Is your child:
Children who have difficulties with packing, solving puzzles or reading maps may be struggling with some of the ‘visual-spatial’ skills required. The term visual-spatial refers to a set of skills that allow a person to see how something is supposed to look.
It is also the skill of knowing where things are supposed to fit. Spatial skills are like a game of ‘tetris’. People with good spatial skills can see many parts and understand how they should fit together.
For example, someone with good visual-spatial skills could follow the directions when assembling Ikea furniture, building a Lego set, or a block tower. People with good visual-spatial skills tend to do better in sports and athletics because they have an easier time seeing where the ball is and how to move their bodies toward it, with quickness and agility.
However, visual-spatial does not refer to the motor skills required for those tasks. For example, motor skills would be needed for a game like ‘Jenga’ because you would need to not only assess where the piece should go but also have steady enough hands to pull it out and replace it.
A child with these challenges might have a harder time with a Rubik’s Cube, a yo-yo, or a bouncy ball. The problem here is that the child does not visually follow and track the object in physical space. Visual-spatial skills, therefore, refer to a person’s ability to ‘see’ where things go on maps, graphs, and puzzles.
Problems with visual-spatial skills are likely due to problems in one of the following clinical areas: visual perception, central coherence, or attention [1-3]. That is, your child is either having trouble with ‘seeing it’ (visual perception), understanding the concept or the big picture (central coherence), or being able to focus long enough to solve it (attention).
Visual perception is the clinical word for seeing things right. Visual perception refers to recognizing and perceiving figures and shapes effectively. When solving a puzzle, a child with poor visual perception may not see all the figures in the puzzle and thus may not be able to re-construct the design with the puzzle pieces.
Central coherence describes the ability to assess part-to-whole relationships, which is the ability to know how all of the pieces fit together to make one coherent shape. This skill also requires the ability to get the main concept or the big idea. Problems here may be evident when your child is trying to describe a picture or tell you a story. Children with poor central coherence tend to forget to tell the main idea and get lost in the details.
Attention may be involved if your child is having trouble with visual-spatial skills. It may be that your child gets stuck on one part of the puzzle and refuses to move on. This problem relates to mental flexibility, which is often referred to as rigidity, or insistence on sameness.
If your child struggles with puzzles, maps, and graphs, an underlying visual-spatial or cognitive deficit could be causing these problems. However, parents would want to consider whether or not these personal weaknesses are ‘getting in the way’ before they make a decision about further assessment or treatment. For example, children with more significant struggles in these areas may have learning disabilities, and in that case, intervention or remediation would be required. Children with extreme difficulties shifting or sustaining attention may have problems related to autism or AD/HD and require treatment. Alternately, a child with these challenges may prefer not to participate in some sports and may need help with navigation at school or in town, but they might otherwise do just fine.
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Mather, Nancy & Goldstein, Sam (2015). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors: Using the building blocks model to guide intervention and classroom management, third edition.
 Eide, Brock & Eide, Fernette (2006). The mislabeled child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success.
 DeThorne, Laura, Schaefer, Barbara (2014) A guide to nonverbal IQ measures. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. (13), pp.275-290.
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Previously licensed: October 2, 2016
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