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Social withdrawal is perhaps the hallmark of autism. It is a common trait associated with autistic children, many of whom appear socially detached or disinterested in their environment.
New research may shed light on why these children so heavily withdraw into their own worlds.
A recent study found the brains of autistic children to create 42 percent more information at rest when compared to neurotypical children. The findings, reported by researchers from Case Western Reserve University and the University of Toronto, are being attributed to more complex brain activity in autistic children.
“We believe that this excess in information generation is indicative of a richer inner experience and a higher level of introspection that lead autistic people to withdraw into themselves, thereby impairing social interactions,” said senior author Dr. Roberto Fernández Galán, associate professor of neurosciences at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.
According to Galán, brain activity itself was not significantly different. It was the complexity of that activity that caught the attention of researchers. During times of rest, when significant sensory stimulation was absent, autistic brains displayed much more complex activity than non-autistic brains.
“Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that autistic people experience a more intense inner world, which ‘distracts’ their attention from the external world, including social interactions,” said Galán.
The study’s findings align with what’s been dubbed the Intense World Theory – the idea that autism is the result of hyper-functioning neural circuitry that leads to a state of over-arousal.
According to Galán, the same idea may apply to other mental disorders like schizophrenia and depression.
“In the early days of autism research, autism was mistakenly referred to as children’s schizophrenia,” said Galán. “In fact, schizophrenic people also withdraw into their own world and they do it more often the more advanced the disease is.”
Autism spectrum disorders refer to a group of developmental disabilities that affects approximately one in 88 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is characterized by impaired communication and delayed social skills.
By Marianne Hayes