Fred Volkmar, MD: How Children with Autism See the World Differently


Our understanding of autism has improved significantly over the past decade. Among several discoveries, we now know that children with autism interpret faces differently than their peers without the condition.

Fred R Volkmar, MD:

We've known, really since the first description of autism, when Connor talked about what he called an early inborn disturbance of affective contact, meaning they couldn't relate to their parents like other kids did, we've understood a lot more about that in terms of things like how children with autism process faces. Faces turn out to be an area of great difficulty for them. For most babies, the face is the most interesting thing in the baby's world. For kids with autism, it's a puzzlement.

We think as a result that they resort to other ways of kinda getting information from the environment and the world, and so they use things that most of us would see as extraneous like details of the carpet or the ceiling or the window.

So they're pulled to things where they're trying to find information, but it's not the same way the rest of us do, which is kind of through the social route.

If you're a very good social player from very early on, by the time you say your first word, you're playing the social game, you're looking at the same thing your parents are, you're ignoring things they're ignoring, if something spooky happens, you look to your mom or dad to find out if it's ok. There's a whole package of stuff that kicks in. You're very good at multitasking - what psychologists call executive functioning - sort of combining multiple aspects of information.

If you're not a social player, that turns out to be an area of difficulty. All kinds of things we think fall out in terms of information processing. And we actually can now see some of that in the brain.

The interesting thing in the last couple years has been we're seeing now with some treatments that we know to be effective that we can see brain changes in response to treatments. Things like looking at faces - it turns out there's a very characteristic EEG response to looking at a face and children - individuals with autism have a different response. We can see with intervention that that response seems to - I don't want to say normalize, but become more typical.

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