Visual Impairment And Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Autism and Visual Impairment

When I began to do research on visual impairments and education, one of the topics that seemed to jump to my attention is one that I had never before heard of: the connection between blindness and a diagnosis of Autism. I searched for articles and found a lot of contradictory information. I found articles that suggested that blindness in a child could produce autistic-like symptoms. Others claimed that because Autism is considered a spectrum disorder (in order to be diagnosed, children must display difficulties in three areas: communication, socialization, and imagination yet there are many variations on what those “difficulties” might be) blind children could also be diagnosed with Autism when they display a certain number of defining characteristics. Still other articles provide a listing of various defining characteristics of blind/Autistic children and blind/non-Autistic children. As a newcomer to this debate, I will leave it to my readers to determine which theory they will support. Please visit for a listing of articles on the topic of Visual Impairment and Autistic Spectrum Disorders. For the purposes of this discussion I have selected an article that compares Visual Impairment (VI) and Autism; the two authors of the article are teachers – one who works with blind students and one who works with Autistic students. In the article entitled, Autism and Visual Impairment - Making Sense1, these two teachers ask the question of whether we must view this duality as Autism as an organic result of the blind child’s inability to make sense of the world around them. Conversely, they wonder, could blindness have a side effect of producing behaviors that appear Autistic in nature?

What does this look like?

In order to clarify the intricate nature of the debate, the following listing includes some of the problems that VI students may experience. Each difficulty has been placed under one of three headings that comprise the requisite symptoms that must exist for a child to be diagnosed with Autism.

Communication Difficulty
∑ VI children may have trouble understanding the abstract meaning of words because he or she cannot integrate visual references such as body language or verbal responses to unexplained visual stimuli. Words with special or temporal meanings such as “here” and “there” can likewise be confusing. Thusly, a VI student may speak in a grammatically correct fashion yet still have difficulty following conversations that are not adapted to fit their needs.

∑ VI children may find it quite difficult to relate to or emulate the actions of others because they do not have the visual reference that helps sighted students to model others. Similarly, blind students may not be able to express social empathy because they cannot collect information based on the body language.

∑ In a broad sense, VI children may be slow to perceive the “bigger picture” or to generalize because they must often experience events in sequential order. Other, sighted children, experience these events in simultaneous fashion. Also, VI children cannot engage in pretend play as easily as seeing children because they a) will have never seen other children imitating behaviors as they play and b) because they may not have the visual reference to liken a cardboard box to a fire truck.

In the Classroom

The authors of this article made a few suggestions as to how best to work with and educate a blind child with Autistic symptoms. The first of these suggestions that I tuned into is one that I have often seen over the course of my research about Special Education in general: that it is the responsibility of the teacher or adult to tap into the way that the child makes sense of his or her world. In the case of students who content with VI and Autistic traits, the object should not be for the student to “fit in” so much as to be able to decode the world around them in a useful way. As a natural progression from this position, instruction should be child-centered. The teacher should become acquainted with the child’s perception of the world through observation and interaction. Moreover, when the teacher is designing a curriculum for such a student or students, he or she should remember to ask, “What will my student take away from this activity?” Finally, a teacher working with VI/Autistic children should be mindful of the impact of his or her use of language. As I mentioned before, a VI student may not have trouble using language conventions to communicate but following the flow of a conversation between sighted individuals may be frustrating. A teacher will be more effective in communicating with these students if he or she accounts for the need for adapted language; one particularly interesting suggestion was that teachers find ways to communicate non-verbally with VI/Autistic students. I believe that successful, extra-verbal communication in this situation represents a meaningful bond between student and teacher wherein the best interest of the student has been carefully considered and nurtured.

This Wikipedian research was contributed by Rachel Fries.