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Autism and Asperger syndrome: new research on brain reactions in stressful situations

It's well-documented that individuals on the autistic spectrum have a greater tendency to react dramatically to tricky social situations. Autism consultant Ann Memmott explains how new research is beginning to cast light on why this might be - and its implications for how others should deal with an autistic individual who's in distress.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Jul 15, 2021

Autism brain scan

Autism has fascinated many of us for years - especially those of us who, like me, are autistic. Old myths held that autism was a behavioural condition, or an expression of a rude or nasty personality, and as a result many parents, carers and teachers resorted to behavioural techniques to 'cure' autism - and wondered why nothing seemed to work.

Now, new brain scans are delivering fascinating results for those on the autistic spectrum. The latest ones appear to show that in many cases our brains have too much wiring in them - and not all of it connected to where it should be.

What the brain scans show

Brain scans showing what happens to someone autistic when they encounter a situation that requires a lot of social thinking appear to suggest that there may be a serious physical brain problem to overcome.

The image (above) on the left shows what happens to a neurotypical brain in such a situation: the brain sorts out what it's seeing by using specialised wiring (shown in colour). It's built for the job.

For what may happen in those of us with autism, look at the right-hand image of the brain's activity. It seems that, for many of us, our brain may fire up almost every circuit it has. Many autistic people describe the feeling as painful, confusing, debilitating, exhausting.

With strong links being found to epilepsy for many on the autism spectrum, it seems the brain may be giving itself a painful electric shock of some kind; some form of 'silent epileptic seizure'.

As a result, frightening social situations or any other overload of incoming information may cut out our ability to speak, or cause us to say or do random, over-emotional stuff for a while.

It's new science, but some scientists are now theorising that this may be what lies behind many unexplained autism behaviours - not a 'bad personality', but an electrical short-circuit.

What effect does brain 'over-firing' have on behaviour?

Sensory overload is another challenge for eight out of 10 of us. With senses that may take in far too much information from the world around us (sights, sounds, textures, tastes, temperature, smells, etc), our brains may be always close to this sort of 'brain over-firing' episode. As a consequence, we may live in fear of that happening, because of the pain and/or the recovery time afterwards.

It may help to explain why autistic people can shy away from big, noisy social events, and why our response to bullies tends to be dramatic and panic-stricken rather than calm and sensible. We often struggle to see and interpret body language and eye contact from others, and to hear tone of voice accurately.

How should other people react?

Giving us time to process any social mistake or situation is vital, as is giving us a quiet space to retreat to, in order to stop our brain wiring from 'overheating' and allow it to 'cool down' again.

When encountering any autistic individual showing signs of distress, keeping sensory input low is important:

  • Make explanations of social mistakes quiet and gentle
  • Keep information short and simple
  • Allow us to retreat for a break when we need it

Very few autistic people ever start life as deliberately rude or nasty to others, but many would be rightly terrified of being near people whose behaviour and responses can trigger that type of disastrous 'overfiring' response in the brain.

Little wonder, perhaps, that many of us retreat from the world and try so hard to stay away from busy, noisy places and situations - or that children with autism so often run away or hide under desks and behind curtains.

With most autistic young people not yet able to find places and school classrooms that are designed to be 'overload-free', they can struggle to make good progress. They can also find it very difficult to make friends and have any long-term quality of life.

New research of this sort may help us to understand how to make life easier and possible for the one in 100 of our young people who live with autism. Many of us are wonderful friends; loyal, caring, honest and gentle. But we need to build up trust in people, and we need people to take autism seriously. 

Last updated: almost 6 years ago