Under the Hood

How Autism Changes The Way The World Appears Visually

As a part of their Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, the National Autistic Society, a leading charity in Britain, released a video on 26 March, which shows the impact of unexpected changes on autistic people. The short clip titled 'Diverted' depicts an actress named Saskia Lupin feeling overwhelmed by unexpected diversions and loud sounds while using public transport. 

Since autism exists on a spectrum, it can be difficult to identify specific symptoms as the disorder affects people differently and can range in severity. According to the TMI campaign, there are five core features of autism: anxiety in social situations, anxiety with unexpected changes, sensory overload, meltdowns, and processing time.

Sensory overload, often noticed in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to the brain's attempt to process too much information at once as a result of being triggered by external stimuli. This could be a situation like the one depicted in the aforementioned video.

Research has also attempted to understand how those with autism visually perceive the world. One study from 2015 explained how people with autistic tendencies were more likely to focus on details rather than to look at the big picture. “This may help to explain why such individuals often see the trees – but miss the forest,” said lead author Professor David Crewther.

The study suggested that this is why people with autism could be less aware of the global attributes of things like facial expressions as they move their eyes over different aspects of a visual scene, which could contribute to difficulties in socializing and following cues.

Kim Steele, who is the co-author of  'At Home with Autism' and also has a daughter with autism, offered a very similar insight. “People with autism focus on details, not global perspective. A fleck of white on a shirt, a flickering light, a noise command attention. Their default is too many details,” she said, adding that too much input can be extremely stressful for a child on the spectrum.

Over time, this can have an impact on the kind of expectations one has for the surrounding environment. In 2017, researchers from the University College London published a study revealing that adults with autism may overestimate the volatility of the world around them. The test compared how differently people with and without autism reacted to unexpected visual changes when looking at photos. 

"When we’re uncertain about our own beliefs, such as under volatile conditions, we’re driven more by our senses than our prior expectations," explained lead author Dr. Rebecca Lawson. "If people with autism are more often expecting volatility, that could help explain their propensity to sensory overload, enhanced perceptual functioning and context insensitivity."

26 March 2018 marks the beginning of World Autism Awareness Week 2018. It has steadily risen in prevalence to become the fastest growing developmental disorder, affecting 1 in 68 children in the U.S.