Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’m going to dive into the physiology of the autistic brain to explain what’s actually going on at the neurological level. I’ve touched on aspects of the science in previous posts, but I wanted to give you a quick overview post where the main points in the one place πŸ™‚

So let’s get down to some science! πŸ™‚

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Hyper-connected Neurons:

Scientific evidence suggests that neurons in the autistic brain are hyper-connected. Specifically, studies indicate that autists have too many synapses in the brain. The synapse is basically a gap or a junction between two neurons where chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) carry information like a ferry from one neuron to the next. It looks a little bit like this:

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During normal brain development, about half of the synapses we are born with are “pruned” off. In autism, this process is slowed down, and so autistic children have an excessive amount of synapses compared with their neurotypical peers. As these connections are essential to communication between neurons, this can greatly effect how the brain works and processes information.

Dysfunction at the Junction:

In addition to possessing an excessive number of synapses, communication at these neuronal junctions is also impaired in the autistic brain.

Animal studies have indicated that synapses function differently in the autistic brain as a result of genetic mutation. Mutations cause certain proteins to be absent in autism- proteins that are essential to the normal functioning of the synapse. As a consequence of this, the transmission of information between neurons is affected, resulting in a number of social and behavioral issues.

Think of physical junctions on a busy road- if something goes wrong at the junction, a chain of chaos will ensue!

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Hyper-excitable Neurons:

Research shows that in many cases of autism, neurons in certain regions of the brain are more excitable than others. This means that these neurons are more sensitive to stimulation. For example, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain (which processes sensory information such as smell), are more sensitive and excitable than other neurons. This is kind of like how a person can be more ticklish in some parts of the body than another- the nerves in the underarm are more excitable than those of the arm.

This sensitizes the autistic brain to all kinds of stimuli as discussed here.

Dysregulated Neurotransmitter levels:

As previously mentioned, information travels across the synapses in the brain via chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. In the autistic brain, the levels of these neurotransmitters are dysregulated- or out of sync. Research indicates that individuals with autism tend to have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters (e.g. glutamic acid) and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters (e.g. GABA, serotonin) causing neurons in the autistic brain to fire excessively. In addition to this, levels of the neurohormone (a chemical that acts as both a hormone and neurotransmitter) oxytocin, which plays an influential role in trust and social behaviours, are also out of balance. Moreover, dopamine (a neurotransmitter which can both calm and excite) is also dysregulated in autism. Together, the action of biochemicals like these influences a number of autistic behaviours and issues such as ADHD, mood, appetite, sleep, anxiety, sensory processing, social behaviours, learning, memory and emotional responses.

Male vs Female Brain

Perhaps one of the most fascinating Β things that I have discovered about autism are the anatomical differences between the brains of the male and female autist. Brain imaging studies have revealed that autistic women have brains that are anatomically similar to neurotypical male brains, and the brains of male autists share anatomical similarities to those of neurotypical female brains.

In short- this indicates that men with autism have feminine brains, and women with autism have masculine brains!!!

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I know!!!!

It sounds weird, but it makes a world of sense. Oftentimes I’ve felt like I had a male brain growing up- my tomboyish interests, my fashion sense, my preference for male company, my inability to walk in heels; it all fits!

Strange but true! πŸ™‚

There we have it Earthlings- hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the physiology of the autistic brain πŸ™‚ There is no clear mechanism through which autism acts, these are just some of the likely pathways involved. I’ll explore other possible mechanisms in a later post.

Have a good week everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

 

Discussion:Women & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today, I’m going to discuss a very important issue within the autistic community- gender bias and the misdiagnosis of women with autism.

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a person with autism, the majority of you will have pictured a man (most likely Dustin Hoffman! πŸ˜› ).

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The current ratio for male to female diagnosis of autism is estimated at 4:1 as the condition is thought to be rarer in women; however, many experts now believe that this figure may be as low as 2:1.

So why the discrepancy?

Did you know: Women with autism present differently to males on the spectrum?!

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Yep- as neurotypical men are from Mars and women from Venus, so too are autistic men and women from entirely different planets (maybe Krypton and Daxam for the DC nerds out there πŸ˜‰ )!

So how do women with autism differ from men?

