Exploring Emotion and Social Interactions in Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are serious neurological disorders, which usually present themselves in an individual before three years of age. The spectrum refers to the wide variety in severity and type of characteristics. Young autistic individuals generally appear physically normal but engage in a variety of bizarre activities that are markedly different from those of other children their age. They often appear disconnected, self-absorbed, and avoid major and minor routine changes. Both autistic children and adults are generally seen (to varying degrees) to be impaired socially and emotionally, as extremely sensitive to loud noises, lights or smells, and as having difficulty with language as well (9). In terms of social and emotional (empathic) deficits, it has been documented that autistic individuals have difficulty understanding others’ emotions as well as their own (at least in the way most people do) and this is correlated with a decreased social aptitude. What causes emotional recognition and perception to be different in autistic individuals? Despite numerous disadvantages, are there benefits to autism with regards to emotional perception, perhaps benefits to seeing the world so differently?
There have been many investigations as to the neurobiological mechanisms behind emotional and social deficits in individuals with autism. One is based upon the idea that adults often match one another’s postures, facial expressions, and emotions in an automatic manner and that this unconscious mimicry contributes to social performance. In autistic individuals, a mimicry deficit could impact an individual’s ability to grasp another person’s emotions and, if this deficit occurred early in life, the individual’s ability to form “self-other correspondences” would be impacted (6). The study determined that while ASD individuals displayed superior voluntary mimicry, they did not display automatic facial mimicry. This is interesting because it suggests that dysfunction in the automatic mimicry system increases reliance in voluntary mimicry. It therefore must take them so much longer to learn empathetic facial expressions and conduct because their development of these is not instinctual. The construction of these automatic facial expressions is known to involve a few locations of the brain, including the limbic areas and amygdala, components that have been connected with autism in other studies (5). Overall, it was suggested that autism is related to an impaired automatic mimicry system.
Another interesting study explored the impairment of autistic individual’s brain representations of the “self” and other individuals. The ability to view, process, and integrate the emotions and actions of other individuals as well as one’s own emotions and actions is a key component to social exchanges. Autistic individuals often demonstrate what can be interpreted as egocentric or self-absorbed mannerisms and this, together with an impaired social function, could implicate a difference in the components of the brain relating to self-awareness. Both the middle cingulate cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were shown to be used both differently and less in autistic individuals (4). This discrepancy in function of specific parts of the brain hints at a very biological means for the “introverted” behavior often observed. Many people have and will keep believing (unless educated) that autistic children and adults simply do not want to interact with other people or are uninterested in the world. This, however, should not be thought the case, as it seems that they most likely are interested in people, the world, and communication but are equipped differently to handle certain situations (emotional, social). It is necessary to note that they do want to interact but are unable to instinctually cultivate the necessary skills (2).
What the above studies have shown is that the social and emotional deficits involved in ASDs are related to discrepancies in multiple locations in the brain. These are not the only investigations that have been conducted and future investigations into locations involved in the development of emotion and social cues will surely be done. More locations of the brain related to these traits will most likely be found. This is interesting because not only does it demonstrate the widespread causes of these autism traits, but it also demonstrates that the severity of certain traits (in this case the severity of one’s emotional disconnect and social difficulty) could be related to the severity of the dysfunctions in certain parts of the brain. No autistic individual has the same tendencies, the same social facility, the same expression of emotion. Each brain has unique wiring and connections, and unique differences in the size (number of neurons) and use of the aforementioned (and other) locations in the brain. It is also important to note that none of this research suggests an inability to feel emotions or compassion in autistic individuals, but rather that they are unable to express or understand these emotions in a way that is, to us, socially normal.
The way in which we form a picture in our head about reality is different from that of everyone else. No brain is the same and no one’s image of the world is exactly alike. We can only try to construct a story of reality that is in harmony with as many people as is possible (3). The point is that everyone can change the way they look at things based upon new learned information from the outside world, from their own nervous systems. This ability is crucial to the development of novel ideas, innovations, and perspectives. Autistic individuals have an even different picture in their heads of the world and how it works. In many cases this can be seen as an advantage. For example, there are certain abilities that only autistic individual’s seem to have through their unique perception and experience of the world. Temple Grandin is an autistic woman who holds a Ph.D. in animal science and works to design more human methods for holding cattle. She is renowned not only for her success with this job (and as an Animal Rights activist), but also for her profound writings, intriguing autobiography (demonstrating an aptitude for self-reflection), and work as an Autism Rights activist (citation). She describes herself as one who “thinks in pictures” and is more comfortable using images in describing the world around her (concepts, memories, innovations) than language (8). Temple’s special focus allows her to diagram her inventions and run through them in her mind (from the point of view of the cattle), correcting mistakes as she goes (7). This is especially fascinating because, without this diversity in perspective, thought, and ability, we would not have many of the innovations and ideas that make our world what it is today.
