Eye Can See Clearly Now: What Curing Blindness Teaches Us About Autism


New Scientist

It’s the top right article from last week’s New Scientist:  Eye Can See Clearly Now: Brain insights from curing blindness.  I blogged about Pawan Sinha and his work a couple of years ago.   The New Scientist article provides a concise interview with Dr. Sinha online.  To read it you’ll have to register for New Scientist, but it’ll be well worth your time.  Here are some key excerpts as related to vision and autism.

Sinha

You’ve suggested the importance of dynamic information goes beyond vision. Tell us more.

This was an unexpected but gratifying outcome of Project Prakash: the idea that problems in processing dynamic visual information may play a role in autism. Children with autism have normal vision in terms of acuity, sensitivity to contrast and colours, but they have problems integrating information across different senses. Your perception of the world is made up not only of the things you see, but also the things you hear, feel and smell. If they don’t seem to fit together, that is a very difficult experience.When we were working with the Prakash children, we saw something similar in the first few months after the restoration of their sight – they had integration problems.

Give us an example of an integration problem.

When viewing images, newly sighted children tend to “over-fragment” them: they see them as comprising many small pieces. Almost every region of a different colour or brightness is seen as a separate entity and it is difficult for the children to integrate them and perceive the image as a whole. I thought it might be a superficial similarity to what happens in autism, but I couldn’t help thinking that dynamic information was the key. If that is what helps formerly blind children understand how to integrate sensory information, then perhaps there is something impaired in the dynamic-information processing systems in children with autism that interferes with them making sense of their world.

So you then worked with children with autism?

Yes, and we found that their ability to anticipate what’s going to happen next in a dynamic sequence – such as the trajectory of a thrown ball – is indeed impaired. This skill is very important. When you interact with a dynamic world, you need to know more than just what’s happening at a given moment – you need to anticipate how it might change in the next moment so you can take the right actions. We proposed a new theory of autism, called the predictive impairment theory, or the magical world theory. Our hypothesis is that people with autism may have a reduced ability to predict what will happen next, making the world feel chaotic and overwhelming.

Here is the intriguing article in PNAS from Pawan Sinha, Richard Held and their colleagues at MIT on the magical world theory of autism.

3 thoughts on “Eye Can See Clearly Now: What Curing Blindness Teaches Us About Autism

  1. When raising my kids I used to tell them I could predict the future. What I meant was when driving down the road I would anticipate what the bike rider in front and to the left was going to do. I needed to predict a movement into my driving lane, just in case. Kids need to predict the future, i.e. if they are going to put their hand on a hot stove the prediction is they are going to have a burnt hand. Lots of patients whom I see can’t predict the future and as stated in an earlier blog, the need VT for saccades (shifting attention), fixation (keeping focused on a target), and multitasking (being able for example answering a question while counting).
    As always, thanks for the blog. August

  2. My supposed neurotypical mind has me up impairing sleep and battling anxiety until I can formulate designs for tomorrow, next week, next month and beyond. It is impossible to conceive of a world without the framework of predictability and the order it dictates.

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