It’s commonly known that children on the autistic spectrum disorder struggle to understand emotions that you express. Until recently, I didn’t really understand why that is part of the condition that they have.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder which affects aspects such social skills, ability to interact, communicate and even how they engage with hobbies and interests that they have.
It affects roughly 1% of the population and it mainly affects males. A clue to the severity of the range of the disorder is given in the name – it is a spectrum disorder – meaning the range is broad.
As a result, the IQ levels (the intellectual capacity of the individual) can range quite significantly from below average, normal and also above average.
Some of you who are of my generation and possibly a little older will remember the famous film called Rain Man starring Tom Cruise. He had a brother who was of a particularly high-level IQ but was also autistic.
Typically, a child show signs of autism before the age of three. However, there are some cases where people are not diagnosed until into their teenage years, or even until they are adults.
This can occur because they are referred to as ‘high functioning’, meaning that a great deal of the time, they have enough skills and abilities to be able to get through life in the mainstream.
However, there might be something about their personality or how they interact with others, that raises some questions, such as their ability to cope with regular tasks or their sensory perceptions. ASD children often do not communicate well with others.
We might notice that they play alone, for example, their eye contact and gesturing and non-verbal communication is difficult for them to do.
They may find it hard to understand others which means perception of emotions can be difficult for them to translate in their minds.
We might also notice that they speak in a more monotone way, that there isn’t much inflection in their pitch or that they lack emotional tone when they speak. They may also have a great sense of comfort from routine.
There may be some sensory based issues such as not liking certain sounds, smells, or textures.
Around 70% of those with ASD have a non-verbal IQ score of less than 70, meaning that there is difficulty in being able to comprehend and understand nonverbal cues in communication.
Around 50% of all children with special educational needs also have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Whilst there has been no gene discovered yet, specifically related to autistic spectrum disorders, it is believed to have a kind of genetic component to it.
In fact, in families where one monozygotic twin has ASD it is highly likely that the other identical twin will go on to develop this condition too.
Whilst ASD may have a genetic disposition, we can’t rule out too that there may be some environmental triggers that may activate the gene that’s connected to ASD.
For example, babies that are born prematurely may be more predisposed to ASD, if the baby has been exposed to utero substances such as some medications (for example, a particular epilepsy medication is also known to trigger ASD in some babies).
However, there has not yet been any conclusive evidence to say that autism is activated by vaccines, dairy, gluten, or mercury.
By using functional MRI machines at the University of Warwick, they have made some interesting discoveries regarding how those with ASD process emotions. It transpires that the visual cortex in the brain is of particular importance when it comes to ASD.
For children with ASD, there is reduced connectivity in this region of the brain. This area of the brain is synonymous for being able to recognise facial expressions and being able to use those in the context of social interaction.
In the brains of those with ASD, that area of the brain is not functioning in the same way as it does in a neurotypical brain. The fact that it’s the visual cortex tells us it’s something to do with what they see, when they look at a person’s face. For example, their brain is not taking in finer detail sensory information about how the expressions on other people’s faces are changing. That information then doesn’t translate into meaning in their minds because of that function being reduced.
Another area of the brain is also connected. This is called the parietal lobe. Part of the function of the parietal lobe is in our ability to interact with the world around us and how we physically interact in space.
For those with ASD because of that function being impaired, it may go some way to explain why is that ASD people struggle to understand the intentions and behaviours of others.
In neurotypical brains, the gene expressed in the temporal lobe, which is responsible for language and sound processing is different from the gene expression in the frontal lobes.
This is responsible for emotion, judgement, and speech – two areas are specialised for two different functions. In ASD, the pattern is absent with three quarters of those that have been tested and the study shows hardly any gene expression difference between the two lobes.
What that tells us is, in a typical brain, we can separate the incoming information and we’re good at sorting it through and being able to understand it. Whereas in an ASD brain, it doesn’t have that same kind of sorting ability and isn’t able to get down into the nitty gritty details about what certain interactions might mean to them.
These are some of the physiological differences that we see in ASD brains compared to a neurotypical brain. This goes some way to helping us explain why an ASD young person doesn’t react to the emotions that are signalled to them, even at times when we’ve gone into some detail about explaining what certain emotions mean or represent and how they can identify them.
They may still miss those clues when they show up because it’s not built into them in the same way that it is in a typical brain.
The original version of this article was written by Gemma Bailey, director of
It was republished and rebuilt with additional content by Ian Davies