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The Autistic Brain

Understanding how differences in brain structure may influence autism

The Autistic Brain
May 2014

Kids with autism are different from their neurotypical peers. That much is known. But what is it that makes autistic kids autistic? What is different about these kids' brains versus other "typical" brains?

Dr. Thomas Lock, a developmental pediatrician with Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, says there are several observations on how and why the autistic brain works the way it does, yet no definitive ideas. What has been seen is that brains in children with autism tend to be larger and the cell connectivity is often disorganized.

Scientists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at autistic brains and have found that there are aspects of the brain that do appear different in individuals with autism. Yet, Lock says they are not so different that one could take a single scan of a single brain and say it's the brain of a child with autism. On average, he says, there are frontal lobe differences that can affect executive functions, such as planning, organizing, strategizing and managing time.

"The fact that you can see it's different is important, but it may not be a good predictor of what the symptoms are going to be because so much else is going on in the brain...If you have one child with autism, the probability of having a second child with autism is elevated. But the probability of having a child with ADHD is also elevated," said Lock. This is because many factors come into play with autism, like genes, that affect how its symptoms present.

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Tags: In This Issue, Special Needs

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