In mainstream media we’re seeing more portrayals of characters with autism spectrum disorder than ever before.
If there’s ever a socially inept character that’s great at math or science and loves running rings round their neurotypical friends with complex problems, you can bet your bottom dollar someone, somewhere will pipe up and say it’s obvious they have autism. Think Sheldon Cooper, think Rainman, think Maurice Moss from The IT Crowd. You associate these individuals as highly intelligent beings, with the qualities of a savant, and little to no social skills.
Just how true are the stereotypes we see on our television screens and in print? Moreover, how do autistic brains really compare with neurotypical ones? Here we’ll examine what autism is and what the major differences are for people with ASD and their often termed neurotypical counterparts.
Autism occupies a broad spectrum. No two people with ASD are the same. There is no known cause for ASD, though it is thought that genetic factors do play a role.
For instance, it is believed that about one percent of the world’s population is diagnosed with some form of ASD. This includes Autism and also Asperger’s (which is now also diagnosed as high-functioning autism) and pervasive developmental disorder (which is somewhere between Asperger’s and Autism).
All these conditions are defined in some way by impaired social and communication abilities and a life that is helped hugely by repetitive, structured and in some cases timetabled behaviour and interests.
Where a person resides on the spectrum depends on how severe the impairment to their social skills are, and how much their structured behaviour affects their life. For example, some people on the ASD spectrum are non-verbal, but will happily engage themselves in an absorbing special interest or activity for hours and days at a time. Someone else may simply talk endlessly about their special interest, and not have any clue when to stop, or miss the signs that tell them the people around them want to change subject or stop talking altogether.
It is often assumed that ASD equals higher than average intelligence. However, there is much more variation than at first glance. The levels of cognitive functioning range from profoundly disabled to superior intellect. In years gone by, researchers believed that on the whole, people with ASD had a low IQ (this was down to the fact that subjects being diagnosed with autism were given common IQ tests to undertake which failed to pick up on their cognitive abilities). Newer studies are showing that half children who are undergoing the diagnostic process for ASD have above average intelligence.
Neurotypical brains differ quite widely from autistic brains, certainly in the way information is processed. We’ll explain a little more about this as we go on, but one of the major differences is that people who reside on the autism spectrum have generally bigger brains. Or, to put it another way, their brains contain larger amounts of white matter than neurotypical brains.
The scientific explanation for this is that in an infant’s earliest moments (usually between six and fourteen months) they enter a phase of rapid synapse. This is the time in which connections are made during the nerve cell’s growth. Once this phase ends, a process of ‘pruning’ down begins, in which any connections that are not required, are eliminated.
In a neurotypical brain this will go as planned and they will be left with the right number of synapses that will allow for efficient transfer of information in the brain. In the brains of babies with ASD, pruning doesn’t go as planned and they end up left with an unusually large number of synapses that prevent the same efficient information transfer.
Many would assume having more white matter would be a great thing. In the case of autism, quantity does not equal quality. What it means is that there is more potential for faulty wiring between brain cells, which means misfiring and misinterpreting information that is ‘fed’ into it.
Local hyper connectivity, or faulty wiring in the different brain regions can lead to ‘higher functioning’, hyper responsiveness to information and stimulation and suffering from extremes of attention and perception. This is where the idea of a savant comes from, someone with an innate recall for facts and information that comes from seemingly nowhere, but who can shut down totally if there is too much daylight, or too much immediate noise that would not necessarily have an impact on anyone else.
This is why people with ASD deal with sensory overload by shutting down, withdrawing or engaging in repetitive behaviour, which gives them a sense of safety, structure and calmness, to keep the seeming chaos of the world away from them, and why neurotypical people experience the same stresses, but to a lesser extent.
Another key difference between the autistic brain and the neurotypical brain surrounds socialising and the ability to form meaningful relationships or to simply socialise on a small scale.,
The accepted wisdom is that ASD means the person may appear either not interested in socialising, or not able to read social clues when faced with social situations. On the other hand, their neurotypical counterparts will be able to quickly assess and respond to a situation.
The common issues found among people with autism are (to varying degrees) inability to understand facial expressions, sarcasm, irony and humor and also in understanding the feelings and perspective of others.
However, there is now another school of thought that suggests people with autism can feel empathy and understand emotions ‘too much’ and can almost hyper-empathise and experience overly intense sensations.
It is believed that neurotypical people have an inbuilt perception to recognise facial expressions and emotion. The part of our brain that is responsible for this is called the amygdala.
The reason this belief is held is because babies will tend to smile, laugh, or look happy when they come face to face with their primary caregivers.
During our formative years we look at faces a lot and from this, we gain experience and understanding in processing and recognising emotion. Neurotypical people have this ability and hone it, while it is believed that people with ASD (in the same way they experience the issues with misfiring brain connections, that mean they can’t work out what information to process and when) find that their amygdala also has similar problems in misfiring, which in turn impairs the development of their social skills.
There is evidence to support this. In studies that involve eye tracking, people with ASD who took part, had a very distinct pattern of gaze. It was found that they either spent much less time looking at faces, when shown a film of people talking, or were found to be focussing specifically on certain areas of the face instead, such as the mouth – rather than the eyes, which was what neurotypical people who took part in the same study, did.
Empathy can be an issue for people with ASD. It is recognised that there are two kinds of empathy. Cognitive, which is “I understand what this person is feeling” and Affective, that is to say “I can feel for this person”. Until relatively recently, it was assumed that in order to gain a diagnosis of autism, there had to be little to no understanding of empathy.
So, the person on the spectrum would have no ability to recognise a person’s emotions, or how to respond. This theory has been somewhat debunked and now diagnostic criteria include the notion that people with ASD can also be empaths, they can feel their own emotions, as well as other people’s far too strongly, so the complete opposite of what we’ve always been led to believe.
Again, this very much depends on where a person resides on the spectrum. The key here is there is little to no ability to regulate how strongly, or un-strongly one might feel.
The difference with the neurotypical brain is that they have more idea on how to balance their emotions a bit better and recognise when they might be over-reacting to a situation.
This notion is called Theory of Mind, or the ability understand the thoughts, emotions and desires of others. These core skills are supposed to develop in us as children and we learn to hone them as we age. For instance, if we think about certain situations, or are engaged in conversation with someone else, we are automatically programmed to think about the following:
What does this person believe, or what do they feel? How does the other person see the situation they’re in?
These ideas and questions, whilst seemingly ‘programmed’ into the brains of neurotypical people, don’t come as easily to those with autism and they struggle to work out intentions and feelings as quickly as others.
There are many challenges that people with autism can come across when it comes to giving and receiving emotional support.
There are some people on the spectrum that do not like any form of physical touch or contact, so for instance hugging or cuddling, which can sometimes be a neurotypical person’s way of offering some form of emotional sustenance to someone who is suffering.
What this leads to is the assumption that the person with ASD is not capable of feeling love, when in fact they are, they just find the social cues about how much physical contact is appropriate to be very confusing.
This is also why social occasions and special events are often more difficult and exhausting to navigate for people with autism, than for those who are neurotypical. It can often be tricky to know and understand when to say the right thing at the right time, or to miss out on the cues to ‘chit-chat’ or small talk.
Again, this leads to the conclusion that the person who has autism has no understanding of how socialising works or appears not to care. In fact, they do, very deeply. Many want to get it right and it hurts them that they don’t instinctively know these values that other people seem to pick up and develop. It helps, if you know someone with autism to give them the time and space they need to think their thoughts through, in any situation like this.