How SPECT Can Help Those With Autism Spectrum Disorder

HOW SPECT imaging can help ASD

In most family physician, pediatrician, psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist offices patients report symptoms and are given a diagnosis based on those symptoms.

For example, if a patient says, “I’m depressed,” they are likely going to get a diagnosis of depression and prescribed an antidepressant medication or psychotherapy for depression.

If a patient complains of being anxious, he or she will likely get an anxiety disorder diagnosis and medicine or therapy for anxiety.

Or, if a patient has attentional problems, he or she often gets a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD and is put on medicine to help with focus or impulse control.

The problem is that none of these diagnostic labels tells us a single thing about the underlying biology of these problems. So, people end up with one-size-fits-all treatment plans, which is the cause of many treatment failures.

One such disorder where this happens quite frequently is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In 2013, Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, not otherwise specified were rolled into one umbrella category: ASD.

The problem with this is that people now diagnosed with ASD are often presumed to be dealing with the same underlying issues…but we know this is NOT true!

“I had taken my son to some of the top universities in California seeking care and don’t feel I was taken seriously. The providers at Amen Clinic have taken us seriously and looked at my son as an individual. He has been assessed medically rather than being looked at as just having behavior problems.” ~Jacqueline, mother of son with ASD

After decades spent studying brain activity patterns and having seen more than 1,000 patients with ASD at Amen Clinics, we understand that the condition is not caused by one specific thing in the brain. Rather, there are at least 8-10 different factors that influence abnormal brain function.

In fact, we have discovered that people with ASD tend to have brain patterns of high activity or low activity (and, in some cases, both).

High Activity Patterns:

  • Increased activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus (the “gear shifter”) and lateral (side) prefrontal cortex
  • A “Ring of Fire” pattern—an overall increase of activity throughout the brain—which may be associated with inflammation

These high activity patterns can relate to symptoms such as:

  • Repetitious speech and behavior
  • Getting stuck on thoughts
  • Problems with transitions
  • Mood instability
  • Emotional “meltdowns”
  • Anxiety

Low Activity Patterns:

  • Smaller, less active cerebellum
  • Decreased activity in the back portion of the brain, especially in the parietal and temporal lobes
  • Overall decreased activity and scalloping (a bumpy looking surface)

These low activity patterns can relate to symptoms such as:

  • Impeded or poor motor skills
  • Problems with learning and thought coordination
  • Communication difficulties
  • Learning problems
  • Sensory processing issues
  • Problems with abstract thinking

Additionally, research demonstrates that more than 70% of children with ASD also experience another medical or psychiatric condition, and over 40% have two or more co-existing conditions.

Distinguishing between ASD and other diagnoses can be challenging because the traits of ASD often overlap with symptoms of other disorders which leads to missed diagnoses and less targeted treatment.

It is not unusual to have two different people with ASD who have virtually the same symptoms, but radically different underlying brain function issues. One might have low activity, the other high activity. Do you think they’ll respond to the same treatment? Of course not! Treatment needs to be tailored to individual brains, not a cluster of symptoms.

Due to the variability of the underlying brain function problems in ASD and the complicating factor of a high rate of co-existing disorders, SPECT brain imaging is extremely useful for revealing otherwise hidden information. This helps us select the best course of treatment for each person with the disorder.

ASD 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 today.


  1. I have a 12 yr old Nephew who’s Autistic & he can communicate with others as well as tell u certain things he’s learned by watching You Tube a lot. He does get really obsessed with that & other things like Legos. He loves his Legos! He gets obsessed with certain songs & listens to them over & over on You Tube. He’s very smart in those areas. He just learned to tie his shoes about a year or 2 ago but he still can’t snap his fingers. He comes up with some great ideas on how to make things to play with like costumes. My Husband & I had a first time huge meltdown experience with him about a week ago when we took him on a train to Hollywood & he was obsessing about something in one of the stores & I had told him before we went in that “we were just looking & that’s it!” He still had his major meltdown for about an hour & I had called my in laws, his grandparents to ask them what do they do when he does that & they said they never wanna take him anywhere because of that & it’s really sad for them to say it because they don’t know how to deal with it. My Father in law said since he acts like that just say we are going home & then actually go home. We never did that but we left the area & an hr later he was fine. He did have other meltdowns but not as bad as that one.

    Comment by Shari — April 16, 2018 @ 6:38 PM

  2. Do Grand Mal seizures come in this group?

    Comment by Eva — October 5, 2018 @ 2:32 PM

  3. This article is very helpful about explaining major features about ASD, and would have prompted me to seek an evaluation had I not already done so 9 years ago. Thank you for an excellent summary description of ASD!

    Comment by MIKE — April 24, 2019 @ 10:59 AM

  4. Do high-functioning ASD symptoms present differently in women & girls? I just read Autism in High Heels & the author describes some people I know — loquacious, decent enough (or even good) at school, but socially rigid and with other ASD symptoms

    Comment by Robin — June 10, 2019 @ 6:51 AM

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