What is ASD?

According to the organization Autism Speaks, “Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today.”

These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. They include autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger Syndrome. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances.

Vision problems are common with autism and many times overlooked. Characteristic autistic behaviors, such as poor eye contact, looking though or beyond objects, extreme aversion to light, unusual reaction to sight, lack of reciprocal play, inordinate fear of heights or lack of appropriate fear of heights and stimming, could all be visual symptoms.

Visual problems are common with those that have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Having a visual evaluation by a developmental optometrist may lead to treatment that can have a ripple effect on sensory development and integration.

Symptoms of ASD

How is Autism Identified?

According to authorities, early identification and intervention for Autism gives the best opportunity to help guide a child’s development. Developmental optometry provides a unique window into early visual development.

What Are the Visual Factors of ASD?

Many children on the Autistic Spectrum have difficulty maintaining eye contact. While there are different theories as to why this is so, one underlying reason is difficulty in integration central visual processing with peripheral visual processing. This is one reason why individuals with ASD function with sideways glances. There are often social issues involved, and the ability to read faces requires complicated linkages in visual portions of the brain.

Do Persons with ASD Always Have Visual Problems?

Some individuals with ASD have unique visual strengths, but many have problems with various aspects of visual processing. Temple Grandin, one of the most famous individuals with ASD, wrote: “If visual processing problems are suspected, the child should see a developmental optometrist. This is a special eye doctor who can do therapy and exercises to help the processing problems that are inside the brain. In many of these children, the eye itself is normal but faulty wiring in the brain is causing the problem.”

Our Treatment of ASD

Can Vision Therapy Help Children With ASD?

Potentially, yes. It is important to note that developmental optometrists are the authorities on this subject. A great article was written about this by Audrey Adams, the parent of an autistic child. There is no single panacea or magic bullet for children with ASD. No one therapy will help all children with ASD, but visual processing is one part of an overall sensory approach that must be considered. Below is an excerpt from Audrey’s article.

“If a child with autism/PDD is unable to read, is uncooperative with close tasks, has illegible handwriting, or is disruptive in class, too often we assume these are “autistic” behaviors that must be modified behaviorally or taught with numerous repetitions. When these same characteristics are present in non-disabled children, most primary grade teachers would ask if the child has had a complete visual examination. My son’s first, second, and third grade teacher all did and I regrettably ignored them until the fourth grade. Though he read and was disruptive, these regular education teachers all saw signs of possible vision problems: eye contact avoidance, blackboard visual avoidance, poor and uneven handwriting, inability to listen and look simultaneously, over use of peripheral vision, a stiff-legged walk and poking at the sides of his eyes.”

To read this article in its entirety, visit our Vision Help Website.

Why Isn’t Vision Part of Early Intervention Services?

Most patients who come to us have already had contact with EI, or early intervention services. These consist of occupational therapy (OT), physical therapy (PT), and speech-language pathology (SLP) who all agree that visual processing is a crucial area of development that to date has been too often overlooked.

Where Can I Learn More About Vision and ASD?

Dr. Melvin Kaplan has written an excellent book on vision and ASD, Seeing Through New Eyes.
Patty Lemer is the editor a valuable book that includes much information about vision and ASD, Envisioning a Bright Future.