What's Different About The Brains Of People With Autism? (2023)

Jeff Hudale, who is autistic, demonstrates a face recognition test at the University of Pittsburgh in 2010. Researchers use eye tracking devices to monitor and record what he is looking at. Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette hide caption

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Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

What's Different About The Brains Of People With Autism? (2)
(Video) 2-Minute Neuroscience: Autism

Jeff Hudale, who is autistic, demonstrates a face recognition test at the University of Pittsburgh in 2010. Researchers use eye tracking devices to monitor and record what he is looking at.

Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Like a lot of people with autism, Jeff Hudale has a brain that's really good at some things.

"I have an unusual aptitude for numbers, namely math computations," he says.

Hudale can do triple-digit multiplication in his head. That sort of ability helped him get a degree in engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. But he says his brain struggles with other subjects like literature and philosophy.

"I like working with things that are rather concrete and structured," he says. "Yeah, I like things with some logic and some rules to it."

So Hudale, who is 40, does fine at his job at a bank. But he doesn't do so well with social interactions, where logic and rules aren't so obvious.

"Most people my age are nowadays married," he says. "But me, not only am I totally single, I've never even had a date."

What Hudale has done for the past 25 years is help scientists understand autism — by letting them study his brain.

(Video) Understanding the Brain Basis of Autism

Hudale's career as a research subject began in 1985. He was 13 and had just been committed to the Western Psychiatric Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic.

During his stay, a neurologist named Nancy Minshew ran some tests on Hudale and realized that his real problem wasn't schizophrenia; it was autism.

She and her colleagues also realized that even though Hudale was still a teenager, his intelligence and curiosity about what was going on in his own brain made him a great candidate for research studies.

So not long after Hudale returned home, Minshew and other researchers began asking him if he'd be willing to take part in some experiments. Hudale says he didn't hesitate.

"When I first started learning what this is really about I thought — if I can get some benefit to help my health out that would be great," he says. "But now I realized this not only helps me, but it can help other people with similar troubles, and I'm all for it."

So Hudale said yes to just about every scientist who asked him to participate in an autism study.

That was back in the mid-1980s, when researchers still considered the human brain a sort of black box because there was no way to watch the activity going on inside.

Marcel Just, a brain scientist at Carnegie University, says researchers everywhere seemed to be asking the same questions.

"How do you open that black box? How do you know what a person is thinking? How do you do it? It was just not approachable," he says. "And then the magic happened. In the late '80s and early '90s it became possible to image brain activity."

So-called functional MRI scans and PET scans began to show which parts of the brain become active when people see pictures or read words or think about certain things.

But scientists didn't start applying these technologies to autism until the late 1990s, when the National Institutes of Health began to pour tens of millions of dollars into autism research.

(Video) Reading Autistic Brain Activity

By this time, Just had teamed up with Minshew, the neurologist who'd helped diagnose Hudale more than a decade earlier. The two researchers suspected that images of working brains could show how the brain of a person with autism is different.

But to find out, they needed lots of people with autism who would be willing to lie in the noisy tunnel of an MRI tube and perform mental tasks over and over. And that's where people like Hudale became really important.

Just says scans of people without autism have showed him that in a typical brain, the activity in areas near the front is synchronized with the activity in certain areas toward the back.

"It was obvious that they were working together," says Just. "I mean we all knew in some vague way that the different parts of the brain would work together, but to find this sort of beautiful rhythmic dance together was a very eye opening moment."

When he began to study the brains of people with autism, Just realized that beautiful rhythm wasn't always there.

"There was this lack of synchrony between the frontal areas and posterior areas," he says.

And the lack of synchrony became quite clear when people with autism did mental tasks in the scanner like remembering faces. Just says that process usually involves many parts of the brain working together.

"It's one thing to recognize the visual pattern, it's another, for example, to associate the emotional response to a face," Just says. "Is it a pleasant one? Is it somebody you know and like, and so on and so forth."

Combining visual and emotional information requires areas in the front of the brain to communicate instantly with areas in the back of the brain. And that's what you see in someone with a typical brain.

But in the brain of someone like Jeff Hudale, Just says, there would be less communication and coordination.

(Video) The Neuroscience of Autism ft. 12tone

That makes sense, given the vast amount of research showing that people with autism often pay less attention to faces and have difficulty reading emotions in them.

Just and his colleagues soon came to believe that the problem could be traced to fiber tracts that connect key areas in the front of the brain to key areas in the back. The connections just weren't good enough.

