Monday 4 July 2016

Autism: visual stress and coloured overlays?

The small study from Amanda Ludlow & Arnold Wilkins [1] is introduced for your reading pleasure today and the idea that "atypical sensory behaviours and symptoms of visual stress" were not uncommon features when it came to a diagnosis of autism and/or Tourette's syndrome (TS). As per that opening sentence, this was a small study - 12 children with autism, 12 children with TS and 12 controls - but that doesn't mean that the results might not be important...

So far you might be slightly underwhelmed by the idea that sensory issues (and onwards linked behaviours) might be over-represented when it comes to autism given what has already been talked about for quite a few years. But... following the introduction of a colour overlay (a coloured plastic sheet placed over text) supposedly thought to reduce visual stress, for at least for some children with autism there seemed to be some potential effects noted: "Four of the 12 children with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] and none of the control children read over 15% more quickly with an overlay." The test by the way, used to assess reading performance was the Wilkins Rate of Reading Test designed by one of the authors.

I'm interested in these findings. In one of the earliest posts on this blog, I discussed the idea that visual perceptual issues accompanying a diagnosis of autism might, to some extent, be 'countered' via the use of coloured overlays or tinted glasses (sometimes called Irlen lenses) (see here). Alongside a few quite well-known people on the autism spectrum using such visual aids, there is quite an appetite for this type of approach here in Blighty as for example, per the writings and practice of people such as Ian Jordan. Accepting that the plural of anecdote is not data, I've seen Ian talk about his work, and some of the case studies are really rather interesting including the possibility of a link between vision and coordination.

A quick scan of the other peer-reviewed literature in this area suggests that Ludlow & Arnold are no strangers to this potentially important area of autism research although quite a bit more needs to be done with regards to effectiveness and perhaps identify those potential 'best responders' to this type of approach. I might also suggest that said investigations might also benefit from some good old-fashioned ophthalmic inquiry too given what is starting to be understood about eye pathology and autism (see here).

I appreciate that talk of Irlen lenses and coloured overlays may not be everyone's cup of tea in light of the various 'discussions' these interventions have had when it comes to the diagnosis of dyslexia down the years. Yes, science definitely needs to come before any big claims are made or marketed. But the idea that sensory issues might be a rather common occurrence in relation to autism and that vision in particular might be an important source of those sensory issues reported perhaps means that this research avenue should be more thoroughly explored given that there may be something that can be done to alleviate visual stress as and when it does occur.


[1] Ludlow AK. & Wilkins AJ. Atypical Sensory behaviours in children with Tourette's Syndrome and in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Res Dev Disabil. 2016 Jun 7;56:108-116.

---------- Ludlow AK, & Wilkins AJ (2016). Atypical Sensory behaviours in children with Tourette's Syndrome and in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Research in developmental disabilities, 56, 108-116 PMID: 27286465

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