(Continued from Perceptual Warfare 20 )
So what of autists’ brains? According to scientific research, they are both larger and more complex than neurotypical brains.
“Clinical signs of autism are often preceded by or emerge concurrently with a period of abnormal brain and head overgrowth . . . male children with autism had a mean 67% more prefrontal neurons than those in the control group. . . . The autistic group also had larger than average brain weight. . . Gross examination of the brain showed no abnormalities in most autistic and control cases. . . . a pathological overabundance of neurons in critical brain regions is present at a young age in autism.”[i]
(The prefrontal cortex is part of the neo cortex, or higher mammalian brain.) From a personal blog, “My Autistic Life: Musings of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome”:
“Many researchers note that people with autism seem hypersensitive to sights and sounds. In 2007, based partly on this finding, Kamila Markram and Henry Markram and Tania Rinaldi of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne set out a theory of autism dubbed the ‘intense world syndrome’ (Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol 1, p 77). According to this, autism is caused by a hyperactive brain that makes everyday sensory experiences overwhelming. One of their planks of evidence is autopsy findings of structural differences in the brain’s cortex, or outer layer. People with autism have smaller minicolumns — clusters of around 100 neurons that some researchers think act as the brain’s basic processing units —but they also have more of them. While some have linked this trait to superior functioning, the Lausanne team still framed their theory as explaining autism’s disabilities and deficits. Mottron’s [Laurent Mottron, head of Autism Cognitive Neuroscience research and professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal] team has published an alternative theory of autism that they believe more fully and accurately incorporates autistic strengths. Their ‘enhanced perceptual function model’ suggests autistic brains are wired differently, but not necessarily because they are damaged (Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol 36, p 27). ‘These findings open a new educational perspective on autism that can be compared to sign language for deaf people,’ says Mottron. While Henry Markram maintains that autism involves a ‘core neuropathology,’ he told New Scientist that the intense world idea and Mottron’s theory are ‘aligned in most aspects.’ ‘Of course the brain is different, but to say whether the brain is damaged or not depends on what you mean by damaged.’”[ii]
An article by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative develops this idea still further (emphasis added):
“‘[W]e may define autism as a condition characterized by a brain reorganization in favor of perceptual experience,’ says lead investigator Laurent Mottron. . . ‘There are many different reasons why a clinical group would show more activation in a particular part of the brain,’ says Ralph-Axel Müller, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. ‘It could very well be that processing is actually less efficient and they require more resources in that area to perform a particular task.’ For example, in one of the studies included in the new meta-analysis, Müller’s team reported that when individuals with autism decide what a word means — such as whether a hammer is a tool — they show more brain activity in visual cortex than do controls. In that study, more activity correlates with a higher error rate on the task.”[ii]
In other words, when it comes to learning neurotypical social language, autistics may be over-qualified for the task. Compare this to Pearce’s observation quoted in PW 20: “The simpler the brain, the more specific its programming and the more readily it can efficiently interact with the earth.” If autists’ brains are more complex, then it makes perfect sense that they would be slower to develop, because they would have a larger and more-far-reaching “mapping process” to complete before they could engage with their environment. Pearce describes the difference between human and lower mammals in terms of the latter having brains that reflect “highly specific aspects of the earth,” where human brains have the potential for a much wider interface with their environment. What if autistic brains can be compared to neurotypical brains in a similar way? “The greater the potential content of the brain hologram, the slower the process of clarification.” Would this imply that autistic individuals have the capacity for a different and more complex perceptual relationship with their environment?
[ii] “Brain activity explains keen visual skills in autism, group says,” by Virginia Hughes