05 Oct Unlocking Autism Through the Brain
When you are the world’s most knowledgeable person about the human brain, it can be frustrating when your own son’s brain is a mystery. This is precisely what happened to Henry Markham, a neuroscientist attempting to build a model of the human brain with a supercomputer when his son Kai was diagnosed with autism.
He has created a new theory about why autism works the way it does and why its effects are so noticeable in many people. Autism is heavy sensory overload, and many people describe it as such. It’s like being on an alien planet where the normal actions of others are completely foreign to you, and you just can’t understand what is going on.
Every loud sound is like a fire alarm, people staring at you is the same as someone hitting you with a paralyzing spotlight, constant stimulation is a hurricane of chaos swirling around you and sucking you in. To cope with this chaos, many people with autism are obsessed with control and resistant to change. They focus on the small details they can control, and attempt to create safe spaces where they have control over what goes on.
As long as they have predictability and sameness, everything is a little bit calmer.
Being overwhelmed is the problem
With so much stimulus in the world, the autistic mind can’t cope with it all. Some of those people are even introverts or highly sensitive, and often all they need is to just be left alone to take the world at their own pace.
Sadly, that doesn’t always happen, so the mind gets overwhelmed and can result in breakdowns or people simply shutting off. Think of it like being forced to eat a large meal. At first it’s okay and you might even enjoy it, but eventually, you slow down, feel sick, and get fuller until your body simply stops eating or you get sick.
Markham calls this the intense world theory, and he argues that those with autism don’t lack social skills or emotions, but simply have too much to process. Sometimes they can even get overwhelmed with other people’s emotions.
He was one of the first people to show that brain cells fire at the same time and then connect to one another, which can change the way a person thinks, acts, and behaves. Autism is a lack of some of those connectors that make everyone else ‘normal’.
One of the major experiments that proved the intense world theory was conducted with autistic rats injected with VPA and normal rats that were both moved onto an electric grid that would give shocks. The normal rats learned to only be scared of the shocks while the injected rats were afraid of the entire grid itself, even when it was turned off.
The injected rats saw the whole grid as dangerous and shied away from it. They couldn’t comprehend that it was only the shocks that were bad, not the whole grid. This testing helps to prove Henry’s intense world theory, and if it gains steam, we might have a new way to understand and handle autism.