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Autism: A New Look at Consciousness

Emily Alspector's picture

Autism: A New Look at Consciousness

The disorder known as autism is of great interest for many reasons. First, a recent increase in rates of occurrence has emerged due to improved understanding of the disorder. This enhanced prevalence seems to have reoriented public awareness toward realizing just how little is truly known about the brain and its so-called deficiencies. Until recently, autism was attributed to, and blamed on, unaffectionate mothering which thereby refuted any neurobiological bases of the disorder. Additionally, in the past, individuals diagnosed with the disorder have been thought to lack empathy or have emotional deficiencies. However, it is more appropriate to say that autistic individuals simply have an altered nervous system which makes it more of a challenge for them to comprehend, interpret and convey such sentiments. Although much advancement has been made toward understanding and identifying autism, there is still much to be learned.

Autism is characterized by development of atypical social and communication skills, in addition to displaying ritualistic or restricted behaviors such as preoccupation with one specific thing. The disorder can be subdivided into low-, medium-, and high-functioning autism, based on scoring of an IQ test, however, intelligence seems to have little to do with the disorder itself. Social and communicative skills seem to be the most omnipresent of autism’s symptoms, perhaps because such skills are so recognizable and prominent in a developing child. Language deficits include rhythm and volume abnormalities as well as reversal of pronouns such as “you” and “me”, and deficits in joint attention, which is the ability to comprehend another person’s gesturing at a third object (1).

Considering the involvement of language in the autistic brain, the areas of the cortex which control language acquisition and interpretation are not overwhelmingly part of the literature which concentrates on the neural correlates of autism. Rather, the main focus of the research deals with the amygdala, responsible for emotional processes, and the hippocampus, involved in learning and memory formation. These observations serve as further proof not only of the novel research that needs to be conducted regarding autism but also regarding the interconnective nature of the brain’s pathways and cortical structures.

Neurologically based theories suggest that autistic brains have developed a surplus number of pyramidal neurons which may lead to the characteristic oversized brain seen in autistic children. This enlargement may produce abnormal wiring among the architectural structures of the frontal and temporal cortices, the main areas of the brain that are thought to have such excess numbers of neurons (2). The higher order functioning that appears to be deficient in autistic individuals may be related to this overgrowth and subsequent miswiring. In addition, research suggests that alterations to dendritic and synaptic structuring may be correlated to social and language deficiencies (3).

Many psychoanalytic theories have also been proposed, although interestingly none has incorporated both social behavior and language abnormalities simultaneously. However, theories reflecting social deficits of autism indicate that autistic individuals have difficulties empathizing, that is, relating to personal events of others, rather than interpreting such events in a personal assessment. In the same vein, the mirror neuron system theory proposes that development of a distorted mirror neuron system may contribute to an inability or disability to model the behavior of others, thereby leading to social impairment (4). Another set of theories focuses on the inability of autistic individuals to coherently and simultaneously process incoming stimuli. However, these executive function errors do not seem to occur in autistic children, so it is reasonable to attribute such inabilities to “see the big picture” to age or developmental factors of the disorder.

Many personal accounts support theoretical analyses which refer to overload of the nervous system and an autistic individual’s inability to interpret information from numerous modalities simultaneously. In a 2002 New York Times article, the story of an autistic boy and his mother is shared, and although the boy can articulate his thoughts beautifully in written form, he is unable to do so verbally. In accordance to the executive function error theory mentioned previously, this boy is well aware of his inability to “perceive the world with more than one sense at a time” (6). He discusses his need for time to switch from one modality to another, the need to prepare his senses for the forthcoming information. He also clarifies that the repetitive and restricted movements he displays are means of relieving stress and anxiety, “Every movement is proof that I exist.”

Temple Grandin, Ph.D. of Colorado State University, wrote a paper about her experiences with being autistic, and she agreed that time is a large factor nervous system processing and subsequent “flexible” decision making. Perhaps this is because autistic individuals, according to Grandin, are incapable of abstract thought, but rather think with pictures, which are clearly require more time to materialize and process. In addition, this coincides with the idea that many abstract ideas have no visual imagery to correspond to them, and so are unimaginable to an autistic brain. It would be interesting to look at neural correlates of autism and possibly identify a structure or pathway in the brain which is responsible for, or related to, comprehension of abstract or verbal thought. This observation also relates to the communicative deficits seen in many autistic individuals. Thus, there is likely a correlation between linguistic thought and articulation and development of language. While the linguistic correlates of autism are of particular interest to me personally, it is also noteworthy to think of such deficits in terms of brain development and consciousness.

