11 June 2009

What is Autism?

What is Autism?

There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what autism and autism spectrum disorders actually are. It’s understandable, because persons on the autism spectrum can be so individually different. Some cannot talk. Some talk early. Some are highly intelligent, others have some degree of mental retardation. Some have extreme sensory issues and some don’t. Some have motor planning problems, and some are very athletic. And the list goes on. So with all of these differences between individuals, what do these people have in common? Regardless of diagnosis - Asperger’s Syndrome, PDD, PDD-NOS, Autism or any other autism spectrum disorder, what all persons with autism spectrum disorders seem to have in common is their core deficit. Autism spectrum disorders arise from a neurological condition; a weakened area that seems to be located somewhere along the pathway that runs from the prefrontal cortex to the hippocampus of the brain. No one yet knows definitively what causes this condition.

Individuals on the autism spectrum seem to have this weakened pathway, which results in the following core deficits: Deficits in: comparative thought and interpretation, flexibility and adaptability to change, creative thought, decision-making, judgment, and memory of past positive feelings about events. In typical individuals, this pathway creates a hierarchy of comparison, and interprets everything we see, hear, do and feel. It compares one thing to another, compares past to present situations, compares how we felt before to now, separates important from the unimportant, and then uses all of that information to judge situations and come up with with unique solutions. Typical people spend most of the day using this part of their brain effortlessly, sailing through thousands of little moment-to-moment decisions with ease. But for a person on the autism spectrum, all of those tiny moment to moment decisions can be quite difficult and often scary. Because of the weakened brain pathway, individuals on the autism spectrum have a limited ability to compare, interpret and solve new situations. As a result, they remain tied to using solutions they already know, and have limited ability to deal with new or changing situations. Decision-making and judgment abilites that most of us take for granted, such deciding which way to go to the store today, interpreting and understanding the actions of other people, or even figuring out how near or far to walk next to someone often cause confusion and fear in a person with an autism spectrum disorder. As a result, the world often seems chaotic and scary to individuals on the spectrum, and other people seem to act in abrupt and unexpected ways that are just impossible for them to understand.

To try to control some of this chaos and keep things predictable, autistic individuals tend to rely heavily on formulas and repetitive sequences to get through their day. These sequences and formulas rely on a different part of the brain that usually functions quite well in persons on the autism spectrum. It’s the area of the brain that runs our “red = stop, green = go”, “2+2=4″ type thinking - very formulaic, very predictable , and very absolute thought. Unfortunately, this area of the brain is unable to compare, interpret, adapt, or see possiblities. Of course when faced with new or changing situations, when most formulas won’t work, persons on the spectrum often fall apart, out of fear of the unknown. Most of the tantrums, escape, or aggressive behaviors that we see at these times are usually “fight or flight” responses, motivated out of fear, not from being stubborn, manipulative or “bad”. One of the reasons Relationship Development Intervention is effective is because it addresses this pathway directly, by using different activities to exercise and strengthen it, much like what we do for other persons with weak or damaged brain pathways, such as persons with stroke or head injury, etc. You can find out more about Dr Gutstein and Sheely’s work via rdiconnect. Until recently, trying to understand autism has been very confusing - it’s only been explained as a series of seeminly unrelated symptoms. But once one understands the core deficit - the brain pathway that ties all those seeminly scattered symptoms together into one cohesive piece, autism becomes much easier to understand, and as a result more easily targeted and treated. Copyright 2006, Sandra Sinclair

About the Author
Sandra Sinclair is a parent of a child with PDD-NOS. Sandra assists parents of children with autism spectrum disorders to create a life that they love - life by design, not demands - through her 6-step program. She is also author of Newly Diagnosed Autism Spectrum - A free mini-course with 7 clear steps you can take to help your child with Aspergers, Autism, PDD-NOS, and other autism spectrum disorders. http://www.autismvoice.com/blog/7Ste


  1. Autism, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder are all potential pitfalls when a child doesn't have proper child development.

  2. Hi Konnie,

    Many thanks for sharing your link with us, I am sure it will help many people