Good morning fellow families of sparkling children who happen to have a diagnosis of cortical visual impairment!
Today, Hannah’s mom, Hope tells us about her feisty 4-year-old daughter and how she came to be diagnosed with cerebral/cortical visual impairment (CVI).
Hope and her husband, Rob, welcomed their first children, boy-girl twins at 24 weeks, 5 days gestation. When the twins were 18 months old, Hope was inspired to begin taking online classes at UMASS-Boston towards an M.Ed. in Vision Studies. She explains that by becoming a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) she hoped to learn everything she could to help Hannah’s twin brother, Joseph. Joe was diagnosed with low vision due to retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).
As a student in Ellen Cadigan Mazel’s class on cortical/cerebral vision impairment (CVI), Hope began to suspect some of Hannah’s unusual visual behaviors may have resulted from her complex medical history following birth. Hannah had significant complications following birth as a micro-preemie weighing less than 1 lb 8 ounces including intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH) leading to post-hemorrhagic hydrocephaly (PHH) which required the placement of a shunt (when Hannah was 3 months old) to divert excess cerebral spinal fluid from her brain to her abdomen via a ventricular-peritoneal (VP) shunt.
Ellen Cadigan Mazel, Hope’s CVI class instructor encouraged her to have Hannah formally assessed.
Hope is writing today to encourage parents who suspect their son or daughter may have CVI to seek an expert opinion.
Hope also wants to encourage anyone reading this post to consider a career in vision studies. (Editor’s note: Yes! Yes!)
There is a growing need for TVIs, and COMS (Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists) and there are openings in nearly every state.
Parents in or near New England can learn more about the UMASS-Boston program by visiting the website https://www.nercve.org/. Also, federal grants are available at some learning institutions to offset the cost of the degree. Parents could contact their bureau or agency for the blind for advice on finding a vision studies program near them.
Hope is extremely grateful to her son and daughter’s educational consultant from DORS-BESB, Gail Feld, who left a brochure about becoming a TVI for Hannah and Joe’s babysitter. As a result of finding the brochure, Hope found out about the program at UMASS-Boston. Hope also wishes to express her appreciation for Joe and Hannah’s educational teams for their optimism, enthusiasm, and innovative steps they have taken to give her children the access to learning which has brought them this far.
Image: Joe (a little boy in a blue t-shirt and jeans) and Hannah (a little girl in a yellow hat, pink t-shirt and jeans) take a break by sitting on the rear stairs of one of the vehicles at a Touch-A-Truck event.
What can you tell us about Hannah?
Hannah is a strong, loveable and capable little girl. Complications of premature birth left Hannah with hemiplegia of her left arm and left leg. She has not allowed this to slow her down one bit! She wrestles toys away from her twin brother, Joseph with ease and then gallops away. When Hannah sets her sights on something there is no stopping her. She has a drive to learn and a passion for letters and numbers. Her greatest strength is her memory. Her favorite person is her father, her favorite place is the beach or pool, and her favorite things are books and television.
We came to suspect Hannah might have CVI at around age 3. At a team meeting, her Pre-K teacher related a story about Hannah’s affinity for a yellow spoon (color) which she would reportedly always look for and gaze at for long minutes during free-choice play. At home, color seemed to be an important element for Hannah in objects she was attracted to. She would always try to get her hands on the can of Pam ® cooking spray. Whenever this distinctive yellow and red can was near the edge of the counter, Hannah would try to reach it. Once I learned about the ten characteristics of CVI from Ellen Cadigan Mazel, my professor at UMASS-Boston, I began to suspect there was more to this “quirky” behavior.
I asked Hannah’s TVI, Peggy Palmer, if she thought it might be worth assessing Hannah for CVI. As it turned out—it was! Hannah’s results on Dr. Roman-Lantzy’s CVI Range put her in Phase III. The best outcome as far as Rob and I are concerned is that strategies for supporting children with CVI in the classroom, once implemented, made learning available to Hannah even before she was formally diagnosed, at age 4, with CVI by her ophthalmologist, Dr. Tara Cronin.
