The Cerebellum and Autism

The cerebellum, which contains the overwhelming majority of neurons, even though it is much, much, much smaller than the rest of the brain, is proving to be of central importance to the traits we commonly find in autism. The cerebellum is important to processing emotions, processing language, memory, and implicit vs. explicit learning. While the article mostly talks about communication deficits, what’s of interest to me is the point about implicit vs. explicit learning, as that’s a difference I have noted several  times before. This suggests that I am right about autistics being strong explicit learners and weak implicit learners, and it also suggests why autistics have this feature of learning.

 

Advertisements

Intelligence Genes and Autism

The article is a little vague, but I suppose if you’re talking about hundreds of genes, it’s hard not to be (especially in such a short article). Using new statistical methods, scientists have found 939 new genes associated with intelligence. The article notes:

Many variants of genes associated with higher intelligence turned up in people who also lived longer and did not have Alzheimer’s disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or schizophrenia, the team reports today in Nature Genetics, suggesting that intelligence protects against these disorders. On the downside, genes associated with intelligence correlated with a higher risk for autism.

I have talked about genes and other features associated with high intelligence and autism on this blog before. While they say the connection between genes associated with intelligence and autism is “unfortunate,” I think scientists need to start wondering if this connection is more of a feature than a bug. In some forms of autism at least it may be a problem of too much of a good thing.

Autistics Helping Autistics

Medical Express has a piece on an autistic man, Kyle Barton, who lives in the Plano area and who attended UTD who has had a hard time finding a job. The title of the piece is Man with Autism Helps Design Virtual World to Make Life Better for Adults like Him. The entire thing is well worth reading, and I don’t want to summarize it. The article not only discusses his project, but goes into the struggles he’s had finding a job.

I certainly understand that struggle. Barton certainly should not be unemployed. He is a graduate of UT-Dallas and, very obviously, very intelligent. And yet, he’s struggled to find work. I have a Ph.D. from UT-Dallas, and yet the only work I’ve managed to get have been adjunct professor jobs, and temporary and part time work. I’m incredibly thankful I now have a full time job, but it’s as a paraprofessional (don’t get me wrong, I love the work I’ll be doing, but I should be making far more given my education and abilities).

While I do hope that Barton’s work will help many autistics navigate the world better and, hopefully, find and keep work, there’s a certain absurdity to someone like him or me having trouble finding employment. We seem to mostly be guilty of being socially awkward, spending too much time working at work, being too creative, and treating too many people as equals. The fact is that most people are completely intolerant of any real differences in thinking and behavior and only tolerate superficial differences.

 

Palilalia

Over the past several weeks I have noticed a new pattern in the way Daniel speaks. He will now say a sentence, then repeat the last part in a whisper (in a whisper). This is a speech disorder, or complex tic, known as palilalia. And, no surprise here, it can be found in autistics.

As I just noted, it’s a complex tic, meaning it’s not dissimilar to my own tics, or movement seizures, which are of course connected to my own autism. My movement seizures also developed later in life, so it’s not surprising that Daniel has developed this one later, at 8 years of age.

There doesn’t seem to be much about palilalia on the internet, so there’s not much I can discuss about it for the moment. I have found some discussions of its relationship to echolalia, but echolalia is the exact repetition of phrases and sentences spoken by others. It’s also found in autistics (and it something I’ve done for years, repeating things from TV and movies and integrating them into my usual speaking repertoire), but the two differ primarily in the fact that palilalia is a repetition of one’s own self-generated sentences.

There’s nothing like autism to introduce you to interesting little things the human brain sometimes does.

When I Tell You “My Son Has Autism”

If my son is behaving in a way that you don’t like or which you think is dangerous for himself or others, and I say to you, “My son is autistic,” that does not mean:

  1. That I am excusing or justifying or even defending his behavior.
  2. That you should just keep doing what you’re doing like I said nothing.
  3. That you know more about what to do in that situation than I do, even if you’re an expert (you may be an expert in whatever activity we’re doing, but you’re not an expect in doing it with an autistic child).

Rather, what it means is:

  1. You should shut up and listen, because
  2. You are almost certainly doing something that is completely ineffective, or
  3. You are doing something that will make things worse, which could mean
  4. You are creating an even more dangerous situation.

When a parent of an autistic child is telling you that their child is autistic, it’s usually because there is a situation occurring in which what is being said and done will make things worse, not better. While threats (of not doing the activity, for example) may work with neurotypical children, they don’t work with autistic children. They either won’t care or, worse, they will care a great deal and be pushed toward having a meltdown over it.

If you are actually concerned about safety, and a parent tells you that their child is autistic, it’s time for you to shut up and listen, because it’s clear to the parent that whatever you’re doing or saying is making things more dangerous. You don’t dismiss us, and you certainly don’t double down.

