This is the first in a series of blogs related to the Autism Spectrum. I hope you will find it worthy of your time. Until recently Autism and Aspergers Disorder were defined separately and now are contained within the designation of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This blog post addresses across the spectrum.
Throughout my life I have interacted with individuals on the Spectrum. My first experiences with autism were in college as a Special Olympics volunteer, a Boys Club worker, a VISTA Volunteer in a preschool for developmental delays and in a a county "Community School" in Appalachia. In my art teaching career I continue d to interact via art in the public schools. Late in graduate school practicum and internship I connected once again with autistic clients. More recently I worked at Foothills Gateway in Fort Collins engaging with adults on the Spectrum and in my private practice on the Front Range. I have been blessed with grandson who is on the Spectrum. I have a love for working with young adult "Aspies" and their families and continue to do so in the Montrose area.
Individuals diagnosed with ASD have one-sided social interactions. They can be intensely absorbed in circumscribed topics. They are often socially isolated. It si important to point out that they are not unaware of the presence of others. Individuals on the Spectrum are interested in making friends. Two limiting factors in this area are: social awkwardness and insensitivity to interpersonal communications.
Individuals on the Spectrum experience difficulty reading facial expressions, in particular recognizing fear. Research shows they tend to identify/ see separate facial features but not the face as a whole. the brain science part to this is what is called damage to mirror systems. This damage creates deficits in reading biological emotions. (refer to the writings of Louis Cozolino to further your knowledge.)
More brain science? There are speculations / theories as tot eh cause of damage to mirror systems but no definitive answer yet. ASD individuals also avoid making eye contact They are relatively 'blind" to the idea of significance of direction of eye gaze.Research shows ASD individuals have some structural irregularities in the cerebellum region of the brain. The cerebellum is responsible for coordinating motor movements, controlling muscle tone, maintaining equilibrium and balance, modulating and timing language and modulation and timing in affect regulation. Thats a lot of function! And much of this function is relevant to how ASD individuals interact and relate to others.These irregularities show up in dysregulation of how one experiences one's body in time and space. The result is avoidance of unpredictable stimuli. ASD individuals prefer sameness and predictability. Another result is rhythmic self stimulation. The internal absence of equilibrium/ balance/ modulation, or the internal regulation of sensory input is chaotic internally The ASD person's response is self stimulation via rhythmic movement to quiet the chaos. Sometimes as a family member we see an individual that is "set off", over stimulated and we are unable to understand what the source is. We look for a trigger. It may simply be internal chaos that the individual is coping with. So their "go to" is self regulation coping strategies.
The cerebellum helps us organize sensory and motor input. It has been suggested that the cerebellum plays a role in affect regulation, attachment and positive self image. The cerebellum helps us attune to others by eye contact, shared gaze, positive share interactions. These functions are disrupted and creates some deficits as the brain is developing. The deficits in affect regulation, social judgement and empathy happen as the frontal brain circuits ads develop and they are connected to the cerebellum. We also rely on close relationships for these three qualities to take shape: affect regulation, social judgement and empathy. So the input from family interactions, therapy and social skills training are of great importance to the ASD individual giving them support and growth opportunities.
Our brains are shaped by experience. Our brains reflect what we learn. As we connect an d grow and gain in socialization our brain neurons connect and grow and gain complexity. Relationships have a huge effect in regulating our growth of neurons. Relationships can increase the neural growth, increase our metabolic activity and increase our metabolic growth. Maybe that is another blog topic for another day?
To summarize, ASD individuals can gain social skills including empathy, facial recognition/ emotion reading ability and can overcome to some degree the mirror system damage to the cerebellum.
All the Best and Be Well,
Sally Blevins MA LPC
If you are interested in assessment for therapy related to Autism Spectrum Disorder please contact Sally Blevins MA LPC at Connect Therapies LLC. We can coordinate care as follows:
Sally Blevins MA LPC, www.connecttherapiesllc.com/contact Connect Therapies for psychotherapy with higher functioning individuals, family support and coaching, referral to ABA services, referral to accessible online evaluations without the typical six month waiting period and without the need to travel to the Front Range.Connect Therapies takes Rocky Mountain Health Plan Medicaid and Prime.
Over The Rainbow Consulting, https://www.otrbehavior.com for ABA therapy, testing and evaluation, services for lower functioning individuals, family support and coordinating educational support.
Clear Child Psychology, www.clearchildpsychology.com for assessment using the CADE online assessment tool, less wait time for assessment followed by referral to therapist including those who take Medicaid, family support, coaching, educational support including online learning.