Visual Perceptual Processing

Visual perceptual processing, or visual information processing, is a set of skills we use to gather visual information from the environment and integrate them with our other senses. This is done while incorporating all the integrated information with other things, such as past experiences, motivation and development, so that we can derive understanding and meaning from what we are experiencing. This process allows the development of schemes to derive meaning from what we see.

Visual perceptual processing is very important, but especially so when learning. Without visual perceptual processing, you would not be able to accurately learn to read, give or get directions, copy from the board or from a book, visualize objects or past experiences, remember things visually, have good eye-and coordination, integrate visual information with our other senses to do things like ride a bike, play ball, or hear a sound and be able to visually recognize where it is coming from (like an ambulance), just to name a few.

Visual perceptual processing can be broken into three components - visual spatial skills, visual analysis skills and visual integration skills.

Just like anything else that is broken into components, these skills work together or build upon each other to help you function.

Visual Spatial Skills

These are the skills we use to understand directional concepts to organize our visual space. This is how we visually project our body coordinates out into the world.

For example: When you say, "It is over to the left," the "to the left" has no meaning unless it has a point of reference. So actually, you are really saying to the left of where YOU are. If you don't know where your body is, it is hard to know where things are in relation to you.

Visual spatial skills require observing an object, then accurately reporting its relationship in space relative to your own self.

Signs & Symptoms of Visual-Spatial Dysfunction

  • Lack of coordination and balance (clumsy)
  • Difficulty learning left and right
  • Reverses letters or numbers when writing or copying
  • Difficulty with activities involving rhythm
  • Not good at sports
  • Does not cross the midline when doing tasks (switches objects from hand to hand)
  • Does not use nondominant hand for support when writing or copying
  • Rotates body when writing or copying (again to not cross the midline)


Laterality is an internal self awareness of two body sides and knowing they are different. It requires good balance, vestibular function and an awareness of a body midline (an invisible line that divides your body in half).

FACT: During a study at the Southern California College of Optometry, 73.8% of children already determined to have a learning disability failed tests used to assess laterality and directionality.

Some behaviors observed in kids that have not developed laterality are the following:

  • Nondominant hand not used for support
  • Switches hands so they do not cross the midline of their body with them
  • Motor overflow
  • Rotates body (again so as not to cross over the midline)

These tendencies happen in all young kids, but if confusion with laterality occurs after 8 years old, it can potentially cause problems.

Laterality eventually evolves into directionality.

A person must understand laterality on their person before it can be applied in space. This means if you do not know the two sides of your body (left and right), how can you know what to call the two sides of the room? We always learn how to judge where things are by first learning how to relate it to ourselves.

When you start applying left and right concepts to your external visual space, you are beginning to learn directionality.


Directionality incorporates up, down, ahead, behind, and any combination thereof into the equation. It also means projecting these directions including left and right out into space. Again, a person must understand these concepts as they relate to themselves before they can apply them to other things.

Directionality is very important in decoding letters.

If you don't have this concept down, learning to read can be very confusing. For example, the letters "b," "d," "p," and "q," all look like the same symbol if you do not have any concept of orientation.

FACT: Research has shown that children who still have reversal problems after age 8 will likely have problems developing good reading skills.

These skills, however, can be trained. For more information on how, click here.

Reversals can also come from having a general language dysfunction. This is more commonly seen when they have problems with reversing entire words. See your eye doctor to really know if visual skills are the problem if you suspect your child of directionality issues.

An important function that bridges laterality and directionality is our eyes.

Efficient eye movement skills are essential in developing good directionality skills. If your eyes cannot move across a page smoothly and accurately, this could mean that you are at risk for reversals and coding problems, because how we scan a letter is important when coding it to the brain.

Bilateral Integration

Bilateral integration is another visual spatial skill that is important. This is the ability to effectively use both sides of the body separately (like typing) and/or simultaneously (like riding a bicycle).

Very young children will use only one side at a time until they learn this skill. This is a normal part of development. However, if a child is still exhibiting this behavior after third grade, this may signify a problem with visual spatial skills.

Watch a young child draw or color. Crayons on the left stay on the left and are manipulated by the left hand and vice versa. If they want something on their right to use on the left side, they will pick up the crayon in the right hand, then pass it to their other hand rather than cross over the midline of their body.

With proper development the left and right side should begin to enhance each other's function, for example the right hand may stabilize a piece of paper while the left hand draws. Another integration skill you can observe is moving one foot ahead of the other when walking, while at the same time swinging contralateral arms as the foot comes forward, for example the right foot and the left arm, then the left foot and right arm.

d VS. d

This skill cannot be developed fully unless laterality is learned well, too. If you do not have the concept of the difference between both sides of your body, it is very difficult to learn how to coordinate them.

