What is a Developmental Optometrist?

Learn about the difference between a routine eye exam and an evaluation with a developmental optometrist!

Developmental optometry begins with the approach that vision is a learned skill. We aren’t born knowing how to see, we develop it over time. A developmental optometrist does a deeper dive into a person’s vision to see how their eyes learned to work, and what can be done to fix them if they didn’t learn to work efficiently.

There are only 12 developmental optometrists in South Carolina that are part of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development. Dr. Jesse Willingham of Brighter Outlook Vision is proud to be one of them!

What makes a developmental optometrist different from your regular eye doctor? At a routine eye exam, your typical eye doctor is looking at visual acuity, the sharpness of your vision when you look at something far away, seeing if you need glasses for better visual acuity, and checking the health of your eyes. Often we think of 20/20 as being perfect, but that is just one of many skills you need to see clearly and efficiently. For many people, their yearly visit to the eye doctor is all they need.

However, as many as 10% of people have a functional vision problem that impairs their ability to read, learn, or maintain attention. Developmental optometrists specialize in treating those individuals who need more than glasses. These patients can have subtle symptoms that often aren’t considered, causing many of them to suffer their whole life thinking there’s nothing that can be done to help. But they don’t have to struggle.

Dr. Jesse evaluating a young patient's eyes

Dr. Willingham evaluating a young patient's binocular vision

A developmental optometrist is going to test more than a dozen visual skills at an initial evaluation to see what is going on with the visual system, including:

  • Eye Movement Skills (How well is visual attention held on a moving object?)
  • Eye Tracking (Do the eyes move accurately and efficiently from place to place?)
  • Eye Teaming Skills (Do the eyes work together as a team? Is the teamwork easy or difficult? Is it better when looking far than looking close?)
  • Depth Perception (Does the visual system appreciate differences in distance provided by the slightly different perspectives between the 2 eyes?)
  • Eye Focusing Skills (How well do the eyes obtain and sustain clear vision at various distances?)
  • Eye Fixation (Do the eyes hold still to maintain attention?)
  • Eye Alignment/Strabismus

If during this initial evaluation the patient is determined to have a functional vision problem that can be addressed with vision therapy, sometimes a second evaluation is scheduled to look deeper into the condition. Specifically, this evaluation uses a number of standardized tests and measures to assess visual processing, or how the brain uses visual information, as well as other screenings for related problems that may indicate additional help from other professionals. Areas looked at include:

  • Spatial processing
  • Visual memory
  • Visual-motor coordination
  • Visual problem solving
  • Visual sequencing

A developmental optometrist will then consider the whole of the problem and create a program of care tailored to the patient. A program of vision therapy usually involves weekly sessions with the doctor, engaging in activities that help create new neural pathways that teach your eyes and brain to work together, so your vision no longer impedes on your life, but enhances it.

Dr. Jesse Willingham, award winning developmental optometrist

Optometrists have very specific training on their path to becoming eye experts. Dr. Jesse Willingham earned his Bachelor of Science in Cognitive Science and Psychology from the University of Evansville and then completed his doctoral training at the University of Missouri – St. Louis College of Optometry, which included several rotations at vision therapy practices across the United States. At graduation Dr. Willingham was awarded special honors for his achievements in vision therapy. 

Dr. Willingham then completed his training at the State University of New York College of Optometry’s prestigious Irwin B. Suchoff Residency in Vision Therapy and Rehabilitation in New York City, where he was awarded the honor of the Dr. Martin Birmbaum Memorial Award for Behavioral Optometry.

So what makes Dr. Jesse special? 

  1. Training to treat patients beyond their regular eye exam
  2. Years of schooling + a specialized residency at one of the best optometry schools
  3. His passion for helping people

If you think you or a loved one might have a vision problem, connect with us at Brighter Outlook Vision. We will listen to your problems and tell you if it sounds like a visual problem. If so, you can come for an evaluation like no other and learn about a personalized treatment that can transform your life.