Autism Awareness Month isn’t primarily for people on the spectrum and their families—although, of course, they benefit from the discussion too. But more importantly, all this talk about autism is meant to help the rest of us learn to communicate with those who already know about autism from the inside. It’s for you and me.
So, as we near the end of April, I’d like to ask the general, neurotypical (as far as you know) population a couple of questions: Have you learned something new about autism this month? If so, what was it, and do you think it will change the way you relate to those on the spectrum who may be in your extended family, your school, or your community? Before you decide you have nothing to say, please watch the following 10-minute video and click on just one or two of the links below. If you still feel you haven’t learned anything new, I hope you’ll respond anyway—it’s always encouraging to know I’m writing to an especially well-informed audience.
Carly’s story may not be new to you; the ABC segment originally aired in 2008. But when I showed it to my nine-year-old, she immediately thought of a classmate who often wears noise-reducing headphones for autism. I’d like to think it will help her understand his behavior just a little bit better.
Of course, it’s important to remember that there is as much individuality on the spectrum as off. Carly’s experience is her own. But her perspective does offer one window into what autism is like. And it may also raise other questions. Why do children like Carly experience the world the way they do? And what causes autism in the first place? These questions are harder to answer, but researchers have been tackling them with gusto in very recent years. As promised, here are ten of their recent findings that add to our understanding. I’ll try to give them some context, but Carly may already have done some of that for us. Remember what she said about input overload?
November 8, 2011—This study by researchers at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence shows that brain overgrowth in autism involves an excess number of neurons in areas of the brain associated with social and cognitive development, as well as communication development. Not just a small overgrowth: they found 67 percent more cortical cells—a type of brain cell only made before birth—in children with autism. The findings suggest that the disorder may arise from “prenatal processes gone awry,” says lead researcher Eric Courchesne.
Of course, more brain cells may cause problems because you take in a lot of information you don’t need; but it also may confer some advantages:
March 22, 2012—People with autism have a greater than normal capacity for processing information even from rapid presentations and are better able to detect information defined as ‘critical’, according to a study published today in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
November 29, 2012—This BYU study finds that children with the diagnosis struggle with letting go of fear when a threat has passed. And the higher their level of fearfulness, the more severe their classic symptoms of autism, such as repeated movements and resistance to change.
This research highlights the need to help children with autism process their emotions, especially when they are fearful, but it also points to why so many studies have found similarities in the brain between children with autism and children who have been exposed to long-term childhood trauma: both show deficits in social development and some processes related to empathy. It’s important to clarify here that “deficits in the empathy centers” is NOT the same thing as “lacking in empathy.” There are two basic parts to empathy: the ability to feel what others are feeling through emotional contagion—and the ability to understand that other people’s minds are separate from yours. Children diagnosed with autism are thought to have the opposite problem to psychopaths. Psychopaths have theory of mind, but they lack what Bruce Perry calls the “emotional, caring core needed for compassion.”
Children with autism, on the other hand, have the capacity for compassion in spades but they may have significant delays in learning to separate the hurts of others from their own, which would, of course contribute to their sensory overload, and a need to dissociate. This affects their ability to develop the social skills necessary to bond with others.
Remember when autism was thought to have been caused by “refrigerator mothers”? Parents who were thought to be so “cold” that they didn’t bond with their children? Well, it’s true that severe neglect can cause symptoms that look very much like autism. But in autism, it’s the brain’s heightened sensitivity and information overload that interferes. Not a lack of loving parents. Fortunately, neuroplasticity comes to the rescue:
October 29, 2012—An autism intervention program that emphasizes social interactions and is designed for children as young as 12 months has been found to improve cognitive skills and brain responses to faces, considered a building block for social skills.
Of course, to intervene early enough, we have to be able to detect autism earlier than we have been able to in the past.
January 26, 2012—In their first year of life, babies who will go on to develop autism already show different brain responses when someone looks at or away from them. Only a first step toward earlier diagnosis, the findings suggest that direct brain measures might help predict autism in infants as young as six months.
Next steps toward earlier diagnoses would be to learn about where autism begins. When do the first changes in the brain begin to show themselves? If you clicked on the first study in this list and played Eric Courchesne’s video, you heard him say that the overgrowth of neurons occurs between the 10th and 20th week of pregnancy. And the epigenetic trigger has to come before the overgrowth, right? The following studies offer additional pieces of the puzzle.
November 7, 2011—We’ve known for some time that there are a number of genes associated with autism. But we also know from twin studies that having those genes doesn’t necessarily predict autism. This tells researchers that something in the environment has caused a gene to “express,” or activate. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are the first to map these “epigenetic” changes in neurons from the brains of individuals with autism. The question is, can we isolate when these changes are happening? Check out the next study:
February 12, 2013—We saw this coming, didn’t we? Genes linked to autism [and schizophrenia], are only switched on during the early stages of brain development, say researchers at the University of Oxford. This study adds to the mounting evidence that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. (Which simply means it originates during early brain development.)
March 22, 2012—A study led by Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine has, for the first time, identified in young autism patients genetic mechanisms involved in abnormal early brain development and overgrowth that occurs in the disorder. The findings suggest novel genetic and molecular targets that could lead to discoveries of new prevention strategies and treatment for the disorder.
April 23-2013—Scientists from King’s College London have identified specific patterns of epigenetic changes involved in autism spectrum disorder by studying genetically identical twins who differ in autism traits. We’ve already talked about the fact that previous twin studies have shown both strong genetic as well as epigenetic components to ASD and Courchesne’s studies tell us the genes in question are involved in brain development which occurs during the second trimester of pregnancy.
There is still a lot left to learn, and it is certain that we won’t turn up any simple causes or solutions. The interplay between genetic and environmental influences is complex. But I’ll leave you with this intriguing study that hints at how huge that complexity might yet prove to be.
March 20, 2013—Women who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as children are more likely to have a child with autism than women who were not abused, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Those who experienced the most serious abuse had the highest likelihood of having a child with autism—three-and-a-half times more than women who were not abused.