Autism Awareness: The Visual Connection

April is Autism Awareness Month, so we thought it would be the perfect time to talk about how vision problems can contribute to the challenges presented by Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Typically, people assume that poor eye contact is part of Autism. While it is definitely a sign, it is often also a correctable vision problem. Children on the spectrum often have many types of visual deficits that need to be addressed. In fact, eye turns (strabismus) are far more common in children with Autism.
Children usually have no idea how they are supposed to see and rarely verbalize how their world looks. Typically, they show us they have a vision problem with their behavior.

Sometimes eye turn (strabismus) surgery can result in the patient having unstable or double vision. This can be very difficult for kids to deal with in general. When a child is on the Autism Spectrum, it can be even harder.
To give you a better idea of what can happen after eye surgery, we thought you might like to hear what an adult has to say about what her vision was like after 3 eye turn (strabismus) surgeries, now that she understands how the eyes are supposed to work.

Dr. Sue Barry is a Neuro-Biologist and professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and author of the book, Fixing My Gaze which she wrote as a result of her experiences with her vision. In her book, Dr Barry explains what her vision was like as a child after strabismus surgery:
“Even though my eyes appeared straight, I still didn’t use them normally.” “I had 20/20 eyesight with both eyes and no problem passing a standard school vision screening. Yet, my vision was abnormal because I did not use my two eyes together.” “I dreaded going to grade school. … when I looked down at the letters on the page, they didn’t stay in one place. This problem grew worse as the print got smaller….”

In grade school her performance on standardized tests was so poor the principal told her mother that she needed to be in special education. Her mother refused to believe this and worked really hard to help her daughter succeed. Unfortunately, Dr. Barry did not find out about vision therapy until she was an adult.

Imagine what it would be like for a child who wasn’t able to verbalize what their world looked like? The only way a parent would be able to determine if there might be a correctable vision problem contributing to the child’s challenges is by their behavior; following below is a list of signs.

Visual Symptoms Highly Associated with ASD
* Gaze aversion
* Turning head, looking out of corner of eye
* Being attracted to shiny surfaces or mirrors
* Prolonged fixating on light patterns, windows or blinds
* Hyperfixating on one object while ignoring other objects in the room
* Always prefers/avoids a particular color
* Shows distorted body postures or orientation including arching back, hyperextension of neck
* Toe walking
* Touches all surfaces (walls, furniture, etc) when in an unfamiliar environment
* Anxiety or avoidance associated with fast moving objects or animals
* Spinning objects close to face
* Intense light sensitivity
* Poor attention to one’s surroundings as well as a lack of interest in one’s environment
* Preference for looking at objects (or parts of objects) rather than people

Visual Symptoms Included in the Screening/Diagnosis of ASD
* Poor eye contact
* Excessively lines up toys or other objects
* Fidgets with objects repetitively
* Maintains interest in spinning objects for periods greater than a couple of minutes
* Does not follow where someone else is looking
* Walks on tiptoe
* Flicking fingers or hands near face, “stimming”
* Stares at nothing with no apparent purpose
* Excessive interest limited to a single toy

We hope you found this issue of our e-newsletter helpful. Please feel free to share this with family and friends.

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