A small study shows kids with autism have less neural flexibility than other children, and that those with the most severe symptoms are more likely to have decreased neural flexibility. This is a possible explanation for why transitions are difficult for many children on the spectrum.
University of Miami neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychology Lucina Uddin is the study lead author. “This reduced flexibility often causes difficulty when children with autism are faced with new situations,” she said. “Knowing how the brain responds differently in these scenarios can help us to make transitions easier for these kids.”
The findings were published July 29 in Cerebral Cortex. They will not lead immediately to improvements in the prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of autism, but may provide more insight into how the brain works in autism. Approximately one in 68 children in the United States is affected by an autism spectrum disorder.
People with autism have trouble interacting with others because they can’t interpret many social signals that humans send to one another. They also engage in repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively focusing on one topic, or repeating the same action over and over.
In the new study, researchers performed brain scans on 34 children with autism and 34 typically developing children while at rest and while performing a task — either solving math problems or distinguishing faces from one another. The idea was to include tasks that would — and wouldn’t — significantly challenge kids with autism.
The kids with autism did as well as the others on the tasks. However, “across a set of brain connections known to be important for switching between different tasks, children with autism showed reduced ‘brain flexibility’ compared with typically developing peers,” Uddin said.