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Posted on Thu, Jan 10, 2013 : 9:35 a.m.

U-M study: Brain over-activity keeps autistic children from adapting in social settings

By Amy Biolchini

Autistic teens often feel overwhelmed and anxious in social situations due to an overactive part of their brain, according to new findings from the University of Michigan released Tuesday.

Autism is a group of developmental brain disorders that refer to a wide range of levels of impairment and symptoms including social impairment, communication difficulties and repetitive and stereotyped behaviors.

Daniel Whiteman.jpg

From left: Whiteman siblings Ben, age 15, Julianna, age 19, and Daniel, age 19, enjoy a family breakfast in Ypsilanti in 2010. Daniel, who has autism, is in a program which has helped him cope with situations which used to cause him great anxiety. University of Michigan researchers have found that a part of the brain in teens who are autistic is often over-active in social situations, which causes them to feel overwhelmed.

Angele Cesere | file photo

U-M researchers studied the amygdala, the part of the brain that categorizes feelings of anxiety.

The study monitored 32 children and teens with autism and 56 youth without autism through MRI imaging while the subjects were exposed to a set of facial images with different expressions.

Teens diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders did not adjust as well to new faces as non-autistic teens, according to the study.

In the youth not diagnosed with autism, researchers found activity in the amygdala decreased during the session as the children were shown image after image of the faces.

For autistic youth, activity in the amygdala was sustained throughout the entire session, which U-M researchers say means habituating to a certain situation is much more difficult.

Habituation is the process by which the brain becomes accustomed to a certain situation -- in the same way that a person could tune out a clock ticking in a room, according to the researchers.

“We could imagine how distressing failure to habituate would be in that case. Amygdala habituation helps us become accustomed to familiar social situations so we're not always on alert. This study is one of the first to show that this process is altered in teens with autism spectrum disorders,” according to a statement from the lead author of the study, Johnna Swartz, a graduate student in U-M's Department of Psychology.

Continued arousal and reaction to a situation often leads to distress, researchers say.

“They may find it distressing to look at and interact with other people. If kids find it distressing to watch and engage in social situations from an early age, they will disengage from them and miss many opportunities to learn about the social world,” said Christopher Monk, a professor in U-M’s Department of Psychology and a research associate professor at the Center for Human Growth and Development.

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Thu, Jan 10, 2013 : 4:14 p.m.

Wait. What? You forgot to blame the MMR vaccine.


Thu, Jan 10, 2013 : 9:52 p.m.

"Ignorance." Amen, DJBud!

Sam S Smith

Thu, Jan 10, 2013 : 9:09 p.m.

Thank you DJBudSonic!


Thu, Jan 10, 2013 : 5:42 p.m.

As the parent of an autistic child, there is very little I can do to change the brain function as described in this brief article. However, I can help my child by regulating his brain chemistry to lessen the severity of the experience. This is most often accomplished through controlling things like diet and exercise, sleep patterns, familial social interaction and habits, and control of visual and auditory stimulus. I don't know what causes autism related problems in the brain, but I know what helps them. And for you to crack wise about the possibility that environmental hazards have a role in autism shows your ignorance of the situation.


Thu, Jan 10, 2013 : 3:35 p.m.

Artificial food additives and gluten are two of the big triggers for brain over-activity. "Excitotoxins" is one of the terms used. Mercury poisoning tends to make recognizing faces much more difficult, among many other things. Many autistics are born mercury toxic due to their mothers being poisoned by half mercury amalgam dental fillings.


Thu, Jan 10, 2013 : 7:41 p.m.

"Autistics?" Really?