GABA Receptor and Synaptic Pruning

Recent research suggests a role for GABA receptor in synaptic pruning. Autism (and schizophrenia) are often associated with a lack of synaptic pruning, meaning neurons are more active, with positive feedback dominating.

GABA is associated with negative feedback, meaning the brain slows down to a steady-state. Glutamine is similarly associated with negative feedback. Glutamate is associated with positive feedback. All of these are neurotransmitters. More, they are closely related to each other, and can be biochemically derived from each other.

This suggests a few potential pathways to autism. If there is a problem with the GABA receptor, you would not get enough pruning. But if there is not enough GABA being produced, you would have the same effect. A mutation on either the GABA receptor protein or on one of the enzymes associated with GABA production could have pretty much the same result.

Neurons with unpruned dendritic spines get more input than do those properly pruned. The more input a neuron (or other complex system) has, the more is acts as though there is positive feedback. Indeed, it can result in increasing cycles, driving more input. In essence the brain becomes more hyperactive, at least until a physical limit is reached, at which point the system crashes, cycling down.

The result is a more active brain that may have some difficulty learning new things, but which may at the same time show exceptional abilities because of the higher activity. While the senses themselves won’t show increased activity at the source, you would see increased activity in the brain, resulting in the sensory overload associated with autism. One would even expect a certain degree of “phantom” sensory information–as we see with schizophrenia. Indeed, this association between autism and schizophrenia (which I keep coming across in different ways) does suggest that the old categorization of autism with schizophrenia meant that the researchers at the time were on to something.

Also, unpruned dendritic spines is a feature of a child’s brain before they turn two (more or less). The fewer pruned dendritic spines (and less cell death of neurons, which also occurs around the age of two, in conjunction with the pruned dendritic spines) there is, the more an autistic person will act like they are two years old, perhaps even younger. This can explain the neotenous features of autism, even among those of us who are considered to be only moderately autistic. And if the brain is kept in a pre-verbal state by being kept in an even younger state than that of a two-year-old, it can go a long way to helping us understand why there are nonverbal autistics.

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Research on Autism in School and Work

SRI International reports some recent research on work, schooling, and autism. They note that although people on the spectrum are particularly strong in STEM areas and the ways of thinking that would make them successful in these fields, we still see too-low college enrollments and too-high unemployment, even among those who graduate.

These are issues we clearly need to address through better education about both the needs and the skills of people on the spectrum. The fact of the matter is that this is an institutional issue. Institutions evolved to meet the needs of neurotypical people expecting to only ever deal with neurotypical people. If we want to change our institutions, we have to change people’s attitudes, understanding about autism, and acceptance of autism.

We need to accentuate the positive even while addressing some of the differences neurotypicals interpret as negatives.

10 Positive Traits of Autistics

Everyone talks about the problems people with autism have–social awkwardness, literalism, various sensitivities, etc.–but few talk about the various strengths people with autism have. Fortunately, there is now a list of the Top 10 positive traits.

We need to talk more about these positive aspects.  Yes, we have terrible short term memories, but we have exceptional long term memories. We tend to think in sounds and images and patterns, have enhanced motion sense, and are highly imaginative. We are detail-oriented, we are extremely creative, reliable, loyal, and comfortable with repetitive tasks. We tend to be less deceptive (likely due to our literalism and strong moral sense) and non-judgmental.

Note that many of these things are traits businesses say they are seeking in a good employee.

Social Bonding and the Gut

Many with autism have gut problems, and most of the time those gut problems are related to the bacteria in our guts. I certainly have gut problems, especially but not exclusively related to gluten, so you will on occasion read something on gut-related issues.

Which brings me to recent research that showed that there is a relationship between the kinds of bacteria present in the gut and degree of social bonding. While close social bonds will result in the easy spreading of pathogens, they will also result in the easy spreading of beneficial bacteria as well–which can in turn reduce the likelihood of getting pathogens. We also know that the greater the biodiversity of one’s gut flora, the healthier the gut.

Of course, if strong social interactions, including frequent touching, is necessary to maintain a strong immune system and a healthy gut, it should perhaps not surprise us that autistics have immune system and gut problems. Many of us are very sensitive to touch, especially human touch, and try to avoid it (either directly or indirectly), and this sensitivity can very considerably from day to day.