Just says it helps to think of the brain as being a bit like the Internet.

"The Internet would be nothing without cabling and wi-fi," he says. "It's the fact that we have this fabulous connectivity that lets our smartphones and computers connect to each other and get information back and forth quickly."

Hudale has a more succinct version of what's become known as the "underconnectivity theory of autism."

"Well, I'll put this to you simply, like, if I'm messed up it's because my wires are messed up," he says.

When Just and Minshew first proposed the underconnectivity theory a few years ago, it attracted some skepticism. But recent evidence supports the theory.

For example, a new type of scan that shows the fiber tracts connecting various parts of the brain confirms that some of the tracts are less robust in people with autism.

If connections really are the problem, there are tantalizing hints of a partial solution. A study of dyslexia has shown that when people do mental exercises that use certain fiber tracts, the connections get stronger.

Hudale says he's not sure whether mental exercises will help people with autism. But he says he'll keep volunteering for autism studies until something does.

"I don't want to quit until they finally can get this set right and get this thing eradicated," he says. "I'd like to have some semblance of, just be a regular person like everybody else.

(Video) Genetics, Brain Connections and Autism

FAQs

What is different about the brain of someone with autism? ›

Others have found that autistic children have enlarged amygdalae early in development and that the difference levels off over time2,4. Autistic people have decreased amounts of brain tissue in parts of the cerebellum, the brain structure at the base of the skull, according to a meta-analysis of 17 imaging studies5.

What part of the brain is affected from autism? ›

Four social brain regions, the amygdala, OFC, TPC, and insula, are disrupted in ASD and supporting evidence is summarized; these constitute the proposed common pathogenic mechanism of ASD. Symptomatology is then addressed: widespread ASD symptoms can be explained as direct effects of disrupted social brain regions.

Do people with autism think differently? ›

Autistic individuals are likely to have a different way of processing information. There is a significant body of research that has advanced our understanding of the cognition or thinking styles and processes of people who are on the autism spectrum (Bowler, 2007).

How does autism change the brain? ›

In both groups, networks of brain regions increased and decreased their activity in predictable patterns. But in individuals with autism, sensory areas of the brain showed more random activity than in individuals without autism. The most random activity occurred in those with the most severe autism.

What is autism and how does it affect the brain? ›

A newly published brain-tissue study suggests that children affected by autism have a surplus of synapses, or connections between brain cells. The excess is due to a slowdown in the normal pruning process that occurs during brain development, the researchers say.

How does autism affect memory? ›

Autistic people have difficulties recalling episodic memories, including retrieving fewer or less specific and detailed memories compared to typically developing people.

What does autism do to a person? ›

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. People with ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention.

Do autistic people have empathy? ›

Every person living with autism is unique; some may struggle with empathy while others may feel completely overwhelmed by other people's feelings, and then there is everyone in between. It seems that autistic expression of empathy may be atypical.

Do autistic brains develop slower? ›

"Because the brain of a child with autism develops more slowly during this critical period of life, these children may have an especially difficult time struggling to establish personal identity, develop social interactions and refine emotional skills," Hua said.

Can you see autism in a brain scan? ›

About 1 in 44 children are diagnosed with autism by the time they are 8 years old. Researchers say MRI scans can identify differences in the brains of fetuses that could be early indicators that a child will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

What goes on in the mind of an autistic child? ›

Some of the main symptoms include communication problems like delayed speech development, and difficulty in social interactions, such as making friends, maintaining eye contact, reading people's body language or facial expressions, and expressing how they feel.

What is the example of autistic thinking? ›

narcissistic, egocentric thought processes, such as fantasizing and daydreaming, that have little or no relation to reality.

How do autistic people feel? ›

Autistic people may: find it hard to communicate and interact with other people. find it hard to understand how other people think or feel. find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable.

Does autism affect logical thinking? ›

Analytical Thinking: People with an autism spectrum disorder think in a logically consistent way that leads to quick decision making. These thinkers can make decisions without experiencing the framing effect that inhibits most neurotypicals from making decisions without bias.

When does the autistic brain stop developing? ›

This difference fades between ages 10 and 15, as brain volume in controls increases. After this period, controls continue to show gains in brain volume until their mid-20s, whereas the brains of people with autism begin shrinking.

Is autism caused by trauma? ›

Autism is a genetic neurodevelopmental disorder that is not caused by childhood trauma or abuse.

