What is Autism? The Core Deficit in Autism Spectrum Disorders

There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what autism and autism spectrum disorders actually are. It's understandable, because persons on the autism spectrum can be so individually different. Some cannot talk. Some talk early. Some are highly intelligent, others have some degree of  mental retardation. Some have extreme sensory issues and some don't. Some have motor planning problems, and some are very athletic. And the list goes on. So with all of these differences between individuals, what do these people have in common?


Regardless of diagnosis – Asperger's Syndrome, PDD, PDD-NOS, Autism or any other autism spectrum disorder, what all persons with autism spectrum disorders seem to have in common is their core deficit.


Autism spectrum disorders arise from a neurological condition; a weakened area that seems to be located somewhere along the pathway that runs from the prefrontal cortex to the hippocampus of the brain. No one yet knows definitively what causes this condition. All individuals on the autism spectrum have this weakened pathway, which results in the following core deficits:


Deficits in: comparative thought and interpretation, flexibility and adaptability to change, creative thought, decision-making, judgment, and memory of past positive feelings about events. 


In typical individuals, this pathway creates a hierarchy of comparison, and interprets everything we see, hear, do and feel. It compares one thing to another, compares past to present situations, compares how we felt before to now, separates important from the unimportant, and then uses all of that information to judge situations and come up with with unique solutions.


Typical people spend most of the day using this part of their brain effortlessly, sailing through thousands of little moment-to-moment decisions with ease. But for a person on the autism spectrum, all of those tiny moment to moment decisions can be quite difficult and often scary.


Because of the weakened brain pathway, individuals on the autism spectrum have a limited ability to compare, interpret and solve new situations. As a result, they remain tied to using solutions they already know, and have limited ability to deal with new or changing situations.


Decision-making and judgment abilites that most of us take for granted, such deciding which way to go to the store today, interpreting and understanding the actions of other people, or even figuring out how near or far to walk next to someone often cause confusion and fear in a person with an autism spectrum disorder. 


As a result, the world often seems chaotic and scary to individuals on the spectrum, and other people seem to act in abrupt and unexpected ways that are just impossible for them to understand.


To try to control some of this chaos and keep things predictable, autistic individuals tend to rely heavily on formulas and repetitive sequences to get through their day.


These sequences and formulas rely on a different part of the brain that usually functions quite well in persons on the autism spectrum. It's the area of the brain that runs our “red = stop, green = go”, “2+2=4” type thinking – very formulaic, very predictable , and very absolute thought. Unfortunately, this area of the brain is unable to compare, interpret, adapt, or see possiblities.


Of course when faced with new or changing situations, when most formulas won't work, persons on the spectrum often fall apart, out of fear of the unknown. Most of the tantrums, escape, or aggressive behaviors that we see at these times are usually “fight or flight” responses, motivated out of fear, not from being stubborn, manipulative or “bad”.


One of the reasons Relationship Development Intervention is effective is because it addresses this pathway directly, by using different activities to exercise and strengthen it, much like what we do for other persons with weak or damaged brain pathways, such as persons with stroke or head injury, etc.


For more information about Relationship Development Intervention, visit http://www.rdiconnect.com. You can also read my article on RDI or listen to the podcast “What is RDI?” – Sandra Sinclair, www.autismvoice.com


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4 thoughts on “What is Autism? The Core Deficit in Autism Spectrum Disorders

  1. Can you tell me the reference where you found your definition for the “core deficits” of autism? I am interested in the differences between the “core deficits” of autism and “target symptoms” of autism. These words are used quite a bit in research yet I cannot find a definitive definition.
    Thank you.

  2. Core deficit is from the http://www.rdiconnect.com site. The difference between a core deficit and a target symptom, in my opinion is that a core deficit would be what the actual problem was, and a target symptom would be more of how that actual problem would show itself in the behavior. So if you could say “Johnny doesn't look me in the eye.” (symptom). Then say “why?” The answer “because of an inability to compare and interpret social cues” would be a core deficit. I guess that's my interpretation. I could be wrong, but that's how I look at it.

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