Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

Week 4: Explaining autism: mind and brain


In Weeks 1 to 3, you gained a picture of how the behaviour and thinking style of autistic people may differ from that of neurotypical people, and you have learned which of these key differences form the basis for diagnosis. But how and why do such differences come about? This is a question that scientists have tried to answer, offering explanations or theories about the psychology of autism (how the mind works), the neurobiology (structure and function of the brain and nervous system), and genetics (the influence of genes in a person’s physical and psychological traits, in this case making autism more likely to occur in some people than others). This week we will consider selected highlights of this scientific work. Notice that some of these studies consider relationships between different levels (psychology, neurobiology and genetics).

Now watch the following video in which Dr Ilona Roth introduces this week’s work.

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_aut_1_video_week4_intro.mp4
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By now, you should have a good feel for key characteristics of autism, but how and why does autism come about? This week, you'll be learning how scientists have tried to answer these questions, offering a range of explanations or theories based on their research. You'll look at some psychological theories focusing on how the mind works; neurobiological theories, dealing with structure and function of the brain and nervous system; and genetics-- insights into the genes underlying traits particularly associated with autism. There's a huge amount of scientific work on autism, and only a fraction can be covered in your week's study.
Starting with psychology, one influential theory is that autistic people tend to have difficulty understanding what other people think and feel, leading them to misread social situations. Another key theory links autistic people's strong preference for structure and routine to difficulty with mental flexibility and planning. Two further theories make connections between the difficulties and the strengths in autism. Some neurobiological theories suggest that subtle atypicalities in brain structure and function play a role in autism. Further neurobiological work focuses on differences in how information is transmitted via nerve fibres and on the action of certain hormones.
The genetics of autism is both compelling and complex. The fact that autism can affect more than one member of the same family provides strong evidence for a genetic influence. But a huge number of candidate genes have been identified, and these seem to vary from one individual to another. Explanations of autism have progressed a lot since the early days, but there's not often a straightforward translation between scientific findings and practical solutions that help autistic people.
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By the end of this week you should be able to:

  • understand key approaches to explaining autism
  • differentiate three levels of explanation: psychological, neurobiological and genetic
  • understand key psychological accounts of the autistic ‘thinking style’ and identify implications for everyday life
  • appreciate key ideas about brain and nervous system function in autism
  • appreciate the complex role of genetic influences in autism.

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