Do people with autism have larger brains? ›

As compared to both typically-developing controls or non-autistic individuals with mental retardation, individuals with ASD have a 5-10% enlargement in total brain volume at 18 months-4 years of age. The increased BS was attributed to an increase in both the gray and white matter volumes.

Can you hear voices with autism? ›

Researchers have shown that people with Autism are up to 3 times more likely to have hallucinations. Often when people with autism hear voices, they are hearing their own thoughts spoken aloud in their head.

What is a highly functioning autistic? ›

“High-functioning autism” isn't an official medical term or diagnosis. It's an informal one some people use when they talk about people with an autism spectrum disorder who can speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills like eating and getting dressed.

What are the 3 main symptoms of autism? ›

Main signs of autism

finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling. getting very anxious about social situations. finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own.

Can you see autism on a brain scan? ›

About 1 in 44 children are diagnosed with autism by the time they are 8 years old. Researchers say MRI scans can identify differences in the brains of fetuses that could be early indicators that a child will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Do autistic brains develop slower? ›

"Because the brain of a child with autism develops more slowly during this critical period of life, these children may have an especially difficult time struggling to establish personal identity, develop social interactions and refine emotional skills," Hua said.

What goes on in the mind of an autistic child? ›

Some of the main symptoms include communication problems like delayed speech development, and difficulty in social interactions, such as making friends, maintaining eye contact, reading people's body language or facial expressions, and expressing how they feel.

What are the 3 main symptoms of autism? ›

Main signs of autism

finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling. getting very anxious about social situations. finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own.

What is a highly functioning autistic? ›

“High-functioning autism” isn't an official medical term or diagnosis. It's an informal one some people use when they talk about people with an autism spectrum disorder who can speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills like eating and getting dressed.

Do people with autism have larger brains? ›

As compared to both typically-developing controls or non-autistic individuals with mental retardation, individuals with ASD have a 5-10% enlargement in total brain volume at 18 months-4 years of age. The increased BS was attributed to an increase in both the gray and white matter volumes.

Is autism a brain disorder? ›

Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication. The disorder also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior.

At what age is an autistic brain fully developed? ›

This difference fades between ages 10 and 15, as brain volume in controls increases. After this period, controls continue to show gains in brain volume until their mid-20s, whereas the brains of people with autism begin shrinking.

When is the autistic brain fully developed? ›

(2001) reported evidence of an unusual brain growth trajectory in autism. They discovered abnormal brain and cerebrum enlargement in autistic 2–4 year olds, but then slightly smaller overall brain volumes by 12 to 16 years of age (Fig. 2).

Why do autistic kids play alone? ›

Lack of Social Communication Skills

Children with autism tend to have little desire or ability to communicate or engage with playmates.

Do autistic people have empathy? ›

Every person living with autism is unique; some may struggle with empathy while others may feel completely overwhelmed by other people's feelings, and then there is everyone in between. It seems that autistic expression of empathy may be atypical.

What is the example of autistic thinking? ›

narcissistic, egocentric thought processes, such as fantasizing and daydreaming, that have little or no relation to reality.

What is an autistic person like? ›

Autistic people may act in a different way to other people

find it hard to understand how other people think or feel. find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable. get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events. take longer to understand information.

What is smearing in autism? ›

The reasons for smearing

The reason an autistic person might smear their faeces could be medical, sensory or behavioural and include: feeling unwell or in pain. being reluctant to wipe because toilet paper is too harsh. not knowing where faeces need to go.

Which parent carries autism gene? ›

Due to its lower prevalence in females, autism was always thought to have a maternal inheritance component. However, research also suggests that the rarer variants associated with autism are mostly inherited from the father.

How autism is caused? ›

We know that there's no one cause of autism. Research suggests that autism develops from a combination of genetic and nongenetic, or environmental, influences. These influences appear to increase the risk that a child will develop autism.

Videos

1. Big brains and white matter: Two studies reveal clues about autism subtypes
(UC Davis MIND Institute)
2. Update on Brain Research in Autism
(UCLACART)
3. What is Autism (Part 1)? | Written by Autistic Person
(FreeMedEducation)
4. Science Bulletins: Autistic Brains Show Visual Dominance
(American Museum of Natural History)
5. Inside the autism brain: The cerebellum
(Spectrum Autism Research News)
6. Autism Spectrum Disorder: 10 things you should know
(Telethon Kids Institute)
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