Synaesthesia

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It seems my extreme empathy may be down to a condition called Synaesthesia, and more specifically something called Mirror Touch Synaesthesia. Before I go into this in more detail I would like to talk a little more about Synaesthesia in general. Synaesthesia is a cross processing of the senses. Although it can affect neurotypicals, a great many people on the autism spectrum have it. Many great composers and artists, wine tasters and memory champions often have it and it gives them a unique talent not shared by everyone. It seems, as with autism, that there are a few different genes that could be responsible and it will often run in families. See link

In addition to the extreme empathy, my own Synaesthesia manifests itself in a couple of ways, I hear colours (which I also associate with words) and when I feel textures it has a strong emotional influence on me, see Tactile Emotion Synaesthesia.

I hear colours in music which does a lot to dictate my musical tastes. I love orchestral heavy metal as it has lots of warm vibrant colours, whereas Rn’B leaves me cold as it is full of insipid blues and greys. Words and letters bring up colours in my head, which helps my memory, especially for spelling. For instance, A is yellow, B is blue, C is red, D is orange, E is green etc. Words containing those letters may have associated colours, but do not always take the colour of the first letter. “Everybody” and “Everyday” are green, probably because of the dominance of the letter E, whereas “Day” is yellow because of the A and “Dog” is yellow and white, mainly because of the O and G sound. Monday is white, Tuesday is yellow, Wednesday is orange, Thursday is navy blue, Friday is black etc. I remember the day of a meeting or appointment by recalling the colour associated with it.

The Tactile Emotion Synaesthesia influences the clothes that I prefer to wear and means that I am very uncomfortable in certain clothes. This makes clothes shopping difficult and time-consuming and I can only do it when I am relaxed.

Mirror Touch Synaesthesia can be a blessing and a curse. In some respects I can imagine what a particular thing must feel like so it keeps me away from dangerous situations. It allows me to imagine what someone must feel like, allowing me to put myself in their shoes. This could be the basis of the Intense World Theory. This would be a fantastic advantage for an actor and it is possible that some of the most charismatic actors may indeed have this ability. But it also means that when someone hurts themselves I flinch, rather than speeding into action to help them. It paralyses me for a few seconds and I have to force the feeling out of my mind.

There are many kinds of Synaesthesia and researchers believe that many of us have it to a certain extent, but to some it governs their lives, in both positive and negative ways. I love having Synaesthesia, but it means that I can be very  inflexible, and also respond differently in traumatic or emotionally charged situations . One of the leading researchers in Synaesthesia is Simon Baron Cohen from the Autism Research Centre, Oxford, UK, the man behind the AQ test.

See also link

Post Script: since I wrote this I have also noticed that certain colours make me feel cold.

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Brain Science of Aspergers and Autism Pt. 4: Mirror Neurons

Mirror Neurons are the cells in the brain that allow you to feel empathy, to put yourself in someone else’s position and understand how they are feeling. It is why a smile can be contagious. Mirror neurons are the reason we flinch when we see someone get hurt, we can imagine it happening to ourselves, we know what it feels like even if we have never been in this situation.

James R Hurford, of the Linguistics Department at the University of Edinburgh defines a mirror neuron as a neuron (nerve cell) which fires both when performing an action and when observing the same action performed by another creature. Quizlet.com tells us that mirror neurons are important for “understanding actions of others (empathy, interpretation, non-verbal communication)”, which traditionally children with Aspergers and Autism have difficulty with.

Mirror neurons are also important for learning new skills, especially motor skills. A child will observe a parent engaged in a behaviour, and they will often instinctively imitate. A lack of imitative behaviour can be noted in some children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

It has been hypothesised that people with Aspergers and Autism have a lack of mirror neuron activity (1). Most neuroscientists acknowledge that there is a dysfunction in the mirror neuron system.

When I think about my own experiences and look at my son, I believe that we do have mirror neuron activity, especially when it comes to observing pain in others. So I decided to look into this further.

Neuroscientists Lindsay M. Oberman, Edward M. Hubbard, Joseph P. McCleery, Eric L. Altschulera, Vilayanur S. Ramachandrana, Jaime A. Pinedad have done a series of studies into the role of the mirror neuron system and its link with autism.

