Sunday, April 10, 2011

Autism: signs of a reorganized brain

By Steve Rensberry  

 A recent study of autism completed by researchers at the University of Montreal's Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders adds weight to the growing view that people along the autism spectrum not are so much broken and in need of repair as they are merely different, carrying with them their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.
   The question that has puzzled researcher is why autistic children seem to have unusually high capabilities when it comes to processing visual information. Their conclusion, as detailed in the study, was that the brains of people with autism are simply organized in a different way, with areas at the back of the brain developed to a higher degree than areas that are traditionally more involved with organization and planning. Autism, in other words, may more accurately be described as a reorganization rather than a disorganization of the human brain.
   In a statement from the university, research director Dr. Laurent Mottron gave this  summary of its significance: "We synthesized the results of neuroimaging studies using visual stimuli from across the world. The results are strong enough to remain true despite the variability between the research designs, samples and tasks, making the perceptual account of autistic cognition currently the most validated model," Mottron said. "The stronger engagement of the visual system, whatever the task, represents the first physiological confirmation that enhanced perceptual processing is a core feature of neural organization in this population. We now have a very strong statement about autism functioning which may be ground for cognitive accounts of autistic perception, learning, memory and reasoning."
   The dominant view has been that autism is simply a disorder that needs to be fixed. It may not be fully understood and the cause may be undetermined. But it is still viewed as a disorder, often to be treated with various formers of behavior modification techniques or pharmaceuticals. This latest research from the University of Montreal is one more indication that the traditional approach may be wrong, if not detrimental to those with autism.
   If the brain is indeed organized differently, it could be argued that trying to alter its fundamental organization using drugs or psychological methods in effect would turn an organized brain into a disorganized one. Learning and working with each individual's unique strengths and weaknesses would seem the better approach.
   The study was published in the April 4 edition of Human Brain Mapping, produced by the Organization for Human Brain Mapping based in Minneapolis, Minn.
   Research funding came from a variety of sources, among them the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

For further research:
Perceptual Processing among High-functioning Persons with Autism
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
The Sunday Times

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