Visual Analysis Skills

Visual analysis, or visual discrimination, is used to identify, sort, organize, store and recall visually presented information. It is the ability to take in visual information remember it and apply it later.

Children with poor visual analysis skills often have trouble learning the A, B, C's and recognizing words or simple forms even when presented repeatedly; for example, they may correctly read the word "house" in one sentence and incorrectly read "horse" two lines later. These kids tend to mistake words with similar endings or beginnings, generalize when grouping objects. They also have a hard time understanding size and magnitude, (a cup of water in a tall glass and a cup of water in a shallow bowl are not seen as equal amounts).

Signs & Symptoms of Visual-Analysis Dysfunction

  • Trouble learning the alphabet
  • Trouble recognizing words
  • Mistakes words with similar beginnings
  • Overgeneralizes - confuses minor likenesses and differences
  • Does not recognize the same word if repeated again on a page
  • Trouble with remembering and writing letters and numbers
  • Distractible
  • Short attention span
  • Problems concentrating
  • Traces or touches figures
  • Difficulty with understanding instructions
  • Hyper or hypo active

The Subskills of Visual Analysis

Figure Ground: An ability to attend to or search for a specific form or feature while simultaneously ignoring irrelevant information.

Example: Looking for a specific piece of information when reading or searching for a specific tool in a toolbox full of tools.

Activity: Where is Waldo?, Hidden Pictures


In this big picture find the duckling, hammer, ladybug, handbell, flag, arrow, sailboat, cup, baseball bat, nail, needle, vase, clothespin, and snail. Can you find these Hidden Pictures?


Check out the magazine Highlights for more interactive hidden picture games.


Visual Form Recognition/Discrimination & Constancy: The ability to discriminate differences in forms. This includes differences of size, shape, color and orientation. Recognition that visual information in a form is consistent in spite of the object, size in the back of the eye, or location.

Example: DOG = dog = Dog, or that a cup of water is a cup of water whether in a tall glass or shallow bowl.

Activity: Parquetry Blocks, Tetris

Use your arrow keys to manipulate the shapes below. Up arrow will change the way the blocks are oriented.


Visual Closure: The ability to recognize clues presented visually that allow him or her to determine the appearance of the final product without all the details being present.

Example: Being able to complete a word when only part of the word is seen; recognizing what will appear in a picture before it is completed.

Activity: Dot-to-dot, Missing Pieces


    d d
    d d
    d d
    d d


Visual Spatial Memory: Ability to recall the spatial location of an object or stimuli. The ability to be able to recall, identify, or reproduce a design or dominant feature of an object.

Example: Being able to picture a lost object; seeing a printed word and developing a mental picture to the corresponding object.

Activity: Memory Card Game

Powered by playZgame


Visual Sequential Memory: Ability to view and then recall a sequence of numbers, letters or objects in the order they were originally presented.

Example: Recall a phone number 205-9786 vs. 205-9687, or in spelling "their" vs. "thier"

Activity: Electronic Simon Says

Game provided by: Myspace Games


Visualization: Ability to recall a previously viewed image or object and mentally manipulate the image from various aspects.

Example: Seeing a flattened box and being able to mentally reconstruct it and picture the dimensions to decide if the object you want to put in the box will fit.

Activity: Pegboard, Tangoes



Visual Speed & Span of Perception: The rate and amount at which information is being handled in visual processing.

Example: Quickly and efficiently copying an assignment off the chalkboard with only a few glances vs. needing to glance at the chalkboard after every one to two words or bits of information is copied.

Activity: Speed Stackers

To see Steven Purugganan set a new cycle world record of 6.21 seconds at the Denver Coliseum in the 2008 WSSA World Championships in Denver, CO, click here



Once all of these skills are developed, it is important for them to become automatic so they take up less brain power to use. Just like learning to drive a car with a manual transmission. At first, it takes a lot of brain power to get your feet to move the right way and for you to time it with what your hand does with the stick shift. Not only are you learning a new skill, but you also have to make sure you pay attention to the road and steer accordingly. Once you get the hang of it, the ability to shift gears became automatic and you can devote that brain power to eating a Big Mac and talking on the cell phone along with everything else (not recommended, by the way). In order to have efficient visual information processing skills, you have to learn the skills well to the point where they become easy.

Automaticity is key in efficient learning.




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