Autism’s high rate of photosensitivity

Young people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are far more likely than the rest of the population to be photosensitive–susceptible to visually triggered seizures from flashing light, video games, and other strong visual stimuli. Results from a new study made public last week at the American Epilepsy Society annual meeting showed that fully 25 percent of those age 15 and up with ASD are photosensitive. In contrast, the prevalence of photosensitivity among typical young people is said to be 1 in 4,000 (although I believe this is an underestimate).

For some time I’ve suspected that the rate among ASD young people is elevated, and I’ve been attempting to find funding for a study that would examine young people with ASD and their risk of seizures from video games. Here are some reasons why I believe video games pose a particularly acute seizure risk to young people with autism:

  • This population develops classic epilepsy at significantly higher rates than the general population
  • Children with ASD have very high rates of sensory processing disorders, including difficulties with visual processing
  • Children with ASD tend to spend their leisure time with electronic media, and they exhibit a preference for animated material, thus they are likely to be heavy users of video games

Not only are young people with ASD at higher risk of visually induced seizures, they are also less likely to have their seizures noticed and properly identified:

  • The unusual repetitive and nonresponsive behaviors that are common in individuals with ASD can be difficult for an observer to distinguish from seizures
  • In children with ASD, impaired executive function, energy, mood, attention, and cognitive ability resulting from seizures might be masked by pre-existing chronic deficits in these functions

My guess is that photosensitivity among young people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is probably higher than average, too, because of these same factors.

Here’s why this matters so much: Although it would be difficult to change game usage habits, parents of children with autism should exercise particular caution in allowing exposure to visually overstimulating images. Reducing or eliminating visually induced seizures could result in noticeable improvements in their children’s daily functioning. The last thing these vulnerable kids need is added interference, due to seizures, with cognitive and behavioral flexibility.

The study announced last week is the first to look at the photosensitivity rate in autism. It was performed at Children’s Hospital in Boston, where researchers investigated the EEG histories of children diagnosed with ASD. More research is certainly warranted, particularly since the photosensitivity assessments were done the usual way, using photic stimulation with a strobe light. Photic stimulation may show a person’s vulnerability to seizures from a strobe light, but a strobe does not recreate the experience of exposure to a video game screen. Some individuals who do not demonstrate an EEG response to the strobe may nevertheless experience seizures provoked by video games.

NOTE:  Read more on autism and seizures from sensory overload in this post from 2012. You may also want to read this post on ADHD in connection with and video games and seizures.

6 Comments on “Autism’s high rate of photosensitivity”

  1. Amanda says:

    my 8 year old with autism has a neurologist he has seen for headaches at Dallas Childrens. he has a number of severe conditions from having a ACE procedure (a rare colostomy), to ITP (pre lukemia) to failure to thrive thow he eats ton and tons. His past EEG studies showed normal however just last night he was playing a pokemon game boy game. He had not played on a game boy in 7months because we do not have one for him anymore, since his broke. Anyhow he had been playing it, had a very slight headache, instantly pain increased, he went limp. Fell to the floor vomiting, urinated, staring into space, clamy. After a min maybe two he snapped out of it. I called neurologist on call. He said instantly his headache was gone, he fell asleep at 5pm and did not wake again until 6am next morning….

  2. […] unexpectedly high comorbidity rates of Photosensitivity and Autism / Epilepsy. Please read her post HERE. It matters. She has information that we need to […]

  3. Angela Marie says:

    Does the same count for watching cartoons for younger children, like Spongebob? Thank you!

  4. Britt Eger says:

    You have no idea how much this article just helped me!! I am the mother of a 4yr old little guy with ASD, I have ALWAYS suspected my son had seizures and tremors, but the Dr.s and family would just blow it off as Autism; mys husband and I lacked the ability to exactly articulate everything you just said! I am printing this, sharing this, email this and more! Please know today, you helped a family with ASD.

    • jsolodar says:

      Thanks so much for writing. I’m glad I could help. Most doctors don’t know a lot about this, and I think it’s much more common than anybody realizes. I learned about this the hard way, with my own daughter, who has ADHD. She had seizures for years, every day, while playing video games, that we didn’t know about. When we discovered what was happening and took away the games (not easy to do), the change was tremendous. It was also sad that for so long she was burdened by symptoms that were disabling and very preventable. I realized if it could happen to her, it was probably happening to lots of others. All the best.

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