What is Autism?
Properly known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it is characterized primarily by two problem areas. The first is restricted or repetitive behavior and thinking. This includes fixations, concrete thinking, and over- or under- reactivity to sensory input. Fixations may be on interests (such as trains, sports statistics, or video games) or particular ideas (such as having only 2% milk with cereal every morning or how epically unfair the world is). Concrete thinking is difficulty in understanding metaphorical language, including figures of speech. A person with autism might wonder how you could believe that your grandmother is 1000 years old. Sensory integration can also be a problem in this disorder. A person might seemingly ignore their name or instructions, when really that information is not being processed in the brain. This lack of awareness might even be dangerous, leading to such things as walking out into traffic. Alternatively, people with ASD may be hypersensitive to sensations, unable to tune things out. They may be easily distracted by the air conditioning running in the background. They may be totally overwhelmed by certain smells. Things can be so intense that the person effectively shuts down.
The second area impacted by ASD involves deficits in social communication or interaction. This is due in part to difficulty in perspective-taking (known as Theory of Mind). A person with ASD will have difficulty picking up on social cues, such as whether or not the person they are talking to is interested in what he is saying. Also, in not picking up on other’s emotions, the person with ASD might appear inconsiderate by not laughing when she should or laughing when she should not. The social deficits can lead to unpleasant or even traumatizing social interactions which may contribute to low self-esteem and social avoidance. There is a lot more to it, but these are the big pieces.
The term “Autism Spectrum Disorder” was adopted in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association to contain and replace previous terms, such as Asperger Syndrome. Yes, Asperger’s as a clinical term is now officially defunct. Still, I find it a helpful term to describe those with High-Functioning Autism who have average and above intelligence and show no verbal delays.
The prevalence of ASD has been growing exponentially in the last few decades. It has gone from 1 in 5000 in 1975 to 1 in 45 in 2016. I plan to write on the reasons for this soon. Needless to say, ASD (and related disorders like ADHD and PDD) are nearing epidemic proportions and will need a lot of additional attention in the coming years.
A Promising Treatment
Now to the good stuff. A technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) has been around for quite a while now as a treatment for stubborn cases of Depression. It essentially creates a powerful magnetic field that can target a very specific part of the brain and can effectively activate or reset that area. Someone had the bright idea of activating emotional centers of the brain in those with Autism and the research was underway.
New York Magazine did a fascinating interview with one of the research participants. He described how the treatment “woke” him up to a range and depth of emotions never before experienced. He experienced music in new ways and felt empathy for others like never before. He was a bit overwhelmed by it all. What’s more, the effect of the treatment looks to be permanent.
Of course, this is really early in development and we don’t know what the long-term effects and side-effects will be. What we can hope for is that this will treat at least one of the two big components of ASD, the social-emotional piece outlined above.
There are currently three clinical trials of this treatment with Autism, as indicated here. Unfortunately, none are in the U.S. It is in the early stages, but it seems very promising. If it turns out to be effective, it could provide an inexpensive, non-invasive way to treat the symptoms of Autism. I’m also thinking we might want to hook up all the narcissists to it as well!