What is ASD and what are the symptoms?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological disorder that affects development of coordination, communication and cognition. Signs and symptoms of autism appear in early childhood.
Each person with autism has his or her own constellation of symptoms; that’s why it’s known as a spectrum disorder. The DSM-5 refers to these features:
- Communication/language deficits
- Deficits in social emotional reciprocity and nonverbal communicative behaviors
- Emotional dysregulation
- Repetitive behaviors and rigid routines
- Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input
Other features that frequently occur with ASD are: low muscle tone; poor coordination and balance; and reduced motor skills.
ASD is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder. What factors affect brain development?
The brain grows and develops from sensory input; without it, there is no brain growth nor development of the nervous system. We actually have seven senses. There are the five commonly referred-to senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste) which give us information about our outer environment, and two others, the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. The vestibular system in your inner ear gives you a sense of balance and coordination. The proprioceptive system in the joints tells you where your body is in space. (Some are even including an eighth sense, the interoceptive sense, which tells us about our inner environment. A tummy ache, for example, is picked up by the interceptors from the GI tract.) Time and time again, we notice that people with cognitive delays due to many learning differences also have delays in motor skills and coordination – that is, they may have issues with input from their vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
Because sensory input is processed first through the spinal cord and brain stem, I emphasize the importance of multisensory, bottom-up therapies to strengthen subcortical processing. How the brain grows and everything it does stems from the input from the subcortical system.
You say that without body organization, you won’t have brain organization.
Yes. This is illustrated nicely with an image:
This pyramid makes it clear that the seven senses are the foundation of learning. If the sensory systems are not functioning appropriately, then you will see poor function at the higher levels. And yet, when a child is having developmental issues, testing and intervention tends to begin at the top of the pyramid. For example, diagnosing autism involves observations of behavior, language skills, attention and learning. But interventions should focus first on the subcortical systems – those at the base of the pyramid. By stimulating the senses and improving their integration, learning readiness will emerge. But without focus on the sensory systems, sensory input will be faulty and this will lead to faulty output further up the pyramid.
Is autism curable?
The medical establishment says no. But I believe there is reason for great hope for people with ASD. With appropriate therapy, we have seen that many features of autism seem to disappear. Autism is a multisensory problem and requires a multisensory approach. With multisensory stimulation feeding sensory integration, better body organization occurs and this fortifies brain organization. These two – body organization and brain organization – help to foster behavioral and emotional regulation as well as learning. This is nicely illustrated by another pyramid:
Understanding that the disorder has subcortical origins helps in planning a therapeutic approach. Specifically, incorporating multisensory input to any intervention is essential. By first addressing brain and body organization through the senses, better results will be seen at the cognitive and behavioral level. This understanding gives parents of children with Autism a legitimate reason to be optimistic, and even happy.
Watch Dr. Ron’s presentation on ASD at the Invisible Disabilities Association conference.