4 Functional and Physiological Differences in the Brain of a Child with Autism

Have you ever felt perplexed by your child’s overly intense reactions to things that your other son or daughter hardly notices? Or maybe you find your child has virtually no reaction to things that would stir excitement and curiosity in another child?

As extremely different as these responses are, they are equally startling to a new parent.

While there is still much we don’t know about the brain, recent research suggests that very specific functional and physiological differences in the brain of children with autism may be able to account for behaviors that were previously shrouded in mystery.

There is something about understanding the background of problem behaviors that can sometimes help alleviate some of the frustration. Even though you might not be able to immediately change the situation, there can be solace in understanding, especially when you know the issue is rooted more in physiology and mechanics than psychology.

What might it sound like if someone with autism could articulate what is happening inside their brain?

  1. My Brain Doesn’t Shift Regions Like Yours

    Have you ever noticed that it can be hard for me to recognize emotion on a face or in a voice?

    In order to process the face of a friend then comprehend that they are happy or angry I need both visual and emotional information. In neurotypical brains, areas in the front and back naturally and instantaneously synchronize to make this possible.

    For me, however, it’s not so simple. My brain activates a single region and then struggles to transfer information to additional regions.

    This is also why I may have difficulties with personal pronouns… referring to myself as “you” instead of “I”. It isn’t just a word choice problem…the concept of self requires two areas of my brain to coordinate smoothly and quickly. Add the speaking component and it also involves simultaneous activation of the frontal left lobe, the part of the brain responsible for speech.

  1. When I Try To Shift My Attention, My Whole Brain Turns On

    Does it sometimes seem like I’m a bit behind in the conversation, or in responding to a situation?

    That’s because when my brain attempts to switch between tasks (for example, I was reading a book and you asked me to say hello to a visitor) my brain overcompensates. It struggles to transfer information, and then instead of simply communicating between two or three specific regions, my whole brain activates, turning everything on at once.

    It takes at least 8-9 seconds for that activity to calm down so that I can process what you just asked of me.

    Scientists think this may be because I have too many neurons in my brain… specifically the kind called “excitatory” neurons. When the ratio of these neurons to their counterpart­­—inhibitory neurons—is off, a person is likely to become more hyperactive, possibly because their brain keeps switching on full force and struggles to integrate all of the information.

    Once I can finally turn down all of this activity, I’ve already missed some of the information flow. We’ve all experienced something that compares to this feeling. Think of a time when you walked into a room where a couple of friends are in the middle of conversation and you tried to piece together what or who they might be talking about.

  1. My Brain Talks Too Much to Itself

    Have you noticed that sometimes I can’t seem to focus on what you are saying?

    It’s really loud inside of here! Even when I’m just sitting and doing my homework, without the drama of switching tasks, I can get overstimulated.

    It’s like this: Your brain smoothly filters out unimportant information – the cars whizzing by outside, the bright shirt of the person you’re speaking too, the smell of your neighbor’s lasagna – so that you can hold down a conversation or remember all the steps involved in performing a routine task you do everyday. My brain, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same kind of filtering mechanism and everything comes in at once, cluttering my conscious mind and diverting my attention.

    It’s like you’re able to turn the sounds of all those other things down to low and turn up the sound of what you want to focus on. Then, if something else seems important, you can switch over and turn that up for a little bit before switching back.

    For me, all of this information is playing loudly at once.

    Why?

    We already said that I have too many neurons. Well, many of those neurons have too many synapses connecting to other neurons. Synapses are essentially the contact points that neurons use to talk to each other… and with so many there is a lot of back and forth chatter going on.

    That’s why sometimes I need to be alone in a quiet space to get things done. Or, I may choose certain music to play through my headphones over and over to drown out other stimuli.

  1. When I Get Too Overwhelmed for Too Long, My Brain Shuts Down

    Does it seem like I sometimes suddenly turn off?

    There comes a point where so much information bombards me, or I am so overwhelmed by attempting a difficult task, that my brain can actually go into shut down mode.

    Think of it like this: Sometimes you run too many programs on your computer at once and your computer freezes. It’s stuck, and just can’t do any more.

    You can reboot a computer and the problem is solved, but my brain is a bit more complicated. One woman with autism explains her experience with shut down this way:

    “One minute I was out of control, smacking myself in the face, as one does, and the next minute I was on the floor, unable to move. I started to get tunnel vision. My hearing began to get fuzzy. My vision closed and closed like turning off an old tube-driven television, closing down to a tiny dot of light that winked out just as my hearing entirely cut out, leaving me alone in the numbly terrifying darkness.”

    The current theory is that a part of my brain becomes hyperreactive when repeatedly exposed to stress hormones, while other parts become impaired, and that begins the domino effect of a shutdown.

    While it’s true that sometimes I may simply pull back and hide behind avoidance behavior, a shutdown is something physiological that I have no control over. The best thing you can do is remove me from the current stressful situation and give me time to rest so that the hormones in my body can regulate and my brain can come back on line.