Brain Science of Aspergers and Autism Pt. 3: Learned Safety

Eric Kandel, in his book “In Search of Memory”, tells us that positive emotions appear to be processed in a different area of the brain to negative emotions such as fear or anger, which has the effect of inhibiting the amygdala, which is often activated when a child with Aspergers or Autism is having a meltdown or feeling afraid. This could explain why in stressful situations they calm themselves down with certain behaviours, be it repetitive actions, rocking or cuddling a toy.

Kandel’s studies show that by doing something that  is associated with safety, it activates a part of the brain called the striatum, which is involved in positive reinforcement and feeling good. This has the knock-on effect of activating areas in the prefrontal cortex, which inhibits the amygdala, thus inhibiting the anger or fear response.

This seems to me to be a weapon in our arsenal to calm those strong anger or fear responses, whether this is by having a familiar toy to hold onto, or a safe familiar place to retreat to in times of extreme negative emotions.

Brain Science of Aspergers and Autism Pt. 2: Anger and emotion

It is generally accepted that in Aspergers Syndrome and Autism that there is some abnormality in a primitive area of the brain called the amygdala. The name “amygdala” means almond, and there are two almond shaped structures buried deep within the medial temporal lobe. These form part of the “limbic system”, which is responsible for generating and modulating emotions, and laying down long term memories. The role of the amygdala is to coordinate information from different parts of the brain and generate the emotion.

Emotions are a response to bodily changes e.g. feeling hot, tense, sweating, or going red. The amygdala receives sensory information about a situation and the bodily changes from the nervous system, and everyday experience confirms or dismisses the threat accordingly. It is far better to interpret a stick as a snake and respond accordingly only to find out it was really a stick, than for your brain to think about it and get bitten before you realise what is going on.

According to neuroscientist Eric Kandel, emotion, such as fear and anger, has two components, conscious and unconscious. The amygdala receives information from both unconscious and conscious pathways when the brain perceives a threat.

The unconscious component of emotion is the operation of the nervous system. The stimulus is then analysed and an area of the brain called the hypothalamus regulates the emotion.

The conscious component of emotion involves evaluative functions of the cerebral cortex (the area responsible for planning, attention, language and reasoning), and the hippocampus, which is responsible for long term memories and the memory of emotion.

Central to both is the amygdala. According to Kandel, the amygdala is thought to coordinate the conscious experience of feeling and the bodily expression of emotion, particularly fear. It is also the area responsible for triggering the “fight or flight” response.

It seems that in the brain of someone with Aspergers or Autism that the amygdala is triggered on the unconscious component of emotion. It is possible that the brain misinterprets a stimulus as threatening, possibly due to Merzenich’s undifferentiated brain maps. When the person is in this state, logic and reasoning don’t work, and they are not necessarily aware of why they feel so angry or afraid. It appears that something in this system is not working correctly. It is understood that they have an abnormality in their amygdala, but there may also be other factors at work here, such as malfunctions in the pathways to the parts of the brain that analyse the emotion.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is often recommended to assist a person with Aspergers or Autism in the controlling of their emotions. Often the therapist will use a visual aid such as a “thermometer” to allow the person to recognise the bodily changes described above, before the amygdala sends the message to release the hormones associated with the fight or flight reflex. It also allows them to consciously analyse their emotions. Tony Attwood has a CBT program that he has developed; further information can be found here.

Once the emotion is triggered, it is impossible to reason with the person with Aspergers, so it is best to leave them to safely calm down, or to distract them. Tony Attwood advises using their special interest as an effective distraction, or maybe giving them a sensory toy to play with.

It seems that traditional methods of meditation and relaxation do not work with someone with Aspergers. Tony Attwood notes that they prefer to be active or physical or to do something repetitive, or even listen to music of their choosing, probably very loudly and over and over again.

References: In search of Memory by Eric Kandel, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood, The Emotional Brain by Joseph Le Doux