Parents Active For Vision Education: Visual Skills for Autism and Other Developmental Delays

by Stephanie Zarrella

Parents Active For Vision Education:  Visual Skills for Autism and Other Developmental DelaysVisual skills impact the attention and behavior of all children, including those with autism, pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) and multiple disabilities. “Visual skills are an intricate part of all development”, says Celia Hinrichs, OD, a behavioral optometrist in private practice in Massachusetts. “They interact with balance, movement and the development of spatial perception. Vision stimulates an infant to explore visual space.”

Good visual skills are more than 20/20 eyesight. Behavioral optometrist are interested in how the visual system gathers and interprets information and how individuals can be helped to process visual information more efficiently. Visual skills such as focusing, eye coordination and tracking, influence the gathering and interpretation of information.

Behavioral optometrists take a functional approach to vision when working with children with multiple disabilities, autism and PDD. The visual attention of children with PDD often is impacted by their ability to fixate, focus and track visual information.

Learning-related visual problems associ­ated with children who have attention deficits include the inability to attend to details or complete tasks and sustain visual attention. Children with autism who frequently are hyper- or hyposensitive to sound, touch, smell, taste, move­ment and sight may demonstrate atypical responses to visual stimuli. Their sensitivity to visual input may elicit dysfunc­tional behavior, such as rocking, hand flapping and avoiding eye gaze.

There are two distinct visual pathways to the brain that are responsible for the intake and processing of visual information. The sustained and transient systems. The transient system answers the question “Where is it?” The sustained system answers the question “What is it?” The two systems work together; when one shuts off, the other turns on. A lack of coordination between the systems impacts spatial perception.

Children with autism are suspected of using primarily the transient system to gain information. They may never look directly at an object but they can pick it right up.

The optometrist frequently consults with occupational therapists and other professional who work with children to improve visual skills that affect attention of behavior. Lenses, that can alter sensory input, improve focus and help with the coordination between the two visual systems, are often prescribed along with activities to help improve a child’s visual attention and visual behavior.

Practitioners treating children with attention and behavioral disorders need to confirm that all of their systems are functioning properly, including vision. In turn, optometrists evaluating these children should assess visual function and determine how it impacts other skill areas.

Parents Active For Vision Education (P.A.V.E.) is a non-profit resource and support organization whose mission is to raise public awareness of the crucial relationship between vision and achievement.  P.A.V.E. was founded by parents and teachers with children in their homes and classrooms who had suffered the effects of undiagnosed vision problems. After years of searching for answers to their children’s learning problems they were finally diagnosed and successfully treated by developmental optometrists through a process called Vision Therapy.

It is unacceptable to P.A.V.E. that children and adults continue to suffer needless frustration and failure because too often parents, educators, and medical professionals are unaware of the critical link between vision and efficient learning.

For further information concerning the prevention, early detection, and correction of learning related vision problem, go to

Reprinted with permission from Advance News magazines for Occupational Therapists, July 10, 1995

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