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Vision: An Autism Super-Strength

by Lois Jean Brady -- Autism Digest August 2021

I’m guessing it’s no news to parents that people with autism can have unbelievable special abilities. Visual skills are one of those super-strengths. I remember a non-verbal six-year- old student stunning his mom by pointing to a few clustered pixels on a computer screen. Zoomed in, that section of the photo turned out to show a tiny ice cream cone — their child’s favorite!

We are so used to thinking about autism in terms of deficits, behavior, and problems to solve. Understandably so, because on some level, we focus on a daily basis to support our children in ways to help facilitate their success, often by trying to have them “fit in.” In this regard, this “deficit model” of autism can ultimately create a total misunderstanding. Autism is full of issues, but we need to remember autism also has enormous unusual advantages and ability to see small details in the environment coupled with nonverbal problem solving skills. We can be so busy supporting sensory, social, motor, and other challenges that our child’s super- strengths -- like visual acuity and (non-social) visual processing skills -- can be overlooked.

Exceptional vision

Fascinatingly, numerous studies using brain scans have found that people with autism tend to focus more brain resources in the areas associated with visual detection and identification and less in the areas used to plan and control thoughts and actions. According to Fabienne Samson, who charted these findings back in 2011 in Human Brain Mapping, she concluded that the outstanding visual abilities of autistic persons could possibly impact a general functional reorganization of their brains in favor of perception processes. If that is the case, persons with autism could perform a higher-level cognitive task in their own individual ways, which that might require strong involvement of frontal areas in others, such as in neurotypical individuals.

Researchers directed by Dr. Laurent Mottron at the University of Montreal's Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders led pioneering work in this area. Mottron said, "We synthesized the results of neuroimaging studies using visual stimuli

from across the world. The results are strong enough to remain true despite the variability between the research designs, samples, and tasks — making the perceptual account of autistic cognition currently the most validated model.”

Playing to your strengths

So, what does this mean for those of us who are autistic or for our loved ones with autism? If autistic brains have allocated more resources to areas associated with visual detection, this can result in visual hypersensitivity...

Here are some quick, easy ideas for visual supports:

1. Create visual daily/weekly schedules. Visual schedules do not need to be fancy, laminated, or Velcro. Stickies, note-paper or even a napkin will work.

2. “Front load!” In other words, show your child visual representations of upcoming activities in

preparation for shopping trips, family outings, doctor visits, etc. Knowing where s/he is going,

how long s/he will be there, and what is expected will significantly decrease anxiety when going to new places or during transitions.

3. Use video stories. Video stories have been made popular by the communication app InnerVoice. These are short captioned videos/GIFs strung together to graphically illustrate situations for social, emergency, or academic skills.

4. Take photos (with your child as the star) of sequential steps in a daily task, such as a bedtime routine, packing a school bag, or getting dressed. Stick the sequence on a near wall where your child sees each activity. This can be used as a checklist or task analysis.

5. Make a visual to-do list and shopping lists. Pen and paper are all that is needed.

6. Use clear, literal pictures (no abstract concepts!) WITH WORDS and put these visual

reminders/labels around the house. Have your child participate in taking the picture and writing the word.

7. Create a visual social skills book. “When this happens, do this…” or, a common example, “When someone comes to the door, say ‘hello.’”

8. Get a whiteboard and some pens to record important events in an obvious, clearly visible place. My family favorite is the word wall. Every time a word or phrase is spoken, it is written on the wall and repeated at every opportunity.

9. Buy letter magnets for the fridge and encourage word arrangement and recognition.

10. Leave notepads, pens, and paper in accessible locations around the house.

11. Turn on closed-captioning whenever your child is watching YouTube/TV. It’s amazing how much this can help non-verbal kids learn to read.

12. Cut out labels of your child’s favorite foods or toys, including a clear image, logo and the

written word.

** Spoken words go away immediately. Written words remain indefinitely and give everyone an opportunity to see and review accomplishments.

Lois Jean Brady has over 25 years of experience as a practicing

speech-language pathologist, assistive technology specialist and

Certified Autism Specialist (CAS). Career accomplishments include

winner of three Autism Hackathons, Benjamin Franklin Award for

Apps for Autism, and an Ursula Award for Autism Today TV.

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