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Nineteen per cent of people on the autism spectrum experience some form of sensory difference with their vision and, in some cases, this can cause them physical pain.

by Yvonne Smith
Autism in Practice Training and Development Officer

Autism and the seven senses: Sight

Is your sense of sight so developed that you can become fixated by a tiny detail you have spotted in your environment? Do you suffer from word blindness, seeing so many words on a page that you just ignore the information on it? Do flickering fluorescent lights distract you?

If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes”, chances are you have a visual difference which significantly impacts your life, just like 19% of autistic people.  Often, in similar circumstances as above, people on the autism spectrum find it difficult to voice their discomfort or easily rescue themselves from a difficult situation without the support and knowledge of their situation from others.

78% of people with autism have a high degree of sensory differences in one or many of their senses and one of the most prevalent is in their visual sense.

 Over responsive (Avoider)

A person who has an over responsiveness to stimuli affecting the visual sense finds it difficult to control their debilitating response to, for example, bright lights, cluttered walls or rooms and highly patterned or coloured clothing.

They may find it particularly difficult to use or maintain eye contact. What can appear rudeness in an individual who will not look you in the eye, may actually be a reluctance to participate in an action which can cause them great physical pain.  This is difficult to understand in those who do not have this condition but insisting on eye contact can have many negative outcomes.

  • The person may experience pain.
  • They may not be able to listen to what is being said (or use another sense), if they also have to maintain eye contact.
  • They may experience a rise in anxiety and stress whilst trying to comply. This can lead to a sensory overload and a fast breakdown of the person’s ability to cope in the situation.

Dyslexia may be present leaving words distorted or distorting through a visual difference.

There are a number of strategies to reduce the over responsiveness in the individual:

  • Modify lighting
  • Reduce glare
  • Ease up on eye contact
  • Remove them from crowded areas or disperse the crowd
  • Consider other sensory differences which may also be impacting or mask the condition eg; dyslexia, proprioception (body awareness) or vestibular (balance) differences


Under responsiveness (Seeker)

Someone who has an under responsiveness in their visual sense will seek experiences to boost the input they are receiving. They may be captivated by small details unnoticed by others or found staring into light sources or scattering objects about a room. Individual grains of sand can enthrall them for hours at a time. Pattern or colour may be fascinating and they may need brighter lighting or even night lights to help them sleep.

Sensory input and processing can stop a person in their tracks. We should allow time and space if a person goes into sensory overload as this could be part of processing through their sensors.

Autism affects every person differently and is exclusive to that individual person.  Similarly the reaction of everyone on the spectrum is personal and should be supported in a manner that benefits the individual in their own unique way.

Yvonne Smith works for Autism in Practice, part of north west charity Autism Together. Yvonne and her colleagues train public and private sector organisations in autism awareness.