Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Peripheral vision in some people on the autism spectrum.


insight-sml.jpg I went for an updated eye test at the opticians today and had a most interesting discussion.

I have a sight problem – long sightedness and slight astigmatism and a visual perceptual issue – Scotopic Sensitivity. The first means I need glasses to see what’s close up. The second means that many kinds of lighting make it hard for me to read, concentrate, look at faces or cope in lit up places full of movement or crowds. I have a prescription lens for the first, tinted lenses for the second.

But more than this there are some mysteries.

I have an acute sense of color. I see rainbows in a piece of ice, some colors and lights have sent me into manic and euphoric episodes and giggle fits, I have a synethesia thing where color and touch are crossed.

I also have a 2-3 second delay in processing the MEANING of what I see, a kind of ‘functional visual agnosia‘ and am largely face blind (prosopagnosia).

I also have exceptional peripheral vision. At my lectures I’m known for looking about 40-80 degrees away from my audience members and describing and mirroring the gross and fine motor actions of those in my audience.

This usually takes audience members aback but I use it to demonstrate how many people with autism use peripheral vision to watch people and some even read or type this way.

It’s also a way that I find I can process the part in the context of the whole but when looking directly, especially without tinted lenses, I see in a far less cohesive way.

So I asked the optician if he knew why this was.

I got the most amazing reply.

I found out that my peripheral vision didn’t just surprise my audience but its very very rare in most people. This may shed some interesting light on visual perceptual differences in people on the autistic spectrum.

The optician explained that this degree of visual acuity with extreme peripheral vision is usually not possible because the majority of receptors called ‘cones’ are packed in the central part of the eye.

Interestingly, these cones are also what perceives color.

I asked him whether one might have so MANY of these that it makes one perceive color so much more than others might.

He felt that would be so.

I asked whether one might have so many of these ‘cones’ in the centre of the eye that one saw far more detail, even to the degree that it slowed down the processing of each detail in the context of the next, so that one effectively had a visual processing delay, a ‘functional visual agnosia’.

He agreed it was possible.

I asked if it were possible that by using the peripheral vision as I do, could I be reducing the use of an overabundance of these cones in the central part of the eye and, by doing this, experience something closer to what other people normally experience when looking directly? That, in other words, by possibly using fewer of my far more, even dysfunctionally too abundant cones, I manage to perceive things better as a whole and process it more quickly for visual meaning.

He agreed that theoretically this was indeed possible.

So if some people with autism who have avoid eye contact because faces appear meaningless fragmented, bunches of detail with no cohesion unless looking peripherally, what are we doing when we force them to ‘learn eye contact’?

If those who have this type better when using peripheral vision because they better see and recognise the letters on a WHOLE keyboard, what are we saying when we presume incompetence based on their use of peripheral vision?

If those who are so overwhelmed by dysfunctional visual perception due to seeing too much that they can’t process what they see and then struggle to learn language as sighted people do, what does this mean for presumptions of intelligence based on language aquisition?

What if Scotopic Sensitivity is merely a label and the real issue may be something more than a hypersensitivity to light frequencies? How much differently might we assist those on the autistic spectrum with visual perceptual differences beyond the effective use of tinted lenses?

I wrote in depth of these perceptual issues in Like Colour To The Blind, Autism An Inside Out Approach and The Jumbled Jigsaw. But perhaps this simple article will find its way to the researchers who can find out whether some of the visual perceptual issues of people with autism are not only associated with gut/immune/toxicity challenges and inherited light sensitivity but with an excess of receptors in the eye with very far reaching effects on interaction and development.

… Donna Williams, Dip Ed, BA Hons.

autistic consultant and author of 9 books in the field of autism.