How Does Visual Processing Impact Someone on the Autism Spectrum?

Visual Processing Differences in Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition, which means that some degree of abnormal brain development occurs very early in life. Currently, approximately 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with ASD. Although there is not a known single cause, genetics likely plays a big role.

ASD is a complex condition, and like other brain disorders, can range from mild to severe. The symptoms include:

  • Developmental delays, including language and motor coordination
  • Deficits in communication and social interactions
  • Patterns of behavior that are repetitive, restricted, and fixated
  • Learning disabilities
  • Sensory integration problems

Because their brains are wired differently, people with ASD often have a more difficult time processing information from their senses and can become easily overwhelmed because of this. Poor eye contact is one of the familiar visual issues people on the spectrum usually have, but did you know there are a number of other ways visual processing is different in ASD?

Poor eye contact is one of the familiar visual issues people on the spectrum usually have, but did you know there are a number of other ways visual processing is different in ASD? Click To Tweet

6 Visual Processing Differences in ASD

1. Visual Defensiveness

Though some people with ASD may have low sensitivity to visual stimulation, many are actually hypersensitive to it. This is known as visual defensiveness. In other words, the acuity of their vision can be overwhelming and confusing, so they need to turn away from whatever it is that’s overstimulating to them.

It’s as though the brain signals that normally allow us to dampen down stimuli do not work in this same way in ASD. Since this is a developmental disorder and the integration of vision with other senses is impaired, it can affect other areas of development such as cognitive function, motor skills, and speech and language.

2. A Strength in Seeing Details

There are some theories regarding the abnormal visual processing in ASD, but one of the more common ones is known as “weak central coherence.” This basically refers to the preference for those with ASD to focus on details, rather than the big picture. They see the trees, not the forest. If you have a child on the autism spectrum or know someone who is, it’s likely you have observed them with focused attention on singular aspects of toys, games or pictures, rather than engaged with the whole thing.

Interestingly, a number of research studies have found that many people with ASD are able to see details more clearly and actually have enhanced non-social perception compared to those not on the spectrum. This of course can be a blessing and a curse. Their perception acuity is also what lets them notice when things are out of place, which can cause them to become upset.

3. Sensitivity to Color

It’s not unusual for those on the autism spectrum to only like certain colors and intentionally try to avoid others. This could even include not wanting to eat foods of a particular color or only play with toys in a favored one.

4. Sensitivity to Light

Children and adults with ASD may have a preference for regular incandescent light (i.e., table lamps) rather than fluorescent light. Some research suggests that those with ASD can actually observe the flickering of fluorescent bulbs—something that’s nearly imperceptible to the rest of us. It’s understandable how this kind of visual overwhelm could be very distressing!

5. Visuo-spatial Processing

This term refers to knowing where we are relative to the space around us. Because of the sensory integration differences in ASD, they can have a harder time with visuo-spatial processing which may account in part for clumsiness or bumping into things.

You may notice children or adults on the spectrum doing things that engage some of their other senses. This can be soothing and help them better understand where their body is relative to their surroundings—or other people. Such behaviors may include:

  • Hand-flapping
  • Staring at a ceiling fan while it spins
  • Moving fingers in front of their eyes or peering through their fingers
  • Lining up objects
  • Flicking lights on and off
  • Blinking repetitively

6. Problems with Peripheral Vision

Since most people with ASD are more adept at focusing on objects of interest (called central processing), their peripheral vision may not be as well developed. What many of us think of as “seeing something out of the corner of our eyes,” may actually be frightening to someone with autism.

As with all developmental disorders, the sooner autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed and treatment begins, the better outcome. There are many therapies and support tools available to help those with ASD and their families manage symptoms and behaviors.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. If you would like to learn more about how we can help with Autism Spectrum Disorder, you can speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples.

14 Comments

  1. 1 in 54 now .(:

    Comment by D.N — April 8, 2021 @ 10:23 AM

  2. Thank you for this explanation, Jed! As a mother with a child (now adult) somewhere on the spectrum this helped clarify some behaviors in a way that wasn’t so clearly explained to us before.

