A Sit Down – with Ruth Villenueve
This post appears as part of a series called Sit Down – candid conversations with real people detailing their journeys and experiences with Vision Therapy.
A Sit Down – with Ruth Villeneuve
For the benefit of our readers, can you explain how you are involved in Developmental Optometry?
I have been a vision therapist for just over 16 years. I spent 8 years with Dr. Steve Ingersoll in Howell, Brighton and Farmington Hills Michigan and 8 years with Dr. Brad Habermehl in Flint Michigan.
How did you first hear of Developmental Optometry?
I first learned about Developmental Optometry while substitute teaching at a new charter school in Livingston County, Michigan. I had heard that the school had a special developmental approach for working with kids who had learning difficulties. I subbed at the school just a few weeks before I knew I had to learn more about this developmental approach they were using in the vision therapy clinic for struggling students. One day after subbing, I walked into the vision therapy clinic that was attached to the school and asked the director to teach me everything there is to know about vision therapy. The school was having a huge impact on students with ADD, ADHD, and ASD and I felt I had to be part of the solution.
Once I was introduced to vision therapy, I was hooked. Even during my student teaching, I knew that something was going on with my struggling students that traditional education classes didn’t even touch. Everything I learned in the clinic made perfect sense with my model of education. To make a long story short, I continued to substitute during the day and then worked in the clinic as a vision therapist in the evening. At the end of the school year, I was approached with two separate job offers: I could accept a position as a middle school teacher, or choose to leave the school and become the Academic Director for a new clinic scheduled to open later in the year. I chose the later.
Interesting! Did you teach in a traditional setting prior to joining Dr. Steve Ingersoll’s school?
Not much, I graduated from college with a degree in education. The following year I accepted a position with the Close-Up Foundation in Washington DC, teaching high school students about our nation’s capital and the political process. After 2 years with Close-Up, I moved back home to Michigan and began to substitute teach at Dr. Ingersoll’s Charter School.
Dr. Ingersoll’s school and Vision Therapy practice are both incredible, and have served as a model for others to follow in recent years. Generally speaking, how would you describe his model for teaching children both in clinic and in the classroom?
My understanding of this model of vision and education is simply this: “Ask and answer the big question”. Why is the child doing what it is that he/she is doing? All behavior has meaning. For example, if a child on the spectrum is hand flapping and avoiding eye contact, could it be that child is avoiding central vision and trying to stimulate his/her periphery? We are designed to be visual learners, if something interferes with that, compensatory behaviors will result. Secondly, I would add that it is important to respect the developmental process. Many learning difficulties are created when we push a child to attend to small visual input while still in the gross motor stage of development.
Your current employer, Dr. Habermehl, must be very excited with the knowledge you’ve brought into his practice. Do you find yourself wanting to incorporate ideas you’ve learned from previous settings?
Dr. Ingersoll and Dr. Habermehl go way back. In fact, Dr. Ingersoll actually wrote Dr. Habermehl’s letter of recommendation to optometry school. When Steve moved his school to Traverse City, he called Brad and suggested to him that I might be a great person to bring the academic component to his practice in Flint. Since Brad and I share the same mentors in vision therapy, it was a match that worked perfectly for us both.
Since joining Dr. Habermehl’s office in 2005, I have been thrilled with the additional services he has to offer patients, especially those suffering from traumatic brain injury and autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Habermehl (pictured at left) incorporates the use of the Sensory Learning Program in order to allow these patients to benefit even more from vision therapy. One of the most thrilling demonstrations of this, is the relationship we have developed with a special needs school in Barbados. Over the past several years, we have visited and evaluated every student in the school and have also received patients here in our office for Sensory learning and vision therapy treatment. We have grown as a practice so much, and now have another pediatric care specialist, Dr. Erica Zeiders (pictured below) as a member of our team.
In addition, Dr. Habermehl has embraced the academic component of vision therapy and helped me to refine my own model of vision as it relates to academic learning. This model has been so successful that we have begun offering courses to share our model with others from around the world.
Twice a year, in the fall and in the late spring, we offer hands-on vision therapy seminars for doctors and therapists. We have had people travel from Australia, Alaska and even the Philippines to attend our COPE approved courses. These seminars never fail to reignite our passion for vision therapy and its ability to change lives!
Several therapists have written about the concept of “the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know”. For many, this sentiment is the mark of a great therapist as it symbolizes an insatiable quest for knowledge and understanding. Where are your thoughts on this?
That sentiment perfectly describes the irresistible attraction that so many of us carry in developmental optometry. I learn something new from every patient I see. I know that I will never know it all, and therein lies the thrill of the process. New things are being discovered about the brain on a daily basis and since the eyes are but an extension of the brain, optometrists are on the forefront of some of the greatest paradigm shifts known to man.
