For 7-year-old Jacob Neal, reading was a struggle.

He knew how to read but when he stared at the printed words he found it difficult to focus on the pages in front of him. Although Jacob learned how to read in kindergarten he never quite mastered the achievement. It took him a considerable amount of time to read a complete sentence. His classmates’ reading abilities were growing exponentially, but his were not.

At first Jacob’s parents thought his poor reading skills meant he needed additional academic assistance. Jodi Neal, Jacob’s mother, took him to a number of tutors for help. Unfortunately, Jodi says there was little progress made in improving Jacob’s reading. That is until they sought the help of Dr. Rebecca Bateson, an optometrist with Indiana Eye Care.

Jacob had been wearing eyeglasses since he was about two years old to correct esotropia, another eye disorder. Esotropia is a type of strabismus, or crossed eyes, where one eye “turns in”. After running some tests, Bateson determined that Jacob’s eyes were not working together properly. Jacob’s eyes would not fix on the same point to work together, a condition known as oculomotor dysfunction. A type of improper eye movement, oculomotor dysfunction can occur in people of all ages. Poor reading skills, including speed and comprehension, are common hallmarks of the disorder.

The diagnosis was encouraging to the Neals who had been attempting to address a perceived learning disability that was not there. Now they knew the cause of their son’s reading issues and quickly worked to address it.

“Reading is such a critical life skill,” Jodi says. “We want him to have the right skills so he can be as successful as possible.”

Jacob began vision therapy to strengthen the eye muscles. Bateson and her colleagues ran Jacob through multiple exercises throughout his sessions. He was asked to read letters on placards from left to right, right to left and top to bottom, Jodi says. Letters were printed on cards and positioned at various distances from Jacob. He was required to move his eyes from one card to another and read the letters. Another exercise Jacob performed was called a pencil pushup. The therapist slowly moved a pencil close to and away from Jacob’s face. As it got closer his eyes would have to shift to try and keep the lead point in focus. Jacob especially enjoyed an exercise involving a ball covered with multiple letters and a pitch-back baseball net. Jacob would throw the letter-covered ball against the trampoline net and catch the ball, then quickly find a letter on the ball that was called out to him. He would repeat the process over and over again.

“That was probably his favorite exercise to do,” Jodi says. “He’s very athletic and loves playing ball.”

While Jacob’s weak eye muscles impacted his reading, Jodi says it didn’t hinder him participating in sports, even those that require a lot of hand-eye coordination. Like many other children Jacob keeps active playing baseball and basketball. He rose to the challenge of playing those games — much like he rose to the challenge of his therapy.

For months Jacob worked hard at his therapy. He responded well to the exercises and is no longer challenged by the tracking issue.

“He responded so well to the therapy,” Jodi says.

When Jacob began therapy he was in the second grade. Over the course of the school year Jodi says her son’s grades improved and his reading skills increased dramatically. Jacob started second grade with a nearly first-grade reading level, but by the end of the school year he was on level for reading. Now 8 years old and in third grade, Jacob continues to work hard at both sports and his school work.

“Even before the therapy he would continue to try to read, but now he’ll sit down and begin reading a book,” Jodi says. “He will now sit and read 50 pages.”