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Big Think hosted a panel discussion highlighting cutting-edge autism research as part of our Breakthroughs series, made possible by Pfizer. This conversation features back-and-forth exchanges between top luminaries in the[…]

Autism sufferers unquestionably have feelings. It’s processing those feelings—and reading them in others—that they struggle with.

Do People With Autism Experience Emotions?

Wilczynski:  So tell me Dr. Bookheimer, what do we know about neural dysfunction and social deficits in individuals with autism?

Bookheimer:  Well we know quite a bit of small pieces of information.  We really don’t know a lot about how it all fits together.  That has been studied in a variety of different ways.  One is looking at the structure of the brain and in looking at the structure of the brain you can’t just look at a brain scan of someone with autism and see autism in it.  The brains look very normal.  The consistent finding is that on average the brain size in individuals with autism is larger at least earlier in life. But if you look very carefully at that data it looks as if a minority of individuals with autism have pretty large brains and then most of the other ones are pretty much average and the differences are not so massive that it will really tell us what the problem is.

The other things that have been looked at are functional activity in the brain.  When you have individuals with autism perform tasks. What areas of the brain are working, how are they working and where are some of the differences. And there, there has been a great deal of controversy.  For example, one of the early findings in autism was that they didn’t seem to activate the areas of the brain that are responsible for face processing to the same degree of individuals who are typically developing.  We have an area of the brain that is pretty well devoted to face processing that becomes stronger and very, very well entrenched in the brain rather early in life, and individuals with autism many of them did not seem to show that same kind of specialization. But as we’ve studied that a little bit more there have been problems with that theory.  One of the biggest problems is that individuals with autism don’t tend to look at the eye region very much and when they do look at the eyes then they get more face area activity and the other I think major finding was that when individuals with autism look at people who they know very well their face areas work just fine. And so there appears to be a general difference in the way that the face area is active, but that may be a consequence of differences in social behavior and not a cause of it, which is one of the early models.

There are other brain areas that don’t seem to function as well or as typically.  The amygdala, an area of the brain that is involved in the experiencing of strong and salient emotions doesn’t always react in the same way and isn’t as well regulated or modulated as it is in typically developing individuals.  There are other areas of the brain that are involved in social processing all throughout the frontal cortex and in other areas of the brain and those tend to be a little bit different, less active in these social networks of the brain.

Wilczynski: You were talking about emotions and the parts of the brain that were processing emotions.  Sometimes there is a perception out there that individuals on the autism spectrum really don’t experience emotions or are incapable of reading the emotions of others.  Can you speak to that?

Bookheimer:  Well individuals with autism certainly have emotions.  I think one of the earliest findings in autism that was controversial was that individuals with autism bond with their mothers at an early stage.  It was thought many years ago that they didn’t bond, but they do bond.  They also have emotional experiences.  Anyone who has a child with autism knows that.  They get upset just like everyone else does.  They may have more difficulty with some of the more subtle emotions like shame, pride, things that are much more socially oriented. But again, that might be a learning difference. 

Some of us believe that one of the problems in emotional behavior in autism is simply that they’re not as well regulated and not as well integrated with areas of the brain that understand emotions and that can really think through and work through them and that is of course a consequence of being able to not just have the emotion, but to process it and understand it and understand it in context.

There is evidence that individuals with autism are not very good at reading the emotions in others.  That is part of the disorder in fact. And we don’t know why that is.  It may be that they’re never attending as much to others.  There is a model that individuals with autism don’t seem to have the same almost innate motivation to socialize. And if you don’t socialize then you won’t learn a lot of these social behaviors including how to read other people, so we end up continuing to have the same problem: What is the cause and what is the effect?  We learn a lot of how to read other people by paying attention to others and by learning through our social experiences, but if individuals with autism are spending a lot of time attending to objects and not interacting with people and not attending to people then they may not just gain that set of rules and that understanding of others that allows them to participate more in the social world as they grow older. So in a sense there is a cascading affect that occurs. An early perhaps lack of interest in others that over time will evolve because of a lack of experience in communicating with others.