Occupational therapists talk about visual perceptual skills quite a bit. This is due to the fact that these skills impact many areas of development and function, including fine motor skills, gross motor skills, self-care skills, etc.
While most people understand the general concept of the term “visual perception”, many parents can become lost in the jargon of therapy when we start to talk about all of the various components of perception.
I have summarized each of these components below in the hopes of making them more relatable to real life function in the realm of OT.
Definition: The ability to determine differences or similarities in objects or forms based on size, color, shape, etc…
Real life application: For the tasks of reading and writing, visual discrimination is critical for seeing letters or words as different. Difficulties in this skill area can make “p” look a lot like “q” or “the” look a lot like “then”.
Definition: The ability to know that a form or shape is the same, even if it has been rotated, made smaller/larger, or observed from up close or far away.
Real life application: Form constancy is important for recognizing letters or words in different contexts. For example, a child must know that the word “the” is the same whether they see it written in a text book, on a marker board, or in a magazine article.
Definition: The ability to recall visual traits of a form or object.
Real life application: Visual memory is important for reading comprehension. A child has to remember what they read and recognize a word from one page to the next. Difficulties with this skill can also make copying from a board or book so much more challenging. These children might take forever to copy an assignment because they can’t retain the information to transfer it from the board to their own page.
Visual Sequential Memory
Definition: The ability to recall a sequence of objects or forms in the correct order.
Real life application: Visual Sequential memory is very important for spelling. Some children might know the letters in a word, but can’t get their order correct.
Definition: The ability to recognize a form or object even when the whole picture of it isn’t available.
Real life application: This means you can see a part of something and fill in the rest in your head. Visual closure is important for reading and comprehending what we see quickly. Difficulty with this skill might mean that a child has to study a word or sentence carefully before they know what it is.
Visual Spatial Relations
Definition: Understanding the relationships of objects within the environment.
Real life application: Visual spatial skills can be important in gross motor terms. Think of the direction, “Go put your shoes under your desk, and then come stand in front of the water fountain.” The child must understand how to maneuver within their environment by following those spatial commands. That whole left/right concept plays a big part in this skill as well.
In fine motor terms, visual spatial relations are important for appropriate letter orientation and avoiding reversals. After all, “b” and “d” are essentially the same shape, just pointing in different directions.
Visual Figure Ground
Definition: The ability to locate something in a cluttered or busy background.
Real life application: Figure ground skills allow you to find a AAA battery in the junk drawer. A child must be able to sort out visual information to find what they are looking for. Difficulties with this skill can leave kids lost as they look for specific information on a busy worksheet.
Your child’s therapist can incorporate activities within therapy sessions as well recommend activities for home programs that focus on developing one or more of these areas of visual perception.
There are standardized tests such as The Test of Visual Perceptual Skills (TVPS) that measure each of these skill areas based on a series of multiple choice line drawings.
This test takes a bit longer to administer than some of the other OT testing. This is because there are so many sub-tests and the child’s responses are not timed. This means it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to well over an hour, depending on the child.
Therefore, because an OT might not have time in their initial evaluation, this sort of testing might not occur right away. (Unless it is a specific concern of the parent, or difficulties with visual perception are clearly impacting a child’s function.) You can ask your child’s OT if they have this test or another like it in their clinic if you have specific concerns regarding your child’s visual perceptual skills.