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Chris Hadfield
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What Is Autism?

The symptoms of autism are far better understood than its causes; psychiatrists classify the disorder as having two major components: impaired social cognition and a tendency toward narrow interests and repetitive behaviors. 

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in children in their first two or three years and is characterized broadly by two components: a deficiency in social and emotional intelligence as well as a tendency towards narrow interests and repeated behaviors. But the symptoms of the disorder are far from uniform, ranging in severity and focus. "Seeing one or two cases of autism...is often insufficient to prepare a psychologist, a developmental pediatrician, or other health professional to really provide a comprehensive diagnosis," says Dr. Susan Wilczynski, director of the National Autism Center, as part of Big Think's "Breakthroughs: Autism" panel.


In fact, experts have recently renamed the disorder "autism spectrum disorder" (ASD), encompassing previously distinct conditions like Asperger's syndrome (a change that will be reflected in the forthcoming fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, the Bible of the psychiatric profession). Approximately 1% of American children exhibit some symptoms of an ASD.

What causes autism is still unknown, though scientists have posited vague theories. Big Think panelist Dr. Gerald Fischbach, Scientific Director of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, believes that the issue is one of connectivity among brain areas: "It’s how these regions talk to each other and how they interact that is just not quite right," he says. UCLA professor Dr. Susan Bookheimer agrees, adding that "areas of the brain that are far from each other are not as well connected, whereas areas of the brain that are very close to each other seem to be over-connected."

More Resources

—"Autism Spectrum Disorder Facts," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CNN Health article detailing what is and isn't known about the disorder.

Wired Magazine article illuminating the debate over the upcoming DSM-5, with an infographic about the changing definition of autism and other mental disorders over the past century.

The views expressed here are solely those of the participants, and do not represent the views of Big Think or its sponsors.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?

Videos
  • From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
  • "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
  • Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.

COVID-19 brain study to explore long-term effects of the virus

A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.

Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.

Coronavirus
  • The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  • The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
  • Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation

Better reskilling can future-proof jobs in the age of automation. Enter SkillUp's new coalition.

Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.

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