One of the most integral and overlooked sensory systems that supports our daily functioning as humans is the visual system. Not only does our visual system interpret what we see, but it lets us recognize shapes, colors, letters, words, and numbers. Our visual system supports our social skills and family interactions, as it is foundational in reading body language and other non-verbal cues. From a motor standpoint, the visual system works closely with our vestibular system to guide our movements, support our balance, and allows us to move safely and effectively around an ever changing environment. 

In order to better understand how our eyes support our function, it is important to outline just how many factors impact the visual system. For example, dynamic postural control is imperative to stabilizing the eyes during head and body movement. Smooth eye movements also require adequate head control, and the ability to tolerate visual movement. These specific skills also allow us to track a target’s movements without moving our heads (ocular dissociation). This skill should be consistent by age 5. Visual scanning and quickly localizing a target requires ocular motor planning. While an optometrist can assess for visual acuity, an occupational therapist can assess how well the eyes are working together. Difficulties with ocular motor skills can be addressed during occupational therapy, or a referral to a developmental optometrist can be provided. During our evaluations, we look at some of the following skills to assess ocular motor function: 

  • Saccades: the eyes alternate between at least two focal points 
  • Visual pursuits: the eyes smoothly track a moving target 
  • Convergence: the eyes move inward toward each other as they focus on a close object or an object moving toward the face
  • Crossing midline: the eyes smoothly track an object as it moves across midline in the vertical or horizontal plane  

Functional areas that can be impacted by difficulty with ocular motor skills: 

  • Near-point copying (i.e. copying from a textbook onto notebook) 
  • Far-point copying (i.e. copying from the whiteboard at school) 
  • Reading 
  • Writing 
  • Catching a ball 
  • Sustained visual attention 

Signs of difficulty with ocular motor skills: 

  • Frequent blinking 
  • Frequent eye rubbing 
  • Verbal report of eye fatigue or discomfort 
  • Inconsistent visual scanning pattern (i.e. starting in the middle of the page, moving from right to left, or jumping sporadically around a page)

Play based ways to support ocular motor development: 

  • Balloon games 
  • Playing with bubbles 
  • Throwing and catching 
  • “I Spy” games 
  • Search and Find books