Published On: Fri, Jan 17th, 2020

Zietchick Research Institute: How is vision affected by autism spectrum disorder

Autism is characterized by a clustering of difficulties in communication, social interactions and repetitive behaviors. Usually diagnosed in early childhood, it occurs in about 1 in 100 children throughout the world. About 3 times more boys than girls are affected.  Zietchick Research Institute explains that there are many variations in the severity of defining behaviors and associated symptoms amongst children with autism, which is why autism is referred to as a spectrum disorder. In recent years, the umbrella term, autism spectrum disorder or its acronym, ASD is used to refer to describe children with any subtype of autism. The causes of ASD are still not known but most likely involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A study, led by Dr. Movsas, Director of Zietchick Research Institute, showed that  children with autism spectrum disorder tend to have more symptoms if they were born either preterm (before 37 weeks of gestation) or post-term (after 42 weeks of gestation) compared to children with ASD who born of normal gestational age (between 38-42 weeks of gestation). This study was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2012. 

Image/ArtsyBee via pixabay

How does the vision of children with ASD differ from other children? Dr. Julie-Anne Little recently reviewed the medical studies on this topic and published a summary of her findings in Clinical Experimental Optometry in 2018. We, at Zietchick Research Institute, will highlight her findings. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often described as having a different perspective of the world. Children with ASD tend to have better skills in local visual processing at the expense of global visual processing.  To understand what this means, think of a picture of trees in a forest. A child with ASD may focus on an individual tree in the picture and may remember details about the tree, such as the number of its branches and patterns on its bark. These type of details may not be noticed by other children. That said, the child with ASD may have more difficulty in understanding the overall picture, such as noticing that the individual tree is situated within a forest. This is just an example to illustrate the concept of local versus global visual processing. There is another key difficulty that children with ASD have in regards to visual processing. They may have trouble in interpreting facial expressions. This affects their social skills. There are many books, apps and other resources available to work with your child to improve this. 

In regards to refractive errors (such as astigmatism, near sightedness, far-sightedness), children with ASD are more likely than other children of the same age to require glasses. However, with best-corrected vision, children with ASD can see just as sharply as other children.  In other words, when wearing glasses if needed, children with and without ASD, have the same ability to discern letters (or pictures) at a given distance. Though Dr. Little in her review paper reports some discrepancies between studies, it appears that children with ASD have higher rates of abnormal alignment of the eyes (known as strabismus) and more difficulty with certain types of eye movements such rapid movement of the eye between two points (known as saccades).  All in all, we, at Zietchick Research Institute, recommend that you discuss any concerns about your child’s vision with your eye care to ensure that your child with ASD receives any treatment, if necessary, to optimize their eye development. 

Author: James Daniel

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