Understanding Autism: Causes, Genes, Brain Function, Symmetry
The ease with which one can access information about health on the Internet can seem both a blessing and a curse. Rather than having to wait till some autism organization’s newsletter comes in the mail with updates about “the latest” in autism research, I check Google news and other sites frequently.
I just have to read one study and my mind goes over so many events in the past 12 years since, one hot Minnesota summer, my son Charlie was in the process of being diagnosed with autism. I read the Los Angeles Times about a study that found that, for women with specific gene mutations who did not take prenatal vitamins in their first month of pregnancy, there is a seven times greater risk of having a child with an autism spectrum disorder. In general, the researchers (the study is published in the online version of Epidemiology) found that women who took vitamins prenatally or during the first month of pregnancy were half as likely as women who did not to have an autistic child.
As a result, and after reading more about the study in Science Daily, I spend the rest of the day trying to remember when I started taking prenatal vitamins. What if…
Two other studies resonate more as they seek to understand why Charlie does what he does.
One study looks at the molecular brain structure of autistic individuals. As US News & World Report says, examination of post-mortem brain tissue samples from 19 people with autism and 17 without has found differences in the gene expression of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Gene expression is “process by which a gene’s DNA sequence is copied into RNA to produce proteins, which perform specific tasks within the cell.” In the brains of the autistic subjects, the frontal lobe (which is involved with judgment, language, planning, social cognition and personality) “closely resembles” the temporal lobe (which is involved with language and emotions). Such differences affect how the parts of the brain function and communicate with other parts; it’shoped that new medications that can help brain functioning might be developed from this research.
I think of my son. I’ve read other studies about how synaptic connections are abnormal in autistic individuals and often in observing him try to do things, it just seems obvious that (in my layperson’s understanding), the parts of his brains struggle to work in coordination. This morning, for instance, it took him over an hour to drag himself out of bed to go to school. Admittedly, some of this could be due to his being a teenager. But Charlie understood what he needed to do and wanted to ride in the car, go to school, see his teachers and classmates. Getting that message from brain to body was happening very slowly as is often the case for Charlie: For instance, we’ve also noted such when Charlie tries to talk and he can’t get the parts of his mouth and lips and all to form whatever words his mind is thinking.
This study, which was published in Nature, does not address why autistic persons’ brains have such differences. It’s not that I don’t want to know why Charlie is as he is; over the past years, my husband and I figure he’s as he is because of, well, us (just like any other child is the product of their parents, genes, environment).
A third study described in Canadian Press is the sort of thing we feel we’ve the most to learn from. This study, published in PLoS One, seeks to understand how autistics perceive the world. This study by Armando Bertone of the Université de Montreal-affiliated Perceptual Neuroscience Laboratory for Autism and Development looks at something we’ve often noted in Charlie, his idiosyncratic processing of sensory information. Autistics are said to perceive symmetry better, says Bertone. Indeed Charlie is forever arranging objects from shoes to chairs to dishes in neat formations perhaps the better to see them:
Bertone’s research group found that, as with people who are not autistic, symmetry across a vertical axis was the easiest to perceive. An example of this would be the two sides of a human face.
At the same time, he found that people with autism have a heightened sensitivity to symmetry in general — whether it is vertical, horizontal or diagonal — as compared to non-autistic individuals.
“Overall, autistic people’s sensitivity to symmetry is better than non-autistics’,” he said.
He thinks the difference is rooted in the ability of autistic people to isolate detailed, local information, while still processing global information.
In his research paper Bertone describes this as seeing the forest and the trees — rather than just the forest or just the trees.
Symmetry may stand out to an autistic person because symmetry has a structure to it. Imagine your face and draw a vertical line down the centre; one eye is the same distance from the line as the other eye.
“Kids with autism seem to like very systematic changes, structure,” said Bertone. “And this symmetry is a nice visual example of this in that it’s a very structured-type information.”
Bertone’s study doesn’t look at precautions a women took (or didn’t) on realizing she was pregnant, or at the “abnormalities” of the autistic brain. The PLoS One looks at what it’s like to be autistic and offers the rest of us some clues to better understanding and supports individuals like Charlie.
With the increase in children being diagnosed on the autism spectrum (1 in 38 according to a just-published study), all of this research is important. But let’s not forget that, rather than dwelling over much on “risk factors” that might contribute to autism, we should make it a priority to understand the world through the minds and eyes of autistics, the better to support them throughout their lives.
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Arrangement of Leapsters and pens by Charlie Fisher.