For starters, several neurobiological studies have shown distinct anatomical differences between the male and female autistic brain (which I will explore in a separate post at a later stage πŸ™‚ ). Girls with autism are thought to have more active imaginations than boys and participate more in pretend play, often creating elaborate fantasy worlds (I had a particular penchant for this. My sister and I created an elaborate world for our teddies each night, so elaborate that our star couple had their own imaginary portable mansion when we went on holidays!! πŸ˜€ ). Reports also indicate that women have lower levels of restrictive and repetitive behaviours than men.

Evidence has also shown that women are better at recognizing emotions than males, almost as well as their neurotypical peers in fact, and demonstrate signs of better attentiveness in social situations.

As a gender, women are more socially inclined than men, and so female autists feel a greater need to make an effort socially.It is expected that women should be more social than men when it comes to communication, and as a result, we are often held to greater social standards. I can’t count how many times a teacher/my mother pulled me aside to advise or chastise me for my social ineptitude! πŸ˜› It was thought that I struggled, not because something was wrong, but that I simply didn’t try hard enough socially. Had I been a boy this would not have been the case.

One of the biggest differences between men and women with autism is the tendency among women towards social mimicry. Girls are particularly adept in masking their symptoms through observation of their peers, obscuring them from the view of parents, teachers and medical professionals.

I’m particularly guilty of doing this. For example, when someone asks ‘How are you?’, I honestly don’t know how to respond! Should I just say fine? Should I reciprocate the sentiment? Should I detail the many ways my life sucks at present?! Three of the simplest words in the English language and I struggle to respond! I eventually developed a mental phrase card in my head for common questions like these so that I would have a standard answer when called for, and 90% of the time you pass for a functioning human being! Other times you get caught off guard and situations like this happen πŸ˜› :

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My life is full of these little social coping mechanisms, which I’ll expand on separately at a later stage πŸ™‚

Finally, as previouslyΒ discussed, when it comes to specialist interests, female autists tend to have interests resembling those of their neurotypical peers (horses, Harry Potter, soap operas, Justin Bieber etc.), which can additionally hide them from view. Psychologists have also noted a ‘mothering’ tendency among peers of autistic girls, taking autists under their wing and adopting them into a social group. This further creates an illusion of social functioning for teachers, allowing these women to further slip beneath the radar.

As a result of all these differences, women are diagnosed much later than men, (men on average are diagnosed in childhood (~7 years); women as teenagers or adults) Β if at all.

But why it it only now that these gender differences are emerging?

Gender bias in autism can trace it’s lineage to the original observations of both Leo Kanner (described autism) and Hans Asperger (described Asperger’s syndrome) in the 1940’s. In Kanner’s work,Β β€˜Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact’ (1943), Kanner observed a group of 8 boys, but only 3 girls with autism. Hans Asperger on the other hand, exclusively observed groups of boys, believing that AS was uniquely male! As a result, AS was not described in women until the 1990’s!!

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I know!

Consequently, the diagnostic criteria for autism has been largely based on the male model of the condition, and as such, many women like me have slipped under the diagnostic radar.

Due to our inherent talent for social mimicry, women with autism unknowingly find themselves hidden from view. The warning signs that are obvious in males are not always visible, and as a result thousands of women go un-diagnosed, or worse still are misdiagnosed.

Mental health issues such as OCD, eating disorders, ADD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression are frequently linked with ASD’s and are particularly prevalent among women.
Experts believe that women with autism tend to internalize their autistic symptoms, leading them to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and experience higher levels of anxiety than male autists.

Women are frequently mis-diagnosed with mental health issues, whilst the underlying root ASD goes unnoticed.

The internet is filled with stories of these women who spent years in mental anguish without receiving the one diagnosis they needed. I recently came across an article where it tookΒ “10 years, 14 psychiatrists, 17 medications and 9 diagnoses” before a 21 year old girl got her autism diagnosis! You can read the article here: (https://spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-lost-girls/).

Researchers and clinicians have in recent years begun to adapt the diagnostic criteria to better serve autistic women, but there is much work still that needs to be done.

Rain Man‘ has dominated for too long- we need now to focus on “Rain Woman”.

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Aoife

 

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