    Comment by Michelle Fritsch — April 12, 2021 @ 4:02 AM

  3. Although entitling your article to “autism spectrum disorder” you lose the relevancy of brain behavior that affects many more than just autism. Once one places a label the OC of all of us will be to nicely organize and fit certain individuals within that label. Sometimes it is worn like a badge of honor, and other times as a disorder and disease of sorts… both are misleading. The brain is only now beginning to be unlocked for the wonders it contains, and I hope and pray that man is never released the ability to fully assess it with their limited and speculative knowledge. I am encouraged by the factual reality of the SPEC IMAGING of Amen Clinics for it provides observation for something we have never seen… but to jump to conclusions with knowledge beyond our minute understanding would be like the story of 4 blind people touching a different part of an elephant, and from each perspective drawing a conclusion. One sees the folly. Thus, the different visual perception is not limited to autism, (for those who use labels) it is significant for many who are brain injured. Out of brain injury, one can expect possible healing in developmental stages. Case in point, the first color recognized in development after white and black are separated to distinguish a difference, is red. Thus, in a developing … and healing brain, one may observe a drawing to a certain color as was certainly observed in our grandson. He would search through a container of blocks in search of the ones who had a red sided face, and play with the block fascinated by a color, the first color a developing brain begins to see – red. His brain injuries and atrophied brains was making slow progress and searching out new pathways, but eventually… purple, blue, green… became a part of his world. We know that some people remain color blind, but that is not autism, it is just their brain cannot distinguish a color.
    I cannot agree more wholeheartedly with the article, and I am always eager to read the new observations of the work at Amen Clinic, for they are seeing into the CPU of who we are with all its intricacies. However, is there not a person on earth without a strength or weakness that finds its origin within the brain. Is it necessary to call differences a disorder. Is it not also observed without any imaging that the genius of these same individuals we label throughout history are those who hear music and mimic it without a flaw, who take color and lines to apply on a canvas that appears we can step inside its 3-dimensional appearance, or work with numbers like a calculator before the dawn of technology… could it be these so called “disorders & diseases” are the very reason, man has been able to unlock the mysteries of the brain that is so much more capable than the limitations we call “normal.” I applaud the many who do not listen or entertain the idea that the differences of an individual does not have to be neatly organized in a box wrapped up with a label, topped with a bow… to say, “this is the only thing you will get in this box… we wrapped it as pretty as we can, and dressed it up with a bow, enjoy your gift that lives within the limitations of this box.” No, we love the stories of determined parents that took that gift home, removed that label, and threw that label away in order to allow their son and their daughter to excel beyond the boundaries of labels, disorders, diseases, so bad, too sad… no their are special parents who within the strengths of their child helped them discover new pathways around their injuries… that for some landed upon genius for which we could only hope to experience. Maybe we have been looking at this all wrong. Life circumstances within all of humanity will experience injury to the brain… and to that injury, it will seek to heal itself in the same way scrape on our skin sends white bloods cells to protect, a scab to further protect… and then a miracle happens under the scab that one sees once the scab falls off. Some brain injuries will heal in such a way… while others may experience an atrophy or totally damaged part of the brain that will never develop back… but it is the backup plan that God instilled within our humanity that has all the scientists and medical world baffled. Within that backup plan, and within the faith of some to believe and fortitude to step into the storm of life, they discover a different pathway and a new way to walk life. We the “normal” have not really caught up with such, so we try to squeeze them to fit our finite existence we seem to understand with our controls… and we call them the abnormal, the diseased, the disorders that we define… but then nonetheless, refuse to be defined and be put in a box by man’s labels.
    Thank you Amen Clinic for all your incredible work… I hope you do not find yourselves being forced into becoming another box put on the shelf of science and medicine… labeled as though that deems understanding. Perhaps the disclosure of your wonderful observations and the incredible ability of our brain to exist with new pathways beyond limits of our controlled knowledge is being discovered, and it is within the damaged goods… that these miracles exist.

