Autism and The Brain

For years, caregivers and loved ones of someone with autism have been searching for an understanding as to why – why does their child or loved one function the way they do? Until recently, researchers and clinicians only had theories. With the advancements of modern imaging, researchers and clinicians now have scientific evidence to back up their theories. With the growing body of research available on autism, here are 3 things we’ve found to be most important to know about autism and the brain:

Their Brains Work Longer:

A group of researchers conducted an fMRI study on 90 male participants with and without autism. The researchers then confirmed their findings with 1,400 scans from the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange (ABIDE). What they found was that neural connections, in the brain of someone with autism, remain active longer than someone without. This may explain the difficulties that people with autism face when they have to switch tasks. Their brains become stuck on a problem or topic and have a difficult time readjusting to a new one. On the plus side, someone with autism may become an expert on a topic as this focus can cause them to dig deeper than the average person into a topic of interest. 

They Process Touch Differently:

In a study with 99 children (67 neurotypical and 32 children with autism), researchers found that children with autism have impaired tactile processing. When asked to discriminate between weak and strong touch, children with autism take longer to respond. When two stimuli of different intensity are applied simultaneously and they have trouble detecting static sensations. Researchers believe these findings to be linked to impaired inhibitory processing circuitry in the brain. More research is needed to identify which specific mechanisms affected the underlying sensory processing. This can inform caregivers and therapists about how to interact with a child with autism by being mindful of physical contact such as handshakes, which may cause a child to respond negatively.

Their Brainstem Doesn’t Hit as Many Pitches:

Baseball pun aside, research shows that children with autism have impaired pitch tracking. A study had 42 children (21 with A) watch a movie and listen to the movie soundtrack with their left ear while ignoring ascending or descending auditory stimuli delivered to their right ear. Autocorrelations derived from brainstem recordings revealed that children with Autism had trouble distinguishing ascending and descending pitches. The results of the study have implications for the importance of music therapy to train the brainstem to better encode and distinguish between high and low pitches. Learning to encode pitch can be helpful for children for learning emotion discrimination (i.e. high pitch for elation, low pitch for displeasure).

Autism is not a one-size fits all condition. People with autism respond to different situations and stimuli from the environment differently. While autism poses many challenges for a person, it can also cause them to become an expert in a topic of interest or excel at a skill. By understanding that autism causes a person’s brain to work overtime, process touch differently, and have trouble interpreting auditory input can help therapists, caregivers, and peers interact with someone that has autism in a more compassionate and effective way.


  1. King JB, Prigge MBD, King CK, et al. Evaluation of Differences in Temporal Synchrony Between Brain Regions in Individuals With Autism and Typical Development. JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(7):e184777. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.4777
  2. Maria Cohut, Ph.D. “What Does Autism Look like in the Brain?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 20 Nov. 2018,
  3. Puts, N. A., Wodka, E. L., Tommerdahl, M., Mostofsky, S. H., & Edden, R. A. (2014). Impaired tactile processing in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of neurophysiology, 111(9), 1803-1811.
Dustin Luchmee

Dustin was HappyNeuron's Product Specialist. With research experience in stroke, Dustin learned how a stroke can change someone's life. He also learned how different kinds of therapists can work together to help a person get better. He is passionate about neuro-rehabilitation and finding the active ingredients for effective therapy.

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