Updated on  February 5, 2024
4 min read

Autism & the Eyes: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

8 sources cited
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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) impacts how people experience, communicate, and interact with the world. Its manifestations are diverse. Yet, each case carries its own unique set of challenges.

A telltale sign of ASD is rapid, uncontrollable eye movements. People with autism can also have a range of social and communication barriers. Other common indicators include repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, and difficulties with motor skills.1

Can You Diagnose Autism by Paying Attention to a Child’s Eyes?

Yes. A study by Washington State University shows autistic children had a different visual response to light.5 Their pupils reacted 16 milliseconds slower for low-level flashes and 40 milliseconds for brighter beams than their non-autistic peers.

Eye-tracking technology can also help diagnose ASD in infants. A special machine featuring an invisible infrared light beam reflects off the baby’s cornea and shows exactly where they’re looking. If their eye gaze is abnormal, it can indicate autism with 86% accuracy.6

Can Facial Features Help Diagnose Autism?

Yes. People with autism display a unique set of facial features. Coined “dysmorphologies,” they are the result of genetic causes special to this population:7

  • Bigger philtrum and mouth
  • Wide-set eyes
  • Shorter middle face
  • Wider upper face

Edith Cowan University researchers also uncovered a clue in diagnosing autism: facial asymmetry. Analyzing 5000 facial points, they discovered children with ASD had greater facial misalignment than their non-autistic peers. This could be an important step forward for early detection or diagnosis of ASD.8

Common Vision Problems in People with Autism

Eye contact is a challenge for autistic people. Moreover, holding still, focusing on one object, and coordinating their peripheral and central vision are daily struggles.

Autistic people may also have crossed eyes. Additionally, many display signs of visual hypersensitivity when faced with certain images, making them regularly scan their environment to take in information without being overwhelmed by it all at once.

Treatment Options to Help People with Autism Improve their Vision

The most common vision remedies for autism are the following:

  • Eye evaluations. Experts ensure that the eyes are healthy and functioning correctly and that no other underlying cause exists for vision issues.
  • Vision therapy. Typically in-office, professionals train patients to identify discrepancies between their perception and reality. It also encourages a deeper understanding of three-dimensional space.
  • Glasses. A prescription can aid autism eyes to see clearly and keep their eyes aligned when looking at objects.
  • Prism lenses. They help autistic individuals focus on faraway objects and reduce double vision.
  • Surgical intervention. In cases of extreme cross-eyed symptoms, doctors may recommend a procedure to correct these issues.
  • Behavioral therapy. A more holistic approach, it focuses on the person’s visual skills. Such treatments improve eye contact, tolerance to light, visual processing, and overall eye function.

Tips to Make Sure an Eye Exam is Comfortable for Someone with Autism

Consider these recommendations to ensure a successful eye exam:

  1. Discuss the appointment with autism specialists beforehand
  2. Introduce the optometrist and explain their role
  3. Bring a favorite toy, blanket, or snacks for comfort
  4. Incorporate their interests or daily activities into the exam (e.g., use colorful shapes to measure vision accuracy)
  5. Ensure lighting and noise levels are low
  6. Stay with the patient during the exam

Why Do People with Autism Make Less Eye Contact?

Yale researchers found specific areas in the brain associated with autism. Published in the journal PLOS ONE, their revolutionary study reveals discoveries about how brains respond to social situations.2

Autistic child lying on sofa looking away from mother

Researchers discovered that when two non-autistic people made eye contact, their brains “talked.” They found this special connection occurred in the dorsal parietal cortex region of the brain, where responses literally mirrored between individuals. 

However, those on the spectrum didn’t experience this type of synchronization. Even looking at faces in pictures or through video did not trigger neural activity in that area of their brains. 

Autism interrupts the eye-to-eye connection. Further, ASD disrupts the brain’s ability to respond appropriately and accurately in social situations. This makes those with ASD less likely to make eye contact.

What Are Autistic Tics?

Tics are repeated movements or sounds that autistic people make when overstimulated or stressed. They’re usually non-rhythmic, unexpected, and involuntary. Tics can also be simple or complex.3

Some of the most common ones include:

  • Blinking
  • Clearing the throat
  • Intense facial expressions
  • Lip-smacking
  • Shoulder-shrugging
  • Leg-shaking
  • Hand-flapping
  • Shouting and vocalizations

Some tics are mild and go away on their own. Others may become more severe and interfere with daily activities. And although tics can be soothing for those with autism, some of these movements can potentially cause harm via self-injury.

What is Visual Stimming?

stimming infographic

Stimming is when a person makes repetitive movements, words, or sounds. In the case of people with ASD, it occurs when they fixate on an object or action. It’s often a way to self-soothe and regulate sensory inputs or emotions.4

Common in autism, stimming is an intriguing experience that involves the eyes. It includes unique movements, such as:

  • Blinking
  • Looking up and down quickly
  • Staring at objects
  • Rolling of the eyes
  • Turning lights on and off

Children on the spectrum typically exhibit stimming behaviors. It’s a way to make sense of their environment and a survival method that promotes increased focus, concentration, and calmness.

Updated on  February 5, 2024
8 sources cited
Updated on  February 5, 2024
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022.
  2. Hirsch, J., Zhang, X., Noah, J. A., Dravida, S., Naples, A., Tiede, M., Wolf, J. M., & McPartland, J. C. “Neural correlates of eye contact and social function in autism spectrum disorder.” PLOS ONE. 2022.
  3. Termine, C., Grossi, E., Anelli, V., Derhemi, L., & Cavanna, A. E. “Possible tics diagnosed as stereotypies in patients with severe autism spectrum disorder: A video-based evaluation.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2020.
  4. Calendar Canada. “What does visual stimming look like?” (n.d.), Retrieved 22 Feb. 2023
  5. Van Dongen, J. “Eye Test Could Screen Children for Autism.” Neuroscience News. 2022.
  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Eye tracking technology holds promise for earlier autism diagnosis.” NIH Medline Plus. 2020.
  7. Mujeeb Rahman, K. K., & Subashini, M. M. “Identification of Autism in Children Using Static Facial Features and Deep Neural Networks.” Brain Sciences. 2022.
  8. Edith Cowan University. “Cutting edge 3D facial scans could give genetic clues to autism.” ECU. 2021.
The information provided on VisionCenter.org should not be used in place of actual information provided by a doctor or a specialist.