Autism disorder may be brain-wide, say authors

Autism may be a brain-wide phenomenon caused by poor connections among the brain’s parts rather than defects in one or two areas, suggest new findings.

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By  Joanne Bladd Published  September 12, 2006

Autism may be a brain-wide phenomenon caused by poor connections among the brain’s parts rather than defects in one or two areas, suggest new findings. The results from the National Institute of Health (NIH) funded study has implications for those who teach and care for autistic children, reports Dr Nancy Minshew, who led the research. The results are published in the August issue of Child Neuropsychology. The study found that autistic children performed as well as normal children, and in some cases better, when faced with simple cognitive tasks such as spelling or vocabulary. But in tasks requiring multiple domains of the brain to work together, such as reading comprehension or understanding figurative language, autistic children performed worse than their counterparts. The results suggest that researchers seeking the cause of autism may have to step back and look at the wider brain, rather than focusing on specific areas, Dr Minshew and colleagues report. Clinicians will have to progress beyond the “diagnostic triad”, which defines autism as problems in the areas of social interaction, communication and reasoning, they add. The study involved 56 autistic children, with an IQ of 80 or above, aged from eight years old to 15. The children were assessed on their ability to perform both simple and complex tasks. Their results were then compared with those of 56 age-matched children without autism. Overall, the autistic children managed simple tasks involving sensory perception, language skills and memory. However, they struggled when confronted with more complex tasks, including explaining the meaning of figures versus speech, scoring an average of 7.4 against 9.9 for the control group. In the field of sensory perception, both groups of children could distinguish equally well between sharp and dull objects. However, in a test where the children were asked to identify a number traced on their backs, the autism group made twice as many errors as the control group. The authors call their new model of autism the “complex information-processing model”, and point to neuroimaging studies for biological confirmation of its accuracy. “Imaging studies have provided evidence of functional under-connectivity in higher order circuitry and intact lower order circuitry, analogous to the cognitive pattern observed in the present study,” they write. Diane Williams, co-author on the study, believes the findings show clinicians should think outside the box when approaching autism. “It is important to realise that autism is more than a social disorder,” she says. “You must mediate the world for these kids, because they will not get it themselves.”

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