For parents of kids heading back to school this fall, there is one often-forgotten item that should be on their back-to-school list: an eye exam.

Around 80 per cent of learning is visual, which is why it’s so important to ensure that kids are seeing perfectly – particularly when they are just beginning to read.

Toronto-area optometrist Dr. Radhika Chawla says many parents don’t realize their kids have vision problems until they begin to learn to read. In fact, it’s estimated that 60 per cent of kids with literacy challenges have an undiagnosed vision issue that’s contributing to the problem.

Chawla says parents often miss vision problems because kids typically don’t complain when they can’t see right.

“Children won’t necessarily complain of eye problems because the way they see the world is the way they think that we all see,” she told CTV’s Canada AM Friday.

Doctors estimate that one in four children has some form of vision issue. And yet surveys show that only 28 per cent of kids under 19 have ever been to an eye doctor.

That’s unfortunate, given that children’s eye exams are covered by most provincial health insurance, In Ontario, for example, OHIP covers yearly eye exams up to age 19, and in Alberta, kids are covered until they are 18.

Chawla say many parents aren’t aware that optometrists recommend children come in for their first eye exam at six months.Even at that age, doctors can spot eye problems, including such issues as the eyes not working in alignment with one another or if kids are favouring one eye over the other.

Another exam is recommended between ages two and five, before junior kindergarten, so that doctors can check a child’s depth perception and whether they are near- or far-sighted.

During this exam, kids who don’t yet know their ABCs can be asked to look at an eye chart filled with icons – birthday cakes, birds and hands, for example -- instead of letters. If the child is unwilling to participate, there are also objective tests that optometrists can perform to check their vision, Chawla says.

While a number of school boards conduct vision screenings in schools, Chawla says those screenings don’t always spot problems. In fact, it’s estimated that 43 per cent of children with vision problems pass these initial screenings.

A screening cannot diagnose what is wrong with your eyes. Only a full exam can examine the iris and pupil, test for pressure inside the eye and spot other problems that an eye chart screening test won’t catch.

Even though many kids won’t complain of problems with their eyes, there are a few symptoms parents should look out for:

  • red, itchy or watering eyes, or sensitivity to light
  • an eye that consistently turns in or out
  • tilting the head when looking at something or reading
  • rubbing the eyes or excessive blinking
  • losing place when reading, or avoiding books
  • covering or closing one eye or squinting
  • holding objects very close