Autistic Consultant & British Psychologist, Wenn, leading by example to empower autistic individuals and promote quality co-produced research

Autism: Being Neurodivergent Within the World of Neuro-diversity

Below I write about issues concerning autism, cognitive theories and neurodiversity. There are several traditional theories about what autism is and why it exists. Some of these theories have aspects to them that strike a chord in places that make sense, others do not. Then there are theories debating whether, or not, autism is a medical condition or a social one. Usually, the realities lay somewhere in between. There are theories that autism springs from an idea based around an apparent failure to understand the mind of another (Theory of mind or ToM, see: Baron-cohen et al 1985). Others suggest autism will mean failing to see the bigger picture and only attending to particular details (Central Coherence theory, e.g. Happe, 2006). The extreme male brain theory suggests autistics are systemisers and they may have been exposed to high levels of testosterone in utero (See: Baron-Cohen, 2002).

But, before we ascribe to any particular theory, it's important to note that it 'Does No Harm', explains the majority of what we see in the autistic population and doesn't only focus upon deficits, leading to poor self- concepts.

One of the theories about autism which has received some attention is called: The Intense World Theory by Henry & Kamila Markram (2010). Some aspects of the theory are appealing but others are not so. Critics point out that the theory fails to account for the wider differences seen in autism. See Spectrum News. But, The Intense World Theory may not live up to that ideology. Especially as we know that both over activity and under activity exist within the autistic brain, See Science Daily.

Also, for example, Mini columnar connectivity, as described by Casanova, Buxhoeveden, Switala, & Roy (2002) demonstrates over connectivity in some regions and not in others. See also Brain (2015) where the article discusses enhanced processing in autism.

Other studies have noted the impact of GAMMA connectivity in autism. See: Lawson(2012).

This focuses our attention on a deeper understanding of autism pertaining to one of 'attention' and connectivity. It suggests once attention, via interest, is captured and GAMMA is activated, individuals are 'switched on' and available to learn. Many of the resources developed by the South Australian government are developed upon this foundation, plus: 'it's nothing about us without us' which means listening to, hearing and actioning resources based upon the experiences of autistic people themselves, or co-production. See: Education SA.

Whatever the theory, in practice it's important to listen to autistic people and what they say may work for them.

In the DSM-5 (APA, 2013) to qualify for a diagnosis of autism, individuals need to have (summarised):
A developmental disability characterised by marked difficulties in social interaction and communication; restricted and repetitive interests and/or behaviours and possibly sensory sensitivities.

Therefore, autism means being 'single channelled' in one's mode of attention, or attending to things, one at a time. This is often viewed as having repetitive interests, or obsessions. I prefer to call these 'passions'. It also implies lots of heightened or underactive sensory processes, which will make relating in a social world of mixed sensory input based around accessing a bigger picture, very uncomfortable.

In general the non-autistic world (neuro-typical) operates using divided attention and is able to multi-task (look, listen, walk, talk, think, process and so on, all at the same time) so they have access to a bigger picture while we might focus only on areas of interest. For more information see: Happe & Frith, (2006), Murray, (1992); Lawson, (2000); Lawson, 2011; 2011); Murray, Lesser & Lawson, (2005), Wood. R. (2019).

Neurodivergent means when a person's cognitive ability moves or diverges from the typical.

Neuro-diversity refers to a population of individuals where being neurodiverse is the usual. It's an umbrella term that houses lots of differences of various types, Autism being one of these. In a World where the dominant cognitive style is one that multitasks those of us who are more equipped to focus on tasks one at a time, can be disadvantaged. If such disadvantage becomes 'extreme' and individual cognitive needs are not catered for, it can even become a disability.

In an environment that is designed, built, and operates on the need for multitasking or divided interests, the above areas of difficulty will arise for those of us not designed for that environment. This is because a cognitive style that harnesses single focussed attention, isn't naturally part of an environment catering for cognitive styles that operate around divided interests. So, because we all live in the same world and are expected to 'fit in' with the dominant cognitive style, relating socially to others can be rather tricky!

Being neuro-divergent (having a cognitive style that diverges from the typical) means our differences are often very noticeable. It's of interest though that re: autism, females often 'fly under the radar'. Often this is simply because either their areas of passion are commonly accepted as:
a) 'girls being girls' (so they may be passionate about reading, about horses and/or animals, about fashion and so on)..
b) their difficulties, usually of a social nature, don't show until capacity outweighs demand (See: Carpenter, Happe & Egerton, 2019).

