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The Link Between Visual Discrimination and Autism

October 27, 2023

Alex, a young boy on the spectrum, was playing with his favorite toys – the colorful cars. For everyone around him, there was an obvious difference between these toy cars, but Alex couldn’t see. He struggled greatly as his parents tried to help him match the cars of the same color, which made them wonder – is there a link between visual discrimination and autism?

The Link Between Visual Discrimination and Autism

What is visual discrimination, exactly? Autism spectrum disorder can encompass many different strengths and challenges for children; could visual discrimination be one of those? When people generally think about autism, they focus on the neurodevelopmental aspect, with some social and emotional skills difficulties. But can visual processing and discrimination be added for some people as a strength or challenge?

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The Benefits of Visual Supports for Autism

What is Visual Discrimination? 

Visual discrimination is the ability to classify objects, differentiate and detect variances in a pattern, pictures, and symbols, and classify what is being seen. The classifications can include:

  • color discrimination
  • positioning
  • form constancy
  • pattern
  • textures
  • differences in size and shapes

The main area in the brain responsible for visual discrimination skills is the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe. It can be one of three different cell types that are dependent on their ability and response to both space and motion detected:

  1. simple
  2. complex
  3. hypercomplex

Research shows there have been different sensory differences, such as sensory seeking or avoidant behaviors, that some autistic people may experience, such as:

  • temperature changes
  • smells and tastes
  • texture or lack of texture
  • brightness and movement of lights
  • touching others or being touched
  • different physical pressures from others and the environment

Sensory sensitivities and differences are not as well known as the social and emotional differences that autistic individuals can exhibit. As researchers learn more about autism, some feel that sensory abnormalities should be added to a critical level of symptoms and what parents and professionals should watch for.

As more information becomes available, such as sensory hyper and hypo-reactivity being added to the criteria for autism diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), more connections between sensory and social-emotional are becoming apparent. This can help with future diagnosis and support available.

Vision is considered one of the most important senses when interpreting and interacting with the world. With this information, social and emotional developmental milestones, such as imitation and tracking that typically lead to interactions with others and learning different social cues, can be difficult when visual discrimination skills develop in a different timeline than those who develop more atypically.

When considering all the information that has been shared, scientists believe there can be a direct link between visual discrimination and autism in individuals. Whether individuals lack these skills or hyper-focus and notice all the details around themselves can be tied in with other symptoms that parents or professionals notice before a diagnosis.

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If parents are concerned about their child’s development, below are some symptoms they can look for in relation to visual discrimination after 20/20 vision has been established or is being treated:

  • reversal number and letters writing
  • mixing up letters and numbers
  • difficulty figuring out important information while reading and scanning
  • mixing up words
  • difficulty and ability to read fluently
  • reading, puzzles, mazes, and other tasks are difficult
  • sloppy or hard-to-read handwriting
  • difficulty discerning subtle differences in pictures and the environment
  • a hard time matching items
  • may be academically behind in math and reading
  • can easily lose place when reading or doing math

Improving Your Child’s Visual Discrimination 

Enhancing visual discrimination skills in children with autism is crucial for their overall development. Visual discrimination involves distinguishing and interpreting visual information, such as shapes, colors, and patterns. You can incorporate various strategies into your child’s daily routine to facilitate this development.

First, consider implementing visual schedules or charts, which combine images and text to help your child understand and anticipate their daily activities. Engaging in matching games, such as puzzles or sorting activities, can be an enjoyable way to improve their ability to recognize and differentiate objects. Visual scanning exercises, like seeking and finding objects in detailed pictures, can help sharpen their focus.

You can also encourage color and shape sorting, employ pictorial flashcards to expand their vocabulary and engage in art and craft projects that promote attention to detail. Furthermore, outdoor exploration, where you explore nature and point out various elements, can enhance your observational skills.

Lastly, consider consulting with a professional, such as a pediatric occupational therapist or a behavior specialist, for personalized strategies tailored to your child’s needs. With patience and understanding, these strategies can help your child build essential visual discrimination skills.

Specific Activities to Strengthen Visual Discrimination

Here are some interesting activities that may improve visual discrimination in autism:

  • Sort different items like animals, colors, and stamps and match items like colors, shapes, and words
  • Visual discrimination games like the many Spot It! games and Where’s Waldo?
  • Visual perception games can be found on Pinterest or online
  • Visual perception-based toys
  • Puzzles, word finds, and searches, as well as matching games and activities
  • Printable workbooks and worksheets with different I Spy games, letter and word discrimination

Strengthening Visual Perception 

Every child loves to play, and it’s always a good idea to try incorporating learning and play to help your child with their autistic challenges. While it’s always recommended to talk to a medical professional before attempting any activity, here are some interesting ways you can strengthen your little one’s visual perception:

  • Hands-on activities: Utilize visual discrimination worksheets and tangible materials such as crayons, markers, sand, or string to enhance hands-on learning experiences.
  • Using digital tools: Explore digital therapy activities designed to nurture and develop visual discrimination skills in a fun and interactive way.
  • Differentiating letters: Practice distinguishing between letters, a crucial skill that lays the foundation for reading and learning.
  • Sorting Shapes: Begin with basic color and shape sorting exercises, a fundamental step for young children that leads to more advanced skills.
  • Active Learning: Combine gross motor skills with visual discrimination activities, both indoors and outdoors, for a dynamic and engaging learning experience.

Final Thoughts

Although there may not be a lot known about the link between visual discrimination and autism, there are opportunities available that can help a child develop these skills. There are activities, toys, and games that help strengthen visual discrimination difficulties using different visual perception skills.


A: Visual discrimination distinguishes between various visual stimuli, such as shapes, colors, and patterns. In the context of autism, some individuals may experience challenges in visual discrimination, which can affect their ability to process and interpret visual information. 

Q: How does visual discrimination impact the daily lives of individuals with autism?

A: Visual discrimination difficulties can have significant implications for individuals with autism. It could lead to challenges with school, social interactions, or daily routines.

Q: Are there interventions or therapies to support individuals with autism in improving their visual discrimination skills?

A: Many interventions and therapies aim to address the challenges associated with visual discrimination and autism, such as occupational therapy or sensory integration therapy.

Q: Can visual discrimination difficulties be a diagnostic criterion for autism?

A: While visual discrimination challenges are not a primary diagnostic criterion for autism, they can be a part of the broader assessment of an individual’s cognitive and sensory functioning.

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