It is clear that the autistic population is increasing exponentially in various forms ranging from Asperger’s Syndrome through to profound classical autism. What is not clear is why. Recent studies on the brain function of autistic people have given new clues and insight into this remarkable diagnosis and the people who bear it.
RESEARCH ON THE AUTISTIC BRAIN:
Science is beginning to uncover specific gene variations, which appear to be related to — if not responsible for — the incidence of autism, or the risk of it manifesting in any person (this is not new and there is plenty of research on this topic)
Brain scans reveal that children with the “gene variant” appear to have more nerve cell connections in the frontal lobe, but fewer between this area and the rest of the brain, according to Science Translational Medicine
Similarly, studies conducted at the University of California in LA used functional magnetic resonance imaging to establish that children carrying the “gene variant” had differences within the connections in the frontal lobe of the brain, as well as differences between this area and the rest of the brain.
Scientists at the University of California in LA are beginning to believe that the brain of the autistic is actually wired differently (Autism brain secrets revealed by scan; BBC News Health; 3 November 2010):
- As per Dr Ashley Scott-Van Zeeland, who headed up the research project, “The front of the brain appears to talk mostly to itself — it doesn’t communicate as much with other parts of the brain and lacks long-range connections to the back of the brain,”
- “In children with the version of the gene not linked to autism risk, the pathways were linked more strongly to the left side of the brain. In those with the “risk variant”, the pathways were different, linking the lobe strongly to both sides of the brain.”
WHAT DOES THE FRONTAL LOBE AREA DO?
It is beginning to seem clear that there is a significant difference in frontal lobe activity for the autistic person (or those carrying the “gene variant”, whether diagnosed as autistic or not). So, what is this area of the brain and what part does it play in our lives?
Many say that the frontal lobe area is what makes us human. It is that part of the brain which is more highly developed in humans than most of the rest of animal life on our planet.
Here is a brief list of responsibilities thought to be associated with this particular part of the brain
- Attentiveness of focus on a single task
- Intention and purposeful behavior
- Decision making
- Problem solving
- Abstract reasoning
- Elaboration of thought
- Control of behavior
- Working memory
- Sympathy and empathy
- Higher cognitive functions
- Thought to play a part in our spatial orientation
Emotions are generated deep inside the brain, but the frontal lobes “manage” the emotions and help us to rationalize and make conscious, intentional choices about our behavior. Research also indicates that there is increased activity in the frontal lobe during meditation (studies performed on Tibetan monks). Many believe this part of the brain appears to be the seat of our essence and nature
SOME SYMPTOMS OF DAMAGE TO THE FRONTAL LOBE AREA:
To illustrate further the connection between autism spectrum and the frontal lobe area, the following is a list of some of the symptoms of damage to this part of the brain:
- Perseveration (obsessive or repetitive behavior)
- Less empathetic
- Less sympathetic
- Unable to read social cues
- Inappropriate social judgments and responses
- Unable to detect when another is trying to deceive them
- Little spontaneous facial expression
- Less flexibility of thought
- Less behavioral spontaneity
- Difficulty in interpreting feedback from the environment
- Impaired associated learning (using external cues to help guide behavior)
- Lack of inhibition (inappropriate behavior)
This is not a comprehensive list of symptoms. In fact, profound damage to this area of the brain can lead to significant personality changes in the subject.
Nonetheless, the link between frontal lobe activity and the autistic brain should be becoming quite obvious to the informed reader.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
It would be irresponsible of the author to declare any interpretation of the data as fact. One can only speculate at this point. The only obvious fact is that far more research is needed.
It seems logical to assume that more connections in the frontal lobe region would mean heightened activity and therefore heightened ability in those areas for which this part of the brain is responsible.
Indeed, it is worth pointing out that many of the strengths of the autism spectrum profile appear to be areas of frontal lobe function. Focus and concentration, logical thinking, problem solving, abstract reasoning, working memory — very many high functioning autism spectrum people possess these abilities in varying forms to a heightened degree. Notice that these functions tend to be internal functions that require only internal communication.
Conversely, the autistic aspects that most would call weaknesses or “dysfunctional” are those capabilities for which communication with and feedback from the outside environment are crucial. This is where the wiring between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain may be impacting performance negatively as communication is breaking down within the brain.
Recognizing that the autistic brain may be wired differently from the neurotypical brain could be the beginning of a significant improvement in our understanding of this diagnosis. It could also be the beginning of an understanding that ASD people might have superior skills in some areas and can therefore offer new insights and contributions to life on our planet.