It’s a statement that every parent dreads hearing; “Your child has autism.” Unfortunately, it’s also a statement that’s being heard more frequently, as autism now affects one in every 68 children born in the United States.
Neuroscientists from around the world are trying to determine what causes autism, and if there’s a possibility to cure it or reverse its effects. In the meantime, new information is being discovered on a routine basis that lends more insight into how the autistic brain functions, and why it functions differently than a typical brain.
A recent brain imaging study performed at the Stanford University School of Medicine, for example, showed that the brain of an autistic child has problems switching from being at rest to performing a task, even one as simple as recognizing someone’s face.
This switch, from resting or inactivity to performing any type of activity — however small — is a function that a “normal brain” unconsciously performs countless times every day.
In the autistic brain this doesn’t happen. Repetitive and/or restrictive behaviors are the main characteristics of autism, and it was found that the greater inflexibility an autistic child had, the more severe these characteristics became.
This inability to “switch gears” is one of the reasons that autistic children have problems interacting with other people. Interestingly, the study showed that autistic children performed as well as their peers at completing simple arithmetic problems and distinguishing between the faces of different people.
Using fMRI scans, however, a distinct difference between the autistic children and non-autistic children was discovered. In the areas of the brain where decision-making, social tasks and identifying relevant events was performed, the scans showed that whether at rest or performing a specific task, brain activity was similar. In typically developing children the fMRI scans showed a significant difference, which is expected.
Kaustubh Supekar, PhD, the lead author of the study, was hopeful that the results of the study will be of some use.
“The findings may help researchers evaluate the effects of different autism therapies,” Supekar said, adding that “Therapies that increase the brain’s flexibility at switching from rest to goal-directed behaviors may be a good target, for instance.”