In the United States, special needs is a term used in clinical diagnostic and functional development to describe individuals who require assistance for disabilities that may be medical, mental, or psychological. Different types of special needs vary in severity. People with autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia, blindness, ADHD, or cerebral palsy, for example, may be considered to have special needs. Statistics tell us that among children ages 3 to 17, nearly 15 percent have one or more developmental disabilities. For many of these children, the kinds of disabilities they experience may require special approaches to providing care, education and/or other accommodations.
eye exam - vision and special needs children
The way a special needs child behaves or reacts can sometimes be unexpected because he/she processes sensory information differently than other children. Having the right cues in our environment can mean the difference between participation and non-participation in medical care for many of these children. Our work environment should always be arranged in a way to achieve physical and emotional comfort for the child. Patience, attentive listening, caring, and building a trusting relationship with a family and child who may be undervalued in other settings are all critical to providing good medical care.

Vision and Special Needs Children

Children with special needs are referred to pediatric ophthalmologists on a regular basis. Many of these children do not respond appropriately to standard vision screening procedures. Unidentified vision problems in this special population can further impact growth and development. The role of pediatric ophthalmologists is to ensure that the child does not have any eye conditions that could potentially interfere with his/her learning opportunities, personal development and/or overall wellbeing.

Down syndrome:
Down syndrome continues to be the most common chromosomal disorder. Each year, about 6,000 babies are born with Down syndrome, which is about 1 in every 700 babies born. It is estimated that more than 80% of these patients have some clinically significant ocular pathology. Such conditions include refractive error requiring glasses (70%), strabismus (45%), and nystagmus (35%). Other common eye problems include blepharitis, blocked tear duct, eyelid ptosis, cataracts, and keratoconus (irregularly shaped cornea). The improved quality of medical care and educational resources have allowed for a more productive life and a longer life expectancy for people with Down syndrome. Their quality of life can be further enhanced by the proper assessment and correction of eye problems.

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data on the prevalence of autism in the United States. This surveillance study identified 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autistic behaviors may include visual components such as lack of eye contact, starring at light or spinning objects, fleeting peripheral glances, side viewing and difficulty attending visually. An eye examination is essential in order to detect an eye condition that could potentially explain these visual behaviors. According to a study published in the June 2013 issue of Strabismus, more than 40 percent of children with autism have strabismus, or crossed eyes. This work is limited in that the researchers did not use a representative sample of children with autism. Still, the prevalence of eye problems in autism appears to be several times higher than that of the general population.
boy eye exam - vision and special needs children
Learning Disabilities:
Dyslexia is the most common neurobehavioral disorder affecting children. Visual abnormalities have not been found to affect the brain’s ability to process visual stimuli and children with learning disabilities have no increased incidence of ophthalmologic disease. However, ophthalmologic consultation should be provided to children who fail vision screening tests. This allows for diagnosis and therapy of treatable ocular conditions such as refractive errors and eye muscle imbalances.

Children with ADHD, cerebral palsy, or any other neurodevelopmental disorders should also have periodic vision screenings. Children who do not pass the vision screening should be referred to an ophthalmologist with experience in the care of children.

Physicians are not the only adults involved in the care of special needs children. At increasing rates, children with special needs are being provided with the same life experiences as their non-disabled peers. Taking part in a sport or joining a group like the Scouts, are popular activities for children. Children with disabilities are encouraged to join in such activities to help improve their health and give them opportunities to make friends. As a result, more and more adults in the community are finding themselves working with these children on a regular basis.

When considering ways to work with special needs children, we have to keep in mind that every child is different. A positive attitude and patience are probably the two most important qualities for anyone who works with these children. Parents of special needs children focus on helping their child to be “the best he/she can be”. The devotion and care these parents provide for their child have been an inspiration, and I always look forward to my visits with them.


Dr. Chantal BoisvertChantal Boisvert, OD, MD
Assistant Clinical Professor
Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, UC Irvine
Pediatric Ophthalmology & Strabismus

Vision and Special Needs Children