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Reading Difficulties: The Connection between Primitive Reflexes and Eye Movements 

Does your child have reading difficulties at school? It is possible that this may be due to primitive reflexes that are still present in your child. A primitive reflex is a vestibular based reflex that are instilled at birth and are automatic movements directed by the brain and are crucial for survival in the first weeks of life.

More on primitive reflexes

These reflexes should only be present for a short period of time and will be replaced by higher level reflex centers of the brain. If these primitive reflexes remain after 6 months of life, it may hinder normal development of postural reflexes and ocular motility. 

Types of primitive reflexes

There are four primitive reflexes that if they remain too long can cause oculomotor problems, which in turn may cause reading and other academic issues for the child. Below, you will see two of the four reflexes that are found in the first months of birth.

  • Moro reflex (MR)

    • These are stimulated by body position in space. If MR remains too long, the infant will be hypersensitive in one or more sensory channels and the eyes will be attracted to bright light or changes in the visual field. This causes the child to be distracted, have poor balance and oculomotor problems. 
  • Tonic Labyrinthine reflex (TLR)

    • TLR which if not integrated in the first 6 months of life can cause prevention of developing later postural reflexes. Maintaining this reflex can cause difficulties, primarily with head righting and the ocular reflex. Balance will be affected by poor visual information coming to the child and spatial judgement will be directly impacted. 

All in the research

The connection between the remaining primitive reflexes and saccadic eye movements in 5th graders with reading problems was investigated to see the level of connection of each reflex with eye movements. It was found that significant association between the lingering TLR in those with reading problems found the strongest relationship with poor saccadic movements.

How to improve performance in school

This information is a strong proponent for occupational/vision therapy to be initiated to inhibit these primitive reflexes and improve the development of saccadic eye movements and reading. Once all primitive reflexes are integrated there should be a notable improvement in academic performance. 

References Sergio Ramirez Gonzalez,MS, Kenneth J Ciuffreda, OD, PhD, FAAO, FCOVD-A,Luis Castillo Hernandez, PhD, Jaime Bernal Escalante, MS, The Correlation between Primitive Reflexes and Saccadic Eye Movements in 5th Grade Children with Teacher-Reported Reading Problems, Optometry & Vision Development 2008:36 (3):140-145 

Written by: Tiffany Sinovic, MS, OTR/L

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