CVI: Visual attention

Learn about CVI's big impact on visual attention, explore some observable behaviors and compensatory skills, general ideas for accommodations, and current research.

Written by: Rachel Bennett

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At Perkins, we are a gathering place of ideas. The CVI visual behaviors synthesize current research and build on the work of leading theorists in the field. CVI is a lifelong disability and we want to ensure that all individuals with CVI are fully understood. The CVI visual behaviors are an ongoing need, they can change and they can improve for some, but the need never goes away. No one area is separated from the other—the CVI visual behaviors are highly connected and all can impact the individual with CVI at any time.

What is visual attention?

Visual attention is the ability to look at something or when the eyes fixate on an object or target in the environment. Visual attention is the prerequisite for visual recognition. 

The visual system allows the brain to

When searching for an object, it’s not just about where to look but also where not to look. The brain has to keep track of what it’s looking for and ignore information that is not relevant. Visual attention is the starting point that enables us to perceive the world around us, and there is no visual recognition without visual attention.

People with CVI can have a wide spectrum of visual attention skills, from little visual attention to sustained visual attention abilities. For many with CVI, internal and external stimuli can impact and disrupt visual attention. And for some, visual attention can only occur when there are no distractions from other sensory inputs (noise, distracting movement, clutter, disorienting environmental light, and internal factors).

Sometimes, if things are extra challenging, I might lose my vision for a couple of minutes.

Dagbjört, adult with CVI

CVI can have a profound impact on visual attention, making many aspects of visual attention difficult or near impossible, including:

Visual attention can vary, sometimes significantly, depending on a lot of factors, which may include:

Looking does not mean understanding—but just because visual attention is not present or not sustainable for some with CVI, it does not mean that learning does not continue. Even when all the right factors are in place, and the person with CVI can look at something, this does not always equate to recognizing what’s being looked at. It’s important that when we assess and evaluate students with CVI, we do not confuse looking with fully seeing and interpreting the visual world. It’s important to make sure that CVI assessment doesn’t solely focus on the ability to look at something but deeply looks at both visual attention and recognition, and the compensatory skills that the student uses to support understanding (e.g., memory, color-coding, adulting prompting, tactile and auditory skills, context of the place or task). 

My child has intermittent or short visual attention for anything unfamiliar.

CVI parent

What are some compensatory strategies related to visual attention?

People with CVI have strategies and workarounds for so much in their daily lives. When environmental and internal factors make visual attention difficult or near impossible, many with CVI rely on their compensatory skills for access.

Some people with CVI may rely on:

Vision alone never ‘came into focus’ by itself. It had to be buttressed by something non-visual

Nai Damato, adult with CVI, The CVI Perspective

What are some look fors/questions when observing your child with CVI?

Visual inattention was as if the visual world was suspended in some other dimension, often somewhere in between waking reality and the dream world, but always slightly beyond what my fingertips could touch. I could almost get there, but still not dive into it fully, like waking up from a dream that lies just beyond your conscious memory on a groggy morning. Vision existed in this liminal space of reality-unreality.

Nai Damato, adult with CVI

What are some examples of adaptations and accommodations? 

All accommodations must be based on individual assessment. The following are meant to inspire and provide a general idea. Accommodations and instructional approaches must be student-specific. Access is individual. 

The main goal of accommodations and adaptions for CVI is access to learning. We can provide supports to help make visual attention less fatiguing AND provide supports and instruction that do not require visual attention to access learning. Many with CVI need both types of support: visual and other sensory channels (auditory, kinesthetic, and/or tactile). Remember, vision is not reliable 24/7, so what accommodations and adaptations are required for the student with CVI to access their learning throughout the entire day? Supports are not a hierarchy, meaning visual accommodations are not the be-all-end-all for some with CVI; sometimes, tactile and auditory supports need to take the lead. It’s about balance and what works best for the individualized needs of the person with CVI.

Adapt the learning environment 

Adapt the learning task 

Full access to learning (because vision is not reliable 24/7)

Find more examples from a guide to common CVI IEP accommodations in the CVI Now IEP Guide. 

My son is better able to visually attend to something if he engages his tactile system first. His teachers have him do a tacitle warm-up before a visual task and he often needs to continue to hold something in his hands as he looks. But then after 5-8 minutes of looking he needs a break from using his vision.

Rachel, CVI parent

Following the science

Connecting current research of the brain, our visual system, and CVI to better understand the CVI visual behaviors.

More resources to explore:


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Highlights from the 2023 NIH CVI Workshop

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