The Science Behind Autism
Before people can be able to support people with autism and learning difficulties, they need to be able to understand what autism actually is. Looking at the brain and how it is affected is the best way to begin learning autism. An autism-affected brain is developed differently to a neurotypical brain.
The brain is split into the following domains:
Each domain is responsible for different functions. The diagram below is a simplified explanation of how each domain is responsible for functioning our bodies.
It is important to note that in a typical brain, all domains have a relatively balanced capacity, which means that all functions work at maximum capacity moderately. When we look at this balance in a neuro-diverse brain, it is slightly different as certain parts of the brain have an increased capacity than others as they are more developed than others. The domain that manages visual functions is highly developed, so an individual has a sharp eye for detail and processes visual information really well. A trait that is common among autistic individuals.
Each domain is also connected to each and communicates with each other. To understand how an autistic brain functions differently, the best way to start is by looking closer in more depth at the anatomy of the brain’s “emotional center”.
The Emotional Center
Everyone’s brain has an “amygdala” which is essentially a cluster of nuclei that is rich with receptors. These receptors are what combine with hormones including “androgens”.
Androgens are found inside testosterone, and it is these hormones that gives us our primitive instincts to sense dangers and threats. When we feel scared, alarmed or anxious, it is the receptors in the amygdala that are controlling these chemicals, causing them to activate inside our brains.
The amygdala is also split into two main sections, one on the left and one on the right side of the brain.
It is the right amygdala that is responsible for:
- Processing fear
- Detecting threats
- Addictive behaviors
- Flight or fight responses
The left amygdala is the “emotional” one:
- Processing and dealing with emotions
- Controlling/regulating emotional responses
- Understanding social behaviors
- Moderating social communication
The Different Balances
With a clearer picture of how the brain works, we can begin to understand how autism works inside the brain.
The amygdala is evenly balanced in a typical brain. Both the left and right side are in equilibrium.
The amygdala is developed differently in a neuro-diverse brain. The functioning capacity for the left amygdala is reduced due to the right being over-developed. This is where we begin to see signs of:
- Emotional struggles
- Heightened anxiety
- Heightened sense of danger and threats
- Over-reaction and response to certain stimuli
- Difficulty processing emotions
- Difficulty understanding and moderating social communications (social cues)
Imagine constantly feeling afraid, nervous, over-stimulated and constantly at danger. With the extra burden of not being able to understand social cues and understand your own feelings. This is what is common among all individuals with autism and Asperger’s.
The degree to which the right amygdala is over-developed varies massively from one autistic individual to another.
The level to which one’s brain domains, hormones and amygdala is out of balance varies across all people with Asperger’s and other neuro-diverse conditions. That is why every one with autism is slightly different and displays different signs of anxiety and at different degrees. Not only that, they respond to different stimuli. The stimuli that activates the heightened responses from the right amygdala is also different from one individual to another. This is where we start to understand that autism is actually a “spectrum” and takes on thousands of different forms and everyone in thousands of different ways.
The Hormonal Side
Another important point to note is that autism DOES NOT suddenly happen or take affect on an individual. Autism is a root cause originating before birth. It is during the prenatal stage that the biological affects take place inside the brain as this is when the brain structure is being constructed.
Every fetus undergoes the development of their cognitive profile. This is what will define the person’s character, what will make that person- that person.
Testosterone is behind the process of developing the cognitive profile. The testosterone sets up the primitive human instincts to sense danger and threats, and to respond to certain stimuli- as well as to be able to socially interact with other humans, and process and regulate their own emotions.
The testosterone levels that occur inside the womb determine the exact balance of a person’s characteristics in terms of their confidence, understanding of their own environment and what defines that person.
Everyone in the world has a slightly different character. But for people with Asperger’s and autism, those levels of testosterone are more extreme, and this is what leads to the off-balance and over-development of the brain, which thus leads to the exaggerated characteristics in specific areas and at different degrees from person to person affected this way.
The Brain’s Wiring
With a better understanding the root-cause of autism, it is easier to see how autism works inside the brain throughout the rest of the brain’s functions and it’s domains.
No two brains are wired the same. All domains of the brain are connected by neuron lengths. These lengths are basically like pieces of wiring that relay information from one computer to another.
The longer the wires, the slower the information is carried. This means that the shorter lengths convey information quicker.
Each connection across the brain is built from several lengths, and these lengths are known as “wiring costs”, the shorter the wiring costs, the more required to carry the information across.
The key difference between a neurotypical and neuro-diverse brain connection is the length and number of wiring units or wiring costs.
Inside a neurotypical brain, the domains are all connected with longer, and more direct bits of wiring. Particularly from the temporal (where the amygdala is located) to the frontal lobe. This means that information moves at a moderated speed and there are less connections so the information is less likely to become lost or misinterpreted.
The wiring costs are shorter, and require more connections resulting in more complex networks and connections inside an autistic brain. With lots of smaller wires, there are more wires crossing over each other in a local part of the brain. This is a clear way to understand how and why behaviours and responses are much more complex, exaggerated and emotions are harder and more complicated to process.
Imagine if your house had that much electrical wiring, there is more danger of an electrical fault and thus a fire. This is a good analogy for the autistic brain and when an “electrical fault” takes place, that is when we may see individuals displaying heightened responses and in extreme cases- meltdowns.
The over-developed amygdala triggers a “haywire” response if a threat or fear is sensed. This is relayed through this complex system
The next part to understanding autism now, is how it actually affects an individuals daily life.
We now have a clear understanding of how autism works, but how it affects an individual physically and mentally is the next important thing to know. This is an indicator that will enable people to have better insight into how it actually feels to have autism and what it means, both in terms of challenges it poses as well as key areas of enhanced capabilities and potentials that can be unlocked.
The following traits are common as a result of over-developed parts of the brain (the occipital lobe and right amygdala), over-connected brain wiring, and increased levels of testosterone leading to altered balances of emotions:
- Difficulty expressing emotions.
- Difficulty processing lots of information at once.
- Difficulty in social scenarios (understanding social cues).
- Difficulty interpreting facial expressions.
- Difficulty understanding what other people are thinking.
- Feeling isolated/excluded from other people (in social settings).
- Feeling of constant worry and nervousness (particularly in social settings and over-stimulated environments).
- Feeling confused at the way other people behave.
- Feeling more comfortable with a daily routine.
- Disrupted routine or a change in plan causes stress and anxiety.
- Feeling anxious and scared in unusual situations or threatening situations (arguments, confrontations, sudden challenges or hardships).
- Strong focused interest on a very specific subject(s).
- A feeling of over-sensitivity towards specific stimuli (such as loud noises, bright lights, certain textures, strong smells, certain tastes, physical contact off other people)
- Having strong attention to detail in the environment.
Noises, sudden movements, lights (flashing/flickering lights), people talking in the background etc. can easily distract people with autism.
It is important to note, that not every single person with autism displays all of the traits and certainly not to the exact same degree and in the same circumstances.
Autism In Education
The current statistics for autistic young people and children in education in mainstream schools is the reason why Eric is looking to reach out to more schools and teachers.
Statistics suggest that more and more people diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, are being denied the full educational and social support that they require in order to develop their social skills and be able to thrive independently and lead a happy lifestyle, which they CAN do when given the right tools and support!