One of the most interesting aspects of autism spectrum conditions is the debates and discussions you can have about what you are born with (in terms of so-called autistic traits and behaviours), and what manifests over time. (A quick heads up – we liken it to being born with a genetic map; an autistic sat-nav that is pre-programmed at birth; the author proposes that we and our families impact on this ‘map’ as the autistic child develops. E.g., let the autism go unsupported and / or undiagnosed, and push the child into situations not suited to his or her autistic sensibilities, and ‘autistic traits’ will prevail. But read on for more…)
“Anyone who is autistic is born autistic…”
Firstly, let’s be clear: anyone who is autistic is born autistic. (There’s a fair bit of information online on detecting autism in babies – there’s brief info on the UK’s NHS website HERE). There is very little concrete information linking non genetic causative factors to autism. Scientists are currently identifying ‘susceptibility genes’, e.g. genes that leave us susceptible to being autistic; meanwhile, studies HAVE found some links to autism with pregnancy-related factors, including gestational diabetes, maternal medication and birth injury. Essentially, there are genetic and environmental factors at play (that are being constantly researched) – and it is generally thought that (for people of all neurologies), our genes offer pathways for us to go down, that our environment ‘opens up’ for us.
In any case: autism does not come and go like a virus – the author of this piece was (inadvisably and incorrectly) told by a very experienced health visitor that the health visitor had seen cases of what she described as transitional autism, that a child grows out of; but this is a very ill-informed view of the child’s situation – the child was perhaps misdiagnosed in the first place, or maybe his environment was managed to a degree, so that his more overt autistic traits and behaviours reduced, during that period. Either way, it is a worry that a health visitor mentioned it as Truth, in passing! Autism does not regress – rather, individuals and their families learn how to make the triggers and stressors (for behaviours that are more overt or concerning) manageable, and this can seem like some kind of transition.
Are all of your so-called autistic traits always present from birth?
So, if you are born autistic, what does that mean – are all of your autistic sensibilities always present from birth, just waiting to develop; or is it a series of connections in the brain that develop and work synergistically as a person matures, and their environment interjects, creating traits as the neurons form connections, or synapses, within the brain? Given that some autistic traits are apparently linked to a more passive profile, while some traits (like severe demand avoidance or panicked behaviours) are linked to more overt profiles, just WHEN does the person ‘slot into’ their autistic profile – if there even is such a thing? Is it at birth, or is it as they mature, and the neurological connections in the brain form the patterns that will stay with that autistic person as they grow older?
(NB – neuroscientists propose that autistic people have significant ‘structural differences’ in the amygdala regions of the brain – the amygdala being involved in emotional and social behaviour – as well as the hippocampus area, involved in memory, and the anterior cingulate gyrus, which is the ‘social’ part of the brain.)
Less PDA traits?
Families of autistic children with PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) know that when demands are reduced and the causes of anxiety are managed, the child may show less overt traits, e.g. fear of expectations and panicked responses. Obviously this does not mean that the PDA has gone away, just that the child and the family are able to manage the triggers for anxiety and panic attacks (or meltdowns) more effectively.
Some clinical psychologists believe that autism neurologies are ‘variable’, in that the autistic traits and behaviours will manifest themselves differently according to the person’s environment – something that the author of this piece would concur with. (In fact, that’s what the weighing scales that we use as our Spectra.blog logo mean – the fact that coping with autism’s challenges, and creating a balance in our autistic lives, is about the balance between environmental (and social) triggers or autistic stressors, and the autistic person’s own skill-sets.)
As autistic sensibilities often tend to be driven and heightened by anxiety (for example related to socialisation challenges, perfectionism, or the pressure to ‘mask’ and fit in), if you can reduce the triggers for anxiety, this will generally reduce the manifestations of the adult or child’s autistic traits. Autism of course doesn’t go away in this case, but the anxious behaviours (maybe obsessive vocal stims, meltdown behaviours or panic attacks) can be reduced.
So, going back to our original point at the start of this post, what autistic traits are we born with?
“It’s entirely possible that the autistic traits may ‘lie low’ for a while, while the more neurotypical parts of the brain take the lead…”
Here’s a theory, based on the author’s own familial experiences. Even though an autistic child has brain that is wired to be autistic, some parts of the brain are presumably functioning in a more neurotypical way, and as the child matures and hopefully their environment and the triggers for anxiety are managed, it’s possible that the more anxiety-based autistic traits may ‘lie low’ for a while, while the more neurotypical parts of the brain take the lead. The child with familial and educational support in place will also be learning his or her own triggers for anxiety-driven responses, so perhaps it is less ‘neurotypical parts of the brain’ taking the lead, and simply the child’s own management of triggers and stressors that sometimes makes it appear that the less desirable, anxiety-led autistic traits may sometimes ‘lie low’?
As a parent, this ‘lull’ could lead us to suspect that we have somehow changed our child’s autistic balance somehow, or that the autism is going away. Obviously the latter could not be true – once autistic, always autistic – and speaking with autistic adults with PDA, the overriding opinion is that your autistic profile cannot change or flip between one profile and another. (E.g. between PDA autism, which is driven by an anxiety-led need to be in control, and a fear of uncertainty, and autism.)
Writing as the parent of a neurodiverse child, this author can acknowledge that there are lulls and cycles all of the time, with the lulls showcasing more relaxed and capable times (for the child), and the more challenging times showcasing social and sensory difficulties that can lead to meltdowns and anxiety.
This of course hasn’t answered our original question – which it is impossible to answer universally. The author’s personal opinion is that we autists have a genetic map, a genetic autistic sat-nav that is pre-programmed at birth; and that we and our families impact on this ‘map’ as the autistic child develops. Instil self awareness, self esteem, understanding of the child’s neurology, an idea of their triggers for over-stimulation, and coping mechanisms to utilise when their autism has over-whelmed their processing skill-sets, and the ‘traits’ associated with anxiety will reduce. Let the autism go unsupported and / or undiagnosed, and push the child into situations not suited to his or her autistic sensibilities, and the ‘autistic traits’ will prevail.
In any case, we hope the article has provoked some interest and debate, and raised some interesting points for anyone interested in autism research! NB, there’s a doctor called David Eagleman, a renowned neuroscientist, whose work within the field of neuroscience sometimes crosses over in to autism research; check him out, if you’re interested.
Furthermore, the website of Advanced Sensory Integration Practitioner Julia Dyer has some useful information on autism and neuroscience that serves as a pointer for further research, for anyone interested in finding out more – see the page ‘Autism and Neuroscience’.
Please note that as we always say in each blog post, here at Spectra.blog, we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.
(You may also like this BLOG on functioning labels).
Finally, it’s a cliché perhaps, but many autists love music, for many reasons. What better way to deal with life than to escape within a quirky song? In the words of Morcheeba’s ‘Be Yourself’ – “I’m sick of satisfaction and living in a drought. Just be yourself, anyway that you want to (anyway that you can).”