According to the Autism Research Institute (ARI), Autism refers to a severe developmental disorder, which stars either at birth or within a child’s first thirty-six months of life.
A large majority of autistic children appear perfectly normal, but spend a significant proportion of their time involved on puzzling, disturbing behaviors that differ from those associated with typical children (Autism Research Institute, 2008). Normal social interaction is absent, and ritualistic, repetitive behavior and language abnormalities are the norm (Massachusetts General Hospital, 2004). Cases that are not severe may be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). T
he condition was initially rare, affecting only five in 10,000 births but the dawn of the 90s saw an exponential increase in autistic cases. To illustrate this, the Centers for Disease Control quoted a prevalence rate of one autistic case in 150 children in the year 2007 (Autism Research Institute, 2008). To understand the condition better, an analysis on the behavioral changes involved as well as alterations to the brain itself is warranted.
Thanks to advance in imaging technology, a team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital discovered that certain parts of the brain’s white matter are unusually large in autistic children. The findings confirmed the theory linking myelination, whereby the axons are enveloped with myelin, to overgrowth of the stated white matter. This echoes the findings of earlier studies on the subject that have indicated that children with autism have abnormally large brains and brain growth is rapid during the first few years of life.
The frontal lobe of the brain exhibited the greatest degree of enlargement (Massachusetts General Hospital, 2004). In a separate study, the Radiological Society of North America discovered increased gray matter with respect to the parietal lobes’ brain regions, charged with controlling human sense of environment. Larger gray matter was proportionately linked to more stereotyped, restrictive sensory behavior (Laino, 2006). Altered brain structure in autistic children is responsible for the abnormal development of the brain.
However, new research is posing questions of the belief that the effects of autism are confined to brain portions that control reasoning, communication and social interaction, suggesting that autism actually affects the whole brain. The study established that highly function children with autism had difficultly performing complex tasks that involved other parts of the brain.
The suggestion here is that different portions of the autistic brain are faced with difficulty in collaborating to process information of a complex nature. Memory, movement and balance are a few noteworthy areas.
Duane Alexander, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development director, proffers that a true understanding of autism demands a study of the factors that affect a variety of systems, not an analysis of the factors affecting one area of the brain or system (Alfano, 2006).
The fact that that autism affects the entire brain as mentioned elsewhere in this discussion points to wholesale behavioral and functional changes. The traditional basis of autism diagnosis, that is, repetitive tasks or obsessive narrow interests, problems with non-verbal and verbal communication and social interaction problems, does not cover the entire scope of the disorder. In essence, it is a global condition that affects the processing of information received by the brain; it has an impact on all of the brain’s functions (United Press International, 2006).
The main classes of behavioral influences are ‘more severe’, ‘moderate’ and ‘less severe’. More severe cases are characterized by aggressive behaviors, extensive sensory dysfunction, withdrawal, screaming and temper tantrums.
Running away, moderate sensory dysfunction, observing others, unusual noises, echolalia and noncompliance are the primary features of moderate autism. The last class, less severe autism, is characterized by panic attacks, mild sensory dysfunction, language problems as well as fidgeting, giggling and muscle tension (Layton & Lock, 2003).
To illustrate one of the manifestations of autism on behavior, Manzar Astari, a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia states that the increased amount of gray matter in certain areas of the brain affects the system governing the ability to learn and empathize by watching other people.
The working of mirror neurons, the seat of empathy, is significantly impaired, making autistic individuals unable to effectively relate to others and respond normally to day-to-day life situations (Laino, 2006).
Social cues like facial expression and tone variation mean little to them and they cannot interpret others people’s thoughts and feelings. Autism is also linked to reduced pain sensitivity, but abnormally high sensitivity to touch, sound or other forms of sensory stimulation. Autistic children may develop depression or experience a wide range of behavioral problems (NINDS, 2009).