Autistic brain is hyper-functional; needs predictable, paced environments

A new open-access study shows that social and sensory overstimulation drives autistic behaviors and supports the unconventional view that the autistic brain is actually hyper-functional. The research offers new hope, with therapeutic emphasis on paced and non-surprising environments tailored to the individual’s sensitivity.
For decades, autism has been viewed as a form of mental retardation, a brain disease that destroys children’s ability to learn, feel and empathize, thus leaving them disconnected from our complex and ever-changing social and sensory surroundings. From this perspective, the main kind of therapeutic intervention in autism to date aims at strongly engaging the child to revive brain functions believed dormant.
Now researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) have completed a study that turns this traditional view of autism completely around. The study, conducted on rats exposed to a known risk factor in humans, demonstrates that unpredictable environmental stimulation drives autistic symptoms at least as much as an impoverished environment does. It also shows that predictable stimulation can prevent these symptoms.
The study is also evidence for a drastic shift in the clinical approach to autism, away from the idea of a damaged brain that demands extensive stimulation. Instead, autistic brains may be hyper-functional and thus require enriched environments that are non-surprising, structured, safe, and tailored to a particular individual’s sensitivity.
The study identifies drastically opposite behavioral outcomes depending on levels of predictability in the enriched environment, and suggests that the autistic brain is unusually sensitive to predictability in rearing environment, but to different extent in different individuals.