The diagnosis of CVI gave our family and the educational team a rich context for understanding how color could be an anchor for Hannah and why complexity inhibited her learning. For me, I finally began to understand my daughter’s unexplained behaviors. For example, when we brought Hannah to the toy store or library to pick out something “new”, she would consistently gravitate toward books and toys she already had (novelty). Her preschool teacher came to understand Hannah could attend to the activities of circle time ONLY if she were provided with hands-on materials to ground her in the activities of the meeting. Hannah’s physical therapist came to see Hannah learns best when verbal directions are given first, BEFORE actions are modeled with NO talking (complexity).
Now that Hannah is approaching kindergarten age, the biggest hurdles she needs to overcome are social. Hannah struggles to name classmates accurately UNLESS she is provided with auditory or other clues as to their identities (prosopagnosia).
What lessons has motherhood taught you?
Hannah and her twin brother, Joseph have taught me I need to be a strong and confident leader—even on those days when I do not feel strong or confident. While it is important to listen to what medical and educational professionals have to say, at the end of the day you need to trust your instincts. You alone are the true expert when it comes to your child and no one has a greater interest than you in his or her wellbeing.
Image: Hannah (a little girl in ponytails holding a green stuffed animal), Hope, and Joe (a little boy in a blue baseball cap and glasses) on his mother’s lap. They are relaxing on a butterfly shaped bench at Magic Wings in Dearfield, Massachusetts.
Another thing Joe and Hannah have taught me is that all children can—and do—learn. Behavior is the result of learning. If a child has behavior—whether it is functional or not—it is the result of learning. As our children’s first teachers, and later as their educational advocates, we need to make sure there is a match between our child’s availability to learn (attention) and the appropriateness of his or her environment for learning (access).
What advice would you give the parents of a child newly diagnosed with CVI?
Be the “help” you think your family needs. I am proud of the parent I have become as a result of all the challenges my family and I have overcome together. I have grown into a question-asking, action-taking, resistance-battling parent. While I do my best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, I seek my own answers and have—by becoming a TVI—gone to great lengths to become more capable of understanding my children’s visual diagnoses.
No degree is required to stay abreast of best practices in the education of students with visual impairment. Family Connect provides a host of free resources for parents of children with visual impairment and blindness. Organizations like NAPVI and NFB’s POBC offer opportunities for families to network. Rob and I are most appreciative of our families, friends and co-workers who supported the four of us through the past few challenging-but-transformational years.
It has truly taken a village to raise our two resilient and amazing children.
Image: Joe, Hope, Hannah, and Rob visiting Cookie Monster at Sesame Place
Another piece of advice I have is this: Believe in resilience.
One neonatologist, Dr. Gruen, assured us that despite their extensive brain bleeds (intraventricular hemorrhages) and ROP (retinopathy of prematurity) our children would go on to have remarkably good outcomes. He knew this, he said, because Hannah and Joe had caring, educated parents who were involved in their day-to-day care. He assured us that between early intervention services and lots of love, our twins would have “everything they needed”. And he was right!
It seemed, in those early days, that what the twins needed was something only “expert” others could provide. Day and night, nurses and doctors intubated, extubated, and re-intubated the babies who seemed to be in a constant struggle to survive. It was two weeks before their skin was deemed “intact enough” that we could safely reach a hand into their incubators and touch our own children. For ten precious minutes at a time, I held my hand flat on the back of one or another sleeping baby. Under that hand was a little person who found themselves in a world an entire trimester too soon. But they were here, and we would do our best to keep them here.
Before their eyes were even open, and before we were ever able to hold Joe or Hannah, Rob and I read to them through an open “port-hole” in each incubator. The host of readers grew to include grandparents and friends. As a result of all this TLC, Joe and Hannah have developed a deep love of books. On more than one occasion, each child has insisted on carrying a book into bed with them as one might a favorite stuffed toy or a blanket.