Social contact, stress physiology and gut microbiome are all intensely related. Your social contact defines how much stress you interact with, and both can influence the cocktail of microbes in your gut.
Of course, autistics are famously anxious and stressed as well. Well, it turns out that high anxiety is also connected to touch, as I’ve noted before. Lower stress also helps you maintain healthy bacteria in your gut, so strong social bonds that include a great deal of touching is both directly and indirectly beneficial to your gut microbiome. Equally, avoiding such contact means you won’t benefit from these same social gains.
Ironically, given the fact that social interactions cause us anxiety, and yet we need social interactions to reduce anxiety, we on the spectrum seem to be fully impaled on the horns of a dilemma.

What to Teach High-Functioning Autistics

There is a a review of the studies on high-functioning autism (HFA) in the schools that basically comes to the conclusion that more research needs to be done. Of that I have no doubt. As a substitute teacher who prefers taking special education classes, I have seen students literally across the spectrum, from those who could not be anywhere but a self-contained special education classroom just for them (and many who are there simply to give their parents a break) to students that you wonder why they aren’t in a regular class to those in regular classes and just receiving additional services.

Many secondary students with HFA are often not served in self-contained special education classes and may be perceived as difficult, unmotivated or socially awkward. In such cases, when students’ needs are not addressed, they may not be as academically successful as they could potentially be. This could lead to more problems as they exit secondary schools, such as a decreased likelihood to participate in post-secondary education, obtain/maintain meaningful employment and fewer career prospects.

I know when I was in elementary through high school that I was considered difficult, unmotivated/lazy, and socially awkward. And I certainly was not as academically successful as I potentially could have been. In college especially, I did very well in classes which excited me–ranging from my molecular biology and biochemistry classes, organic chemistry classes, and applied and environmental microbiology class, to Introduction to Philosophy and economics, the latter two of which directed me into the decision to go into the humanities–but not so well in any class I either didn’t find interesting or which I didn’t see any purpose in taking (I suspect those two areas overlapped).

While I most certainly did participate in post-secondary education–and did so with a vengeance–I have been unable to obtain/maintain meaningful employment and I have found very few (none, actually) career opportunities. So I certainly agree that more needs to be done. Of course, nobody was going to do anything for me in the 1970s-1980’s, when I was in school, since nobody knew there was anything unusual about me, except my high intelligence. Smart but lazy, gifted but argumentative–that was me. Except, it wasn’t really laziness (I was always working on my projects). My argumentativeness would now be called Oppositional Defiant Disorder, especially since I don’t really recognize anyone’s authority over me (treating everyone as equals all the time is a feature of autism, too).

Autistics need to be taught social skills in the same way all children have to be taught math or reading. Neither math nor reading are natural, so they have to be taught directly, and they have a hard time sticking (which is why few people can write well and why spelling errors persist) and are the two areas more likely to involve “learning disabilities.” For autistics, there’s nothing “natural” about social skills, though such skills are in fact natural for non-autistics and thus the details are very easily acquired by them. We do not acquire them so easily. We often see social rules as arbitrary and we thus don’t see why we should take them so seriously–or why anyone else should.

Any teaching of social skills thus have to take these facts into consideration. It cannot be assumed that autistics can learn social skills the same as non-autistics. In fact, when it comes to learning social skills and cultural traditions and such, autistics come closest to exemplifying the otherwise completely wrong blank slate theory of the mind. A theory completely untrue for the average person turns out to be a reasonable assumption with which to start when it comes to teaching autistics social and life skills. Everything must be explicitly stated, everything must be explicitly taught.

Daniel’s Stoic Philosophy

Last night Dylan threw up after having had a stomach ache all day. Waiting to get in the shower after he threw up, Dylan was very upset and said he hopes he never gets sick again. Daniel responded, in perfect stoic philosophy fashion, that Dylan will indeed get sick again.

Of course, most people would take such a statement as literally the opposite of comforting. We’d be outright offended if an adult said what he said. However, Daniel meant it as a kind of comfort. It was clear, from the way he said it, that it was meant to help Dylan be less upset. If he’s certain to get sick again, it makes no sense to get this upset now about it. Perfect stoic logic.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Daniel demonstrated stoic logic. Dylan is a bit OCD, and he cannot stand to get any water on his clothes. And I do mean the smallest drop of water will make him want to change clothes.

One day, while I was wetting his hair to make it more manageable, I got his shirt a little wet. Dylan of course started complaining that I got the shirt wet and that he wanted to change his shirt. Daniel overheard him and came and tried to comfort him by explaining the concept of evaporation. He told Dylan that over time the water would turn into air, so there was no point in getting upset, since the shirt would be dry soon.

Again, this was Daniel trying to comfort Dylan. Daniel takes a very practical approach to solving emotional problems that is likely to seem cold to most people. But if you think about it, what’s a better demonstration of concern than to actually help you change the way you think about a situation so you’re no longer upset?