Study shows benefits of eye tests for children with autism and SEND

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A children’s charity has called for eye tests to be provided in schools for children with special educational needs.

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Research funded by Action Medical Research found offering comprehensive eyecare services in school would provide ‘measurable visual and behavioural benefits’ for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or autism.

The Special Education Eyecare (SEE) project, designed by researchers at Ulster University with funding of £190,000 from Action Medical Research, was trialled with 200 children and young people aged between three and 19 at Castle Tower School, the largest special education school in Northern Ireland.

The project offers a full in-school eye examination which is more in-depth than a standard in-school vision screening, a vision report for parents and teachers with tailored advice to help support each child, and follow-up visits two to five months after the examination.

The trial enabled researchers to see whether recommendations such as using larger text or reducing clutter in the classroom environment had been implemented and whether children’s visual needs were better met as a result.

Key findings included:

  • 61 per cent of children were found to have at least one significant eye or vision problem
  • 45 per cent had at least one unmet visual need, for example no glasses or no provision of large print learning materials
  • On follow-up, the number of pupils with unmet visual needs dropped to 18 per cent
  • Younger pupils and those with no previous history of eyecare were more likely to demonstrate unmet visual needs when first tested
  • Classroom engagement was found to improve after actions to help address unmet visual needs were communicated to parents and teachers.

Researchers hope the findings, published in scientific journal PLOS One, will help shape the delivery of eye care services in special schools by NHS England from 2020.

NHS England is currently working on a programme of work intended to transform eye care services for children with SEND and autism within a special school environment from 2020. Children with SEND and autism are 28 times more likely to have serious sight issues than the general population according to NHS England.

Kathryn Saunders, professor of optometry and vision science at Ulster University, said, ‘Failing to identify and treat problems with vision can only add to underlying disabilities and further disadvantage children with special educational needs.

‘Our study demonstrates, for the first time, measurable benefits to children and young people in a special education setting.

‘Benefits were apparent in both children’s vision and behaviour. In-school eyecare services offer an opportunity to improve health and education outcomes for people with learning disability.’

Dr Tracy Swinfield, director of research at Action Medical Research, added, ‘We recognise how important vision is in relation to learning and the overall wellbeing of children with special educational needs. Poor vision can mask a child’s true potential. Thanks to Action Medical Research’s dedicated supporters, we were able to fund this top-quality research. We look forward to seeing new advice being rolled out in more special schools in 2020 by NHS England.’

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