The Little Things: Seeing Things

How a person with Asperger's sees the world

Posted Sep 24, 2008

When a person has an autism spectrum disorder, like Asperger’s, there are a host of little things that that pop up, unexpected, to interfere with daily functioning.  In the next few weeks, I plan to outline a few of these...starting with visual processing.

What do I mean by visual processing? As defined by

“Visual and auditory processing are the processes of recognizing and interpreting information taken in through the senses of sight and sound. The terms, "visual and auditory processing" and "visual and auditory perception", are often used interchangeably. Although there are many types of perception, the two most common areas of difficulty involved with a learning disability are visual and auditory perception.”

Contrary to what the average layperson may expect, the brain plays a large part in determining what we see and how we see it.  Seeing isn’t only done with the eyes, and hearing isn’t only done with the ears.  These organs are the receptors of visual and auditory stimulation – but it takes the brain to make sense of them, and regulate what to attend to.  Deficits in the areas of the brain that do this can cause a myriad of problems in daily life.

Most people on the autism spectrum are affected in some way with sensory issues – but no individual experiences it in exactly the same way.  I have read accounts of people who have been much more deeply affected by sensory integration issues than I have, but it does cause a certain amount of havoc in my life.  

Prosopagnosia is an issue that I see widely reported in people on the spectrum.  In short, people with prosopagnosia struggle to recognize faces.  The effects of this can vary widely.  Some cannot recognize faces at all, others just have a harder time recognizing people than other people would.  I’m one of the latter.

From the time I was I child, I was always reticent to use peoples names in greeting.  I didn’t know why at the time…  As time went on I came to realize, that it was because I sometimes was slow to recognize people, and sometimes, especially when I was tired, I wouldn’t recognize them at all. So I learned to avoid embarrassment by avoiding using a person’s name until I was sure who they were. 

My first real realization of the extent of my problems with recognition came a few years ago.  I moved to a different department within my company.  The new group was relatively small, about thirteen people or so.  Normally, I wouldn’t have had an issue, but two of the members of the team were very similar in appearance.  They were both men, mid-fifties, wore glasses, and had similar height, weight and hair color. 

It took me a week or two before I could tell them apart.  In other groups, if I encountered an issue like this, I could usually figure out who the person was through recognizing their role.  If I knew that one was in accounting, and another one was in another area, then recognizing them would be easy.  However, in this case, both men were in similar roles.  For some time, I found myself dodging any interaction which would require me to refer to them by name.  How do you find a respectful way to say, “Hey, you!”?

Despite the fact that my memory is predominantly visual, I struggle with remembering faces.  I can picture pieces of them (a nose, or their eyes), but I find it difficult to visualize the face as whole.  In the area of art, this has obviously been a bit of a handicap.  I can draw faces that I imagine, but I would find it difficult draw the face of a loved one from memory.  However, I have no issues drawing a very good likeness from a photograph, or a live model. 

Australian writer Donna Williams, author of several books on autism explored some of her visual issues on her blog.  She writes:
”I have an acute sense of color. I see rainbows in a piece of ice, some colors and lights have sent me into manic and euphoric episodes and giggle fits, I have a synesthesia thing where color and touch are crossed.

I also have a 2-3 second delay in processing the MEANING of what I see, a kind of ‘functional visual agnosia‘ and am largely face blind (prosopagnosia).

I also have exceptional peripheral vision. At my lectures I’m known for looking about 40-80 degrees away from my audience members and describing and mirroring the gross and fine motor actions of those in my audience.

This usually takes audience members aback but I use it to demonstrate how many people with autism use peripheral vision to watch people and some even read or type this way.

It’s also a way that I find I can process the part in the context of the whole but when looking directly, especially without tinted lenses, I see in a far less cohesive way.”

She speculates that these issues may be due to a difference in the structure of the eye:

“I found out that my peripheral vision didn’t just surprise my audience but its very very rare in most people. This may shed some interesting light on visual perceptual differences in people on the autistic spectrum.

The optician explained that this degree of visual acuity with extreme peripheral vision is usually not possible because the majority of receptors called ‘cones’ are packed in the central part of the eye.

Interestingly, these cones are also what perceives color.

I asked him whether one might have so MANY of these that it makes one perceive color so much more than others might.

He felt that would be so.

I asked whether one might have so many of these ‘cones’ in the centre of the eye that one saw far more detail, even to the degree that it slowed down the processing of each detail in the context of the next, so that one effectively had a visual processing delay, a ‘functional visual agnosia‘.

He agreed it was possible.

I asked if it were possible that by using the peripheral vision as I do, could I be reducing the use of an overabundance of these cones in the central part of the eye and, by doing this, experience something closer to what other people normally experience when looking directly? That, in other words, by possibly using fewer of my far more, even dysfunctionally too abundant cones, I manage to perceive things better as a whole and process it more quickly for visual meaning.

He agreed that theoretically this was indeed possible.

So if some people with autism who have avoid eye contact because faces appear meaningless fragmented, bunches of detail with no cohesion unless looking peripherally, what are we doing when we force them to ‘learn eye contact’?”

