Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Visual perceptual disorders as a cause of autism


Donna Williams aged 12 Visual perceptual disorders such as simultagnosia among others can result from pre or post natal brain injury including that caused by hypoxic ischemia… essentially starvation of oxygen to the brain, which has many different potential causes. Only around 25% of children who have had hypoxic ischemic brain injury have an abnormal MRI and much of the damage is overcome in the following 2 years, presenting as a picture of developmental delay with different degrees of residual disability.

As a person who grew up with inability to simultaneously process my visual world, leaving me seeing everything bit by bit, context blind, face blind, often also semi object blind, I feel visual perceptual disorders played a significant role in my learning, development and inability to also gain receptive language processing or functional speech until late childhood. But what weight might visual perceptual disorders alone play in the development of someone’s autism?

A seven year old child who had their right occipital lobe removed due to cancer developed a range of visual agnosias and was diagnosed with autism, leading to the suggestion that visual perceptual disorders may play a large part indeed for some people.

But for as long as stereotypes persist that ‘autistics think in pictures’ or are ‘primarily visual thinkers’ (originated by Temple Grandin who Oliver Sachs recently found did not have any visual perceptual disorders) then those for whom significant meaning blindness greatly contributed to THEIR autism will never be understood, and to often wrongly presumed ‘retarded’ or ‘low functioning’. Those of us who grew up with significant visual perceptual disorders impacting on abilities such as internal mentalising and capacity to visualise from receptive language cannot be summed up by those who have known cohesive visual meaning all their lives.

Temple wrote in Emergence (before it was re published as Thinking In Pictures) that when she was 3 years old she sat as a passenger in the car with her mother and as the mother told a story Temple could fluently visualise it from her mother’s words. Temple had verbal dyspraxia and gained functional speech by 4 years old. I acquired the ability to understand whole sentences by age 9-10 and moved from echolalia to functional speech around age 9-11. The inability to put cohesive meaning to my visual world had everything to do with learning the one-word-one-meaning system of speech necessary to comprehend it and produce novel sentences.

(thanks to Paul Isaacs for the article on occipital lobectomy)

Donna Williams, BA Hons, Dip Ed.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.

I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of this country throughout Australia, and their connection to land and community.