Touching Lives - September 2015
Helping children with Down syndrome to see more clearly
Vision problems are common in children with Down syndrome. New research funded by Action aims to ensure each child gets the best glasses possible.
Henry is a typical 12-year-old boy who loves being active, being outside and being with his friends. He has Down syndrome and has worn glasses since he was at nursery, to help him focus and to correct a squint. But even with hospital-prescribed glasses, his mum, Caroline, was concerned about his sight.
Henry copes well in mainstream school but as the move from primary to secondary school beckoned, his parents began to wonder just how well he could see. They felt this might be affecting his confidence in unfamiliar places and contributing to problems with reading. They also noticed he was having difficulties using IT equipment and struggled to play computer games.
“He has learning disabilities, but I still felt that his reading was not quite where it could be,” says Caroline. “You don’t get a second chance at education and I didn’t want Henry to miss out.
“I am also very conscious that, if vision problems aren’t identified and corrected, there’s a danger that people think a learning disability is more severe than it is. There are much lower expectations for a child as a result, so they aren’t encouraged to reach their full potential.”
Caroline heard Dr Margaret Woodhouse speak at a conference for parents and professionals, and was encouraged to find out about her work.
Dr Woodhouse, based at Cardiff University, has studied vision in children with Down syndrome for 25 years and is the leading world expert in this field. She has found that bifocal glasses seem to really help these children.
Henry and Caroline visited Dr Woodhouse for tests, which showed he was indeed struggling. He was prescribed bifocal glasses and these have made a huge difference.
His reading and handwriting have both improved and everyday skills, like doing zips and buttons, are also much easier, meaning Henry is able to be more independent.
“He knows the glasses help him see better,” says Caroline. “At the moment, Henry says he wants to work in a shop or café when he’s grown up. Being able to read confidently and use IT equipment will help him achieve this.”
With Action funding of almost £170,000, Dr Woodhouse is working with a group that includes 80 children with Down syndrome, to establish why bifocal glasses seem to be so beneficial.
“We hope to discover more about how bifocals improve the vision of children with Down syndrome and their ability to explore the world around them,” says Dr Woodhouse.
“Our work could lead to better ways to predict which children will benefit from bifocals, along with new prescribing guidelines for specialists in eye clinics, who don’t all know how to prescribe bifocals for children.”