©David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C3c
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Autism starts with a neurological difference or vulnerability that often starts before birth or shortly thereafter and changes the pathway of development through childhood and adulthood.  Autism is a result of these neurological differences – not a cause of anything.

Autism affects how a person understands their world, and subsequently their ability to communicate with and relates to other people.   It is known as pervasive developmental disorder because it affects many aspects of a person’s development and experience in life.  However, the pattern of differences varies greatly from individual to individual.  What is common among all people that share the diagnosis is significant difficulty with social communication: the ability to understand and share one’s own experience and the ability to understand the experience and perspective of others.

Another feature of the disability affects the person’s ability to integrate their sensory experience (information uptake or input from the physical world) with coordination of their movement and thinking.  This accounts for common symptoms ranging from repetitive movements, to inflexible routines or rituals, or constrictions of interests.  In order to respond in a flexible and fluid way with an ever-changing (dynamic) environment, the mind must be able to communicate very well and very fast with itself.  The brain processes information in many ways.  Different parts of the brain process different types of information and coordinates and synchronizes with other parts of the brain in spontaneously formed and ever changing neurological “assemblies” or “nodes” so that we experience the world as a coherent “whole.”  As we move, sensory information changes, and our senses continuously update our movement.  Breakdown, slowness, or even “too fast” processing of information in one or more of these nodes can affect the synchrony or coherence of the entire network, and affect this ability to experience perceptual coherence.  The more central or pivotal the node that breaks down, or the more nodes that break down, affect the severity of the symptoms of autism.

It would be inaccurate and unfair to describe autism as complete breakdown of the sensory and motor system.  In fact, it can make for differences in thinking that are advantageous and that can offer the rest of us unique ways of seeing the world.  The neurodiversity movement maintains that autism is a difference and not necessarily a disability (the current foremost authority and advocate for neurodiversity is the author Thomas Armstrong).  For instance, it enables many to see and remember certain kinds of details better than those of us without autism.  They tend to do best in analytical fields such as engineering, mathematics, computer sciences, as well as arts and music.  Their unique abilities to focus deeply on a single subject can result in genius.  Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Ludwig von Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Edison, as well as numerous Nobel Prize winners are thought or known to have autism.

Differences integrating and synchronizing sensory and motor neural networks can result in a variety of related disorders.  Sunsequently, the incidence of related disorders such as attention deficits; Obsessive Compulsive and other anxiety disorders; Schizophrenia; Bipolar Disorder and Tourette’s Syndrome is higher among individuals with autism.

Because of these problems, people with autism often struggle to make friends, do well at school, or find appropriate jobs. However, with the right help tailored to the needs of the individual person, some people with autism can lead relatively independent lives. Others will continue to need support and understanding throughout their lives.

Intervention can take many forms, from dietary to medical to the most common form: behavioral health intervention.  Behavioral health intervention uses changes in the environment and specialized teaching and social interaction techniques.  Some of these compensate for the differences or deficits, and others remediate them.  Remediation actually rewires the brain, as does all forms of learning.  (see our article on the differences between compensatory and remedial techniques).

For more information about the nature of autism and available treatments, please visit our Menu of articles on Autism.