    Comment by Michelle D Richeson — April 12, 2021 @ 4:23 AM

  4. As somebody with Aspergers who is a big picture thinker, I always thought big picture thinking was far more common in people with ASD than detail-oriented thinking. What’s interesting is that I can’t commit to two hobbies at once though. I don’t know if this is a trait of my personality type or just the autism itself. I also have to be emotionally invested in a hobby in order to be successful at it. My personality type is INTJ which is somewhat common in autism so in theory, big picture thinking should be somewhat common as well.

    Comment by Emily — April 12, 2021 @ 7:47 AM

  5. People in the autism community find the term “Autism Awareness Month” to be disrespectful to them. They feel that awareness isn’t enough. They prefer “Autism Acceptance Month”.

    Comment by Yvonne Loparo — April 12, 2021 @ 8:37 AM

  6. I’m wondering if having video with Closed Captioning (subtitles) is helpful to people with ASD or distracting/overwhelming? Does it help them learn or impede learning?

    Comment by Ellen Cohen — April 12, 2021 @ 9:35 AM

  7. Is it a problem of not being able to focus when they’re supposed to watch how to do something?

    Comment by Dee Schwartz — April 12, 2021 @ 11:55 AM

  8. Very interesting to see what develops in ASD. Special Ed. teacher.\retired.

    Comment by margaret price — April 12, 2021 @ 12:10 PM

  9. It would be helpful to mention in your article ways that we can help with the symptoms of visual processing issues like the Irlen Method, behavioural optometry, occupational therapy etc.

    Comment by Sarah Bycroft — April 12, 2021 @ 12:36 PM

  10. Very interesting and productive. Thank you, Nanci

    Comment by Nanci Stewart — April 12, 2021 @ 2:43 PM

  11. Good ideas. What about elders with autism/asperger’s and vision loss? Few think of older people on the spectrum but we are here!!

    Comment by Joy — April 12, 2021 @ 3:31 PM

  12. My forty year old daughter was just diagnosed with autism. The symptoms list you have at the beginning are not present in all who have autism. Also, many females go undiagnosed because they can present differently. We are starting a new journey in our family and are eager to learn.

    Comment by Jacqueline Cloward — April 12, 2021 @ 5:04 PM

  13. We are not offended by the phrase “Autism Awareness”. Autism “acceptance” can be misconstrued. I accept my son has ASD. I do not accept that there is nothing I/we can do to help him have the most productive, independent life possible.

    Comment by Lisa — April 13, 2021 @ 6:31 PM

  14. So my mom thought I might be autistic when I was very young. I do have a lot of trouble being friends, and I find myself looking down a lot, and hunching over. I can control it, if I am concentrating. So the ‘problem’was I am extremely nearsighted, no one knew this because I am also intelligent. I first talked at age 8months, I could read at age 2, but I didn’t walk untill 18mo. There are some observations here, for example, my mother could calculate in her head even after a brain injury, and dementia. She also could pronounce words in other languages, she proofread 2 books a night for the publishing house she worked for. My youngest brother could draw in 3 dimensions at age 4,thats when I first noticed it. He also surpassed me on piano, after 6mo of lessons, which I took for 8yrs. As for myself, I am hypersensitive to my periferal vision, but I thought it’s because I wear glasses. Also I am very sensitive to color, I see more colors or shades of color than other people, I have tested this on friends. I don’t have a favorite color, but colors do influence me emotionally, I thought this was normal, and we’ll documented. I also used to be able to hyper focus my vision to see very tiny things, I have lost this ability with age, as I am now65.Also that comment about fluorescent lights, I thought everyone could see that flickering, an wondered how people could stand it, also the buzzing sound they make. I also can’t stand to be tickled, I hate music being too loud (I love music) I have no problems with communication, but I constantly make simple math mistakes. Opposite of my mom. I can barely draw in perspective, as much as I have wanted to, an tried too. I am a recluse, but l’m married, It doesn’t bother me to be alone for extended periods of time. I would like to have close friends, but I don’t know how to go about it. I realize this is not a good health behavior either. So am I to be categorized, do I have an explanation? I have an opinion, just as you have found ADD is not one thing, neither is autism, and I don’t consider my mind to be a disability ,I’m just different. Any advice on making friends?

    Comment by Jolianne Horn — April 22, 2021 @ 9:04 AM

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