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What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by:

  • poor verbal (language) and nonverbal communication skills
  • repetitive, restricted, stereotyped behaviors and interests
  • poor social skills

Lack of nonverbal communication surrounds eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Children with autism are recognized as socially and emotionally withdrawn and remaining in their world. They are unaware of their relationship with the outside world.

The condition is also associated with social anxiety and aggression. Weak central coherence, defined as a cognitive inability to “see the big picture,” lies at the root of ASD symptoms.

How Early Can Autism be Diagnosed?

Parents or experts often start noticing abnormal behaviors by one year of age, and diagnosis of autism is generally around age 3.

How Common is Autism?

According to the 2016 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics, around 1 in 54 American children are diagnosed with autism.

What Causes Autism?

Studies show that ASD results from a combination of genetic and nongenetic or environmental factors.

Genetic Factors 

The gene mutations (changes) that increase the odds of autism tend to run in families. This is because a parent who carries one or more of these gene changes may pass it to a child, even if the parent doesn’t have autism.

In a vast majority of these cases, these genetic changes arise spontaneously in the developing baby, or even before that phase — i.e., in the sperm and/or egg. These spontaneous mutations are thought to appear in the so-called ‘junk’ DNA.

Environmental Causes

Environmental factors have been shown to impact the occurrence of autistic traits with a higher probability than genetic factors. Such factors include:

  • Infection in the mother during early pregnancy, such as rubella or influenza
  • Advanced parent age (35 years or above)
  • Use of antibiotics by the mother
  • Low birth weight or highly premature babies
  • Use of certain medications by the mother, such as antidepressants or medications for epilepsy

Most of these factors impact early brain development. Some seem to affect the communication between nerve cells, or neurons, in certain regions of the brain. For instance, the brain of an autistic child lacking a particular gene will form too many connections (aka synapses) between the nerve cells that cause neurons to keep firing signals from one to another. This high connectivity, in turn, contributes to the signs and symptoms of autism.

Early Closure of the Neuroplastic Period

Another essential feature that accounts for the signs and symptoms of autism is the early closure of the “critical period” during which neuroplasticity occurs.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s lifelong ability to rewire, reshape, and reorganize due to experience. In simpler words, a normal human brain is pliable like plastic in that it can create new neural connections via consistently practicing new habits and behaviors.

However, an autistic brain appears to display premature loss of this brain plasticity. That, in turn, deprives the autistic brain and its enclosed neural connections of the growth and development typically occurring in a maturing child.

What is the Treatment for Autism?

Currently, there is no known cure for ASD. However, several interventions are being studied and applied to help mitigate symptoms of ASD and improve communication and cognitive skills.

One such intervention has shown tremendous potential for expanding mental horizons in those affected by autism. It is training brainwaves via quantitative encephalogram (qEEG)-guided neurofeedback.

How Neurofeedback Benefits Autism?

Research in children with ASD has shown abnormal connectivity issues between different brain areas. For example, the brains of those affected by autism have areas of both overly high and low connectivity. Said another way, some sites of the brain are chatting a lot with others, while others can’t communicate at all.

Thus, any form of intervention that can normalize this brain connectivity in children with ASD will cause a reduction in autistic symptoms. Neurofeedback has paved the way for self-regulating brain activity by improving connectivity issues.

In a 2006 study, the pre-post analysis of connectivity-guided neurofeedback revealed a 40% improvement in autistic symptoms, optimization of brain function and behavior, and 76% diminution of overly high brain connectivity.

Connectivity (assessment)-guided neurofeedback can profoundly remedy abnormal brain connectivity and alleviate autistic symptoms.

Another factor that underscores the role of neurofeedback in autism is its capability to induce “neuroplasticity.” Learning through neurofeedback happens due to the firing and rewiring of the nerve cells in the brain. Therefore, behavioral training via neurofeedback is key to promoting neuroplasticity, as suggested by the Beaver College of Health Sciences experts. Moreover, plasticity is greater in childhood; hence, the earlier the intervention, the greater the positive outcomes will be.

What is the Procedure for Neurofeedback in Autism?

After placing sensors on a child’s scalp, the EEG monitor records the brain waves with eyes closed. In autism, we don’t train the left and right sides of the brain first. This is because the right-sided brain is in charge of acquiring new skills, and training this side addresses language problems. Hence, sensors are first placed on the right side of the brain to target and train it.

Some children may feel a bit scared at the beginning, but as soon as the session kicks off, most children get settled down into a state of calm. The child may even go into complete stillness, and some even switch to a meditative stance.

In the meantime, a quantitative element is added to the recorded brain waves, a technique known as qEEG. The frequency, power, location, and ratio of each brain wave are visually mapped using quantitative analysis or qEEG. This technique also helps determine parameters like coherence (degree of coupling between different brain regions) and mental speed.

QEEG-guided neurofeedback compares an autistic person’s brain waves against a database of typically functioning or “neurotypical” brains. This enables us to pick up on more subtle anomalies in brain waves that a simple EEG can’t do.

The brain map lets the individual see the brain waves in real-time. For instance, if there’s an excessive activity in the beta brain waves in a certain region, that area will be indicated by a red color. This allows us to identify the target area and work with it accordingly. Desirable patterns in the brain waves are then reinforced. In contrast, undesirable patterns are dissuaded (i.e., the system gradually tweaks the brain waves and behavior to become more like children without autism).

A single neurofeedback session usually takes 20-to-30 minutes. Repeated training paced at regular intervals teaches children with ASD to adjust their mental profile so that it somewhat starts matching that of the normally developing children, subsequently improving symptoms.