zaterdag 12 januari 2008

The Autistic Brain

There is so much I am half aware about my past. So many things and events whose details elude me because they seem like a memory that forms a picture with many pieces missing, like a puzzle unfinished but with the puzzle box picture gone and lost. I somehow feel I will never know what the real picture ever was, but always see the fragments that are still there.

A child's memory has so much to hold and work through and accumulate. A normal child's mind has a lot as it is, without even trying to imagine how it is for an autistic child's mind. That is why autistic children avoid so much. Their mind can accumulate an X amount of information and then it gets overloaded.

Now here is the question, what if there is a threshold?

What if there is a threshold of pain, of discomfort, of unpleasantness, when the mind becomes indeed overloaded, but like the human body once it reaches this threshold of physical stress, the brain reacts by going into a different mode: the super-power mode.

When we are physically active, in the gym for example, we know that there is no gain, without pain. We all think 'NO pain, NO gain' when we go over the pain threshold to gain a well-trained body. Once we go over the threshold of pain and physical overload, the body goes into a new 'level' also known as the adrenaline level where the adrenaline and testosterone fill the muscles, giving the body an almost super-power ability. This ability enhances the endurance of pain and cold, the ability of speed, agility and strength.

What if the brain has a similar threshold?

Let's think about it for a moment. Actually, we already know that the brain does have a similar threshold. Studying for an exam, or even better taking the exam, shows the same 'NO pain, NO gain' policy.

Why should it be different for the autistic children?

Well, first of all one might say, because they are autistic. And THAT is bad enough!

Really??? Why is it bad enough?

Because they have all these problems! All these disabilities, disadvantages, abnormalities, dysfunctions, damages in their brain.

And you assume that because they are not exactly like you, correct? And you are convinced you are able, advantaged, normal, functional, and have no damage in your brain what-so-ever? Hmmm...

Well, what if your brain is unable to understand theirs because theirs is a completely different model. Something like Windows XP not being compatible with Windows 3.1, for example.
No, don't get me wrong. The Windows XP can't be understood by the Windows 3.1, the 3.1 can be perfectly understood by the XP. Only, your brain is the Windows 3.1 version.

Your brain works with MS-DOS you need verbal commands because your communication is set in words, sentences, typed or verbal commands. The Windows XP brain works with pictures, pictograms, images. This is the enhanced autistic brain.

All you need to do is 'click' on an image to activate and manipulate it. Words are becoming redundant. No one uses verbal communication around XP, no one needs to tell the computer what to do, you just activate a picture by 'clicking' on it. This method of communication with a computer is much more efficient and faster.

An autistic kid's brain also works faster exactly BECAUSE of that difference. Thinking in pictures, is a much faster way of thought processing. We know that because we know that the human brain-even the normal children's and adult's brain, for that matter-processes our daily lives, the daily experiences and all the input from these experiences through dreams. Dreams, and dreaming is nothing more that the fastest possible way for the brain to go through all the data, analyze it, classify it and store for later use and for further expansion.

What if the enhanced human brain has adapted this mode of operation, the dream or R.E.M. state to process experiences in BOTH the awake and the asleep periods of the human life? What if what Temple Grandin calls 'thinking in pictures' is nothing more that the enhanced model of operation of the human brain?

Articles that I have added here through links show that:

A. the autistic brain has more gray matter than white matter in the areas where thought process takes place.
B. that the autistic brain grows faster that the neurotypical children's brain
C. the autistic child's thought process and behavior is different than that of the neurotypical children.

The autistic child thus needs a specific way of 'operating' through educating and developing its advanced mind. If this specific way is not used the child will start malfunctioning, creating self-generated stimulation to escape the boredom it feels, because if a brain that is build to absorb, and accumulate more information faster does not get to fulfill its ability, this brain gets bored and begins to create means to fill in the shortage of stimulus and experiences.

This is not something unknown to science. When a person has a limb amputated, will often complain that it feels like there is a phantom limb there. This is because the area of the brain that was accustomed to receive stimulus from that limb was now facing a 'silence' a non-stimulus state. But the area of the brain is still functional even if the limb that produced the stimulus is gone. The brain then creates self-generated stimulus that a 'feels' like a phantom limb. This also happens with people who are blinded or loose their hearing. They continue to see flashes of light, colors and shapes or hear sounds of voices for a long time after their brain stops receiving stimuli from their eyes or ears.

In the same fashion, when the enhanced brain that has vast areas that are ready and functional to accumulate stimulus, does not receives it becomes bored, it becomes 'autistic' it goes into auto-stimulation through hyperactivity, through stims, through obsessions, through day-dreaming, through sleep, through anyway it can. In the beginning, when the child is young, this situation of self-generated stimulus is the greatest because the brain is at its peak capacity and ready for learning. By NOT receiving the adequate AMOUNT of stimulus it feels almost like what someone goes through when they try to withdraw from nicotine, or alcohol, or any substance.

