The Many Faces of Autism


In 2013, Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, NOS (not otherwise specified) were rolled into one umbrella category: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

ASD is a chronic neurodevelopmental condition characterized by developmental delays, communication problems, abnormal social skills, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems – but the range and severity of the symptoms can vary widely. The symptoms of this disorder may be noted as early as age 1-2 but a child is often not formally diagnosed until 4-5 years old. 

Currently, the neuroscience community does not have a clear understanding of what is causing these symptoms to occur in a majority of cases.

A very small percentage (5-10%) of ASD cases are determined to have a specific medical cause to explain the condition from either genetic disorders (Fragile X Syndrome or Tuberous Sclerosis), exposure to infectious agents (Toxoplasmosis, Cytomegalovirus, or Rotavirus), or from exposure to specific toxins (such as mercury, lead, or thalidomide).

For the remaining 90-95% of cases of ASD, no specific cause is known.

What we DO know is that ASD is not caused by just one thing. Rather, this broad condition can have many different causes. Similarly, there is not just one brain problem found in ASD, but actually 8-10 factors that can influence abnormal brain function.

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

Low Activity Patterns

  • Smaller, less active cerebellum, contributing to impeded or poor motor skills, thought coordination and learning problems. Normally, the cerebellum should be the most active part of the brain because it contains 50% of the brain’s neurons (nerve or brain cells)
  • Decreased activity in the back portion of the brain – especially in the parietal and temporal lobes – that can affect learning, communication, sensory processing and understanding abstract concepts
  • Overall decreased activity and “scalloping” (a bumpy surface), which is associated with environmental toxicity
  • Sometimes a head injury pattern is revealed

High Activity Patterns

  • Increased activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus (the “gear shifter”) and lateral (side) prefrontal cortex which can be related to symptoms like getting stuck on negative thoughts, repetitious behavior and problems with transitions and change
  • A “Ring of Fire” pattern – overall increased activity throughout the brain, which may be associated with inflammation and underlie problems related to mood stability and anxiety

Due to the variability of the underlying brain function problems in ASD, SPECT imaging is extremely useful for revealing otherwise hidden information. In addition, a detailed clinical history, neuropsychological testing and laboratory studies may be used to target treatment specifically to the brain using the least toxic, most effective means. 

If we don’t look, how do we know exactly what we’re treating?

Autism is a multi-faceted and misunderstood condition; Amen Clinics can help decipher the right treatments and protocols. If you would like to learn more, please visit us online or call 888-288-9834.

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