What happens in autism, exactly?

What is it?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means that it is characterized by impairments in the development of the central nervous system, including the brain. The signs of autism become apparent in early childhood: typical ones are problems with social interaction and both verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behavior.

The number of people affected worldwide is 1-2 per 1000. The NHS has estimated that 1,1% of UK adults are autistic. The prevalence among boys is many times higher than among girls.

What causes it?

Autism is highly hereditary, but the exact mechanisms and what genes are responsible is unclear. In those who have no affected family members, the likely cause is thought to be gene mutations during the formation of sex cells.

The signs of autism are usually noticed around the time when children are vaccinated. This has lead to claims that vaccines cause autism, and ultimately to outbreaks of preventable diseases and many unnecessary child deaths, as concerned parents have refused to get their children vaccinated. However, these claims are unlikely to be true: research has failed to show any plausible evidence for them, and any possible biological mechanisms haven’t been identified.

What happens during it?

Autism seems to disturb the timing of brain development. Autistic children have been found to have inflammation in both their central and peripheral immune systems, which compromises their normal functions. A balanced immune response is necessary for the normal development of the nervous system: this inflammation, sometimes caused when the pregnant mother is exposed to toxicants or infection, is thought to disrupt brain development.

The mirror neuron system, MNS, actives both when a person performs a certain action and when they see someone else performing the same action. This system is important in understanding the actions and intentions of others and learning new skills by imitation. The MNS is one of the brain parts that are underdeveloped in autism. One theory proposes that this plays a key role in producing the characteristic difficulties in social interaction.

It has also been found that certain brain networks used in social and emotional processing are low in activity, while the networks used in straightforward activity and thinking are normal. It has been persuasively proposed that the autistic brain has trouble with synchronizing these, and other, networks, which obviously leads to impairments in the functioning of the brain as a whole.

The empathizing-systemizing theory is based on the suggestion that people can be described by their ability to both empathize and systemize. People very good at empathizing are very good at imagining the feelings of others, and responding to the actions of other appropriately. People very good at systemizing are very good at constructing and analyzing ideas internally. Along to this theory, autistic people are above average in systemizing but below average in empathizing.

How can it be treated?

There is no cure for autism, and neither is there a standard treatment suitable for everyone, because every case is different and requires the individual planning of the best suitable treatment plan. The management of autism focuses on improving the quality of life of the affected by, for example, helping them form functional relationships and be more independent. Good educational approaches are often useful for both the intellectual and social development of a child. The role of the parents is also crucial in helping the child to achieve their full potential.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism#Characteristics, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathizing–systemizing_theory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/autism, http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Autistic-spectrum-disorder/Pages/Treatment.aspx

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