We parents of autistic children know what works. It’s your job to seriously shut up and listen. I cannot emphasize this enough: S.T.F.U. and LISTEN!

Now, once you are listening, once you are paying attention, you will be told how to solve the problem. More likely, the parent will have a better solution once you explain to the parent what you need from their child. And if you want to actually have a positive interaction with an autistic child, don’t threaten, don’t raise your voice–literally don’t do anything you think would work, because you’re wrong.

Rather, calmly address the child and use reason to explain to them why they shouldn’t do what they’re doing. They will listen. And they will give you the behavior you want. Because while the autistic child may often appear like they’re not behaving rationally, the fact is that they respond to reason better than a neurotypical child does.

So, please, the next time someone tells you, “My child is autistic,” just shut up and listen. The person isn’t looking to make excuses. They’re trying to help you understand. And they’re trying to help you solve the problems occurring with their child.

Autism and the 2-Year-Old Brain

I am certain that one of the ideas I have about autistics will likely annoy some people because they are bound to misunderstand it. That idea is that autistics essentially have the brains of two-year-olds. While the feedback to that linked post was all positive, I still don’t want people to misunderstand what I mean when I talk about this topic, because I know people will mistakenly think I’m just saying autistics are “childlike” or some such nonsense, or that we’re “retarded” (too bad that word hasn’t been quite retired). However, nothing could be farther from the truth.

At the same time, it occurred to me that we could look at some traits of 2-year-olds and see if my thesis is correct.

First, I want to quote a comment made on one of my past posts:

If autistic people missed part of a brain update around age 2, it would make a lot of sense to have a really good long-term memory but not so good short-term memory. Isn’t one of the main functions of a 2-year-old’s memory to learn as much new information for use for the rest of his life? At that stage in life, I would imagine long term memory would be a much better investment than short-term memory.

I think this is probably true. It would, I think, explain this aspect of the way our memories work. It would also explain why many are more visual (at the cusp of learning language, the child would actually be more visually-oriented) and also why many are good at seeing patterns (finding the patterns of the world is vital to living in it), as these traits continue to get developed through the delay. And we also know that delays in development can result in improvements in function.

So, that having been said, I want to look at the traits of 2-year-olds.

  • Temper tantrums are common in this age group.
  • They may play with other children for a short time, but aren’t yet capable of true sharing.
  • They find it hard to wait or make choices.
  • They can’t understand reason or control their impulses.
  • They love to copy adults, in both appearance and activity.
  • They may be bossy.
  • Two year olds have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy.
  • By three, most children can follow complex instructions.

We could rephrase these such that they sound like you’re describing an autistic person. While we know there’s a huge difference between tantrums and meltdowns, that difference may not be quite so clear-cut among 2-year-olds. Older autistic children typically only play with other children for a short time and have a hard time sharing. I know I have a hard time waiting, and I have a hard time making choices (as my wife can attest when we’re trying to pick a restaurant).

An interesting one is the one about understanding reason and controlling their impulses. The latter is certainly true to a certain degree. That’s our weak executive function–weak also in 2-year-olds. But if anything, we’re hyper-rational. If there’s anything we understand, it’s reason. I think, though, that our cognitive delay may in fact be among the reasons for our strong rationality. It’s more developed, because developed more slowly. Not to mention that it’s a replacement for our weak executive function.

Eulalia is essentially copying adults (or films or TV shows). We tend to be bossy. My son has a hard time distinguishing between the cartoons he watches and reality–he’s always asking me for clarification of what can and cannot happen in the real world compared to the cartoons he watches. And it’s well-established that we all have a hard time following complex instructions, but rather need things broken down.

The fact that many of these traits continue as children become older, and often into adulthood, suggests the mature-yet-2-year-old brain hypothesis–a form of neoteny–may be worth further investigation.

NOTCH2NL–The Human Gene?

There is a gene–NOTCH2NL–that is found only in humans (and Denisovans and Neanderthals, once upon a time). It’s actually part of an ancient family of genes, but this particular version is only found in humans–and, more, we have multiple copies of it.

What this gene does is slow down the development of stem cells into neurons. Why does this matter? This delay actually causes more stem cells to turn into neurons, meaning without NOTCH2NL, our brains wouldn’t have anywhere near as many neurons and thus wouldn’t be anywhere near as big.

This gene is found on chromosome 1, in the location 1q21.1. As the original article in Cell notes, additional copies of this region have been found in people with autism. In other words, it’s possible that at least some autistics have even more copies of NOTCH2NL, resulting in even more neurogenesis. More neurons could push the brain toward greater positive feedback, which seems to be a main feature of autism regardless of various potential causes.

What this implies is that the very process that made us humans–the proliferation of NOTCH2NL (after it evolved)–could be behind the emergence of autism. In other words, some autistics may be more human than human.