Most people have heard of autism, but they may not be sure what it involves. After all, autism is a complex condition that is still being researched.
April is National Autism Awareness Month and it’s an opportunity to learn more about this developmental disability and how it can affect vision.
Autism spectrum disorder involves a developmental disability that may cause communication, behavioral, and social challenges. The extent of the difficulties can vary widely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that about 1 in 54 children have autism spectrum disorder.
The Autism Society reports that throughout the world, about one percent of the population has autism. In the United States, about 3.5 million people have autism spectrum disorder.
Symptoms may vary in severity and scope. But common symptoms of autism include the following:
- Trouble adapting to a new routine
- Repetitive actions
- Difficulty making eye contact
- Problems relating to other people
- Avoiding touch or physical affection
- Language delays
Possible eye problems
The exact cause of autism is not entirely known. So, the reason visual issues develop is also not completely clear. But what is apparent is that it is common for people with autism spectrum disorders to have visual problems. Various problems may include the following:
Problems with coordinating peripheral and central vision: Challenges with side or central vision may involve difficulty following an object with the eyes. For instance, instead of tracking an object with their eyes, a person with autism may look off to the side.
Eye movement disorders: Eye movement disorders, such as crossed eyes, are common with people with autism. Crossed eyes, also called strabismus, occur when the eyes point in different directions and are not correctly aligned. For example, one eye may point upward and one inward. Research in the Journal Strabismus found that the prevalence of strabismus is higher in people with autism spectrum disorder than in the general population.
Visual defensiveness: People with autism often have a hypersensitive reaction to stimuli. For instance, loud noise may be intolerable. The same thing may also go for vision. Some people are visually defensive, which means they are sensitive to visual input. It may involve having problems maintaining eye contact, leading to frequently moving the eyes and scanning visual information.
Spatial visual processing problems: Spatial processing issues may lead to repetitive visual behaviors, such as watching spinning objects or repeated blinking.
Treating visual issues is often part of an overall treatment plan for people with autism. The first step is completing a vision assessment to determine specific issues that should be addressed.
A vision assessment itself may present some challenges. Although people with autism have a wide range of special needs, some may find a visual assessment difficult to participant in. Usually, an ophthalmologist that is experienced in performing comprehensive exams and vision assessments with adults and children that are nonverbal or have special needs is the best option to conduct the tests.
After an exam, a treatment plan can be developed. A treatment plan may include gaining better eye coordination and improving visual information processing.
It can be challenging to treat visual issues related to autism spectrum disorder, but improvements can be made. Usually, vision therapy is recommended to address problems. Therapy may include activities to improve eye movement, including tracking.
Vision therapy for a person with autism often involves working closely with other healthcare professionals in different specialties. It is usually most effective if a multi-disciplinary and comprehensive approach is taken. For example, a vision therapist may work closely with occupational therapists or behavioral therapists.
Treating vision issues related to autism spectrum disorder can help improve all areas of a person’s life. For instance, improving issues related to an inability to make eye contact can improve social skills. When social skills improve, self-esteem may also rise.
Autism is a complex issue. But early intervention and treatment can help improve overall functioning and quality of life, and that includes vision issues.