Autism, Brain Overgrowth, and Pruning
For many families that have children with autism, they live in a frustrating fog of uncertainty. Â They don't know what "causes" autism, nor do they know what people are doing about it. Â In fact, as with the case of my wife and I, many have no clue what autism is until faced with the challenges and joys of having a child with autism. Â My first question was what caused it, and then what I could do about it. Â Well, recently (within the last 12 months), a study was completed and presented to the neuropsychological community that suggests an overgrowth of brain neurons could contribute to autistic behavior. Â Basically, this is what happens from birth to age 6: Â A child's brain will grow a lot of neurons that are randomly connected. Â This allows the brain to absorb and record a lot of information at a very young age. Â Once that information starts to process, children begin to go through a "pruning" process, which is accelerated at age six. Â This pruning process removes many of the random neurons in the brain, leaving those that have developed. Â But with some autistic children, the brain tends to "overgrow", developing more random neurons than most "normal" children. Â This means they are processing more information from visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory or gastronomical inputs. Â Often this input is so overwhelming that they need to "unplug". Â This presents the bulk of autistic behavior. Â Your face is too detailed for them to take in, so they can't look you in the eye. Â They get overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, and smells in a store, so they need to cling to you or start to scream. Â Often they will just lay down on the floor to try to get sense of their surroundings, or focus on one object very intently, trying to block everything else out. Â If that were not enough, children with autism tend to either have a delayed pruning period, or do not prune at all. Â Those children with more severe autism would most likely fall within this group, with Asperger's children having an overgrowth in the brain, and those with PDD will have a delayed pruning period. Â At least, that makes the most sense to me. Â It will be interesting to see if that is confirmed with subsequent studies. Â So what does this mean to the parent that is uncertain? Â It means that there is hope! Â Children with autism can "rewire" their brain by going through intensive training. Â Going through tasks at each step, each sub-task, each skill that is required to complete the entire task. Â As such, even if pruning is delayed or fails to happen, the neurons can be directed and merged into those tasks, allowing the autistic child to operate at a more functional level. Â For a more detailed explanation of the Pruning portion of the neurological studies on Autism, check out this article I have on my website from theÂ Department of Neuropsychiatry, University of South Carolina, as published in the Brain and Development, The Official Journal of the Japanese Society of Child Neurology. Â It outlines the impact of pruning, and the discoveries found in classic autistic children.