The puzzle of autism: an ophthalmologic contribution

Trans Am Ophthalmol Soc. 1998:96:369-85; discussion 385-7.


Purpose: A previous study of 86 thalidomide-affected subjects with ophthalmic manifestations revealed the unexpected finding of autism in 4 of the 5 severely retarded individuals. The subjects had anomalies associated with an early gestational effect of thalidomide, including facial nerve palsy and incomitant strabismus. Because autism has been observed in a few cases of Möbius sequence (Möbius syndrome), a condition characterized by involvement of the sixth and seventh cranial nerves, the similarity to early thalidomide embryopathy suggested a relation between cranial nerve involvement and autism. The present study was undertaken to further evaluate the association of autism with patients manifesting findings of Möbius syndrome.

Methods: A prospective study of 25 Swedish patients with Möbius sequence was conducted. The patients had a complete multidisciplinary evaluation, including ophthalmologic and psychiatric examinations and standard testing for autism. Findings associated with autism were compared with the ocular and systemic anomalies of the 4 thalidomide-affected subjects.

Results: In the Möbius group 6 patients had autism, achieving the criteria for autism according to all the diagnostic manuals that were used. One patient showed autistic-like conditions meeting fewer numbers of the criteria. A few were too young to be meeting evaluated. Incomitant strabismus ranging from primary abduction defects alone to a horizontal gaze paresis pattern was noted in these patients, in addition to characteristic findings of seventh nerve paresis. Aberrant lacrimation was observed in many cases, especially often associated with autism.

Conclusion: The common group of anomalies noted in both cases of thalidomide embryopathy and Möbius sequence suggests that brain-stem damage probably early in embryogenesis can sometimes be associated with autism.

MeSH terms

  • Abnormalities, Drug-Induced
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder / chemically induced
  • Autistic Disorder / complications*
  • Child
  • Eye Diseases / chemically induced
  • Eye Diseases / complications*
  • Facial Paralysis / chemically induced
  • Facial Paralysis / complications*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability / chemically induced
  • Intellectual Disability / complications
  • Lacrimal Apparatus Diseases / chemically induced
  • Lacrimal Apparatus Diseases / complications
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Strabismus / chemically induced
  • Strabismus / complications
  • Thalidomide / adverse effects


  • Thalidomide