If I could go back in time and give advice to my former self, it would be this:
1) Ask plenty of questions.
2) Accept resistance as a lack of understanding (of CVI).
3) Place trust in those who have earned it.
To this I would add: trust yourself above all others because—and believe me on this—no one cares more about helping your child achieve his or her best educational and medical outcomes than you and your family do.
On Asking Questions
From the time they began to open their eyes in the NNICU, I was filled with questions about Joe and Hannah’s unusual visual behaviors which I did not ask. I was busy asking lots of other questions. I wanted to understand the implications of their high and low (blood) lab values, I would ask how long the treatment for NEC (necrotizing enterocolitis) would last and how long it might be before Joe and Hannah would be well enough for us to do skin-to-skin care.
Soon, I started to observe some unusual visual behaviors almost from the time their eyes were no longer covered with light-therapy sleep-shades. One twin was staring up at the lights while the other seemed photo-phobic. I had questions. I did not ask all of them. Why not?
First, I had the feeling I should accept my children’s unusual visual behaviors. I suspected that any vision differences were a consequence of their premature birth and were to-be-expected. When our children were born 16 weeks early, we were told each baby had a 50/50 chance of survival. They were fighting for their very lives, not striving towards the next developmental milestone. Three months had gone by and Joe and Hannah’s “age-typical” peers were still in-utero; there were no “age typical” peers to compare them to.
Second, I held back from asking all the questions I had because of a sense that I (or we) had already asked enough questions. I had the irrational belief that if I exceeded some perceived “quota” of parent questions it would in some way slow down the progress of the care-team. The meetings ran close to an hour as it was, and, after all, weren’t we lucky to even be permitted a seat at the table?
What does Hannah like to do? What are her favorite activities? What do you like to do as a family?
Hannah loves to laugh. She has the most infectious laugh and almost anything silly will make her giggle. She especially likes when grown-ups make mistakes, such as mixing her up with her brother, Joe and calling them by the “wrong” names. As a family we enjoy swimming and going to the beach to build sandcastles.
Image: Hope and Hannah pose with Splash (a large colorful fish sculpture) on a recent trip to the Connecticut Science Center.
What do you hope to do as a TVI you were not able to do as a parent?
I look forward to working with children with CVI and other visual issues because I know I can direct them toward resources I know from first-hand experience to have been helpful. Not everyone is ready to “join” a parent organization but I want my clients to know they are not alone. Other people are going through the same or similar experiences. It is my hope to support those individuals who are ready by helping families find each other, network, and come to consensus about what needs to change at a systems level.
What do you worry about? What changes do you feel are needed?
Right now, I think there is a need for more information about CVI to be made available to education professionals starting with TVIs. The UMASS Boston program made a course on CVI a requirement for all TVI candidates. Other programs need to follow suit. Personally, I would be happy to speak to pre-service teachers—special educators especially—to provide some training on the characteristics of CVI. As a parent of a child with CVI and a newly minted TVI I feel I could provide an overview of this public health crisis and its causes. My goal would be to introduce them to some modifications and accommodations which can be of help to all students but especially to kids with CVI. I plan to start by reaching out to colleges and universities close to where I live in Connecticut.
As a TVI and a parent I worry about children with CVI who need appropriate services but for whatever reason are not receiving them. Also, I worry about the state-by-state criteria for low vision services. I believe every child whose CVI impacts their access to the general curriculum should be eligible for low vision services regardless of the results of their visual acuity test. Some parents are hesitant to bring their children with CVI for a low-vision exam. They are fearful a near-normal visual acuity result could cause their needful children to be identified as NVI (Not Visually Impaired) when, in fact, they are impaired.
Big and little changes are needed.
The time is NOW and the power is US.
Thank you, Hope! I absolutely agree. I have learned so much from your story and your dedicated efforts to become an expert for your children.
There is a national shortage of teachers of the visually impaired and certified orientation and mobility specialists. This is part of the reason it can be so difficult to find educators trained in working with children with CVI. With parent advocates/TVI like Hope, the time IS now.