For males, autism is often diagnosed earlier because being driven by testosterone but lacking social skill, they may come to the attention of a teacher at school due to various behaviours of a disruptive and/or challenging disposition.

So, operating with a brain that has a different operating system, will mean being part of a wider neurodiverse community. This highlights variation and many areas of difference sometimes making it difficult to recognise autism as the foundation for these. This variability can mask, distract or even lead a practitioner to think an individual isn't autistic but is living with a mental health issue as their main reason for the troubles that ail them. For example, they may appear excessively shy and anxious prompting an assessment of anxiety disorder; they may keep returning to the same interest and not want to leave it to explore something different. This might include wanting to keep the same routine, use the same utensils, be wary of 'germs' and even mirror some of the areas of difficulty seen in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD); others may seem unduly 'changeable', restless, demand avoidant, totally taken over by a passion then knocked flat when things fail to go their way, much as if they were bi-polar or have a borderline personality disorder. These examples of autistic variation based around being singly focussed are all 'autism' but presented via differing personality lenses. Of course, an individual may be living with mental health issues too. But, the distinguishing factor that underwrites autism for all, despite the variations, is being 'monotropic' or singly focussed (APA, 2013; Lawson, 2000; 2005; 2009; 2011; Murray, Lesser & Lawson, 2005).

Autism also has cousins, such as Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Extreme (Pathological) Demand Avoidance (PDA) and others. These all belong to the wider understanding of neurodiversity, but only autism will mean being singly focussed. Therefore, when and if there is convergence between these, a mixed bag will follow! By that I mean, autism = single interests, plus ADHD, which might mean disengagement from attention so lots of unfinished projects, but serial fashion, to PDA where any perceived demand creates incredible anxiety that closes a person down. Then, of course, we each have our own personality and passions. Autism is viewed via all of these windows.

As autistics we are impacted by our ability to connect to a number of typical 'senses' that all humans have but, can be 'off line' for us, when our attention is elsewhere focussed. The sense of interoception, for example will need specific 'attention' paid to it to allow our connections to fully develop. See: Brain Master and Education SA.

Another typical developmental ability that usually is established in humans before the age of 18mths. Is Object permanence. This can be very delayed for us due to not noticing, not forward thinking, not connecting to the bigger picture due to attention being taken over by our single attention mode, or, the type of operating system we work with. Again this will need attention paid to it. See ResearchGate.

So, autism is a culture which is complex and exists in complex humans in various cultures, seen through differing personality lenses and varies with age, gender and accommodation of the need's individuals present. When our needs are accommodated and our particular autistic profile is understood we can become productive, content individuals living within an inclusive society able to contribute to that society (See: Lawson & Bearden, (2015), rather than simply being seen as individuals who are needy and only reliant upon others. In a mutually inclusive society give and take are not mutually exclusive but are part and parcel of being human. Community and belonging are important for humanity and when, we find our mob, we find our home.

References

American Psychiatric Association (2013) The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. USA.
Baron-Cohen S. et al. Cognition 21, 37-46 (1985) PubMed
Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA; London: The MIT Press.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. TRENDS in Cognitive Science 6(6). 248-256. (pg 248).
Brain: See https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/7/2034/254005
Carpenter, B., Happe, F & Egerton J. (2019) Girls and Autism: Educational, Family and Personal Perspectives. London: JKP
Casanova et al (2002) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11839843
Happe, F. & Frith, U. (2006) The Weak Coherence Account: Detail-Focused Cognitive Style in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 5-25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-005-0039-0
Lawson, W. (2000) Understanding & working with the spectrum of autism. London: JKP
Lawson, W. (2009, PhD thesis published in 2011) Autism: Taking over. Germany: Lambert Academic Pubs
Lawson, W. (2011) The passionate mind: How individuals with autism learn. London: JKP
Lawson, W & Beardon, L. (2015) Nine degrees of Autism. Routledge: UK
Lawson, W. (2012) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23273907
Markram, K. & Markram, H. (2010) see: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2010.00224/full
Murray, D.K., Lesser, M. and Lawson, W (2005) Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism: Volume: 9 issue 2, page(s): 139-156
Murray, D.K Attention tunnelling and autism in P. Shatock & G. Linfoot (Eds.) Living with autism: The individual, the family & the professional 89-97 Sunderland Autism research Unit. University of Sunderland
Spectrum News (2014): See https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/viewpoint/intense-world-theory-raises-intense-worries/
Wood, R. (2019) Autism, intense interests and support in school: from wasted efforts to shared understandings, Educational Review, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2019.1566213