They have discovered a dysfunction in mirror neuron activity in the sensorimotor cortex, which is involved in observing and imitating motor (movement) behaviours.  This study was undertaken with 10 males with ASD and another 10 males without as control subjects, it is not clear what ages these subjects were. A further study by the same authors discovered that the earlier observed mirror neuron dysfunction was not the case when observing familiar individuals such as family members:

“In conclusion, this study finds that the observation of actions performed by familiar individuals results in mu wave suppression [reduction in brain wave activity from the neurons] in individuals with ASD, while the actions of strangers do not. This is the first study to show normal mu wave suppression during action observation in individuals with ASD. The observation that the MNS [Mirror Neuron System] in ASD may be functioning normally under specific circumstances bodes well for therapeutic interventions aimed at improving social deficits in this population. Perhaps if one could improve the ability in children with ASD to identify with the observed unfamiliar person through behavioural, neurofeedback, or other types of training, one might improve the functioning of the MNS and alleviate some of the behavioural deficits associated with this disorder.”

The Autism Coach website has an article which discusses Mirror Neuron theory and the studies by Oberman, Ramachandrana et al and states:

“The researchers speculate that mirror neuron system may also account for the tendency of autistic individuals to interpret figures of speech literally. Which part of the human brain is involved in this skill of developing overall cognitive maps of understanding from diverse information coming from multiple sensory sources? The angular gyrus, which sits at the crossroads of the brain’s vision, hearing and touch centres, seemed to be a likely candidate because nerve cells with mirror neuron-like properties have been found there. Nonautistic subjects with damage to the angular gyrus have difficulty understanding metaphors, as do many people with autism.”

It goes on to say:

“The discovery of mirror neuron deficiencies in people with autism could be used as an early diagnostic tool.  Physicians could use the lack of mu-wave suppression as a diagnostic tool to identify children with autism in early infancy, so that  therapies can be started as quickly as possible.

The researchers also suggest that biofeedback might used to display the mu waves and then use visual feedback of the display of the mu waves to teach children how to suppress the mu waves, just as biofeedback is used enable people to manifest other brainwave patterns.  A researcher, Pineda, is pursuing this approach, and his preliminary results look promising.

Another approach is to correct chemical imbalances that disable the mirror neurons. These researchers hypothesize that specialized neuromodulators may enhance the activity of mirror neurons involved in emotional responses. According to this approach, the partial depletion of such chemicals could explain the lack of emotional empathy seen in autism, and therefore researchers should look for compounds that stimulate the release of the neuromodulators or mimic their effects on mirror neurons.”

The author of the article gives personal experiences and suggests ways that this knowledge could help a child in the classroom.

The Mirror Neuron theory backs up my own observations over the years that the best (and usually only) way to teach my son within the autism spectrum has been to have him do the task himself.  I have found that standing behind him and using my hands to guide him through a new task was often the fastest, most effective way to teach a new skill.   Demonstrating or lecturing was almost always ineffective.  This research has wider educational implications, leading to the logical conclusion that the  typical public school model of children learning from an instructor lecturing up at the front of a room would fail to teach an autistic child.  An autistic child in a traditional classroom would be likely to be bored, frustrated and unable to learn.  However, these same children can learn if they are guided to carry out the actions of the concepts being taught, as is done in teaching them the acquisition of language through therapies such as Applied Behavioral Analysis.  This understanding of how children within the autism spectrum learn could completely redefine what constitutes an appropriate education for autistic children and best practices for teaching them in the public schools.”

Another study by Dapretto, Davies et al discovered that “high-functioning children with autism showed reduced mirror neuron activity in the brain’s inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis) while imitating and observing emotional expressions”, which could explain why people with ASD have more difficulty recognising emotion in facial expressions. Their study used 9 male children with ASD and 9 controls.

But there is hope for the person with ASD. Recently it has been discovered that rather than there being a lifelong dysfunction in the mirror neuron system, that it may just be delayed in developing. In an article published in Biological Psychiatry the author suggests that the mirror neuron system develops over time:

“Dr. Christian Keysers, lead author on the project, detailed their findings, “While most of us have their strongest mirror activity while they are young, autistic individuals seem to have a weak mirror system in their youth, but their mirror activity increases with age, is normal by about age 30 and unusually high thereafter.” This increase in function of mirror neuron systems may be related to increased capacity for social function or responsiveness to rehabilitative treatments among individuals with autism. The finding of late developing circuit functions could be very important. One wonders whether the recent breakthroughs in the genetics of autism could help to identify causes for the developmental delays. This type of bridge might help to identify novel treatment mechanisms for autism,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. One of the next steps in this line of research will be for researchers to examine how individuals with autism accomplish this improvement over time, and how therapeutic interventions targeting the same mechanism can help to support this important process.” (2)

It is also possible that only certain areas of the Mirror Neuron System are affected. More study is needed.

Christian Keyser on mirror neurons

References:

(1) Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina
(2) scienceblog.com

Auditory Processing Disorder

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Many people with Aspergers have difficulty with auditory processing, including myself. A child may appear not to hear parts of a conversation or remember instructions, or they may seem to be ignoring someone talking, even if they are close by. They may appear deaf – but this is nothing to do with hearing, and the child may indeed have normal, or even more sensitive than normal, hearing. Difficulties with auditory processing stem from a malfunction in the transfer of audio signals from the ear to the brain. The Listen and Learn Centre in Melbourne define APD as “a problem in the decoding of language”.

www.auditoryprocessing.com.au  defines APD as follows:

“People who have normal hearing actually hear far more than they perceive. Where hearing is a function of the ear, auditory processing – listening – is a function of the brain. Auditory processing describes the way the brain assigns significance and meaning to the sounds in the environment. Effective auditory processing involves a relatively high speed of information transfer. It also requires a good attention span, a well-functioning memory, and sensitivity to the many subtleties of sound. When parts of this complex system break down or don’t operate efficiently, listening is compromised. All the ensuing problems are collectively known as Auditory Processing Disorders (APD).”

It can mean the child doesn’t always register speech, or that they sometimes misunderstand or misremember something that is being said. It can adversely affect their memory of oral information, which can cause frustration as the child is convinced they have remembered something right when it is wrong, or they may have no glimmer of recollection of something they have been told.

APD affects around 5% of school-aged children, and is often worse in loud environments, for instance at school, as the child has difficulty differentiating what is being said from the background noise. This can lead to difficulties with their schoolwork, and their grades may suffer as a result.

The Listen and Learn Centre also note that APD can lead to the “deterioration of behaviour as a result of poor expressive and receptive communication. As children experience the discouragement of being misunderstood and the frustration of misunderstanding others, they become more disconnected from their environment and the people around them”. The child may learn coping strategies such as lip-reading, but this doesn’t always help them in all cases. It could also be the reason why some people with Aspergers may not be able to detect humour. The Neurosensory Unit has this to say:

“It [the central auditory system] helps us to identify the non-linguistic elements of speech and communication, such as rhythm, timing and pitch that assist in interpreting humour and sarcasm, as well as intent of communication.”

APD can be another reason, in addition to sensory overload, that can cause a child to withdraw from social situations. In fact, it seems that sensory overload can also occur with APD, according to the Listen and Learn Centre:

“The term ‘auditory overload’ is often used to describe what happens to people who have APD. Auditory overload is a sense of being overwhelmed and relates to features of the information being received. If information is highly specific, spoken quickly, lacking in contextual cues, described in unfamiliar language or presented in a noisy environment, it will be very difficult for someone with APD to comprehend the message or follow through with instructions.”

Some children with APD may be seem to have very sensitive hearing, and could hear a pin drop in a quiet room. The team at the Listen and Learn Centre have a theory about this:

“Some children are more attentive to bone conducted sounds. They primarily listen with their body instead of with their ears. These individuals have difficulties in dampening the sound intensity and to filter out irrelevant sounds. This may be one of the reasons why individuals are hyper sensitive to sound as they may have lost the ability to focus and tune out extraneous background noise. In this situation, every noise has the same amount of importance. Capturing a word may be difficult as ambient noise distracts from focusing. As a result, the child misses part of the conversation or instruction being given.”

There is no relationship between intelligence and APD; a very bright child may be having difficulty at school and poor marks, which could puzzle parents or teachers.

In this case changes to the teaching style could help, with more emphasis on visual learning strategies.

There is no cure for APD, but it can be treated with speech therapy, reading recovery or through an Auditory Integration Listening Program

kidshealth.org have some tips and strategies for teaching a child with APD: Strategies

Frontiers: Review -The Intense World Theory – A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism

Frontiers: Review -The Intense World Theory – A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism.

This article outlines the Intense World Theory, which relates to my previous post about empathy, and explains a little about the neuroscience of Aspergers/Autism.

On Empathy

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I was just about to write a post about my views on empathy, and I came across an article that totally supports my view. Before I share it, I would like to talk about my own experiences, having Aspergers myself. I was thinking about whether my ability to feel empathy was due to a coping mechanism I had developed, but I doubted that this was the case and so I thought back upon my early life… Read more of this post