The Autistic Brain and Information Overload
It's no secret that someone with Autism does not do change well. A change in routine, an unfamiliar place, even a change in the color of toothbrush can cause a meltdown. But why?
It comes down to differences in how our brains are wired. There's a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. It serves several purposes in the brain, and one of those is as a filter, a filter for another part of the brain - the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex decision-making, impulse control, and regulating emotions. The basal ganglia normally takes information from other parts of the brain, filters it, and passes needed information onto the prefrontal cortex.
Notice I said "normally". As you may have guessed, in ASD, that filter in the basal ganglia isn't acting as it should. Instead, rather than filtering the information it sends to the prefrontal cortex, it sends ALL of the information it receives to the prefrontal cortex. And remember that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making. Now imagine that the decision-maker is being flooded with far more information than it needs. As you can imagine, this causes some serious challenges.
And the challenges go beyond just being overloaded or overwhelmed. The prefrontal cortex is being sent so many details that that is what it focuses on - the details. And there's also excess dopamine in the system. Dopamine is the reward chemical in the brain, so the brain gets overly rewarded for this focus on detail. The excess reward is also why we tend to get obsessed with certain things or topics. As a result of all this, the details dominate the prefrontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex is hindered in its ability to do one of it's jobs, which is to categorize things.
So what difference does this make? Let's go back to the different color of toothbrush. Say your child's toothbrush is blue. But that toothbrush is getting old and needs to be replaced. So you replace it with a red one. Many parents of autistic children that are reading this are probably thinking "no, don't do that", because your child with not react well to the change. But why? Because to your child, they brush their teeth with a blue toothbrush. A red toothbrush isn't the same as a blue toothbrush. Because the prefrontal cortex has difficult categorizing things, the brain hasn't learned that a red toothbrush and a blue toothbrush are both toothbrushes, just a different color, that work equally well.
Now let's take something a more complex than the color of a toothbrush. Say you go to a restaurant. When one goes into a restaurant, even a completely unfamiliar one, you expect there to be an entrance, a hostess booth, a waiting area, tables, chairs, booths, and mood lighting. You are greeted by host or hostess that show you to your seats and give you menus. They are followed by a server who takes your order, and then brings you food. Now step back for a moment and think about this and how you knew how to navigate this experience. You were able to do so because you have formed a concept in your mind of what a restaurant is, what you expect to find there, the people there, who they will behave, and how they expect you to behave. You formed these concepts because you were able to categorize things. Now let's take the whole thing from the perspective of an autistic child who has trouble categorizing things and forming these concepts. They walk in and they don't see a lobby with a hostess, because this is a generalized description of it - they see a place they don't know, with specific wood walls, benches, a series of lamps hanging from the ceiling that may be too bright for them, and they also hear a lot of noise they may be overwhelmed by. And then they are greeted by a stranger that they don't know anything about. They are seeing the details, because that's what their brain focuses on.
And since the prefrontal cortex is also responsible for impulse control and regulating emotions, the brain has difficulty with these things as well. Since it focuses on details rather than categorizing things, and has difficulty seeing the similarity in situations, it therefore has trouble learning coping strategies for how to deal with various situations, because it can't see the forest for the trees. It can't see that this new restaurant is similar to other restaurants it's experienced before.
Now, so that I don't focus solely on challenges, let me say that this focus on detail can have some benefits. In verbal ASD children, many parents will have noticed how good their children are at remembering these facts and details, particularly about the subject they're fixated on. Temple Grandin, as an example, has a superb visual memory, and is able to do incredibly detailed architectural drawings, from memory, after walking around a location once, taking pictures of the place in her mind.
I've also found that, because my brain has trouble categorizing, I have been subconsciously drawn to things that helped me categorize. I like labels, and classification systems, and definitions, particularly when it comes to describing and defining myself. I used to fixate on my IQ, personality quizzes and types, for example. I've also become good at looking for and finding cause and effect, and understanding systems. I use this to my advantage at my job, as I'm actually better than many of my coworkers at learning new systems. (It's also how I've been able to figure out these things about autism that I share in these posts.)
So even though it can be frustrating when your child fixates on certain things and details, not all is lost, as it can potentially be a benefit to them.
Trafton, A. (2013, December 30). Understanding Autism. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/417639/understanding-autism/
Grandin, T., & Panek, R. (2014). The autistic brain. London: Rider Books.