Royal Society Publishing

The pathogenesis of autism: insights from congenital blindness

Peter R. Hobson , Martin Bishop


There is substantial heterogeneity in the aetiology and clinical presentation of autism. So how do we account for homogeneity in the syndrome? The answer to this question will be critical for any attempt to trace the links between brain pathology and the psychological disabilities that characterize autism. One possibility is that the source of homogeneity in autism is not to be found ‘in the child’, but rather in dysfunction of the system constituted by child–in–relation–to–other. We have been exploring this hypothesis through the study of congenitally blind children, among whom features of autism, and the syndrome of autism itself, are strikingly common. To justify such an approach, one needs to establish that the clinical features in blind children have qualities that are indeed ‘autistic–like’. We conducted systematic observations of the social interactions of two matched groups of congenitally blind children who do not have autism, rating their social engagement, emotional tone, play and language during three sessions of free play in the school playground. The qualities of social impairment in the more disabled children were similar to those in sighted children with autism. Additional evidence came from independent ratings of the children in a different play setting: on the childhood autism rating scale (CARS), the socially impaired children had ‘autistic–like’ abnormalities in both social and non–social domains. If we can determine the way in which congenital blindness predisposes to features of autism, we shall be in a better position to trace the developmental pathways that lead to the syndrome in sighted children.