Autism is not what you think it is

Empathy (noun)
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Photo Credit: EKG Technician Salary

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of social or occupational impairment. ASD is continuously defined and re-defined, but you may know of this developmental disorder by the names of Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, but these are terms no longer used in medical practice.

A very important characteristic is the difficulty in relating to others, a defining symptom is often when a child does not turn to face the person calling them by name, or avoids eye contact. The lack of empathy in affected individuals is also characteristic of other callous-unemotional traits, as in other psychopathies.

Research published September 1st in PLOS One investigates the link between  ASD and Psychopathic callous-unemotional traits that result in un-empathic behavior by sampling over 5,000 twin pairs from a UK cohort. Their use of twins in this study was primarily for differentiating between genetic and environmental factors and other independent factors that may be of influence.

The researchers concluded from their indexed parent-report on autistic traits and callous-unemotional traits that even though social and communication impairments and callous-unemotional traits were highly heritable, the genetic and environmental influences were largely independent. In other words, the factors that cause the same behavioral traits observed in both conditions are not caused by the same factors.

The authors also note that the social responses observed in ASD are the result from the inability to identify others’ emotions. On the other hand, the behavioral responses observed in children with callous-unemotional traits are the result of a lack of concern for others’ feelings.

One of the most important ideas to keep in mind is that correlation does not imply causation, and this study proves such a claim: just because there are behavioral similarities in observable behavior, it doesn’t mean that they have the same genetic basis. The size of the study population only makes the statement all the more substantial given that the larger the sample size, the more significant the results.

Kamila and Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have also conducted research to understand what causes autism behavior at a neuronal level. Their review of experimental findings on a rat model of autism reveals that the Intense World Syndrome may be far more likely and suggest the autistic brain is a network of hyper-reactive and hyper-plastic neuronal circuits. In other words, people with ASD perceive the world so intensely, they assimilate so much information that their amygdaloid complex might become negatively affected. The amygdala is involved in determining the emotional significance or value to sensory information received, so too much information could result in the inability to determine what kind of emotional response is appropriate.

The underlying genetic basis of autism is unknown to date because of the variety of degrees and behavioral patterns related to the disorder; however, we can often get more insight into its root causes and consequences by looking into other diseases, syndromes, and disorders. For example, who knew that autism might have a genetic link to schizophrenia? And, maybe this link has to do with a “war” of paternal and maternal genes?

If you thought autism was only related to difficult or anti-social savant-like geniuses like in Rain Man or Temple Grandin, then just think that the puzzle may not be a 2D puzzle but a 3D puzzle instead!

Who doesn’t love Rain Man? I leave you with flashback of Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise