Research on the Autistic Brain

Although there is evidence to support some differences in the autistic brain, the unknowns outweigh the knowns. Additionally, the ethics surrounding such research provides some difficult questions to answer.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition diagnosed on the basis of two core symptoms: social communication difficulty and repetitive behavior. This diagnosis is provided via observation of behavior, not by some standardardized medical test such as a brain scan or blood test.

In hopes of improving autism diagnosis via earlier and more objective diagnoses, researchers have spent many years evaluating the differences between the autistic brain and the neurotypical brain. One of the most prevailing theories about the autistic brain is the connectivity theory.

Put simply, the connectivity theory posits that communication between different brain regions is atypical in an autistic brain. Although a lot of research has been conducted on the topic, much of it is incongruent. Some studies have indicated that autistic brains exhibit decreased brain connectivity between distant brain regions and increased brain activity between neighboring brain regions. At the same time, some studies were unable to find any differences between autistic and neurotypical brains at all.

One of the core reasons for this is the nature of autism itself. The autism spectrum is a wide spectrum indeed, including many different people with different challenges and co-occurring conditions. In fact, there is a lot of evidence supporting the theory that autism is not one condition, but rather many similar-presenting biological subtypes.

Making more defined subgroups of autism is very difficult though with our current knowledge. Sexism and racism still impact the diagnostic process, affecting the pool of autistics. There are still many practicing psychologists with the outdated belief that autism requires someone to be intellectually disabled or have savant-like skills. In addition to the effects of biases and prejudices, the autism diagnostic criteria itself can be murky and difficult to define against other co-occurring conditions. For example, does an autistic person with social anxiety have difficulty with social communication because of the autism or the anxiety?

And, although having a more clear understanding of autism could be helpful for autistics and their families, many are hesitant to take part in such studies, myself included. There is a history of searching for a “cure” in autism research, rather than ways to improve the lives of autistic people. This focus on eugenics is not ethically permissible, nor is it something most autistics want any part of.

In addition to this, it can be difficult for autistics and caregivers to navigate a research world in which harm done to autistics is often seen as less harmful than when done to neurotypicals. In 2020, for example, the study “Attend Less, Fear More: Elevated Distress to Social Threat in Toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder” was published. During the study, researchers used mechanical spiders to cause emotional distress in autistic toddlers. Their goal was to better understand emotional difficulties in children. Despite the researchers’ intent, many rightfully argued that the study had potential to cause lasting harm and to be a traumatic experience for the toddlers and therefore should never have been conducted. Those who disapproved of the study were also quick to point out its similarity to the 1920 Little Albert experiment, a study often deemed ethically impermissible by today’s standards.

In my opinion, autism acceptance will have to come before great scientific discovery. There is much more to learn about autism, undoubtedly there is much more I want to know about autism. But, until we successfully address current prejudices, autism diagnosis will be held hostage by these prejudices, making ethical scientific advancement difficult if not impossible. Autistics need reassurance that the goal of such research is not to eliminate them from the human gene pool, but rather to help us understand ourselves better for our OWN benefit.

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