Brain Awareness Week (March 14-20) is a time for celebrating the good news about the brain from the labs of neuroscience. Some exciting insights include the brain’s ability to change at any age, and how human relationships sculpt brain tissue through changes in chemistry.
However, there is still a significant amount of unfinished business, particularly on the subject of autism. Effective medicines are not available or even on the horizon, while the number of diagnosed cases soars.
What is causing this outbreak of autism? No one knows for sure, but what doesn’t cause it is clearer. The genes present at birth account for only about 15% of autism cases, so apparently some factors interfere with brain development after birth. Theories abound, from vaccines to diet to environmental toxins.
In honor of Brain Awareness Week, let’s consider some important findings about autism contributed by neuroscience. Autism is a brain development disorder distinguished by atypical patterns in neuronal connections. It usually appears by the age of three, revealed by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. There is a wide range, or “spectrum,” of symptoms’ intensities and impacts on brain function.
So, what is the typical brain supposed to be doing in the first three years of life, and how does autism change the brain’s mission?
Out of necessity, a human baby’s brain is an attachment machine. Given that it takes the human brain many years to develop fully, the baby’s survival depends on successful bonding with other human beings who can feed and care for the child as the brain matures. As a result, the brain’s right hemisphere is dominant during the first three years of life. This is the side that mediates emotional activity and recognition of faces and voices.
Autism is associated with excessive left brain activity during this stage, when the right brain is supposed to be in charge. It occurs in boys about four times as often as in girls, probably due to a prenatal tendency for males to be more left-brain oriented.
In addition to an overactive left hemisphere, the autistic brain has inefficient activity in a team of neurons called the “default network.” This network forms a ring around the brain right about where a crown would sit on your head, coordinating key areas all around the brain.
The default network’s main job is to orchestrate identity, a distinct sense of self as a unique personality. It also plays a key role in attention, motivation, and memory. Interestingly, this is the same area affected by Alzheimer’s.
Social scientists classify autism as a psychosocial disorder, defined as a disconnect between the individual’s emotions and the social environment. Anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Alzheimer’s are also considered psychosocial disorders.
The term “psychosocial” was first coined by the famous 20th century psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994), a student of Freud who pioneered research on identity formation through life stages that present crises to tackle and virtues to acquire. He was ahead of his time–brain research has since revealed that physical changes in the brain occur at different ages that correspond neatly to his stages.
According to Erikson, there are two key identity development tasks between birth and age three, the period when autism usually shows up:
- Stage 1. (Infants, 0 to 1 year) Virtue- Hope, Crisis-Trust vs. Mistrust Question: Will others meet my needs for food, comfort, and affection?
- Stage 2. (Toddlers, 2 to 4 years) Virtue-Will, Crisis-Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt Question: Can I do things myself or must I always rely on others?
Several thousand years earlier, the world’s religions deeply pondered identity, using different language than we do today. They all honor some version of the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This teaching implies that the way we treat others affects us as well.
Both testaments of the Bible address identity in terms of an individual’s spirit and heart, while today we prefer words such as identity, personality and energy. The individual’s relationship with God is central to maintaining a healthy identity.
The Bible also teaches that the individual’s identity requires a social context, which is neuroscientifically correct! The Old Testament emphasizes the tribe’s role in identity, whereas the New Testament focuses on how interpersonal relationships impact identity.
In Matthew 16:20, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Even Jesus needed others whom he trusted to confirm his God-given identity as the Messiah.
So what are some practical, common sense implications from these body-mind-spirit insights into autism and identity?
- Attachment, attachment, attachment. Children under three need a steady diet of the sensory mediators of human attachment—eye contact, touch, voice, warmth, hugs, snuggles, giggles, smiles, and laughter. Come to think of it, we all can benefit from these at any age! Anxiety, anger, and aggression are toxic to healthy attachments and should be minimized at home. Kittens and puppies are very good attachment teachers, but computers, televisions, and other impersonal mediums are not.
- Focus on right-brain activities. Children under three or autistic kids of any age can benefit from right-brain activities, including body movement, hands-on activities, music, art, drama, and interaction with plants and animals. Social interaction abilities should take precedence over left-brain activities such as reading, writing, arithmetic, and equipment use.
- Who am I? Every person is born with some innate, divinely bestowed aspects of identity already formed in the brain. Encourage children to express these personal inclinations to build autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Pay attention to your own identity as well, asking others what your gifts are. We all have a purpose for being here, and we need help from those we trust to discern what it is and live into it.
- Transcendence. Positive psychology associates gratitude, fun and humor with transcendence, while neuroscience confirms that laughter and fun promote brain health. God can help to keep our brains healthy if we do our part—give thanks, have fun and keep the faith.
Jesus said that all things are possible with God. This is certainly true when it comes to our brains, no matter what challenges we face in life. It’s never too late for our brains to improve. Thanks be to God!
Phyllis Strupp is the author of “The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert” and Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum She is a brain fitness coach, CREDO faculty member, and serves as the co-chair of the Carefree Kiwanis autism committee.