Children with Down syndrome often see poor eyesight not only from a distance, but also up close. New research shows that these children see and develop better with glasses that correct each of these defects. Matthias also benefited from it.
It makes sense: if you can’t see well from far and near, you should wear glasses that correct both aberrations, for example bifocals. But not everyone diagnosed with a double eye defect actually gets such glasses.
Glasses only for distance
“We’ve known for a long time that many children with Down syndrome have a double eye defect,” says researcher Kristin de Weger-Ziegelstra of Radbodomic. “But so far not much has been done with it.”
The children were only given glasses for better viewing at a distance, and that was it. “But if you can’t see very well up close, you won’t want to do things up close,” says De Weger-Zijlstra. “I wear reading glasses myself. If I don’t wear them, I don’t feel like reading, playing a game, or doing crafts.”
Influence on cognitive development
Does the fact that children with Down syndrome cannot see well up close also have an effect on their cognitive development? This was an important question that the study set out to answer.
“We looked at whether bifocal glasses improve vision in more than 100 children with Down syndrome. But we also looked at what glasses could mean for these children’s development. Can they learn better and keep their focus longer with improvement? Has their behavior changed?”, Were they able to think more flexibly? We wanted to find answers to that,” says de Weger Zigelstra.
Less than a squint
Half of the 100 children received bifocal glasses, while the other half received regular monofocal glasses. For a year, researchers determined whether children could wear glasses correctly and what the effect was.
“We saw almost immediately that close vision became much better. Not only seeing individual objects but also, for example, many symbols that are close to each other,” says the researcher. “Amblyopia common in children with Down syndrome, also significantly improved in the bifocal group.”
Strong improvement in cognitive development
“We also found stronger cognitive development in children whose near vision improved. We measured a number of functions, such as task orientation, working memory, behavior and flexible thinking,” explains De Weger-Zijlstra.
“We developed a test for children and questionnaires for parents and teachers. The answers showed that the bifocal group performed significantly better than the control group in all of these areas.”
Matthias (19) suffers from Down syndrome. About 10 years ago he got bifocal glasses. “We knew that his eyes functioned completely differently, and that he would see less well,” Mum Jennicki recalls. “Children with Down syndrome are less able to focus, both at a distance and up close.”
“We spoke to our ophthalmologist about it and he suggested we get bifocal glasses measured. It certainly wasn’t popular at the time, but then we’re very glad we did.”
His parents noticed very quickly that Matthias was making progress: “It was really different, he just got more excited and curious. I think it was like ‘Wow, now I can really see him better.'”
Mathias’ reading level is still low, but at least he can read, his mother assures him. “And he’s still curious, two days a week he still goes to school because he still wants to learn. The other three days he works in a shop. We’ll never know for sure how he would have developed without bifocal glasses, but I think that helped a lot.”
“This treatment will become the new standard.”
The research underscores the importance of good vision in both far and near to the development of these children, says researcher De Weger-Zijlstra. “Because poor close-range vision is virtually non-existent in normal children, it has never been addressed in Down syndrome. Now that has changed and we can therefore help them better.”
A total of 15 Dutch hospitals participated in the study. “The specialists there are also convinced of the efficacy of bifocal glasses in children with Down syndrome. I believe this treatment will become the new standard nationally and internationally.”