photo of Norwegian fjord

More on Autism and Mirror Neurons … oh, and Hah!

Back on April 2nd, I posted on World Autism Awareness Day and wrote about my sense that my friends on the Autism Spectrum didn’t have a problem with their mirror neurons (oops! see the comments section for an update). Instead, I felt that they had a problem with sensory overload.

And I’m not the only one! Neuroscientist Ilan Dinstein and colleagues performed an fMRI brainscan study on 13 Autistic adults and 10 “neurotypical” adults and found that there was no deficit in the mirror neuron systems of the Autistic adults. You can see a video about the study here.

Dr. Marco Iacobini, a neuroscientist at UCLA who supports the mirror neuron deficit theory, thinks that a study with a total of 24 people isn’t large enough to draw conclusions from, but Dr. Dinstein disagrees:

Dinstein stands by his team’s conclusions. The number of participants he examined is typical for brain imaging studies, he says, and their Autistic participants, though high-functioning, possessed the most extreme form of Autism Spectrum disorder, not milder forms such as Asperger’s syndrome.

He supports a different theory for Autism: that it is the product of “noisy brain networks” that don’t communicate as predictably as those in normal people. He says his latest study offers support for this, as his team noticed more variability in the brain activity of people with Autism, compared with controls.

He plans to probe this theory by searching for noise in other brain areas in people with Autism. From NewScientist.

In my previous post, I wrote about a book co-written by Temple Grandin, and I’ve been thinking about her a great deal since then.

Photo of Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin at a feedlot, communing with a friend

Because here’s the thing: Dr. Grandin became famous for creating humane animal feedlots, farms, and slaughterhouses because she could easily put herself in the mindset of the animals she studied. She could walk the paths the animals walked, look at the machinery and surroundings from their perspective, and understand what scared or bothered them. Her changes insured that the animals could be loaded and unloaded from medical and transportation equipment without fear or struggle, and she made their lives (and their deaths) infinitely better. She’s a heroine.

But she’s also the owner of some ass-kicking mirror neurons (update: Perhaps a better phrase is “place-taking” or, hmmmm, empathy?). She just uses them on animals instead of people. Heck, I understand that! As a little traumatized empath with overactive mirror neurons (update: place-taking, empathy), I found humans totally exhausting, and I preferred animals. Animals don’t lie! They feel their emotions and share them honestly, and they don’t pretend. I love animals! They make being sensitive easy.

I swear, with my overactive mirror neurons (update: intense empathy), I have much more in common with my Autistic friends than I do with allegedly regular folks. Hmmm. How about you?

8 Responses

  1. Karla
    | Reply

    Update! My friend Leo Lincourt just sent me a study that questions the mirror neuron theory. It’s here if you’re interested:

    So let me say this without referring to mirror neurons: The idea that autistic people are “mind blind” is something that doesn’t seem to be standing up to scrutiny. For instance, Temple Grandin is certainly not mind blind where animals are concerned.

    Though putting forth ideas that can then be shot down is a function of scientific discovery, it’s important not to typecast autistic people based on whichever theory is most popular at the moment. What I found is that each person on the spectrum is a complete individual, as we all are. To assume that there is mind-blindness may blind us to what is actually going on with the individual in front of us.

  2. Cera Lawrence
    | Reply

    This is a great post! (Well, all of them are.) I’m sure we’ll find out over the course of a few more decades of research that the reason we call it an “autism spectrum” is because it’s made up of a whole host of different physiological sets. I strongly doubt that it’s just one disorder.

    I hadn’t heard about mirror neurons until very recently! I’m still learning. Neuroscience is amazing!

  3. Debra
    | Reply

    My son has Asperger’s syndrome and is an empath. He told me that he has trouble understanding social situations because often they don’t match what he “reads” in the emotions of people. He also told me that he can tell if someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol because he does not sense anything but a single emotion (maybe what we refer to as “flat affect”?). He often knows that a woman is pregnant even if she is not showing because he senses a second set of emotions. For him, he does not seem to have trouble with awareness of emotions but is definitely not neurotypical. From my perspective as a parent, I would agree with the sensory overload hypothesis vs. the deficient mirror neuron theory. It resonates with me that someone with autism is described as having noisy brain networks. Sometimes I wonder, though, if people on the autism spectrum suffer from being overly sensitive to people’s emotions and energy, and need to shut down in order to protect themselves. This has been my experience with my son. I’ve started to work with him on energy techniques to help him with the overload.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Debra, I’ve been wondering the same thing about sensory overload. I worked with a group of spectrum adults, and I didn’t see people who were on the opposite end of the empathy spectrum from me, as Baron-Cohen theorizes. I saw people who were often scathingly good commenters on the social world and other people’s foibles. You just had to create a safe space for them to speak.

