How Does the Brain with Autism Work?

Cara Marker Daily, PhD

Have you ever wondered how the brain of an individual with autism works? I love studying the brain. It is the most complex organ in the body. Everyone’s brain is different, whether you have autism or not. When it comes to autism spectrum disorders (ASD), we have learned a lot about the brain in the last 10 years. Numerous studies document how individuals with ASD have more neurons in their brains compared to neurotypical individuals. These neurons may be disrupted or impaired, causing overconnectivity or underconnectivity in different parts of the brain.

So what does this all mean?

Several researchers, including Nancy Minshew from University of Pittsburg, have described certain intact and impaired abilities that individuals with ASD have based on brain research. In talking with adults with autism, many have reported similar abilities or impairments.

Those abilities that have been described as Intact include the following:

Basic attention. Basic attention means the ability to attend to one thing at a time. For example, if I had four items on my desk, such as a phone, a pencil, a piece of paper, and an eraser, an individual with ASD would only be able to attend to one item at a time. If attending to the pencil, that individual with ASD would not be able to attend to the phone, paper, or eraser.

Elementary motor. Most individuals with ASD have intact elementary motor skills. Elementary motor is defined as performing one motor skill at a time. If they have any other impairments in motor abilities, this would likely be related to a separate motor disorder.

Sensory perception. Individuals with ASD have intact or even enhanced abilities when it comes to sensory perception. Each individual with ASD is different. Some individuals of ASD may be more sensitive to sounds than lights. Other individuals may be more sensitive to touch then smells.

Simple memory. Individuals with ASD have an intact or even enhanced simple memory. It is important to not confuse simple memory with complex memory. Simple memory can be detailed. Many individuals with ASD can tell me every specific detail of a situation. This is called simple detailed memory, meaning they are attending to one piece of information at a time.

Formal language. We also know that the phonological and grammatical elements of communication, are intact and may be enhanced. This is why some individuals with ASD may talk more formally than neurotypical individuals. If an individual with ASD is demonstrating other communication impairments such as articulation delays or an expressive or receptive language delay, this would be considered a communication disorder that is not related to ASD.

Rule-learning. The rule-learning aspects of the brain are intact or enhanced. This is typically why individuals with ASD are extremely focused on schedules or rules. When a schedule or rule is changed or not being followed, the part of the brain that allows them to be flexible does not work the same as a neurotypical individual.

Visuospatial processing. Most individuals with ASD have intact or even enhanced abilities in visual spatial processing. They are not only visualizing what they hear, but they are processing information visually and spatially. For most individuals with ASD, visual information is their primary language.

Those abilities that have been described as Impaired include:

Executive functioning. Many individuals with ASD have an impairment in the temporal and prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning. This higher-level cognitive functioning may include difficulties with inhibition, flexible thinking, problem-solving, planning, impulse control, concept formation, abstract thinking and creativity.

Integrative processing. Any type of integrative or complex processing may be impaired. For example, complex sensory, motor, memory, or language skills are going to be difficult for an individual with ASD. This is because they are only able to attend to one skill or piece of information at a time. Have you ever wondered why techniques that use Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) work with the ASD population? ABA breaks down complex tasks into single parts. ABA techniques teach one basic skill at a time, thus setting up the child up for success.

Visuospatial facial recognition. Individuals with ASD have difficulties with facial recognition. If individuals with ASD are only able to attend to one piece of information at a time, they may only be able to attend to the individual’s nose or mouth. In fact, if you ask adults with ASD how they recognize another person, they will typically tell you by another characteristic, such as their hairstyle or their skin tone.

Concept formation. Concept or prototype formation is the ability to organize information into different categories. For example, a neurotypical developing child at the age of two may see a poodle, cocker spaniel, and shih tzu, and call all of them “dog.” In comparison, an individual with ASD might say, “That is a poodle, a cocker spaniel, and a shih tzu.” The ability to create the concept of “dog” does not work the same way in their brain.

Auditory processing. Many individuals with ASD appear to process auditory information in the right hemisphere (occipital lobe) instead of the left hemisphere, which means they are processing auditory information visually. I have heard many individuals with ASD say, “I see in pictures.” This now makes sense. If an individual’s primary language is visual then it would be helpful for us to talk less and use more visuals. That is why using techniques like the picture exchange communication system (PECs) is helpful in teaching individuals with ASD.

Understanding the brain with autism is quite complex, as it is with understanding the brain of any individual, whether that individual is neurotypical or not. The more we know about the brain, the more we will know what interventions are the most effective in working with ASD.

This blog was brought to life by PESI speaker and author Cara Marker Daily, PhD, a licensed pediatric psychologist with over 20 years of experience providing assessment and treatment for children with autism in the home, school, hospital, and community settings. Dr. Daily is the president and training director of Daily Behavioral Health, a leading behavioral health provider in northeast Ohio specializing in assessment, consultation, and treatment of autism, anxiety and disruptive behavior disorders. She is also the founder and executive director of the Building Behaviors Autism Center, a nonprofit organization that provides free and reduced cost applied behavioral analysis services to families of children with autism spectrum disorders.

Read more from Dr. Daily in her newly released book "The Key to Autism: An Evidence-based Workbook for Assessing and Treating Children & Adolescents."

Topic: Autism

Tags: Sensory Disorders

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