Spatial Reasoning

Is your child unable to read a map?

Is your child:

  • Struggling with checkers or chess?
  • Unable to pack up the car for a trip?
  • Not finding his or her state on a map or country on the globe?
  • Having trouble sorting objects?
  • Unable to put an outfit together to save her life?
  • Having difficulty following directions or reading a map?
  • Getting lost in familiar places?
  • Confusing the right hand with the left?
  • Writing in the wrong direction or on the wrong side of the page? 


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.

  • Visual planning means seeing and figuring out the moves and steps it takes to solve a puzzle and to see what something will look like when a move has been made. Problems might be evident when the child is playing chess. He may not be able to plan out a strategy or a series of moves that would trap the opponent or win the game.
  • Visual sequencing means visually putting things in order. For example, your child may be trying to solve a dot-to-dot puzzle. The goal is to connect the dots in numerical order to form a figure. Crossword puzzles, word searches, or word scrambles require similar skills. In these puzzles, a person is asked to put letters in order to make words.
  • Visual tracking means visually following words on a page as you read or following an object as it moves through space. This skill is required for reading and writing. If your child struggles with visual tracking, she might start reading at the wrong place on the page, lose her place a lot, and may even read right to left, rather than left to right.
  • Visual memory means the ability to recall what has been observed with one’s eyes, such as the ability to remember familiar places and faces. Problems here might also be evident when your child is copying off the board. He may not be able to remember what he saw on the board long enough to copy it down.

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.

  • Shifting attention: could be the main problem. Shifting attention means the ability to change focus back and forth between multiple things (visual stimuli).
  • Sustaining attention: may be the issue. This would mean that that your child struggles to solve the puzzle because he simply doesn’t stay with it long enough, which is a problem of sustained attention.


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.

  • Coordination (Motor Planning): running, walking, catching or kicking a ball, clumsiness.
  • Intelligence: may not know how to solve puzzles due to lower intelligence in the spatial domain
  • Central coherence: may have trouble with part-to-whole relationships
  • Handwriting: may be due to trouble visualizing how a letter should look
  • Depth Perception: may have trouble judging how far away something is
  • Learning problems: could be related to challenges with reading or writing
  • Body space awareness: may be difficult judging social space and attending to nonverbal cues


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

  • Developmental Coordination Disorder: challenges with fine motor likely including poor handwriting
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: should be considered when Central Coherence or Shifting attention is an issue
  • Dyslexia: challenges with reading that have underlying visual processing deficits
  • Dysgraphia: challenges with writing due to visual or motor processing deficits
  • Dyscalculia: challenges with mathematics may relate to visual-spatial deficits
  • ADHD: challenges with sustained attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity
  • Intellectual Disability: children with low IQ and adaptive skills have trouble solving puzzles and problems


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.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with the licensed psychologists and other professionals who authored these articles
  • Physical Therapist (PT) and/or Occupational Therapist (OT): to look at fine and gross motor skills
  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in context that may be related to visual spatial problems, attention, or learning
  • Pediatrician: May refer to optometrist or ophthalmologist: may be necessary to check child’s vision

These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:

  • MVPT-4: assesses areas of visual perception
  • Beery VMI sequence: assesses visual-motor integration, visual perception and motor coordination.
  • WISC-V: provides one measure of spatial skills through tasks such as block design, coding, symbol search and cancellation, and spatial skills. Looks specifically at visual tracking and visual motor
  • DAS-2: provides a spatial index score made up of block design and a copying or recalling designs subtest. Concerns can be assessed using the spatial index
  • WIAT-III or WJ-IV: assesses concerns in reading, writing, or math
  • TOWL: provides standard, age and grade equivalent scores for writing only
  • Writing Samples – shows handwriting problems associated with visual-spatial skills


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Mather, Nancy & Goldstein, Sam (2015). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors: Using the building blocks model to guide intervention and classroom management, third edition.


[3] Eide, Brock & Eide, Fernette (2006). The mislabeled child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success.

[4] DeThorne, Laura, Schaefer, Barbara (2014) A guide to nonverbal IQ measures. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. (13), pp.275-290.


Image Credit:
Description: Little girl planning travel
Image ID#:67142956 (Shutterstock)
By: gorillaimages
Previously licensed: October 2, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood, exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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