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Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by developmental delays, communication problems, abnormal social skills, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems—all ranging from mild to severe.

ASD is an umbrella term that includes a number of conditions, including:

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Rett Syndrome
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

The prevalence of ASD has been increasing at an alarming rate in the past few decades. Today, an estimated 1 in 59 children are currently affected by the condition, according to the CDC. And boys are 4 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ASD.


Signs of autism typically appear by age 2 or 3, but they can occur earlier in some children. The following list shows some of the symptoms of the developmental disorder. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, not all people with the condition will exhibit all of these symptoms.

ASD symptoms can include the following:

  • Poor eye contact
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Having an intense focus on something
  • Trouble understanding social cues
  • Difficult reading facial expressions
  • Repetitive movements (such as rocking back and forth and hand flapping)
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Having difficulty dealing with changes in routines
  • Self-harmful behaviors (such as head-banging)
  • Delayed speech
  • Having difficulty playing with other children
  • Social withdrawal
  • Having difficulty carrying on a conversation
  • Having a flat or sing-song tone of voice
  • Increased or decreased sensitivity to sensory input (clothing, lights, noise, temperature)

Along with these symptoms, people with ASD can have some strengths, including:

  • Long-term memory skills
  • Math, music, art, computer, or science skills
  • Good visual learners
  • Rule-based thinking


It is now understood that ASD is not caused by just one thing. Rather, this broad condition can have many different causes. Research suggests there may be a genetic component that can be influenced by environmental factors to trigger the condition.

Recent findings suggest a gut-brain connection in autism. A 2019 study in Cell found that when scientists transplanted bacteria from feces of people with autism into mice, the mice developed behaviors similar to those seen in autism. Although this does not prove that gut bacteria cause autism, it does point to an association between the two.

This recent study builds on previous research linking gut health and autism. In those studies, researchers found an increase in both gastrointestinal symptoms and gluten sensitivity in people with autism.

While the research community continues to investigate the possible causes of this condition, certain factors that increase risk have been identified, including:

  • Having older parents
  • Having a sibling with ASD
  • Having genetic conditions, such as Rett Syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, or Down syndrome
  • Extreme premature birth or having a very low birth weight
  • Pregnancies less than one year apart


ASD appears to affect early brain development, including the way neurons communicate with one another. However, there is not just one brain problem found in ASD, but actually 8 to 10 factors that can influence abnormal brain function.

During the past few decades, Amen Clinics has seen more than 1,000 children and adults with ASD. The SPECT brain imaging studies of these patients reveal that their brain patterns tend to have high activity or low activity (even both in some cases).

High Activity Patterns in ASD:

  • Increased activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus and lateral prefrontal cortex, relating to symptoms such as:
    • Repetitious speech and behavior
    • Getting stuck on thoughts
    • Problems with transitions and change
  • An overall increase of activity throughout the brain, which may be associated with inflammation and be related to:
    • Mood instability
    • Emotional meltdowns
    • Anxiety

Low Activity Patterns in ASD:

  • A smaller, less active cerebellum, contributing to:
    • Impeded or poor motor skills
    • Problems with learning and thought coordination
  • Decreased activity in the back portion of the brain, especially in the parietal and temporal lobes, contributing to:
    • Communication difficulties
    • Learning problems
    • Sensory processing issues
    • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Overall decreased activity and “scalloping” (a bumpy looking surface on the scan image), which is associated with environmental toxicity
  • Sometimes, a head injury pattern is revealed

As you can see, brain activity patterns in ASD are quite varied, making it even more important to look at the brain with SPECT imaging.


In addition to understanding the ASD brain patterns, there are other ways brain imaging with SPECT technology can help. Children with autism often struggle with other mental health conditions, such as ADD/ADHD, depression, and anxiety. And having autism also increases the risk of developing schizophrenia. The prevalence of co-existing conditions is much higher than you might suspect. According to a growing body of research, over 70% of children with ASD have at least one additional co-existing medical or psychiatric condition, and over 40% have two or more such conditions.

SPECT brain imaging can help show if these conditions are present in addition to ASD so that treatment can be targeted to address all of the issues you or your child have.

Brain scans can also be very helpful in distinguishing ASD from other disorders. Getting an accurate diagnosis without brain imaging can be challenging because the symptoms of ASD often overlap with those of other conditions. Because of this, some people with ASD may be misdiagnosed and given a treatment plan that isn’t right for their needs. SPECT helps identify what is really happening in the brain.

As you saw above, people with ASD can have similar symptoms but dramatically different underlying brain patterns. One person might have high activity patterns while the other might have low activity patterns. Giving everyone with ASD the same treatment will never work. These different brain patterns require targeted treatment plans.

In light of the range of underlying brain function problems associated with ASD and the fact that many people with the condition also have co-existing disorders, SPECT brain imaging studies are highly valuable for revealing otherwise hidden information. These important findings help us select the most effective treatment for each person with the disorder.


The sooner a child with autism gets help, the more effective treatment will be. Early intervention can help with your child’s overall development and decrease symptoms as they grow up. It’s important to realize that adults can also benefit from treatment at any age.

Jacqueline, mother of son with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Kathy, mother of son with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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