Autism and Visual Sensory Overload
The world can be a chaotic and overwhelming place for individuals on the autism spectrum. They can be sensitive to their environments and have unusually delicate sensory systems (i.e., sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) that can be easily overloaded. Visual sensory overload is caused by a variety of perceptual distortions and hypersensitivity to visual stimuli, including bright lights and patterns. When the visual environment is distorted, fragmented, and chaotic, it can cause distress, discomfort, and confusion. Some behaviors commonly associated with ASD, such as avoiding eye contact and stimming are attempts to calm this distorted and chaotic visual world.
How Many Are Affected?
As many as 80% of individuals with autism report distorted perception, according to a study conducted by the Geneva Centre for Autism in Toronto, Canada. The most commonly reported problems were difficulties with depth perception; distorted perception of size, shape, and motion; seeing only small details and not the whole; and visual overstimulation.
What Does the World Look Like?
Well-known adults on the autism spectrum such as Temple Grandin and Donna Williams have described what the world can look like for someone with autism who experiences visual-perceptual processing difficulties. In her book, Nobody Nowhere, Donna Williams says, “Colors and things and people would fly, doors would get kicked in and sometimes faces would, too. But it was never whole people, only their pieces.” This is a glimpse into the often fragmented and frightening world in which many with ASD live. In 2021, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology stated, “Participants described a range of visual hypersensitivities, including to light, motion, patterns and particular colors, which contributed to distraction and were frequently part of a wider multisensory issue. Such experiences had significant negative impacts on personal well-being and daily life with participants describing fatigue, stress and hindrances on day-to-day activities (e.g., travel and social activities).”
What Causes the Problem?
In the visual cortex of the brain, information about shape, movement, and color is determined by magnocellular, parvocellular, and koniocellular neurons in the lateral geniculate nucleus. This information is then sent to the primary visual cortex. Neuroimaging studies show that many of the perceptual difficulties experienced are associated with hyperactivity in the visual cortex. There is a lack of inhibition in the orientation columns in the visual cortex, and this lack of inhibition causes excitation to spread throughout the visual system resulting in difficulty in processing visual information. Filtering visual stimuli through colored filters neutralizes this overactivity in the visual cortex and other areas of the brain, reducing visual overload and correcting perceptual distortions.
How Does Color Help?
Neuroimaging studies show that many of the perceptual difficulties associated with visual sensory overload are a result of hyperactivity in the visual cortex. Both ISRN Neurology (2012) and Autism Science Digest: The Journal of AutismOne (2012) published articles discussing the positive benefits of color (in either the form of colored lenses or colored overlays) to improve the difficulties associated with perceptual processing difficulties many individuals with autism experience. For individuals with autism, this often means transforming a fragmented environment into a cohesive whole. For some, it can take once distorted and scary faces and make them clear, cohesive, and friendly. This change in the way faces look can have a dramatic impact on the individual with autism’s willingness to make eye contact and also can improve their ability to recognize emotions, according to studies recently published in Vision Research (2020) and Autism Research (2015). And, because behaviors such as stimming are often performed in an effort to create calm in a chaotic environment, when the visual environment calms down, these behaviors can calm down as well. In her book, Like Color to the Blind, Donna Williams describes the difference that colored lenses made in how her world looked, “Before I saw cracked children, cracked steps, print and writing…However, the person, I did not see whole. I saw hair, I saw, eyes, nose, mouth, child…not a face. Now I see the whole face, the whole person…I could now perceive for the first time as a whole…I finally could do more than struggle to image an un-fragmented whole.”
Individuals with autism who also suffer from perceptual processing difficulties that may be helped by colored lenses may have difficulties with any of the following:
1) Sensory Overload caused by bright lights, fluorescent lights, and sunlight. Lighting is stressful; and this results in behaviors to filter out the light, poor eye contact, and physical symptoms such as anxiety or headaches.
2) Environmental Distortions where the individual sees the world in a distorted fashion. Objects are blurry, moving, changing, and can disappear. People may look frightening, stairs may look like a slide without steps, and walls and floors may swing and sway. Misperceptions can cause difficulties with sustained attention, eye contact, gross and small motor coordination, ability to interpret facial expressions, and poor social skills.
3) Print Distortions make learning or reading difficult. The individual may have good or even advanced reading skills but has trouble with reading comprehension or experiences strain and fatigue when reading or doing other activities. Tracking or building breaks into reading may be a problem.
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