There is a solution for the estimated 33,000 children on the autism spectrum in England who lack routine eye care – but the proposed national screening programme needs NHS support.
Charity SeeAbility has spent the last three years running pilot vision screening schemes in nine special schools in England.
The Children in Focus initiative addresses the large-scale problem that children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to have a serious sight problem.
Yet testing rates for these children is low – SeeAbility has found that three-quarters of children in special schools who have never had an eye examination are on the autism spectrum.
SeeAbility’s Children in Focus clinical leader, Lisa Donaldson, told OT that the unfamiliar environments, waiting times, and inflexibility of a set appointment means that special needs children can struggle in a standard NHS sight test.
Ms Donaldson added: “Parents find it very stressful.”
She has seen first hand the benefits of bringing the sight test to these children, explaining: “I’ve worked in community practices and hospitals. In-school testing is better than both, hands down, in what I can learn from a child.”
The child’s familiarity with their environment and the tools available in the special school all benefit the practitioner, she said, emphasising: “The results are infinitely better.”
The Children in Focus programme, which also offered dispensing optician support for children who were prescribed spectacles and teacher training, was ready to go national for the 100,000 special needs children in England, Ms Donaldson said.
SeeAbility is currently in talks with NHS England about the funding of such a project, which would require £85–90 per test.
“We are confident we’ve got a model that could be reproduced,” she said.
Ms Donaldson highlighted the importance of vision for special needs children, whose sight issues could typically be corrected with a pair of spectacles.
She emphasised: “Being able to see is often their link to the world … If their world is blurred, it’s another huge barrier and they have enough barriers as it is.”
The new yearly screening programme could also cut back on the estimated 460,000 missing or cancelled paediatric outpatient eye care appointments that occurred in 2014–15, she highlighted.
SeeAbility is also looking for optometrists with experience working with special needs children to help it develop the Children in Focus initiative. Interested practitioners or those wanting more resources on this type of vision testing can visit the SeeAbility website.