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Autism as a Neurological Disorder: Explained

Autism is a developmental disorder, extensively studied and given due attention in the 40s by two clinician-scientists Leo Kanner and Johann ‘Hans’ Friedrich Karl Asperger. Autism is a lifelong disorder which leaves a profound effect on individuals and their families. 

Essentially a complex neurodevelopmental disorder, autism presents with impairments in language, communication, cognition, emotional expression & socialisation and seemingly meaningless repetitive behaviours. Autism is understood today as a spectrum disorder, and may differ from child to child. Some children may showcase mild symptoms, while others might display severe Autism Spectrum Disorder symptoms and signs. 

These conditions can be severe to mild, affecting the individual’s speech and learning abilities, sometimes both, sometimes just one. Some of the conditions in the spectrum include autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger Syndrome. 

Understanding Autism as a Neurological Disorder:

ASD is a neurological and developmental disorder as it is something that begins from childhood and continues for the rest of their lives. Doctors and scientists are still unable to find the exact cause of autism. However, considerable research points to reasons that stand out the most - genetics and environment. Some scientists have found certain genes that are associated with autism. It has been found that people with autism spectrum have some inconsistencies in certain brain regions during the course of development. Studies have also shown that people with autism tend to have abnormal levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, which could be caused by defects in genes. 

Diagnosis: 

Autism is a complex disorder which requires many levels of evaluation by the doctor and her/ his team. A full assessment for autism would thus involve a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, developmental paediatrician, neurodevelopmental and occupational therapist, speech and language therapist, and some other specialists to lead to the correct diagnosis and management plan. Obviously not all children will need evaluation by each of these experts; the presentation of the child will determine the involvement of various experts in the given case. After a thorough evaluation, the parents or caregivers of the child are given a clear explanation about the findings. Perhaps the most critical form of assessment is when a parent or caregiver has observed the child from day one and took notes of anything different. This observation helps the doctors narrow down the diagnosis significantly. 

Some of the most common neurological features found in ASD are explained below:

  • A person with autism spectrum showcases stereotypies, referring to repetitive movements and behaviours such as the flapping of hands, rocking back and forth, head nodding, etc.  

  • Sensory issues are quite evident in a person with autism spectrum. It should be understood that people in the autism spectrum tend to perceive sensations quite differently. On the one hand, they may showcase a peculiar hypersensitivity to various stimuli such as sounds, light, feeling, smell, etc. In that case, they find enduring exposure to such stimuli extremely challenging and will avoid the same (sensation avoidance). On the other, they may feel stimuli less; in which case they seek to reaffirm this for themselves with repeated exposure (sensation seeking). 

  • About 80% of people with autism spectrum tend to have some motor coordination difficulties. Studies show that these motor coordination difficulties affect the person or child’s fine and gross motor skills. Children with autism could be a few months behind in terms of their fine motor skills owing to the neurological differences and their sensory processing. Difficulties in balance and body awareness are displayed when the child plays sports or does simple activities like riding a bicycle or carrying something substantial. They may find it difficult to sign their name, too. But these can be treated if it is detected in the early stage itself, heavily relying on the parents’ or caregivers’ observations.

  • Seizures are said to be the most common neurological complication in the autism spectrum. However, not everybody with ASD endures seizures which are often characterised as an abnormal electric firing of the brain. Similarly, Epilepsy, which is essentially recurring seizures, is something that only a third of people in the autism spectrum endure. Certain signs to watch out for are intense staring, stiffening, rhythmic and uncontrollable shaking and loss of complete attention. 

  • Challenges related to speech and language can be a challenge to people with autism. Some individuals in the autism spectrum cannot speak or communicate with ease. Moreover, they find it challenging to comprehend facial expressions, body languages, tones, etc. Several speech-language therapies can help in improving a person with autism’s verbal and social communication over time. 

From a Neurobiological Perspective:

According to Vivek Misra, a clinical neuroscientist and specialist in neuromodulation at Buddhi Clinic, it is hypothesized that the deficits in social cognition and related cognitive function in autism results from reduced synchronization between these key brain regions during social and emotional tasks, with recent studies suggesting that autism could be a ‘neural connectivity disorder’. It is suggested that autism emerges from a developmental cascade in which a fundamental deficit in attention to social stimuli beginning as early as infancy leads to impaired interactions with primary caregivers. This results in abnormal development of social cognition which in turn adversely affects later behavioural and functional domains. 

Perhaps what needs to be understood is that learning is genetically programmed but environmental activity dependant. With intervention and care at the early stages, autism can be managed and treated with fewer difficulties. We understand the challenge ahead and thus provide the best care for all our clients. Visit Buddhi Clinic for integrated brain and mind care using the best of ancient medical traditions and modern scientific advances.

 

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