Interestingly, Grandin has developed a theory regarding consciousness in autistic individuals similar to that of Munoz, Palau, and Veizaga. According to the “third brain” theory, Munoz et al. (2007) propose that an individual is “born” three times: once during fertilization, once during childbirth, and once with ontogenesis, the process by which consciousness develops in the central nervous system (7). Simultaneously, the nervous system is cultivating three levels of behavioral development. The first level, the most primitive, is known as the reactive level, the purposive level includes more complex behaviors, and lastly, the communicative level comprises empathetic and expressive behaviors. It is thought that the brains of autistic individuals have not developed the third levels of behavior or brain development, and so both self-awareness and empathetic behaviors are absent. While Grandin apparently agrees with this, and relates her experience of consciousness to that of animals (ie, simple consciousness) rather than higher consciousness that develops with the third birth, it is difficult, and perhaps offensive, for many people to support a theory that equates autistic individuals to animals. However, as Grandin explains in her paper, the inability of an autistic nervous system to integrate information from many senses at once is also seen in animal nervous systems; incoming information from too many modalities shuts down the nervous system’s ability to process and integrate the information (8).

Often, language abilities are associated with consciousness, as many people find it difficult to believe one way or the other if animals have self-awareness simply because they don’t have the linguistic means to communicate to us. However, from the theories and personal reports, it is clear that it is not the presence or absence of language which can correlate to consciousness, but the level of development of the two which needs to be further examined. While Grandin’s acknowledgement of her differences in thought, not enough research has been done on the autistic brain to jump to a conclusion as uncompromising as lack of “higher” consciousness. Grandin believes animals are capable of having both consciousness and self-awareness, and in fact may be self aware using different modalities. For example, dogs, she proposes, may be smell self-aware while chimpanzees may be sight self-aware. Grandin does not equate higher consciousness to self-awareness, but instead to abstract language and thought.

Grandin offers a four-level theory of consciousness, in which the first, basic level involves consciousness with one sense, followed by the ability to integrate all the sensory systems. The third level of consciousness involves sensory integration with the inclusion of emotional responses, and the fourth level of consciousness entails all of the above in addition to thinking in symbolic language. Certain animals are at level one or two, and she believes her brain is on the second level as well. It is interesting to think of a fifth level, perhaps one whose nervous system is completely true to “reality” and does not sensor or use heuristic shortcuts. However, until that creature comes along and is able to communicate with our deprived fourth-level consciousness, it is unlikely that we will ever know.



(1) Dawson, G.; Toth, K.; Abbott, R.; Osterling, J.; Muson, J.; Estes, A.; and Liaw, J. (2004). Early social attention impairments in autism: Social orienting, joint attention, and attention to distress. Developmental Psychology, 40, 271-283.


(2) Courchesne, E.; Pierce, K.; Schumann, C.; Redcay, E.; Buckwalter, J.; Kennedy, D.; and Morgan, J. (2007). Mapping early brain development in autism. Neuron, 56, 399-413.


(3) Pardo, C.; and Eberhard, C. (2007). The neurobiology of autism. Brain Pathology, 17, 434-447.


(4) Ramachandran, V.; and Oberman, L. (2006). Broken mirrors: A theory of autism. Scientific American, November¸62-69.


(5) Happé, F.; and Frith, U. The Weak Coherence Account: Detail-focused Cognitive Style in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 5-25.


(6) Blakeslee, S. (2002). A boy, a mother and a rare map of autism’s world. New York Times Online, November. Received April 30, 2008

(7) Munoz, Y.; Palau-Baduell, B.; and Veizaga, J. (2007) The third birth: How the brain creates self-awareness. Advances in Psychology Research Vol 50. (pp. 1-44). Hauppauge, NY, US: Nova Science Publishers.

(8) Grandin, T. (1998). Consciousness in animals and people with autism. Department of Animal Science. Colorado State University.




Erika Jaison's picture

Natural Medicine

I have been taking CBD oil from hemp for about 2 weeks and am surprised that like my friend told me, my aches and pains would get less – and they have. My friend is giving it to her child with autism and she has seen life changing benefits including her son’s first spoken word. Does anyone else have experience with CBD oil? Can it be this simple? Thanks.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Autism: who's disabled?

It is indeed interesting to think about levels of consciousness and the possibility that we too are limited in that regard. Maybe though "consciousness" is something that can exist in different forms without any clear hierarchical relation among them. In which case neither autistic people nor the rest of us are limited but simply different? For more along these lines see the Institute for the Neurologically Typical and the discussion of Is there such a thing as a broken brain?