In simple words, ocular skills refer to the ability of a person to spot, focus and track an object. In complex words, it means the ability to control eye muscles so that visual information can be captured and transmitted to the brain. The brain then interprets these visual signals and sends appropriate commands to the body. Ocular motor skills play an important role in the physical, academic and social development of the child. In fact, 80% of learning at school level occurs through ocular senses. This fact is sufficient to emphasize the importance of development of ocular motor skills in children.
Components of Ocular Motor Skills
In human beings, eye muscles are controlled by the means of three pairs of small muscles. The movement of these muscles is controlled by three cranial nerves. Ocular motor skill is present at birth and a baby is able to exercise it as soon as he/she opens the eyes. However, the development of ocular motor skills occurs much later. Most of this development is completed during school age, when the child learns to read and write. Its different components are as follows:
Fixation is the ability of an individual to focus on an object. This includes holding the gaze on a stationary object for more than a few seconds. Oftentimes, poor vision is due to lack of fixation skill. An individual cannot hold his/her gaze on an object accurately, which leads to transmission of mangled signals to the brain. As a result, the brain cannot interpret the signal properly, thus causing impairment of vision.
Pursuit is the ability of an individual to track a moving object. In this, the eye movement should be adjusted according to the speed of movement of an object. Besides, both eyes must move smoothly and accurately, in synchronization. A classic example of pursuit is tracking the movement of the ball during a tennis rally.
In saccadic movement, eyes smoothly and accurately track and refocus on an object. This ability is important while reading, as one has to move his/her gaze from one word to another. Saccades are usually very rapid movements, which are characterized by a series of fixations. In saccades, it is not possible to see the movement of eyes tracing an object, as it is possible in pursuit.
Assessment, Diagnosis and Treatment of Ocular Motor Problems
Underdeveloped ocular motor skills are often revealed when a child fails to learn normally at school. Inability to read and write accurately leads to poor grades whereas lack of eye-to-hand coordination manifests in below average performance in sports. Children suspected of having underdeveloped fine motor skills must be examined by a licensed optometrist specializing in behavioral optometry. Apart from the usual visual screening, the optometrist also performs a series of diagnostic tests, which determine the type and extent of ocular motor problem. This kind of problems can be easily resolved with vision exercises.
A child is asked to focus on an object, which is then slowly moved. Over the time, a child will be able to hold his/her gaze and track the movement of an object. This improves fixation and pursuit. For improving saccadic movement, a child may be asked to put a finger on the word and move it as he/she reads it. Eventually, the finger is removed and the child learns to shift his/her gaze from one word to the other, without getting lost.
Underdeveloped ocular motor skills may be responsible for a plethora of learning disabilities, vision problems, migraines, etc., which are sometimes attributed to some other cause. Hence, check your child's ocular motor skills from time to time.