Autism Spectrum Disorder

Unlike traditional psychiatry, which rarely looks at the brain, Amen Clinics uses brain imaging technology to identify brain patterns associated with autism spectrum disorder.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by deficiencies in social interactions and communication, limited and repetitive behaviors and interests, and in many (but not all) cases, intellectual and language impairments. These symptoms can range from mild to severe. For example, what used to be known as Asperger’s disorder would be on the mild end of the spectrum and what was called classic autism—the most serious form of the condition—would be on the opposite end.

Who has Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The prevalence of ASD has been increasing at an alarming rate in the past few decades. According to the CDC, just 10 years ago 1 in 69 children was diagnosed with it, and today, an estimated 1 in 44 children are currently affected by the condition. Boys are 4 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ASD.

What are the Core Symptoms of ASD?

The signs of autism spectrum disorder typically appear by age 2 or 3, but if a child’s developmental delays are more severe, they may become evident before age 1. The following list includes several of the ASD symptoms; however, because it is a spectrum disorder, not all people with autism will have every symptom.

  • Deficits in non-verbal communication, such as understanding social cues and reading facial expressions
  • Difficulty with reciprocal communication
  • Repetitive movements, such as rocking or hand flapping
  • Rigid adherence to routines and habits
  • Repetitive use of objects, such as always lining up toys or turning things upside down
  • Aversion to change
  • Sensory sensitivities
  • Having an intense focus on certain things
  • Echolalia (repeating words or sentences others say)
  • Speech delays or significantly impaired language
  • Poor eye contact
  • Narrow food preferences
  • Self-injurious behaviors, such as repetitive head-banging, scratching, or biting
  • Social isolation, particularly for older people with ASD who live alone

Untreated, misdiagnosed, or delayed diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is associated with higher incidences of:

  • Developmental problems
  • More severe symptoms
  • Immune disorders (allergies, asthma)
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Motor disorders
  • Cancer
  • Obesity
  • Schizophrenia
  • Suicidal thoughts and behavior

What Causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?

It is now known that ASD does not have a singular cause. Research suggests there may be a genetic component that can be influenced by environmental factors to trigger the condition. Certain circumstances that increase the risk for ASD have also been identified, including having older parents, having a sibling with ASD, very premature birth or really low birth weight, fetal exposure to the medication valproate, and maternal pregnancies less than one year apart.

Untreated, misdiagnosed, or delayed diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is associated with an increased risk for:

  • Worsening of symptoms and developmental problems
  • Immune disorders (allergies, asthma)
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Cerebral palsy and related motor disorders
  • Cancer
  • Obesity
  • Suicidal thoughts and behavior

Why Choose Amen Clinics for ASD Diagnosis and Treatment?

In addition to understanding an ASD patient’s brain pattern, the use of SPECT imaging at Amen Clinics provides additional benefits. Children and adults with autism spectrum disorder often struggle with other mental health conditions, such as ADD/ADHD, depression, and anxiety as well as medical issues like epilepsy, gastrointestinal problems, and trouble with sleep. 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 more than 40% have two or more such conditions. SPECT imaging can reveal the presence of other brain problems so that a targeted treatment plan can be developed to address all the issues affecting you or your child. The sooner a child with ASD gets help, the more effective treatment will be. Early intervention can help with overall development and decrease symptoms as your child grows up. It’s important to know that adults with ASD can benefit from treatment too.

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Autism Brains Work Differently

Autism spectrum disorder is one of the fastest growing developmental disorders in the U.S. today. Early brain development is affected by ASD, including the way neurons communicate with one another. However, there is not just one brain problem found in ASD—there are 8 to 10 suspected factors that can influence abnormal brain function. During the past three decades, Amen Clinics has seen more than 1,000 children and adults with ASD. The SPECT imaging studies of these patients reveal that their brain patterns tend to have areas of high activity, low activity, or areas of both in some cases.

Healthy Brain Scan

ASD Brain Scan

Because brain patterns in ASD can be varied, it is even more important to look at the brain using SPECT imaging. Abnormal activity is often seen in the cerebellum, anterior cingulate gyrus, amygdala, and the temporal, frontal, and parietal lobes. Brain SPECT scans also serve as a very useful tool for measuring the progress of treatment and to continue finding the best and most effective options for each patient, including behavior modifications, medication and/or supplement management, and lifestyle adjustments.

SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates activity (blood flow) in the brain. Basically, it shows three things: healthy activity, too little activity, or too much activity. In an “active” scan, blue represents average blood flow, while red and white represent increasingly higher levels of blood flow. In the healthy scan on the left, the most active area is the cerebellum, located in the back/bottom part of the brain, which is normal. The scan on the right of a 9-year-old boy with ASD reveals abnormally high activity in many areas of the brain, as well as low activity in the cerebellum.

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High & Low Activity Patterns in Autism Spectrum Disorder

In settings outside of Amen Clinics, the diagnosis of ASD is usually determined by a clinical history, the autism mental status examination, and other structured screening tools, leaving clinicians in the dark about the underlying brain function problems. With brain SPECT imaging, we frequently see increased activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus—linked to rigid, obsessive behavior—along with decreased activity in the temporal lobes (associated with language and social deficits), and in the cerebellum, which is involved with learning and physical coordination. 

High Activity Patterns in ASD

Increased activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus and lateral prefrontal cortex, linked to symptoms such as:

  • Repetitious speech and behavior
  • Getting stuck on thoughts and routines
  • Problems with transitions and change

An overall increase of activity throughout the brain, which may be associated with inflammation, and contribute to symptoms of:

  • Mood instability
  • Emotional meltdowns
  • Anxiety

Low Activity Patterns in ASD

A smaller, less active cerebellum, associated with:

  • Impeded or poor motor skills
  • Problems with learning and thought coordination

Overall decreased activity on the surface of the brain as well as in the parietal and temporal lobes, contributing to:

  • Communication and social problems
  • Learning deficits
  • Sensory processing issues
  • Problems with abstract thinking

 

 

“With A Better Brain Comes A Better Life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.

 

Autism Spectrum Disorder Testimonials

Jacquelin's Story

Kathy's Story

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