A Systems Approach to
Understanding Spectrum Disorders.
Lori Hogenkamp BA Psychology
I’m an adult with what recently has come to my understanding to having Asperger’s or on the autism spectrum. As a child, loud noises would often make me “sick” and going to parties, mall or weddings would exhaust and overwhelm me for reasons I could never explain. In college I experienced what resembled an “autistic-state”, shaking and flapping of my hands, constant sugar and junk food cravings, and finally regressed to a point that I could not process language or put together sentences. After recovery from this state, I went on to finish my degree in psychology with a concentration in neuroscience, a combination called psychoneuroimmunology. I’ve been fascinated ever since by human perception, information processing, the brain, general health and how nutrition affects cognition. I’ve spent a lifetime wondering why I had nothing necessarily wrong with me but something not quite right.
An experience on the spectrum
I have always struggled to write. That ability to interject while staying on task can be difficult to overwhelming for me. It is my understanding this struggle with communication is part of a subset of those on the spectrum being considered “systems or pattern thinkers” (Grandin 2005, Dawson 2007, Hayashi 2007) and the ability to think in many directions at once (Oberman 2009) does not lend itself well to thinking in a linear clear fashion.
I experienced this type of labyrinth-thinking in geometry, I could think of many ways to solve a single geometry problem. My mind would go off in many directions, building these labyrinths, and finally coalescing on a single solution. I could not write my work out, because I would literally do the problem in five different ways at once. And of course algebra, with its linear formulations, was extremely difficult for me. Writing out formulas in their ordered and direct fashion.
While doing research in college, I was able to give unique insight and help develop the hypothesis and exquisitely control for variables. I could give answers to critiques and provide answers that in many ways dumbfounded my peers. But I could not at all do what many considered the easy part, the writing. My co-researchers would chuckle at this seemingly confounding lack of skills in stark contrast to my other abilities, that I could not do something that was so simple to most. This experience is similar to the fact I would almost indubitably almost fail sociology courses, the “gimmie” courses as most of my peers saw them. There were always too many options for me, too many variables, too many possibilities. I liked math and science. Real answers, real solutions. “People”-skills always seemed so arbitrary, based on history, culture, how popular was the kid it was coming from, the answer would change based on too many factors involved and the possibilities would be dependent on too many unknowns….science skills don’t seem to make very good social skills.
Too much Information
I can remember in the fourth grade wondering how people made social decisions. How in the world could they decide the “correct” thing to say when there are so many possibilities? People would advise me to listen to your gut. I would say…”uh”, which voice is that? (Brierley 2008) I do believe this is lowered latent inhibition. My brain doesn’t filter out all but the essential information it is exposed to. It has many options available and I pick up on details that no one else seems to see (Vital 2009). I agree with the researchers from Harvard and Toronto (Peterson 2000), stating this allows for creative/scientific thinking, but less social skills and a greater susceptibility to what we once thought of as “mental illnesses”.
“Scientists have wondered for a long time why madness and creativity seem linked,” says Carson. “It appears likely that low levels of latent inhibition and exceptional flexibility in thought might predispose to mental illness under some conditions and to creative accomplishment under others.” (Peterson 2000)
Leo Kanner, who first recognized Autism in 1943, stated “For the most part, the parents, grandparents, and collaterals are persons strongly preoccupied with abstractions of a scientific, literary, or artistic nature…”
Throughout our history, we have always had communities and villages with a core majority group of stabilizing, social, community-oriented individuals, and we always had the periphery minds, the outliers, those who needed to take in more information from their environments. The hyper-aware and vigilant; the innovators, the explorers, the protectors, the athletes, the hunters, the scientists, the geeks, the artists and the creative. For these social and personality differences, this evolutionary process required those populations to process sensory information slightly differently and their brain architecture to be slightly different (Molina 2009) in order to excel at protecting, guiding, finding new places, observing wildlife, and those willing to explore the world around them. And there is evidence to suggest that there are slight changes in brain structure that reflect the types of social interactions and environmental stimuli. And that the roles of individuals in a society could impact that social-groups brain architecture.
