Living in an Unpredictable World: Researching the Root of Autism
MIT researchers pursue a theory that an inability to make predictions may be behind autism spectrum disorders, and the language deficits and hypersensitivities that often come with them.
Reviewed on April 6, 2017
October 14, 2014
Autism is a complex group of disorders often recognized by difficulty communicating with, or relating socially to others, a strict adherence to routines, and engaging in repetitive behavior or language. Today, a new analysis of existing data has led researchers at MIT to believe that an inability to make predictions may be behind these and other common behavioral markers of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The MIT researchers hypothesize that people with ASD struggle to put into context the events they experience or observe. In other words, they cannot determine what happened before an event to cause it, or make predictions about what might occur as a result. The researchers believe that this deficiency taxes the brain, making it constantly overwhelmed with analyzing a seemingly chaotic environment. Because of this ceaseless need for observation and problem solving, people with ASD experience heightened anxiety due to endless uncertainty and hypersensitivity.
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, the MIT researchers posit that the autistic brain cannot become “used to” certain touches, sights, and sounds in the same way a neurotypical brain can. It cannot prioritize the stimuli, and thus is constantly hypervigilant, and overly sensitive to too-tight clothing or too-loud sounds. This way of thinking is sometimes referred to as the “Magical World Theory,” indicating the constant chance and doubt upon which magic shows hinge.
This new hypothesis, officially called the “predictive impairment hypothesis,” believes that social difficulties result from this same problem of categorizing and putting things in order. People with ASD can’t anticipate what comes after a smile, or before a cry, resulting in social trouble. The routine behaviors that are characteristic of the disorder could be sufferer’s strategy to cope, to enforce order in their daily unpredictability.
While the theory does not propose new treatments, or identify any brain defect causing the disorder, neuroscientists believe it is a useful new way to think about the autism beyond experimentation. It could lead to therapies that work toward developing predictive skills that would better allow sufferers to help soothe anxiety of unpredictability and establish order in a disorderly world.