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Autism and Vision

April 2nd was World Autism Awareness Day. Did you know....
  • 1 in 68 children are currently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
  • The prevalence of ASD has increased over 100% in the last 10 years.
  • Autism is now the fastest growing and most commonly diagnosed neurological disorder in Canada. 
Autism is a neurobiological disorder that is described as a behavioural syndrome where individuals have difficulty processing and responding to information from their senses and with communication and social interaction. Vision, our dominant sense, is a neurological process and is therefore directly effected in individuals with autism. Because there is such a wide array of symptoms associated with this disorder, the connection between autism and the visual system is often overlooked, or signs of visual dysfunction are attributed to autistic behaviours. Since vision is so much more than just sight (acuity), visual dysfunction can affect how an individual thinks, speaks, listens and moves. In the book, Seeing Through New Eyes, Dr. Melvin Kaplan writes, "...Vision involves the brain as well as the eyes, and many disabled children suffer from neurological problems that prevent them from correctly perceiving what the eyes see. These perceptual deficits can translate into impaired social skills, poor language skills, motor problems, and a host of other severe symptoms - even in children with 20/20 eyesight." 
Visual symptoms of autism may include lack of eye contact, staring at light or spinning objects, fleeting peripheral glances, side viewing and difficulty attending visually. However, the signs of these vision problems can often be masked by the behaviours that autistic individuals use to cope with the sensory overload around them. 
It has been noted that autistic individuals have difficulty coordinating their ambient visual processes with their focal visual processes. Focal vision is responsible for central vision and allows us to identify objects when we look straight at them - this is helping to identify "What is it?". Ambient vision is responsible for peripheral vision; it involves the entire field of vision, allows us to locate objects in space and answers the question, "Where is it?". Once central focus is gained, an autistic individual may ignore visual information from their periphery, and thus remain fixated on a particular task for long periods; this is sometimes referred to as tunneling. Tunneling prevents an individual from taking in large amounts of information at once and thus causes a slowed response time to new stimuli.
The lack of coordination of the ambient and focal visual processes leads to lack of efficiency in visual processing. When asked to track an object, an autistic individual will usually not look directly at it, but instead look off to the side of the object or try to track the object by touching it, thus getting kinesthetic feedback from touch to know where to look. 
Individuals with autism often present with hypersensitive vision - they are visually defensive. They may avoid eye contact, have difficulty with visually "holding still" and constantly scan visual information in an attempt to gain meaning. Difficulty maintaining visual attention is common. These symptoms often translate into academic struggles with reading, writing and copying from the board. 
A comprehensive vision examination by a behavioural optometrist can help determine if there is an underlying visual component to the autistic behaviours. The exam varies depending on the patient's developmental, emotional and physical level and will assess things such as acuity, tracking, fixation, depth perception, eye teaming, eye focusing and visual field. In most cases the behavioural optometrist will also observe for any adaptations and compensations while the patient is sitting, standing and walking with and without particular lenses or prisms in front of the eyes. The purpose of introducing these lenses and/or prisms to an autistic individual is to alter their perception and allow them to reorganize their visual space, thus enabling more efficient and effective visual processes. 
Vision therapy may be suggested for an autistic individual to stimulate visual arousal, eye movements and the focal visual system. Using lenses, prisms and vision therapy, the goals of treatment often include: gaining efficient eye teaming and visual information processing, helping the patient organize their visual space and  gain peripheral field stability in order to better attend to and appreciate central vision. 
Individuals with autism are usually involved with a multidisciplinary team of professionals including occupational therapists and speech pathologists. Vision therapy is another key element in this treatment plan since a child who can see the world clearly has a greater chance of benefiting from other therapies. 
Please contact HVTC if you have, or know, a child with autism. A comprehensive eye examination by a behavioural optometrist is an important step to help your child experience his/her world in a whole new way. 
👇 See what we've been up to  lately! 👇
March 22-26 - HVTC was host to 19 optometrists and vision therapists and lecturer Dr. Paul Harris for the 5-day VT course on Learning Related Vision Problems. Attendees were taught all of the necessary testing and therapy activities to successfully diagnose and treat patients with learning related visual problems as well as patients with developmental difficulties. What a great and talented group of individuals!
April 1-2 - 22 vision therapists gathered at HVTC to take part in the Practical Vision Therapy Accredited Program (PVTAP). This program, run through Canadian Optometrists in Vision Therapy & Rehabilitation (COVT&R), ensures that optometrists and therapists provide gold-standard office-based vision therapy to their patients. Therapists were taught relevant theory and had lots of hands-on experience learning and practicing many different therapy techniques. It is so exciting to watch vision therapy grow in Canada - great job everyone! 
Hoping you all had a lovely Easter weekend with family and loved ones!
Copyright © 2017 Halton Vision Therapy Center, All rights reserved.

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