Achieving certification is a common goal among most Vision Therapists and in many ways is considered a threshold for reaching excellence. However, there are many great Vision Therapists working, such as you, that do not or have not yet certified. Where do you feel you fit in these categories, and do you hope to achieve your COVT someday?
Although it is true that there are many excellent uncertified vision therapy doctors and therapists, I do plan to seek my certification in the near future. It is my understanding that even the most experienced therapist can learn a great deal by going through the certification process. In addition, I cannot wait to mentor the next generation of therapists seeking certification.
On the topic of Social Media, you have played an important role for COVD the last 5 years, which includes some great news to come out of the recent meeting in Orlando. Can you tell us about this?
I have served as a social media consultant for COVD over the last several years and was recently named Co-Chair for the Blog-Social Media Committee this past fall. It is quite an honor as it is the first time a non-fellow has been named to chair a committee. My Co-Chair is Dr. Rochelle Mozlin who has been extremely successful in spearheading the development of the blog. We are now in the process of revamping the entire look of the Blog with Dr. Benjamin Winters and Dr. Jarrod Davies.
Social Visionaries is the name of the company I started after I began providing social media services for vision therapy doctors and other organizations. Doctors have turned to me as a therapist to provide social media services after experiencing traditional social media consultants often do not understand the nuances associated with developmental optometry and vision therapy.
A question many Vision Therapists are faced with is “why have I not heard of VT before now?” When a parent asks you, how do you answer?
Fortunately, I am hearing this comment much less than I did 16 or even 5 years ago. However, part of my job is to make sure the benefits of vision therapy are known world-wide, so when I do hear a parent or teacher say this, I ask them to look at the COVD website or blog, do a search for vision therapy on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to see what other parents are saying about the benefits of vision therapy. Things are changing fast thanks to active doctors, therapists, and patients who are making the most of the internet to share their stories.
In your experience, what can parents do to make sure Vision Therapy is a positive and successful experience for their child, and for themselves?
In my experience, vision therapy is the most successful when the entire family is involved. I have patients who excel in therapy because their parents and siblings are involved in doing the activities with them. As we all know, failure to follow through with homework can be the biggest obstacle to vision therapy success. In addition, our office also makes a point to connect with teachers and other professionals of our students so that we can explain the impacts their diagnosis has on their academic progress. This strategy has gone a long way to increase referrals and to insure that the connection has been made between the increases in academic performance with the completion of vision therapy.
As a Vision Therapist with an educational background, how do you feel parents can better prepare their children for a successful education?
Vision development actually begins before birth and is tied tightly to the vestibular system and gross motor development. I always urge new parents to provide ample opportunities for their babies to explore space and time with their bodies. Many babies today do not have enough of the “tummy time” necessary to move into proper crawling. Often they “army crawl” or move straight to walking. The act of crawling is an important step in developing cross-lateral movement and the convergence skills necessary for efficient eye-teaming. If a child has trouble controlling their large and fine motor muscles, chances are, they will also struggle with eye-teaming.
Beyond infancy, it is important to remember that children are still primarily learning through play and gross motor development. Screen time should be kept to a minimum and opportunities to use ones imagination is a crucial pre-reading skill. This can be a difficult concept for many parents today who feel pressured to provide entertainment for their children during all their waking hours. Being “bored” provides incentive for children to create their own worlds and develop the picture-making skills they will need when they become readers.
On a personal note, Developmental Optometry in many ways is like a big family, and you certainly are a great contributor to that feeling. In your opinion, how important is that sense of community to our overall success?
There is nothing more evident than how true this statement is than when you experience an annual meeting for the first time. I have been fortunate to attend 4 annual meetings and I will sum up my thoughts on this with a post I left on COVD’s Facebook group page, shortly after returning from the meeting in Florida last fall.
“I have to say that one of the best events I experience every time I go to COVD’s annual meeting occurs when I walk around with students, newer doctors and therapists and point out all the people they idolize for helping to shape the field we love. “That’s Leonard Press, there’s Lynn Hellerstein, there goes WC Maples with Bob and Linda Sanet.” I always say, “I can introduce you” and they often suggest that they would hate to bother the person. Eventually, I insist and they are warmly welcomed by their own idol into the family that is COVD!”
Thank you Robert!
Some Closing Thoughts – A great thanks to Ruth for taking the time for this interview. Her passion for Developmental Optometry and helping those around her is clear, and she definitely is a wonderful asset in our community. Clearly, Ruth is always willing to go the extra mile to ensure her patient’s success. Please join me in wishing Ruth, her doctor’s and staff, and her entire family the absolute best! 🙂