A common misconception is that all autistic individuals possess enhanced abilities (in music, art, math, etc.) because, while this is more common in the case of autistic savants, most autistic individuals do not possess any “prodigy”-like abilities. Still, autistic individuals hold a unique perception of the world. Of autism, Temple believes that, “if some parts of the brain are faulty or defective, others are very highly developed, spectacularly in those who have savant syndrome, but to some degree, in different ways, in all individuals with autism” (7). Autists are generally capable of highly focusing on objects or tasks and, as in Temple’s case, some individuals can make terrific researchers, engineers or scientists. They are less likely to be as influenced by the same experience of emotions as non-autists can be and this can be an advantage to rational thinking. Lastly, autistic individuals may also be less likely to conform to a group’s ideas, which can be either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on how one views the situation. Of course, there are many disadvantages to this disorder as well. For example, socially and emotionally individuals often feel isolated and disconnected and it is very difficult for them to interact with other individuals, a daily occurrence all human beings generally find vital for happiness.
The learning and understanding of socially acceptable responses, actions, and emotions are somehow achieved similarly within a general population. In autistic individuals, however, not only do they have an impaired ability for grasping these concepts created by society, they also have trouble forming social concepts of their own with other ASD affected individuals (2). This is most likely due to the tremendous uniqueness of each affected individual’s brain. Unfortunately, this both isolates autistic children and adults from other people and makes it difficult for them to function in a society constructed by non-autistic individuals. Furthermore, while one should never suggest that it is not acceptable to be different, it is necessary for people to function in this society created by non-autists for survival’s sake. In many cases, high functioning autistic individuals are able to successfully live, work, and sustain some social interactions. It takes time but social skills can be taught to autistic individuals if these individuals are provided with individualized tuition from an early age. For example, when Temple was diagnosed at the age of 3 as severely autistic, it was thought that she would need to be institutionalized for life. Despite this diagnosis, she was sent to a special nursery school (speech therapy was used) and her mother, aunt and a few teachers were essential to her development. She was able to, for the most part, work through her social, and cognitive impairments and a whole world of imagination and creativity opened up for her. However, for many autists, this is either not the case or this is ineffective. It must be terribly lonely to live in a world where one cannot understand the actions of others and where one is unable to express emotion (happy, sad, angry, anxious, etc.) in a way in which other people will understand.
ASDs are life-long conditions but they are not degenerative and autistic individuals are quite capable of learning some social skills over the course of their lifetime (if given ample instruction). Autists are human beings that experience human emotions and desire to connect with other humans. For the most part, the main feature of autism is that they experience the world differently. Dysfunctions in certain parts of the brain have been shown to be related to the perception and understanding of emotion in the brains of autists. The brain can perform a function through a variety of different means and it is likely that even more parts of the brain will be discovered to be related as well. It is important to note that, while not all autistic individuals have prodigious gifts in mathematics or music, their unique experience of the world can be considered a benefit. Finally, it is necessary for autists to learn to function in a society created by non-autistic individuals. Oftentimes this is very difficult. Focused, individualized schooling is necessary from a young age because no one autistic individual’s brain is wired in the same way (just as all of our brains are different). A hormone that promotes social relationships and mother-child bonds, Oxytocin, has recently been indicated to improve the capabilities of autistic individuals for social interactions (1). Finally, family members, teachers, and therapists working with autistic individuals are not the only ones who must help autists. Members of this non-autist society must change their perception, understanding, and tolerance of autism. We must welcome them into this society rather than ostracize them. We must also recognize that the only true experts on autism are autists themselves and an emotional and social connection with these individuals, while difficult to establish, is necessary.
1. CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange). "Autism: Oxytocin Improves Social Behavior of Patients, Study Finds." ScienceDaily 17 February 2010. 12 May 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/02/100216221350.htm>.
2. Doyle, Barbara T. "Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Myths and Facts." New Horizons for Learning., 2003. Web. 08 May 2010. <http://www.newhorizons.org/spneeds/autism/doyle_myths.htm>.
3. Grobstein, Paul. "Bio 202, spring 2010 - Notes, con.." Serendip. Bryn Mawr College, 22 Apr 2010. Web. 10 May 2010. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/bio202/s10/notes2>.
4. Lombardo, Michael V., Bhismadev Chakrabarti, Edward T. Bullmore, Susan A. Sadek, and Greg Pasco. "Atypical neural self-representation in autism." Brain. 133. (2010): 611-624. Print.
5. Kleinhans, Natalia M., L. Clark Johnson, Todd Richards, Mahurin Roderick, and Jessica Greenson. "Reduced Neural Habituation in the Amygdala and Social Impairments in Autism Spectrum Disorders." Am J Psychiatry. 166.4 (2009): 467-475. Print.
6. McIntosh, Daniel N., Aimee Reichmann-Decker, Piotr Winkielman, and Julia L. Wilbarger. "When the social mirror breaks: deficits in automatic, but not voluntary, mimicry of emotional facial expressions in autism." Developmental Science. 9.3 (2006): 295-302. Print.
7. Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996. Print.
8. Grandin, Temple (1996). Thinking in pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. Vintage. ISBN 0-679-77289-8
9. "What is Autism? What Causes Autism?." Medical News Today. MediLexicon International Ltd , 2010. Web. 09 May 2010. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/autism/whatisautism.php>.