The reason is that the brain is in a state of high alert, as if it's in a super-power mode of adrenaline and testosterone, ready to run in full capacity and LEARN! But then the learning comes in as drops, in insufficient amounts, in an inappropriate format, in an inappropriate time frame, and so on the brain does not fulfill its needs.

The autistic brain is set in the autistic learning mode. It is not accidental that many parents of autistic kids choose home schooling. They have realized this very significant difference between neurotypical kids and their own. They see that their kids learn in a different way, that they need to be also TAUGHT in a different way, so that the information, the stimulus they receive is adjusted and is sufficient to their autistic brain needs and bandwidth!

If the autistic brain thinks in pictures, then maybe it also learns better through pictures, through images, through moving pictures, through animated pictures. After all they do say that a picture is a thousand words.

To me as an autistic person this significant difference is so obvious that I constantly wonder how it is possible that so many scientists have not realized this as well.

Then when I think about it the answer to this question is also very obvious and clear. They are after the money. You see if these scientists would tell the millions of parents with autistic kids:
"Hey, your kid is fine, it's you and me who are not, because we are too stupid to even comprehend the abilities of your kid's brain and we have no idea how to teach your kid's brain so that it reaches and fulfills its potential."

Do you think that the parents would turn around and say:
"Gee doc! That advice you just gave us is excellent! Here is your fee of $12,000 for curring our little Sandy from her autistic behavior! We really don't know how to thank you, you are worth every penny!!!"

Yeah! THAT would be the day...

But, back to memories, learning, language, and images as a means of communication and upload of data.

The human brain is built to understand images very well. Our brain has set apart the largest area as the data collection and analysis center that comes in from our eyes. This area is the visual cortex. It is huge compared with the areas allocated to the other senses, with only exclusion that of touch as it is spread throughout the entire body and skin surface.

Maybe this detail can explain why autistics are so sensitive and peculiar when it comes to touch. More on this on a later stage.

The world around us is observed primarily using our eyes and then with the rest of our senses. This means that many of the final memories we store have a big visual component. Vision also offered a path to communication. Pointing to something was a way to clearly show what it was we wanted. It is not accidental that the first attempts of communication, and data sharing were images, painting, as primitive and crude as they were, on the walls of caves.

The images painted were a sort of narration, a story, a 'written' evidence of human existence and life. Our ancestors painted their experiences to share them with each other and with future generations much like we do today using blogs and posting them on the world wide web.

It is also not accidental that the Egyptians, who used images to communicate by creating letters that were symbols and had a picture of what it was they wanted pronounced so that the sound of the name of that item was then used as a letter to form new worlds and even abstract meanings, like the name of a Pharaoh. The connection here between image and language is very strong and that is why the Hieroglyphics have generated such sensation when they were deciphered and read.

It is an amazing language that used both the concrete, the visual, the object itself as a pictogram, and the abstract, the sound that this object generated, and combined the two to form a means of communication that bridged the two: the physical world that was concrete and observed through the eyes, and the abstract ability of the human brain to generate thoughts that were beyond the concrete and the physical world. An ability that animals do not have and that is why we have developed language and they have not.

I will make a parenthesis and say that many animal species have developed forms of communication, but it is communication that evolves around concrete kind of messages: where is food and how to get to it, where is danger and how to avoid it, what female is receptive and ready to mate, which male is more potent and offers a good quality genes, necessary to the evolution of the species. But no other species other than human beings has yet manage to say "I love you" or "I believe in God."

Animals communicate also by behaving in a friendly way towards other animals to form alianses but they do not have a specific behavior or sound or sign that will transmit the abstract message of love, or being in love, or loving one's family and children.

We do. Human beings can both grasp and communicate abstract meanings because our brains are able to dream. Animals dream, too, but we humans can remember our dreams, are conscious that they were a dream and not something that happened in an awake state, and we can also use the fact that we dream to explain things that are connected to the non-dream state. We are aware that there are two states of being. And we need a form of communication that also has the means to talk about, describe, analyze and transmit, both these states in our communication.

Words and the formation of words was a means of communication that proved to be solid and flexible enough for the above mentioned needs. That was something like MS-DOS and communicating with a computer. It was solid and flexible enough and achieved the desired result. But it had one drawback: it was SLOW!

Windows opened a need chapter using images that gave a much faster means of communication. And Windows XP with its upgraded and enhanced abilities offered and even greater speed of communication.

The autistic brain has this enhanced ability of speed learning. The main question now is, how do we feed the autistic child's brain the information it needs in a way that is compatible with its enhanced ability to decipher and process images that hold a vast amount of information. Far, far more than a single word can.

It like comparing MB with GB!

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