In the autism diagnosis criteria, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the social abilities of a child. However, most parents of children with autism know there is so much more to their child’s symptoms than just social impairments. Their child may wince or even scream when they hear certain sounds. They may become hyperactive, afraid or even combative after being in a crowded place with lots of movements or lights and sounds. This knowledge, innately known by many parents of children with autism, has now been backed by a group of scientists from San Diego State University’s Brain Development Imaging Laboratory.
Aarti Nair, a student in the SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, and his research team analyzed more than 50 children, some with autism and some without. Published in the June edition of the journal Brain, the researchers combining functional and anatomical magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to examine the connections between the thalamus (a structure deep in the brain responsible for sensory motor functions like vision, hearing, movement control and attention) and the cerebral cortex (the brain’s outermost layer).
Through their analysis, Nair and his colleagues identified a faulty connection between these two structures. And it is because these pathways are affected that researchers suggest these two parts of the brain fail to communicate effectively.
“This impaired connectivity suggests that autism is not simply a disorder of social and communication abilities, but also affects a broad range of sensory and motor systems,” Dr. Ralph-Axel Muller, an SDSU professor of psychology who was the senior investigator on the study told Science Daily.
In addition, study authors believe the developmental disturbances found in the structure and function of the thalamus may be linked to the social and communicative impairments often seen in autistic individuals. These impairments are the most frequently noted, and they are often the most disturbing in regards to lifestyle.
However, the authors say their findings, along with the growing studies highlighting both motor and sensory impairments in autistic individuals, may indicate that the current diagnostic criteria is lacking. Currently, sensory and motor impairments aren’t recognized on the criteria, and these are, quite obviously, impairments that can affect an individual’s quality of life.
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