrawn, struggle socially and academically, or appear clumsy. Many children have learned to cope with their symptoms in ways that might appear odd to others, such as rocking, constantly learning on walls or furniture, sucking on their thumbs or other objects, etc.

SPD is generally broken down into the three patterns and thirteen subtypes listed below. Keep in mind the exact symptoms will vary greatly from one individual to the next. Many people with SPD demonstrate a combination of sensitivities and seeking/avoiding behaviors, depending on their level of arousal and how familiar they are with their current environment.

Pattern 1: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)

Sensory Over-Responsivity (Hypersensitivity) – Over-responsive individuals, or avoiders, are hyperaware of sensory input and may have extreme or upsetting reactions to even mild stimulation, such as crying out in pain while brushing their hair or gagging at very faint smells. Avoiders often feel overloaded and overwhelmed by everyday situations and may appear anxious, withdrawn, or defensive as a result.

Sensory Under-Responsivity (Hyposensitivity) – Those who are under-responsive have difficulties detecting and/or responding to sensory input in a timely manner. They might not notice that the lighting or temperature in the room has changed, for example, or that they’ve bumped into something and injured themselves. As a result, under-responsive individuals often appear distracted, dismissive, or clumsy.

Sensory Craving – Sensory cravers, or seekers, have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for sensory stimulation, though they tend to become more keyed up and deregulated as they take in more input. Seekers usually demonstrate behaviors associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such low impulse control and constant moving, fidgeting, bumping into things, or fiddling with objects.

Pattern 2: Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)

Postural Disorder – Postural disorder affects the body’s ability to stabilize itself and maintain a sense of balance. Individuals with this subtype often have problems slouching or bad posture. They might also appear to be weak, move awkwardly, or have extremely low endurance.

Dyspraxia (Motor Planning Problems) – Those with dyspraxia have difficulty planning and performing new, nonhabitual gross and fine motor tasks. They might appear to have extremely poor hand-eye coordination, problems with concentration, and take much longer than their peers to learn a new skill.

Pattern 3: Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)

Individuals with this pattern have difficulty recognizing and interpreting sensory information. They’re often unable to gauge the physical differences between objects, such as size, color, shape, or distance. They might be unaware of the pressure or force they’re exerting at a given moment and appear awkward, clumsy, and prone to spilling drinks or breaking toys.

SDD is further broken down into eight subtypes, one for each sensory system:

  • Auditory
  • Visual
  • Tactile
  • Vestibular
  • Olfactory
  • Gustatory
  • Proprioception
  • Interoception

We’ll be taking a deeper dive into each of these systems, including strategies for supporting children with SPD, as our Sensory Spotlight series continues. Stay tuned!

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