Research continues to show just how amazing our brains are. Throughout our lives, our brains are malleable, and we are able to learn new things and enjoy new activities. Research into brain plasticity and early behavioral intervention is one key to giving children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) a brighter future. We asked our ASD experts whether there is a way to mitigate to prevent it. Here’s their take on it.
ABA therapy can help (Tiffany Cook)
Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and to repair itself after injury as a result of experience. In other words, research has determined that our brains have a remarkable capability of repairing connections or creating new neurons to restore a function that has been lost. There are two types of brain plasticity.
There is functional plasticity when the brain re-routes connections from a damaged area of the brain to an undamaged one, like unplugging a lamp from a non-working outlet to a working one for the lamp to come on again, in order to restore a function such as sight, hearing, speech, motor, cognitive reasoning, etc. that has been lost to injury or disease.
The other type of plasticity is structural plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change its structure as a result of experiential learning.
These 2 types of restorative processes provide the base science for a field of autism therapy called Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. ABA is data-driven. In other words, the behavioral therapists run a series of what they call programs, tasks or trials that focus on various skills in various areas – e.g., academic, social, daily living, etc. – while keeping careful records of their client’s response to certain tasks and their reinforcements. In a matter of only a few sessions, ABA therapists can tell what experiences and reinforcements are producing the most productive responses.
These experiences and their reinforcements can be changed or even eliminated as a person matures and these productive behaviors become more rote. In other words, behaviors such as exercising self-control, responding positively to reasonable expectations, and being denied access to even things we want and like become more accepted by a person with autism as just part of living life.
The earlier these lessons begin to be learned the quicker the person with autism will grasp them and begin to live by them. Therefore, early intervention, therapy services given to children prior to age five, is extremely important.
As for the “prevention” of ASD, this is, again, a misnomer, in my opinion. Because the cause of ASD has yet to be determined by the medical community, it is tough to prevent, but there have been cases where a person can “lose” their autism diagnosis. This means that, due to therapeutic intervention, function has been restored to a point where the individual no longer meets the medical definition of being autistic. The explanation for this can be traced back to brain plasticity where the brain, through focused and positive experiences, has been able to heal to the point of restoring functions once lost or impaired by autism.
Early tests can help (Kereth Harris)
There is new research emerging that ASD can be recognized as early as 6 weeks in a baby. A test administered by qualified individuals looks for a range of early indicators, one being eye tracking. As with any disorder, early intervention is always good, as long as it is evidence based.
ABA is used to help the ASD child learn new behavioral skills that will reduce difficult or unwanted behaviors. It effectively is retraining the brain to create new pathways to use in certain situations. ABA recognizes that the brain can learn new things and with repetition and direct skill teaching. The “sexy” new term for ABA is brain plasticity! As for the prevention of ASD – I’d be a millionaire if I had that answer, but I do know that each and every person with ASD is a person first, with a diagnosis second, and as hard as that is to remember on those really difficult days, it is the absolute truth. ASD is their label, it is not them.
Genetic testing leads to more effective treatments (Lesley Scott)
Scientific and medical advances are contributing to optimism regarding outcomes for those diagnosed with ASD. Some advances, such as genetic testing, provide early detection methods which in turn lead to more effective treatments. It is even speculated that detection of ASD early enough, before the full syndrome presents, may allow treatments that will alter the course of early behavioral and brain development.
Research has demonstrated that children diagnosed with autism show significant diminishment in their symptoms if they receive intensive intervention very early in life. The reason for this is the fact that the human brain is “plastic”, which means that it has the ability to change throughout life and can reorganize itself by forming new connections. As doctors and scientists better understand the biological processes that might cause ASD, they will be able to direct more targeted intervention approaches to substantially improve the lives of ASD individuals and their families.
A healthy pregnancy is important (Amanda Whittington)
Brain plasticity, also known as neural plasticity, is the ability of the brain to change and adapt over time. While brain plasticity continues throughout adulthood, the brain is most malleable in younger, developing brains. If caught early, the symptoms of ASD have a higher possibility of being mitigated by early behavioral therapies during the time when the brain is most malleable. Programs such as Early Intervention can be great tools in getting your child help for the symptoms of ASD.
Although it may be difficult or impossible to completely prevent autism, research has shown that brain abnormalities can begin as early as the second trimester of pregnancy. Therefore, taking care to have a healthy pregnancy to the best of your ability will go a long way towards having a healthy baby without autism. Maintain good nutrition, appropriate exercise, get prenatal checkups, and do your best to stay healthy during your pregnancy.