Sunday, February 16, 2014

Recent Brain Research and Autism

A few weeks ago, I ran across some fascinating autism research that led me to those rare and satisfying “Aha!” moments I occasionally enjoy when I’m looking for answers about autism. The first, which the CBS News reported last month, [To read this report, please click here.] came from research done at Vanderbilt University regarding why some children with autism have extreme reactions to sound. Through their studies, scientists discovered that for many of these children, sound is out of sync with the visual cues they see. Thus, a delay occurs between what they see and what they hear, much like watching a badly dubbed movie or a television show having technical difficulties where the words and pictures do not match. Specifically, the researchers determined that some children with autism have a sound processing delay in which they see the picture a half second before they hear the sound. The lead author of the study, Dr. Mark Wallace, professor of hearing and speech sciences and psychology, noted that this may explain why many children with autism cover their ears: “They’re trying to filter out that confusing information and focus on only one sense.”

To me this theory makes perfect sense, considering that even typical people sometimes close their eyes when they want to concentrate on something they need to hear or plug their ears when trying to read something in the presence of background noise, such as the television. I know that when I have tried to watch shows where the sound and pictures don’t match, I find myself closing my eyes to focus on the auditory input and get rid of the confusing visuals. However, my strength is in listening, whereas Alex, like many people on the autism spectrum, is quite visual. Blocking out sound instead would be preferable for those who rely heavily upon visual cues.

To help children with autism overcome this confusion between sight and sound, auditory processing therapy is recommended to speed up their processing of sound so that it matches what they see. While a variety of programs for this type of therapy exist, we did an in-home program known as Earobics, and Alex’s speech therapist also worked with him using the Earobics program. While this computer-based therapy focuses upon developing auditory processing, it also engages the child through a fun game-type format with entertaining characters, such as Katy the Caterpillar and Karloon, a clown with balloons. For Alex, this program definitely helped his ability to process what was said to him, and we were thankful to find a simple and relatively inexpensive solution to this problem. While this program is now marketed primarily as a way to help children learn to read, I still believe that children with auditory processing issues can benefit from Earobics. [To learn more about Earobics, please click here for their website.]

Another article I ran across a few weeks ago suggests that the brains of children with autism create more information while at rest. [To read this article, please click here.] Reported in Science Daily last month, this research from Case Western Reserve University and the University of Toronto found that children with autism typically create 42% more information than typical children when the brains of both groups are at rest. Under the direction of Roberto Fernandez Galan, an associate professor of neurosciences at Case Western, this study focused upon recording brain activity using magnetoencephalography (MEG).

Because children with autism seem to produce significant information while their brains are resting, the scientists theorized that this phenomenon may explain some stereotypical behavior and misconceptions associated with autism. For example, people with autism are thought to be detached from their environment and less interested in social interaction. The scientists believe that this excess production of information from external stimuli may explain why people with autism sometimes withdraw into their own worlds: they are focusing upon all the additional information their brains are producing. We have seen this with Alex, who appears to spend a great deal of time daydreaming, yet will suddenly make comments reflecting interesting insights. This research also supports the “Intense World Theory” of autism developed by neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markham, also parents of a son with autism spectrum disorder. In this theory, autism results not from cognitive deficits but from neural circuitry that hyper-functions, causing a state of over-arousal, as noted in sensory overload common in people with autism. [For more information about Intense World Theory, please click here.]

According to the Intense World Theory, people with autism find themselves overwhelmed by their own emotions and the emotions of others. While people with autism are mistakenly perceived as lacking empathy or concern for others, they actually care deeply, to the point that they must shut down and withdraw from others. In addition, people with autism often develop rigid routines in an attempt to control their environments, relying upon details and repetition to cope. With Alex, we have noted that he worries about others, especially their health, to the point that he becomes anxious and upset. Clearly, he does not lack empathy; he just doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. Also, he establishes routines and relies upon measurement, such as time and height, to classify and organize. What looks like obsessive-compulsive behavior may actually be a brilliant coping skill to deal with a brain that takes on too much information. However, sensory integration therapy and behavioral therapy seem to help him deal with an overwhelming world. Hopefully, continued research into how the autistic brain works will reveal that instead of being a disability, the mind of the person with autism could be assisted with therapy to reveal greater strengths and insights than ever thought possible.

“That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.’” I Corinthians 2:9


D Marcotte said...

I also saw these articles and found the information interesting. I am a mother of a 14 year old with Aspergers and while her sensory issues have diminished as she has matured she still has an amazing sense of taste - which allows her to be a fantastic baker.

I too hope that these studies lead to therapies to help our kids manage a world that can be overwhelming and that they help the world learn to deal better with our kids.

God Bless

Pam Byrne said...

Dear D,
Thank you for your nice comment; I'm always pleased to hear from other parents whose children are on the spectrum. :) I totally agree that we parents hope that research can help our kids adapt and function in the world.

How wonderful that your daughter's taste has become an asset as she has developed her baking skills! Alex has great visual acuity that helps him spot small details others would miss. I think he would make a great proofreader someday. :)

Wishing you and your family many blessings!
Take care,

Anonymous said...

That is a really interesting study, Pam. Thanks for sharing it!

Pam Byrne said...

Thanks for your note, K.C! I have always found brain research fascinating (Nearly every elective I took in my undergrad and graduate work was in psychology.), and now that interest has taken on new meaning with Alex. I just keep praying that some scientist will figure out a way to really help those dealing with autism.