TUNNEL VISION IN AUTISM
Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
Stimulus overselectivity is a term used to describe
a phenomenon whereby a person focuses on only one aspect of an object
or environment while ignoring other aspects. Many autistic individuals
appear to have this 'tunnel vision.' This phenomenon was first described
in 1971 by Lovaas, Schreibman, Koegel and Rehm at U.C.L.A.
The literary works on autism
contain numerous stories of how autistic children 'tune in' to an
object or a single aspect of an object while blocking out other
parts of their environment. Some professionals argue that this is
the reason why parents often suspect their child of being deaf.
Parents sometimes test their child's hearing by banging pots and
pans behind their child's back, and the child fails to react to
this 'unexpected' sound. However, in different situations, it is
obvious that these children can hear, such as the case when child
is quickly nearby when a parent opens a candy wrapper.
et. al first tested this concept of stimulus overselectivity in
autistic children by instructing each child to press a lever as
soon as three different stimuli were presented at the same time
(i.e., a light, a sound, and a touch). When he/she pressed the lever,
the child was rewarded with a piece of candy. Later, in the testing
condition, the three aspects of the complex stimulus were presented
individually. The results showed that the children pressed the lever
when only one of the three stimuli were presented. For example,
a child would press the lever when a light was presented, but he/she
did not press the lever when the sound was presented alone nor when
the touch was presented alone. Dr. Lovaas and his colleagues argued
that during the initial learning phase, the autistic child attended
to only one of the three aspects of the complex stimulus rather
than all three aspects.
The idea of responding to only one of many aspects
or dimensions of an object may make it difficult for the autistic
child to learn about his/her world. For example, if a child is being
taught to differentiate between a fork and a spoon, the child may
attend or focus on the color (a very salient aspect) rather than
the shape. In this case, the child will experience much difficulty
when trying to decide which utensil to use.
We do not know why autistic individuals have this
tunnel vision. One theory states that these individuals are born
with 'too much' concentration; and as a result, it is very difficult
for them to expand or widen their attention span. Another theory
states that these individuals cannot process or attend to the environment
as a whole because it may become overwhelming, i.e., lead to overarousal.
As a result, they may try to simplify their life by focusing on
only a small part of their world.
Implications of tunnel vision
Since it appears that many autistic individuals
exhibit stimulus overselectivity, it is important to help them direct
their attention to relevant aspects of an object or the environment.
For example, when teaching an autistic child to select an apple
from a bag of apples and oranges, the child should be instructed
to attend to color and texture. In contrast, when teaching the child
to find the family car in a parking lot, the child should direct
his/her attention to the color and shape.
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