The Dress Color Debate and Sensory Processing in Autism

Image Credit: J. Jastrow (1899)

It became headline news, this week, when Wired magazine reported “The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress.” The usual reaction by those involved in the autism community has been, “Tell us something we don’t know!”

The terms visual-, auditory-, and sensory- processing ‘disorder’ have all been invented to describe conditions that patients experience. Rather than representing separate maladies, unusual patterns of filtering are part of the fabric of ASD.

Part of the hoopla is the controversy surrounding the ‘correct’ color of the dress. Colorblindness is mostly attributed to the lack of color-producing rods in the retina, not a processing difference in the brain. In this example, ‘normal’ people disagree.

The other factor is that the present conundrum is unlike the old-time Rabbit-Duck optical illusion (pictured). Once you are told what to look for, the type of animal makes sense. In this case, it is almost impossible to understand how the dress could be any other than the colors that we perceive.

The Wired article explains how light enters the eye and is reflected, wiring in the brain, ambient light, etc., and concludes, “… your brain tries to interpolate a kind of color context for the image, and then spits out an answer for the color of the dress.” With all of those parameters, it is difficult to understand how there is ever any agreement.

Little is explained about how we arrive at an individual conclusion. This example highlights the paucity of information explaining why humans see the dress color differently. Such a situation underscores the difficulties understanding already-altered sensory processing in people with ASD.

How many times have parents, therapists and teachers asked, “Didn’t I just tell you that color?” Or, “I can’t understand why he’s such a picky eater.” “She smells everything.” It rarely occurs to us that an affected child senses a common item differently.

The controversy about the tint of the dress and the frustration of those who see it differently is but a tiny example of the sensory processing differences experienced in the face of ASD.

Whatever the underlying reason for variation in the response to the pictures of those dresses, it helps remind the neurotypical population how differently we all see the world.

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