Autism Research Points Carefully Toward Possible New Approaches
> 6/28/2007 10:26:48 AM

A new series of intermittently related studies hints at new directions in autism research and, hopefully, a better understanding of the condition's roots and appropriate responses to be taken in turn.

The most promising study centers around two protein variations that regulate the developmental behavior of the nervous system: neurologin -1 and -2 serve to build synaptic connections between nerve cells, allowing for effective communication throughout the neural network. The first protein increases the excitability of the cells, where the second inhibits their activity levels. In most individuals, the two subtypes appear in approximately equal quantities, effectively moderating degrees of neural activity. In autistic individuals, however, these two often develop unevenly, leading to missed connections in the nervous system, a less active information-sharing network and an inability to form appropriate responses to stimuli both internal and environmental. These results hint at the same protein imbalance as a root of the repeated observation that autistic individuals are often unable to read the emotional responses of others; they are also slower to recognize and respond to related actions.

A relevant study demonstrates this tendency by noting the relative ability of its subjects to "mirror" the physical actions of others; for example, two subjects seated facing each other were told to reach for the same object; though their vision was slightly obscured by specialized goggles, they could view the general movements of the opposing parties. Standard subjects, when noting signs that another individual was moving toward the object in question, were less likely to perform the same action themselves due to a behavioral mechanism known as "inhibition of return." This inherent instinct most likely developed when early humans discovered that food items and geographical locations were less likely to be useful after they'd been explored by others. Autistic individuals seemed unaffected by such inhibitions, reacting as if the individual seated across from them had not just performed the very same action. This observed result reinforces the belief that autistic children often have difficulty processing information, or at least that the internal mechanisms required to do so are notably deficient.

While the information gleaned from these two studies has yet to find a pharmaceutical or therapeutic application, it will in all likelihood prove invaluable to future research on the causes of and solutions to autism diagnoses. Unfortunately, a third research project found that, despite intensive training efforts, autistic children encounter extreme difficulty in modulating their social skills to better reflect those of their peers. In a more abstract sense, these programs look to remedy the cognitive and behavioral deficiencies brought about by the faulty neural networks mentioned above, allowing autistic children to better assimilate into the student body. The issues addressed include language skills, group play, and attention training exercises. In a meta-analysis of 55 related studies, researchers found that such efforts rarely led to serious behavioral adaptations and that the autistic children involved were largely unable to retain the lessons they learned.

In one notable exception to the project's discouraging conclusion, children who received this instruction in standard classes fared far better than those who were removed to undergo the studies in a "pull-out" setting. One could thereby infer that the act of placing children in "special" classes often renders them overly sensitive to their own learning disabilities, encouraging them to believe that they are markedly different, and in some sense inferior, to their peers. Such is the problem presented by special education: how to integrate those with particularly demanding needs into the larger student body. These results lead us to believe that, despite the pointed possibility (in some cases) of disruptive or inappropriate behaviors on their part, autistic children should not be placed in specialty programs except when absolutely necessary. Daily reminders of their unique and challenging condition may only heighten its detrimental effects.  

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