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Vision and Autism

Autism is a developmental disability characterized by social, learning and communication challenges, and atypical repetitive behaviors, activities, and interests. Autism comes in many shapes and sizes, and its prevalence in the developing world has been steadily increasing. Many of the behavioral characteristics of those falling within the autism spectrum involve the visual system. Poor eye contact, staring at lights or spinning objects, side viewing and general difficulties attending are often symptoms of visual dysfunction. Recent studies also demonstrate that patients on the spectrum are more predisposed to general optometric pathology, including refractive error, eye turn (strabismus), and lazy eye (amblyopia).

The visual system is crucial for navigating our world, necessary for accomplishing everyday activities, and a key to learning and growing.  Vision is a complex process and is integrated with various other systems throughout the brain. It is connected to speech & language areas, movement & proprioceptive centers, and it directs how we move and communicate in the world. If the eyes are not working properly, many different aspects of life are affected.


Visual skills necessary for learning include:

  • Aiming and moving the eyes (fixations, pursuits, saccades, and vergence)
  • Focusing, getting and keeping objects clear (accommodation)
  • Using the eyes as a team (binocularity/depth perception)
  • Understanding what is seen (visual perception and processing)
  • Coordinating the eyes with the body (visual-motor integration)
  • Using vision to communicate (visualization / auditory visual integration)


Because vision is so important for understanding and interacting with the world, it is very important to address, especially with patients on the autism spectrum. A comprehensive vision examination with a developmental optometrist can identify visual skill level and how it matches the demands of the individual. If a vision problem is found, lenses, prisms and vision therapy are effective tools for improving vision as well as other skills related to vision such as communication and motor skills, expanding possibility and improving the quality of life of those affected.

The interplay between vision and autism is a topic that sometimes goes unnoticed, but it is a very important relationship that can significantly improve the lives of patients on the autism spectrum.