Neuroplasticity and the autism spectrum

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

When you hear the term ‘mindfulness,’ what do you think of?  Personally, I think of wellness-related practices such as yoga, walking meditation, and mindful-thinking.  The word mind, however, is not equivalent to the word brain.  The brain is a complicated organ filled with neurons and neural pathways; despite this fact, the terms mind and brain are often used interchangeably.

Part Versus Whole

Different minds think differently, and those differences are what interest Temple Grandin the most in this TED Talk, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds, which I recently had the pleasure of watching.  It was enjoyable in part because Grandin is well-versed in the business of social interaction and public persona.  Her talent in public speaking and lecturing flies in the face of the stereotype of people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—now referred to as being ‘high-functioning’ on the autism spectrum—as socially awkward or difficult to understand.

In fact, she’s studied social interaction, comparing it to stage acting: “Because the thing about being autistic is, I had to learn social skills like being in a play.  It’s just kind of—you just have to learn it.”  She makes the point that people on the autism spectrum tend to think in terms of details, as opposed to generalities.

Grandin outlines three main types of thinkers on the autism spectrum:

“Here are the types of thinking: photo-realistic visual thinkers, like me; pattern thinkers, music and math minds. Some of these oftentimes have problems with reading. You also will see these kind of problems with kids that are dyslexic. You’ll see these different kinds of minds. And then there’s a verbal mind, they know every fact about everything.”

So you see, when it comes to neurology and autism, the difference really is in the proverbial details.

Neuroplasticity

In a way, our brains are malleable like plastic, in the sense that new neural pathways can be created through the act of consistently practicing new habits and behaviors – hence the term neuroplasticity: plastic is invoked because of its inherent pliability—“the brain is more pliable…between birth and two years of age, between 4 and 6 years of age, and around puberty.”—children and students diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum respond most favorably to ABA therapy if the instruction begins at a relatively young age—at age three or four, for example.

In this way, neural pathways are ‘roads’ or grooves, of sorts.  According to the Center for Healthy Minds, when you establish a new routine or habit, such as practicing the piano or walking every day, the neurons in your brain fire off and create new pathways in the brain:

When given a challenging situation your brain hasn’t encountered before, it can reorganize and restructure to respond to that situation.  The more often your brain is exposed to that new challenge—like learning a musical instrument, for instance—the more it reorganizes and makes that path more established.

Neurocounseling & Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Consistent therapy sessions incorporating cognitive behavioral therapy will help the most, as there are usually multiple issues to be addressed beyond the physical—such as emotional health.  One indicator of emotional health is recognizing the need to self-regulate one’s emotions and reactions to events in our everyday lives.  Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin is both a professor and a private counselor specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

Enter ‘neurocounseling,’ a type of therapy based around the early-21st century discovery of neuroplasticity.  It has been found that giving neurofeedback makes a detectable difference in children and adults with ADHD, substance addiction, food cravings, and mental illness.  In addition, neurofeedback has also proven extremely effective for children diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, according to Bradley University: “This technique also lessens aggressive behavior while enhancing the ability to communicate, cooperate and maintain attention in children with autism.”

Applied Behavior Analysis

Although Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), also known as ABA therapy, has proven to be a highly effective therapeutic and instructional technique for children diagnosed with autism, ABA is still mired in controversy and myths.  As with the widely debunked yet popular myth falsely linking autism to vaccines, ABA therapy is very controversial among circles of parents who contend that it is unnecessary, cruel, or even abusive.  However, when practiced correctly, ABA is a highly effective instructional technique that is much more compassionate than allowing a child to go untreated.

Moreover, there have been countless cases in which students diagnosed with autism have gone on to study at some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country.  Temple Grandin is a perfect example of this.  Due to the high percentage of children diagnosed with autism, there is a projected increase in job security and federal, as well as private, funding that is slated for use in ABA therapy and instruction.  According to Arizona State University, “Autism now affects as many as one in every 68 children nationwide.”  Because of this, the demand for speech pathologists, ABA therapists, educators, interventionists, and psychologists is very high.

The autism spectrum runs the gamut from scientists to Nobel Prize winners to children and adults who are nonverbal but communicate using primarily sign language, visual cues, and body language.

Share.