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Insight Into Autism: The Latest Brain Research

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The Centers for Disease Control recently announced that overall autism prevalence rates in the U.S. have increased, indicating that one in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum (an estimated one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls). Millions of Americans of all ages currently fall within the autism spectrum.

Most people know something about autism, yet few recognize it as a social cognition disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) impacts communication, social interaction and learning. Unlike a broken leg, for example, a brain disorder such as autism, cannot be seen, except through behavior considered "abnormal" or "different."

April is National Autism Awareness Month, a good time to put to rest some of the misconceptions about autism and to highlight exciting new brain research that will help more individuals with autism achieve productive life success.

As the fastest growing developmental disability with an annual growth rate of 10-17 percent, symptoms of autism differ from individual to individual. Some are only mildly affected and perhaps highly intelligent. They may have trouble making friends but function well in most, if not all, academic areas. Those more severely affected may not even be able to engage in meaningful give and take of communication, while still others may exhibit isolating behaviors or uncontrollable emotional outbursts, acting out in frustration.

No matter where individuals fall on the autism spectrum, those diagnosed often struggle to succeed in a world based on human interdependence. Individuals diagnosed with autism often have impaired social cognition or difficulty observing social rules, participating in social routines, or understanding and expressing emotions. For parents, this can be heartbreaking, as they wonder whether their child will be able to finish school; teens with autism yearn for friendships and romantic relationships, and adults with autism desperately want to be successful in holding down a meaningful job.

Autism may be compared to dyslexia, where the different types of reading problems in dyslexia are due to different regions of the brain not working properly. In autism, for example, networks in the brain allowing one to understand and express normal emotions may be poorly wired. To believe that individuals with autism do not need or want friends is to suggest that people with dyslexia do not want to read. They want it desperately. Individuals with autism long to belong.

Fortunately, research at the Center for BrainHealth is providing new insight into autism spectrum disorders and ways to train individuals with the diagnosis reach their fuller potential. We know certain areas of the brain are used to navigate through dynamic social interactions. We can actually see the differences in the brains of people with autism through advanced brain imaging. And we have learned that through short-term, intensive stimulation, we can "re-wire" the brain to some degree, improve the emotional awareness in individuals with high functioning autism and help them connect with others.

One of our most exciting projects uses a unique virtual reality intervention that maps and tracks facial expressions during interactions. We have hired experts in gaming technology to create a digital environment that simulates a variety of scenarios and social interactions that happen in daily life; the computer program employs dynamic technology as well as visual and auditory feedback to enhance the brain's response.

Our scientific team is partnering with researchers at Yale's Child Study Center to test the feasibility of providing the research-based training program to young adults across the country. A person with autism can use the technology to "practice" and hone their skills initiating a conversation with a person they would like to meet, interviewing for a job, or standing up for themselves by confronting a friend or colleague. Practicing social interaction in a safe, non-threatening, gaming environment helps people reduce anxiety and gain the confidence and skills they need to attempt more social interactions in their daily lives.

Participants are experiencing great results with this intervention. As one young woman put it, "It feels real. I knew it was an alternate reality, but I felt the same emotions I would feel in the actual situation I was practicing." She says she has, "now made real friends, long-lasting friends" and that the program showed her the significance of friendship.

Autism is a very difficult diagnosis, because it affects areas of the brain governing social interactions and relationships, the very foundation of family and community life. But those with the diagnosis need not feel hopeless or believe isolation is their only future. Research to enhance social cognition in autism are showing great promise, and interventions are bringing new hope for better, more connected lives for these individuals.