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How Does the ‘Autistic Brain’ Work?

December 8, 2023

The human brain is the greatest computer in the world. It can help you remember and process some of the greatest moments of your life. It can connect your thoughts to something that made you incredibly joyful or angry. But is this any different for an autistic brain?

The World Health Organization defines autism spectrum disorder as “a diverse group of conditions related to the development of the brain.” Because of this diverse group of conditions, it can be difficult for neurotypical individuals to understand the differences connected to the autistic brain.

While that lack of understanding can create problems between those on the spectrum and those who aren’t, both neurotypical individuals and neurodiverse individuals can work together to understand the “autistic brain.”

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Neurological Underpinnings of Autism

A recent study at the University of California-Davis found the brains of autistic children develop differently than the brains of neurotypical children.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found this difference in brain development was connected to inflammation and neural transmissions. This means that developmental differences in autistic brains can affect how autistic individuals learn, behave, and communicate.

This can be seen in families, such as mine, where more than one child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. My older son is much like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.

He has an eidetic memory, meaning he can visualize an image even after the item is no longer there. Often, he becomes hyper-focused on a particular topic, but struggles to understand sarcasm and why others might not like him getting too close to them. In contrast, it’s far more obvious where my younger son falls on the spectrum.

He is non-verbal and still not potty-trained despite being eight years old. He stims every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and is far more dependent on routine and repetitive behaviors in his life than most other children.

Many studies about autism have also shown that genetics play a role in autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Certain genes connected to brain activity in autistic people may slow down brain activity.

This has raised the question of whether autism may be hereditary. In my family, I have two sons and a nephew who all have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. There are plenty of adults in my family whom we question if they may have undiagnosed autism.

Sensory Processing Issues

Another developmental factor in the autistic brain may be sensory processing issues. As the autistic brain develops, the autistic individual may become hypo or hypersensitive. This means the children are either not sensitive enough or too sensitive to certain stimuli.

My younger son has demonstrated both hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity in his young life. Joey cannot get enough of hot things. He eats the hottest peppers, always tries to get the hottest sauces on his food, and even likes his showers really hot. When it comes to taste and touch, he is hyposensitive.

In contrast, when it comes to sounds, he is hypersensitive. If a sound is too loud, he’ll let you know it. His brain structure is developing differently in these two senses, which can lead to sensory processing issues. 


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Autism Parenting Magazine has covered both hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity in the past and can be a valuable resource if you notice either of these sensory processing issues.

Executive Functioning

According to The Autism Research Institute, executive functioning is a person’s ability to process information. This is important because many people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder will struggle with executive functioning.

These issues can present differently depending on the child and the autistic brain. Some may easily see the details of a situation but miss the big picture.

Some need help maintaining attention or organizing their thoughts and actions. For these people, executive functioning issues can become overwhelming.

My older son has demonstrated troubles with executive functioning his entire life. Jeremy struggles with emotional processing. He gets too excited, anxious, or frustrated, leading to behavioral issues.

He acts out and gets in trouble when he’s too excited about something he’s looking forward to doing. He becomes inconsolable when anxious or frustrated and can lash out at anyone trying to help him.

He knows the directions and instructions he needs to follow, whether it’s chores, schoolwork, or just having fun, yet he will still act up because his emotional processing just isn’t there at that moment.

Strengths of Autistic Brains

While we’ve looked at some of the potential negatives that come with the autistic brain, the significant differences in brain development can also provide strengths for autistic people.

Association With Genius

Findings suggest a link between autistic traits and many who work in STEM fields. While this doesn’t definitively mean that every genius has autism spectrum disorder or that everyone with ASD will be a genius, it does establish a connection.

Autistic Child Genius
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autistic-brain/

Attention to Detail

While autistic brain development may lead to struggles with big-picture planning, people with autism can pick up on small details that neurotypical individuals often miss.

This can be handy when recognizing patterns in speech or reading comprehension. Often, autistic individuals become experts on a particular subject even if they struggle with other topics.

Autistic Child's Attention to Detail
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autistic-brain/

Problem-Solving Skills

While some autistic individuals may struggle with emotional processing, studies have found increased logical processing for some diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

A joint study by the University of Montreal in Canada and Harvard University in the United States found autistic brains tend to solve problems 40 percent faster than typically developing children. 

Autistic Child's Problem Solving Skills
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autistic-brain/

Memory Skills

Enhanced memory skills in the autistic brain can be traced back to the earliest research of Dr. Leo Kanner, one of the pioneers of autism research. This is the strength of the autistic brain demonstrated most in pop culture.

Any television show that presents people with autism shows off this strength of the autistic brain. Enhanced memory is often the one with which the average person is most familiar.

Autistic Child's Memory Skills
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autistic-brain/

Understanding Is the Key

Understanding the autistic brain is a lifelong journey. While science has uncovered more about the human brain than most thought possible at one time, the autistic brain remains a mystery despite an increased knowledge of the subject.

While some strengths will shine through, so will some weaknesses. That’s a part of life whether the person is on the autism spectrum or not.

The best we can do is learn and grow with our children. The only way to understand their brains is to understand them, starting with listening and communicating.

FAQs

Q: How is an autistic brain different?

A: In people with autism, the brain tends to have more folds in certain areas, such as the left parietal and temporal lobes and the right frontal and temporal regions. These changes are often linked to differences in how the brain’s networks connect,

Q: How does an autistic brain see the world?

A: Individuals with autism have a unique way of perceiving the world. They often don’t focus on faces as much, avoid eye contact, can get easily overwhelmed by too much information, and may intensely concentrate on one specific thing at a time.

Q: Are autistic brains healthy?

A: The autistic brain is neither better nor worse than the typical brain. Autism varies widely, leading to diverse cognitive abilities and strengths among individuals on the spectrum.

Q: How do autistic people show love?

A:  People with autism often express love by sharing their unique interests. For example, they may enthusiastically talk about their hobbies and invite others to join these activities.

Q: Can autistic people think logically?

A: Research indicates a link between autism and a preference for logical thinking. Autism, a neurodevelopmental difference, influences how individuals think and communicate, often manifesting as a tendency toward logical thinking.

References:

Association between resting-state functional brain connectivity and gene expression is altered in autism spectrum disorder | Nature Communications
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-31053-5

Autism spectrum disorders: developmental disconnection syndromes – PubMed (nih.gov)
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17275283/ 

Autistic Brain Excels at Recognizing Patterns | Live Science
https://www.livescience.com/35586-autism-brain-activity-regions-perception.html

Enhanced visual processing contributes to matrix reasoning in autism – PubMed (nih.gov)
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19530215/ 

Frontiers | Executive Function in Autism Spectrum Disorder: History, Theoretical Models, Empirical Findings, and Potential as an Endophenotype (frontiersin.org)
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00753/full 

Sex and STEM Occupation Predict Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) Scores in Half a Million People – PubMed (nih.gov)
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26488477/ 

UC Davis study uncovers age-related brain differences in autistic individuals
https://health.ucdavis.edu/news/headlines/uc-davis-study-uncovers-age-related-brain-differences-in-autistic-individuals/2023/03

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