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Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Brain

"A lot of literature on autism says that the brain of a child on the spectrum is 'wired differently'. Can you elaborate of this difference?"

Over the past few years, a number of studies have been published linking differences in brain structure and function to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). For example, researchers have noted that:
  • At a certain point in post-natal development, ASD brains are larger
  • Certain parts of the brain may function differently in ASD children
  • Certain portions of the brain, such as the amygdala, may be enlarged in ASD brains
  • “Minicolumns” in the brain may be formed differently and be more numerous in ASD brains
  • Testosterone may be linked to ASD
  • The entire brain may function differently in ASD children

What all of these brain findings have in common is that they point to ASD as a disorder of the cortex. The cortex is the proverbial "gray matter" (i.e., the part of the brain which is largely responsible for higher brain functions, including sensation, voluntary muscle movement, thought, reasoning, and memory).

In many ASD children, the brain develops too quickly beginning at about 12 months. By age ten, their brains are at a normal size, but "wired" differently. The brain is most complex thing on the planet, so its wiring has to be very complex and intricate. With ASD, there's accelerated growth at the wrong time, and that creates havoc. The consequences, in terms of disturbing early development, include problems within the cortex and from the cortex to other regions of the cortex in ways that compromise language and reasoning abilities.

Minicolumns (i.e., small structures within the cortex) are also different among children with ASD. They have more minicolumns, which include a greater number of smaller brain cells. In addition, the insulation between these minicolumns is not as effective as it is among typically developing children. The result may be that children with ASD think and perceive differently and have less of an ability to block sensory input.

ASD really impacts behavioral function in the brain very broadly. It affects sensory, motor, memory, and postural control – anything that requires a high degree of integration of information. The symptoms are most prominent in social interaction and problem solving because they require highest degree of interaction. In fact, ASD children are socially/emotionally far more delayed than anyone ever thought, even if they have a high IQ.

While social and communication skills may be compromised by unique wiring in the brain, other abilities are actually enhanced. For example, ASD children have a really excellent ability to use the visual parts of the right side of the brain to compensate for problems with language processing. This may be the basis for detail-oriented processing – and may be a decided advantage!

ASD children think differently because their brains are wired differently. They think logically and predictably, but differently. It's as if they're colorblind. You wonder why someone doesn't stop at a red light – because they can't see it. Teachers need to be taught this. When the teacher says, "Close your books and hop over to the door" …and the child hops, the teacher feels mocked. But she hasn't been mocked – she's been obeyed.

Understanding differences in the ASD brain may also provide hints for better communication. For example, since it may be harder for a child with ASD to process multiple ideas, or to multi-task, it makes sense to (a) say less, (b) give the facts, and (c) don't give a lot of tone of voice, gestures or distractions. You'd be surprised how many behavior problems are related to that. Remember that the child is dealing with facts, not concepts.

In ASD brains, circuitry is developing into adulthood – but it's not developing in the right way, and it stops developing too soon. With the right treatment, though, it can be pushed.

Animal scientist Temple Grandin has an extraordinary mind. Probably the world’s most famous person with autism, she “thinks in pictures.” Overall, the right side of her brain dominates. Grandin’s enlarged left ventricle is a sign of abnormalities in her left hemisphere, which typically handles language, and may account for the difficulties she has with processing words. To make up for this, the right hemisphere sometimes overcompensates, which can lead to special abilities in music, art, and visual memory. Grandin’s amygdala (the almond-shaped organ said to play an important role in emotional processing) is larger than normal. This is not a surprising finding because among other functions, this region processes fear and anxiety, which are emotional states often affected by autism. Her fusiform gyrus is smaller than normal – also not a surprise, since this region is involved in recognizing faces, which is a social skill that autism may disrupt.


Unknown said...

Mark- What kind of "right treatment " can push the Aspie brain to keep developing?

Angela Wyman said...

I totally agree with the say less idea. When it was time for my son to get dressed in the morning, I found it was much better to start putting a sock on him, than to announce 'it is time to get dressed!" loudly for the third time. Once he had one sock on he could proceed on his own.

I wonder about any parents that tried sign language or hand signals with their kids, as I bet that would have been an excellent way to communicate, too.

Mark said...

To Kori:

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is any impact brain development and on learning with the No Child Left Behind act. The children are fed facts with no knowledge on how to apply them or how they even relate to each other. My son has the same level of Aspergers as my oldest sister. She got A's and B's without an aide and could always think outside the box. Yet, my son, who has an aide, in 8th grade seems to understand nothing. He's stuck in the 'box'.

T-WAC said...

I greatly enjoyed this article. Being an aspie, I find it fascinating to learn more about my condition. Keep up the awesome posts

Traveling to France said...

Saying less may make sense, but do not "throw the baby out with the bath water." As an adult with HFA so many people think that using as few words with me is best. The end result is a lack of definition in the facts I am perceiving. You need to be explicit, but not blunt. You need to be courteous, not rude. So if I am looking for some cooked rice and my wife says the rice is in the kitchen, that is so vague, it could be anywhere. If you tell me the cooked rice is on the left side of the stove, in the blue pot, I perceive much more information. Going on the former directions, the cooked rice could be in the sink, on the stove, on a table, or in the refrigerator. What irritates me is that when I don't go to where she expects me to go, and gets angry at me for seeming aloof, it tends to stem from assumed instructions instead of explicit. So be careful with too few words.

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...