Autism and the Brain

Last week I attended an Autism Conference at Utah Valley University.  One of the workshops I attended was about the neurological difference associated with ASD.  I thought it was so interesting, and I learned a lot so I wanted to share it with you.  The presenter was Brandon Condie, BCBA, LPC.

He talked about 5 main areas of the brain, including the amygdala, hippocampus, frontal lobe, corpus callosum, and cerebellum.  The thing that I found interesting was the strengths and weaknesses of each of those areas.  It just makes so much sense if you know many individuals that are affected with autism.

Here we go.

Amygdala.  In an individual with autism, this area is enlarged.

  • Strengths include improved memory for interests and details.  Makes total sense for those individuals who know EVERYTHING about their special interest.  Makes sense for those who have Savant skills.
  • Weaknesses include a low tolerance for stress and/or anxiety.  When I heard Temple Grandin speak last year she mentioned that her amygdala is 4 times the size of a typical brain, which meant that her fear center was 4 times as big.  We see this a lot where a situation that doesn't seem frightening to us may be completely overwhelming to an individual with autism.  This explains a lot.
Hippocampus.  This area is also enlarged in an individual with autism.
  • Strengths include being logical, and is systems oriented.  Many individuals with autism excel in areas like engineering, math, etc.  We marvel at those kiddos who are unable to communicate, yet they are able to navigate things like the dvd player, ipads, computers, etc. with very little help and at a very young age.
  • Weaknesses include perseveration.  We see this in a lot of individuals with autism, once they are focused on something it is difficult to change directions.  Whether it is a topic of conversation, lining things up, or making sure everything is where they feel like it needs to be.
Cerebellum.  In an individual with autism, they may have overloaded white matter.
  • Strengths include a need for routine, and becoming an expert at a task.  As many parents know, routines and predictability are so important for individuals with autism.
  • Weaknesses include unsteadiness, delayed physical or verbal response, and anxiety surrounding sudden change.
Frontal Lobe.  The frontal lobe is enlarged due to excessive white matter.
  • Strengths include being visual learners.  Temple Grandin talks a lot about how she sees the world in pictures, and all her memories are in pictures.  That's why she's so good at what she does.
  • Weaknesses include having a difficult time with abstract thought.  This may be part of why social interactions are so difficult as well because they are not concrete.  Some of our rules as pertaining to social interactions are abstract.
Corpus Callosum.   This area is undersized.  The corpus callosum links the two hemispheres of the brains and is the source for effective communication between the two hemispheres.
  • Strengths include being able to hyper-focus on detail
  • Weaknesses include missing the "bigger picture" and being able to bring concepts together.
Learning about this information was so eye opening for me.  I've worked with a lot of kids with autism, and I see common characteristics and I know how to work with their strengths and their areas of struggle, but learning about the brain helps me to see more of the WHY. 

Joy Mano
Utah PLAY Project Home Consultant

Early Intervention Services for Children with Autism

photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via photopin cc

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