Autism and Sight
There have been several recently published articles on autism with some dysfunctions being found at a higher rate than in the neurotypical population. One study, published in January 2017, found consistently that children with autism reacted slower to changes in light (pupillary light reflex). The pupillary light reflex was slower when lighting changed and, in darkness, the pupil measured smaller than controls. (1)
A second study, published in 2018, found a higher rate of accommodative problems (17.4% for ASD, vs 4.9% control) for children diagnosed with autism. While there was no substantial difference in the rate of refractive error, this higher rate of accommodative problems makes a complete eye exam with assessment of near vision acuity more important.(2)
A review of evidence found several contradictory studies concerning the prevalence of eye movement defects associated with autism, though most agree that saccades inaccuracy, as well as difficulties in tracking, are common in ASD. These movement problems, coupled with other fine and gross motor deficits found in autism suggests a cerebellar problem. (3)
Autism and Vision
Difficulties with the integration of visual information are found in several studies. All of these studies point to a lack of integration between the parvocellular and magnocellular tract and reduced communication between these tracts. (3)
Studies found differences in VEPs (visually evoked potentials) studies in the activity of the magnocellular tract compared to neurotypical children. The difference was, most notably, a slower recovery period for the magnocellular tract and therefore, decreased integration of the information. Functionally, this may help explain the visual-spatial problems frequently seen in ASD diagnosed children. (4, 5)
Lateral gazing’ behavior was also found in some children with ASD as they attempted to use peripheral vision to reduced central visual pathway input. (3) This behavior is also suggestive of magnocellular tract deficits.
A common thread through many of these studies is a decreased integration of visual information and motor pathways and the cerebellum. (6) This lack of integration could help explain the ocular motor and saccade problems, as well as increased incidence of gait problems and toe walking (7,8) and visual motor integration problems found in children with ASD. A study also showed that people with ASD do not make good use of visual information to correct posture (9). Addressing this lack of integration could be helpful making functional progress with children on the spectrum.
A complete binocular vision exam with cycloplegic dilation is very important for every child with autism (and neurotypical children too) given the potential for a higher rate of accommodative and ocular motor problems and fine motor, reading and handwriting problems.
Given the evidence of integration problems, activities for children with ASD should be “top-down” type activities that require the integration of movement and vision.
Much of this research is very recent and found some changes from previous research. Many of the studies suggested these differences in results were related to redefining autism with the release of DSM-5 eliminating Aspergers and pervasive developmental disorder and grouping these into the current terminology of autism spectrum disorder. The inclusion of these subjects in studies has helped improve the understanding of vision and autism. Many of the studies also sited small samples as potential limitations.
(1)Anketell, P. M., Saunders, K. J., Gallagher, S. M., Bailey, C., & Little, J. A. (2018, March). Accommodative Function in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29424829
(2)DiCriscio, A. S., & Troiani, V. (2017, July 25). Pupil adaptation corresponds to quantitative measures of autism traits in children. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28743966
(3)Bakroon, A., & Lakshminarayanan, V. (2016, July). Visual function in autism spectrum disorders: a critical review. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27161596
(4)Jackson, B. L., Blackwood, E. M., Blum, J., Carruthers, S. P., Nemorin, S., Pryor, B. A., . . . Crewther, D. P. (2013, June 18). Magno- and Parvocellular Contrast Responses in Varying Degrees of Autistic Trait. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23824955
(5)Sutherland, A., & Crewther, D. P. (2010, July). Magnocellular visual evoked potential delay with high autism spectrum quotient yields a neural mechanism for altered perception. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20513659
(6)Miller, M., Chukoskie, L., Zinni, M., Townsend, J., & Trauner, D. (2014, August 01). Dyspraxia, motor function and visual-motor integration in autism. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24742861
(7)Accardo, P. J., & Barrow, W. (2015, April). Toe walking in autism: further observations. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24563477
(8)Kindregan, D., Gallagher, L., & Gormley, J. (n.d.). Gait deviations in children with autism spectrum disorders: a review. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25922766
(9)Morris, S. L., Foster, C. J., Parsons, R., Falkmer, M., Falkmer, T., & Rosalie, S. M. (2015, October 29). Differences in the use of vision and proprioception for postural control in autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26314635