While I would not rule out a physical abnormality in my case, my symptoms are quite different.  I do have a very fine-tuned sense of color, however, I do not see better in my peripheral vision.  Of course, this could be due to the fact that I wear eyeglasses, and am nearsighted.   Most often, the abnormalities that present themselves in my vision, happen when I turn my head and catch something out of the corner of my eye. 

This can cause me issues in activities such as driving – because of the sensitivity of the nervous system I’m easily startled.  I focus very hard to make sure that I don’t mistake a shadow, or a piece of paper for an animal.   A few months ago, driving down a major thoroughfare, I had a close call when I mistook a red light on the turn lane for a red light for my lane.  In turning my head, they had somehow become superimposed upon each other. Thinking I was about to run a red light in a major intersection, stepped on the brakes.   A few seconds later, my brain sorted everything out, and I realized that I needed to speed up again, fast.  
A funny example of this came when the family decided to go out to eat at a local restaurant.  The restaurant, as part of its theme, has a cement sculpture of a barnyard animal at the entrance.  Since it was the first time I had been to this restaurant, I wasn’t aware of this.   I stepped through the door, and jumped back when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what I thought was a large dog.  Once I looked at the thing head-on, I saw what it was (and felt rather foolish).  But in the end, I had to laugh.  When we go to that restaurant, we all chuckle a little bit when we see the “dog” there waiting in the entryway.

From a very young age, I was poor at most sports.  Why?  Not only do I lack a certain amount of motor coordination, but I have trouble visual spatial orientation and depth perception. 

In a sport such as football, or soccer, where your teammates and opponents are moving targets, these skills are needed to track where each player is in space, and where they will be in the next few seconds.  “Spatial Relations and Learning” by Carol Stockdale and Carol Possin, Ph.D., offers an example of these types of issues.  In the article, two fictitious coaches discuss a player’s issues in this area:

“’Hey Dick, you had that Dean Delane kid in soccer. How'd he work out?’ Dick straightened up enough to prop his elbow on the battered table and drop his chin onto his palm. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘He was a great goalie. Quick. Focused. Tough. No one could intimidate him.’ He paused to watch Chuck absorb the rest of his French bread and went on. ‘Funny thing, I tried to move him to forward after Rich Allison broke his ankle but that was one bad idea.’ Swallowing lasagna, Chuck proclaimed, ‘Well, I want him at shortstop. He's quick. Has a good arm.’

Dick returned to his slouch, now rocking back on the legs of his chair, ‘I dunno, Chuck. There's something with that kid. Something about shifting gears or moving around and doing something else at the same time. In soccer he couldn't dribble and keep track of the guy next to him, much less the other team or anything else.’ He paused, remembering, ‘He did the craziest things. In one game he dribbled right out-of-bounds three times. Three times! Never took his eye off the ball. Just forgot where he was. Looked surprised as anything when the ref whistled. I took him out and told him, 'See all those other guys with shirts like yours. They're your team. Pass to them!'‘ Dick glanced at the clock. Six minutes until the fifth period bell. He went on, ‘So he did. Pass, I mean. Only usually it was to the other team. The guys really got down on him. I pulled him and decided he was never going to be a soccer player.’”

In explanation of this child’s spatial issues, the authors wrote:

“Soccer player Dean Delane has a narrow problem. He is well coordinated in that his body moves rhythmically, and the parts cooperate as they move. He is strong and has good balance. However, keeping track of his location is very difficult. He cannot monitor his position when he is moving. This is especially a problem when the ‘things’ he is involved with, such as his teammates, are also moving. So he seeks positions such as goalie where he remains within a fixed area, tracks the ball, and moves to it. He does not have to move with it down the field.”

This was often me as a kid – I could not track where the other kids were, where I was, and the ball all at the same time.   The types of games that I did well in were games like four square, or certain types of dodgeball, where the player’s range of movement was limited, and I only had to track the ball. 

When I first began to drive, I had a couple of accidents which involved misjudging distances, such as sideswiping poles, or other cars.  Soon I learned to be very conservative in estimating the space around my car, and other cars.   I avoiding highway driving whenever possible, and err on the side of safety at intersections.

Also in Stockdale and Possin’s article, the authors include a story about a young woman who is, as many might say “directionally challenged.”  They describe how she can only find her way by way of landmarks, and has no sense of direction.   This an extreme example, but I do experience something similar.  Like the character in the story, I rely on landmarks to find my way.  This generally works for me, unless, as happens in the story, the landmark (a billboard) is changed, removed, or I miss it.  Then I can sometimes lose my moorings. 

Unlike me, the character in the story is almost completely unable to use a map.  I rely on them.  With my visual memory, maps are the way that I learn where things are.  After an amount of time using the map, I am able to internalize it, and am able to find my way very well. 

As with every other challenge I have had in my life, for the most part, I have learned to cope very well these challenges.   When driving, I’m extra cautious.   I keep photographs of people I love.   If I need to go to a place where I am not familiar with the landmarks, I make sure I have a map or directions.   I don’t play sports, or put myself in a position where my lack of visual/spatial coordination could cause me a problem.   Dealing with these types of challenges can be frustrating, and tiring – but they can also provide a little comic relief.  At least my life is never boring! 

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