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Column: The autistic brain

“Your child has autism” is a statement made to parents for one in every 54 births in the United States.

Though highly prevalent, autism remains a mystery to many, one reason April is dedicated to raising awareness and acceptance of autistic individuals.

As defined by the Mayo Clinic, autism is a neurological condition of the brain that affects how a person perceives and socializes with others.

Additionally, autism is characterized by repetitive behaviors with persistent deficits in social communications and interactions. Being a neurological disorder, questions of what part of the brain is affected, and what it is caused by, have long sought answers, yielding many theories, yet the final answer is still, “We don’t really know.”

Think about it. Autism itself is so varied from one person to another that it’s hard to pin it down. Unlike other neurological illnesses that can be mapped with predictions made, autistic individuals are often very different. One person may be unable to speak while another gives lectures. One person may have superimposed cognitive deficits while another teaches graduate level physics.

A famous quote by Dr. Stephen Shore tells us that, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This neurodiversity is a hallmark of this diagnosis and helps to explain why autism is officially called autism spectrum disorder.

Although mainly known for its social and speech deficits, repetitive behaviors, interests or activities are important diagnostic criteria in autism. “Stimming,” an endearing term used to describe repetitive behaviors, are everyday behaviors such as pencil tapping, whistling, hair twirling and finger drumming.

Autistic individuals can take stimming to another level. (You know, go big or go home!) These stims are usually hand flapping, repetition of noises or words, clapping, finger snapping, spinning of objects, rocking, pacing or even head banging.

These behaviors in autistic individuals are often frightful to neuro-typical counterparts and may even be taken as a sign of mental retardation. That would be a false assessment.

Although intellectual disability has a 40% overlap with autism, stimming  itself  reflects a “sensory seeking” aspect of autism and manifests differently depending on age. Similarly, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) also has a 40% overlap with autism. However, autism is a different disability. By this logic, pure autism, with average to above average intelligence, should be recognized.

Neuroimaging has made great strides in autism research, determining that autistic brains are dynamic with complex changes occurring over time from childhood to adult. This offers to explain contradictions noted in many studies since findings will depend upon age. One thing of note is that autistic children, under the age of 2, have accelerated total brain volume and growth, predominantly in the frontal and temporal lobes, which decreases as he or she becomes an adult.

Deeper evaluations of the brain suggested that the cortical gray matter where our smarts and memories live increases in size at the expense of the cortical white matter (the signal relay station, coordinating connections between different brain regions). The cause of this brain enlargement remains unclear, but what is quite visible, are the many faces of autistic individuals, both unique and typical.

Many have scoured the world for cures. Some have reported to find it. Others are offended at the thought. And many, like myself, seek to encourage individual potential, and educate others into awareness and acceptance. The many opinions of those who pontificate on how to educate, medicate and advocate are as spectrum-wide as the disorder itself.

Having no cure, but riddled with stigma, autistic individuals have been subjected to many inhumane practices and erroneous diagnoses, all at the hands of well-meaning, and not so well-meaning, parents, providers and the community. Many have yet to be accepted by his or her own family, are forced into therapies aimed at making him or her “normal” or are tucked away from public view.

Current generation autistic individuals have chosen to regain the reins of their identity and re-define, for themselves, who they are. A recent congress of autistics now educates the world that they are not “a person with autism,” but would prefer to be called an “autistic person” because autism is the essence of their being. It is who they are and there’s no separating the person from the autism.

As for the new parent, still struggling with his or her own identity as an autism parent, we see you. You are not alone. You too are one in 54. Highly prevalent.