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What autistic traits are you born with? (Looking at Neuroscience and autism / Asperger’s / PDA)

by | Nov 28, 2017 | News & Views | 2 comments

So… what autistic traits are we actually born with? One of the most interesting aspects of autistic spectrum conditions is the debates and discussions you can have about what you are born with (in terms of autistic traits and behaviours), and what manifests over time.

“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 links to autism with pregnancy-related factors, including gestational diabetes, maternal medication and birth injury or trauma; but research is ongoing.)

In any case: autism does not come and go like a virus – the author of this piece was (inadvisably) 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 probably a very simplistic and ill-informed view of the child’s situation – it is more likely that the child was misdiagnosed in the first place, or that his environment was managed to a degree so that his autistic traits and behaviours reduced during that period. Either way, it is a worry that a health visitor mentioned it as Truth, in passing!

Are all of your autistic traits always present from birth?

So, if you are born autistic, what does that mean – are all of your autistic traits 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, creating autistic trait 1, autistic trait 2 etc, as our neurons rapidly form connections, or synapses, within the brain? Given that some high functioning autism spectrum disorder traits are linked to a slightly more passive profile like Asperger Syndrome, and some autistic traits are more linked to the stronger or more overt characteristics of PDA or Pathological Demand Avoidance, just WHEN does the person slot into their autistic Profile? 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. As our ‘autistic’ brains develop, who’s to say what is happening, and what new patterns are forming?)

Less PDA traits?

Families of children with PDA know that when demands are reduced and the causes of anxiety are managed, the child may show less overt traits of pathological demand avoidance. 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 the panic attacks (or meltdowns).

Some clinical psychologists believe that high functioning autism conditions are ‘variable’, in that the autistic traits, signs or 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 logo mean – the fact that coping with autism 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 traits tend to be driven and heightened by anxiety, 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 can be reduced.

So, going back to our original point at the start of this post, what autistic traits are we born with, in terms of collections of traits that are linked to a particular profile, such as Asperger Syndrome or PDA? Can the management of a child, or of ourselves if we are an adult with autism, somehow influence the profile or label of autism that we are given? Is there any way for example to almost prevent Pathological Demand Avoidance as the profile that the autistic child ends up being diagnosed with, through careful management of the triggers? (This does seem unlikely, but it is an interesting point of discussion!)

Two red herrings

(1)Interestingly, it does seem the case that many children with a demand avoidant autistic profile are initially incorrectly diagnosed with Asperger’s in any case, because the clinician has not had the exposure or experience to enable them to diagnose PDA.

“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…”

(2)And, there is also the issue that even though a child may have a brain that is autistic, many parts of the brain are functioning in a neurotypical way, and as the child matures and hopefully their environment and the triggers for anxiety are managed, 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.

Both of these red herrings could lead us to suspect that we have somehow changed our child’s autistic profile, 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.

This of course hasn’t answered our original question – which it is impossible to answer! – but we hope it 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, we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We do not claim to be experts on any form of autism.

(You may also like this BLOG on functioning labels).

Finally, it’s a cliché perhaps, but many people with classic autism and high functioning autism 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).”


  1. Gill Evans

    I had an inkling of something after the fist couple of months of my sons life, he was awake a lot at night but quite happy, not crying, I was the one not happy!
    I would say he always had PDA but I didn’t know there was even such a condition. I paid for him to an educational psychologist when he was 6, who said he was very bright but he never mentioned Asperger’s.
    Age about 10 yrs my son asked to be home schooled but knowing he had social difficulties I thought it best he mixed with other children (knowing what I know know) I might have done.
    As an older teenager he chose when he went to school, I got no support from the teachers as he was very bright.
    He went to uni because he went with a friend. But then the problems really started, he ended up in bed 24/7. The uni got him to see the mental health nurse, but I knew that wasn’t the problem or the answer. I brought him home and paid for a clinical psychologist who diagnosed Asperger’s 19 years too late! Things have improved a lot but When I came across PDA on the internet things fell into place. I realise now he did the subjects at school where he got on best with the teachers, not the subjects he enjoyed most. He went back to the same uni doing a different subject and is now at a different uni doing an MSc but living at home. Still spends 18/24 on the computer absorbing information. Sorry about the long message, I just had an inkling from birth but frustrated it took 19 years to get any recognition.

    • admin

      Wow Gill that’s great that he’s doing the MSc; we wish him all the best. There are probably many young (undiagnosed?) adults on the spectrum with a PDA profile; hopefully now it is starting to become higher profile among the autism community, and the wider parenting community, we can raise awareness of pathological demand avoidance, and ultimately help our youngsters get the right support with their learning! Merry Xmas to you and your family, and thanks for supporting our Blog. x


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