      We had one serious “little Professor” guy who would do monologues about movies or bus schedules, but it was clear that he was trying to engage socially, sort of desperately so. I’ve been thinking a great deal about creating a visual guide to emotions that involves more than happy faces and sad faces, since I’ve seen so many spectrum people say that they see hundreds of images of people in each moment and have a hard time organizing all of it. I’m thinking of creating a sort of kaleidoscopic or 360 view of the full bodies of different people having each emotion, but also suppressing each emotion, and mishandling each emotion. Emotions don’t just sit on the face, and since eye contact can be too overwhelming, it would be nice to help spectrum people decipher emotions in ways that their brains can tolerate.

      I think that this concept of mind-blindness is not correct, though it has taken on a life of its own. I think it’s leading us in the wrong direction.

      Oh, do you know what would be awesome? I’d love to gather spectrum kids and actors, and have the actors do some emotional displays that they could freeze in place so the kids could have the time they need to process and organize it. I gotta think about that.

  4. Debra
    | Reply

    Wow…what a wonderful idea to gather actors and kids on the spectrum! You can do what Rick Lavoie calls a “social autopsy” and replay things the kids notice (with the actors), and have the kids process the emotion involved. Actually, movies are good for this. I noticed that when my son and I are in the movie theater, he has one eye on the screen and the other eye on me (and my reaction to what is happening on the screen). He actually turns to face me at times during the movie (particularly points that are emotional). He also is very sensitive to the background music (often picks up better on that than what is happening on the screen!).

    I love the idea of yours to have spectrum kids work through emotions using actors! What a brilliant idea. My son’s school uses drama class in much the same way. In order to play a role, you have to understand the emotion involved. It is a HUGE lesson in emotions and how they look on the outside. Your unique spin on it would be to explore what the purpose of the emotions are and how they can be used. Wow…I can see a workshop here (maybe even for people not even on the spectrum!).

    • Karla
      | Reply

      I like the social autopsy, and I’d like to bring in the concept of a living emotional laboratory.

      In workshops, I do a teaching game called Emotion Theater, where I have people become emotions. I don’t have them become emotional, rather, I have them take the place of anger (and sadness, and shame, and happiness, etc.) in the psyche, and then I have all the people-emotions interact with one another, both in healthy scenarios, where the emotions are doing what they should, and then in situations where something is wrong.

      So, for instance, the anger-person’s job is to watch the social milieu for incoming attacks while the shame-person’s job is to watch the internal milieu for outgoing attacks; the sadness-person watches for anything that needs to be released, the fear-person watches for change, novelty, and physical danger; etc.

      It is totally amazing how quickly people understand what emotions are supposed to do, how they interact, and how behavior falls apart when certain emotions are not working properly. I think it might be a fun thing for spectrum people to witness and play; it certainly helps NTs, who supposedly know what emotions are for. Hah!

      I’d really like to film Emotion Theater, but it’s a very kinetic thing with 15 emotion-people in the circle, and I think I’d need more than one camera!

  5. Sybil
    | Reply

    I had never heard of Aspergers until I started researching it for a friend about 6 months ago after someone (a relationship counselor) told him that he reminded her very much of her male aspie client. At first I did not link it to me at all, mostly because of the the information about “lack of empathy” and all that and I KNOW that I am an empath…to the point that it is often overwhelming. Since then I’ve read more and more about aspie women and virtually all of it fits with me, my personality and SO many of my experiences throughout the years…I am 54. I have not been formally diagnosed.

    I think we do shutdown/freeze up, whatever, when overwhelmed by emotions or our senses. I’ve certainly been accused of “not caring” because of my reactions when nothing was further from the truth though I could not articulate that at the time. I see the same thing in my friend…maybe even more extreme though due to his past bad experiences related to socializing. I can understand from his behavior why people often misinterpret his behavior as rude, uncaring, arrogant etc. and at the same time I can often sense the pain and emotional turmoil he is experiencing because he really is a very sincere and genuinely nice man who feels empathy for others.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Sybil, thanks so much for your comment. You wrote it as I was finishing a second guest post for my friend Rachel’s site Autism and Empathy. My posts will appear next week, and then I’ll post them here. But you’ve got to go to Rachel’s site:

      This idea that people on the Autism Spectrum do not have empathy is not only wrong; it’s toxic. My sense is that Spectrum folks are in fact overwhelmingly empathic, but unable to make sense of the truly strange emotional functioning neurotypicals think is normal. I think you’ll appreciate the posts!


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