People with Autism tend to use their visual systems inefficiently.

There is often difficulty in integrating their central and peripheral vision. Our central vision allows us to focus on the details of a particular object of interest, while our peripheral vision provides us with information that helps in movement, depth perception and other visual spatial skills.

Central visual processing, or central fixation, requires considerable effort, and so when asked to follow an object with their eyes, a person with autism will typically not fixate on the target centrally. They will often scan and look off to the side of the target or object. They will say they are looking at the target and can be somewhat ‘lost in space’ visually.

Just as someone can be tactually defensive, one can also be visually defensive. A person who is visually defensive will avoid visual contact with certain visual information/objects.

Autism & Hypersensitive Vision

Many people with autism have hypersensitive vision, and are overwhelmed by visual input that their brains cannot interpret, leading to a mismatch between their eyes and body. This disintegration of sensory input from their eyes and body causes issues in information processing which makes it difficult to gather and derive meaning from the visual system.

This results in the forced use of less efficient means of gaining information—touching, mouthing vs. the visual analysis skills to identify details.

Children on the autism spectrum typically display a number of unique visual behaviors:

  • Squints or closes an eye
  • Stares at certain objects or patterns
  • Looks through hands
  • Flaps hands, flicks objects in front of eyes
  • Looks at objects sideways or with quick glances
  • Shows sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Becomes confused at changes in flooring or on stairways
  • Pushes or rubs eyes
  • Has difficulty making eye contact
  • Widens eyes or squints when asked to look
  • Bumps into objects
  • Is fascinated by lights and shadows
  • Touches walls or tables while moving through space

Parents, teachers, and other professionals assume that most behaviors seen in autism spectrum disorders are simply a result of the disorder, not a by-product of vision problems. They are astonished to learn that poor eye contact, repetitive stimulatory behaviors, and practically every other behavioral symptom, could be caused by poor fixation, accommodation, or eye teaming abilities.

How Vision Therapy Can Help

The goal is an integrated balance between central and peripheral visual processing. If one is ‘lost in space’ peripherally, this leads to movement and visuospatial deficits where there is almost always difficulty in using central vision for obtaining information.

The goals of Vision Therapy are generally to help improve visual spatial organization and improve peripheral vision stability in order to have the awareness and availability to attend to details with an efficient vision system.


A Missing Piece to the Autism Puzzle:

College of Optometrists in Vision Development White Paper on Autism & Vision