Intense World Syndrome: Autism Through the Kaleidoscope
Imagine entering an Alien World where every sensation is magnified unbearably; every footstep a jackhammer beating down on the floor, every whisper an ear piercing shriek and every sight a glaring image.
How would you react? By shelling up? By trying to make logical sense of the chaos? Or by trying to make it all as predictable and manageable as possible?
This is what being autistic is; to be in a world of constant sensory overload; where all the sights, sounds, smells and interactions are unbelievably overwhelming. It’s like us being sleep deprived, jet-lagged and hungry- even the smallest environmental insult can push us off the edge.
This is why Autistic children react the way they do. In order to survive the onslaught of excess sensory overload; they try to keep as much of their surrounding environment as constant as possible. This means spending more time with objects, toys and other predictable mechanical objects.
People are by nature impulsive and unpredictable which is why autistic kids do well to minimize social interaction. This concept of Autistics always being in a sense of sensory overload is known as the “Intense World Syndrome” theory, and it was developed by Henry and Kamila Markram.
It’s in stark contrast to the previous Autistic theory called “Theory of Mind”, developed by UtaFrith, Alan Leslie and Simon Baron-Cohen. According to the “Theory of Mind”, Autistic individuals lack the ability to distinguish between what they know and what others know. This concept is well illustrated by a famous experiment conducted on children, using two puppets “Sally” and “Anne”.
Sally has a marble which she places in a basket and leaves. While Sally is gone, Anne places the marble into a box. When Sally returns where will she look for the marble? Neuro-typical children will correctly answer that Sally will look in the basket, where she left it last. Autistic children, on the other hand, have much more difficulty in trying to look from Sally’s perspective. They assume Sally will look in the box because they know it’s where the marble is!
This theory of “Mind-Blindness” or of not being able to put one self in another’s shoes has raised a common perception that Autistics lack empathy. Makes sense, if you can’t perceive what another person is going through, how can you ever empathize with them?
To answer this and many other questions, Henry Markram and Tania Rinaldi Barkat decided to study animal models on Autism. They used rats prenatally injected with Valproic Acid (VPA). The VPA rats showed significant social anxiety compared to their normal counterparts and indulged in excessive and obsessive self grooming rituals.
The same VPA when given to pregnant women increases the risk of autism in the newborn by seven fold! Thus it could be assumed that VPA rats were for all purposes “Autistic”.
Researchers studying the neural networks of these rats made a startling discovery! Their excitatory neurons were hyperactive, i.e. they were connected to twice as many neurons as normal. Moreover they had a reduced threshold for stimulation.
So a mild sensory cue, like a flickering light, would produce an overwhelming and intense fear response that would cause the rats to show haphazard and abnormal social behavior. Not so different from what is observed in Autistic children.
Such experiments can explain why Autistic children are seen as socially and emotionally withdrawn. They live in a world of intense sensory stimulation where the only way to cope is to limit and avoid haphazard social environments, and cling to familiar and reliable objects and experiences.
As far as their emotional affinity goes, there is evidence to suggest that Autistics are just as overloaded by emotional stimulation, as they are by sensory stimulation. This leads to them being emotionally withdrawn in situations where you and I would normally empathize. Yet in spite of this, Autistics still show significant emotional response in milder situations, e.g. someone losing a beloved object etc.
We know about the downsides to Autism, but what about its trade-offs? It is well known that Autistic people with their heightened sensitivities and love for rigor and organization do exceptionally well in analytic fields. Moreover the brains of VPA rats as well as Autistics show heightened presence of mini-columns (the brain’s micro-processors), which may explain their enhanced cognitive functioning.
All these findings show how critical it is to diagnose a child with Autism in the early stages. Doing so would help the parents adjust better to the child’s need for limited sensory intake. Moreover it could arguably restrict the development of socially abnormal behaviors later in life and allow the child to reach his/ her extraordinary cognitive potential.
1: Markram H. et al. Front. Neurosci. 1, 77-96 (2007) PubMed
2: Markram K. and H. Markram Front. Hum. Neurosci. 4, 224 (2010) PubMed
3: Rinaldi T. et al. Front. Neural Circuits 2, 4 (2008) PubMed
4: Markram K. et al. Neuropsychopharmacology 33, 901-912 (2008) PubMed
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