Some of the key structures include the Amygdala, within the frontal lobe; the Insular (Nagai 2007), Anterior and Cingulate Cortices (Courchesne 2008, Chiu 2008, Carter 2000), the cerebellum (Gao1996, Bower 2003) and the Hippocampus (Ebaldi 1980,Otsuka 1999), suggesting functional abnormalities, abnormal being not normal or like the average, sometimes more active sometimes less. As well as the genes associated with two major neurotransmitters (stimulating or inhibiting neural growth) GABA (Jamain 2002) and Glutamate (Ma 2005). These structures, functions and capabilities suggest unique qualities (or disturbances) in emotions, filtering and processing centers in the brain. Such as the amygdala reacting adaptively; as in a larger amygdala (Mosconi 2009), a relevance indicator, compensating for the filtering activities of the Frontal Cortex. So abnormal, not in the normal way, but not necessarily abnormally wrong (Mehler 2009). The same suggestion has been made for mitochondria function, while attributed to a more sensitive reaction to oxidative stress (environmental stressors), this lowered function ultimately serves an evolutionary purpose (Lapointe 2009). Along this adaptive function there is research to suggest both neurotransmitter and hormone uniqueness for unique qualities of these subsets of individuals. For example: Both dopamine and testosterone “uniqueness” is associated with ASD. Normal (average) dopamine levels create a “follow the crowd” reward system (Klucharev 2009), while less than average autoreceptors for dopamine creates a “novelty-seeking” reward system (Zald 2004) and a desire for exploration (Fisher 2009). And outside of normal (either high or low) testosterone levels creates “scientifically” minded individuals (Baron-Cohen 2009), while normal (average) testosterone levels create more “socially ” skilled individuals (Brosnan 2006). Francesca Happé of King’s College, London suggests that as many as 30% of autistic people have some sort of savant-like capability in areas such as calculation or music. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that some of the symptoms associated with autism, including poor communication skills and an obsession with detail, are also exhibited by many creative types, particularly in the fields of science, engineering, music, drawing and painting.
Just like certain individuals are born athletically unique, typically with more or less fast or slow twitch muscle fibers, it could be similar in the brain. Most, or the average population (60-80%) would have a general combination of brain processing potentials, but the creative individual (15-30%) would have more specific processing potentials for a unique sensory experience of the world, usually receiving more information to process or processing the information from the senses in an atypical fashion (Casanova, Courchense) (sometimes called lateral thinking or fluid intelligence).
So most people very effectively filter their environments to take in essential information, learn concepts quickly with limited information needed, deflect insults and emotional injury. They become the core of society, salt of the earth, stable, even-keeled, social, and upstanding citizens. While some people (about 20% this number after further investigation is likely 60% updated 12/16) do not filter information from their environment as effectively. These people receive more information from their environments. They live with more possibilities, a deeper/wider perspective of the world, they learn information more fundamentally, with a greater need for larger input to learn the same concepts, but learn it more intimately. They live in a world of greater possibilities, more options; visionaries, artists, scientists.
Could naturally occurring personality differences create a vulnerable subset of the population?
Different Function, Different Structure:
So while Kanner observed these differences and recognized the parents were of a literary, artistic or scientific nature, abstractions and details as their focused interests. He did not have the benefit of understanding WHAT made an individual more perceptually aware within their environment that would provide these natural and diverse attributes. (he assumed this distracted persona was the ‘cause’ at that time: aka, the refrigerator mother)
For this we needed the advancing research illuminating the unique sensory processing of these individuals; those “preoccupied with abstractions” susceptible to ASD and other forms of “mental illness” or as we once understood mental illness to be.
They have more information available to them. But they may be more susceptible and vulnerable to the world without those efficient filters.
- What are the basic functions that set them apart?
- Attention: Detail. Focus and Diligence. Repetitive (RRBI) (Happe 2009)
- Sensory awareness
- Fluid Intelligence and thought processing (Hayashi 2007)
- Memory and action of emotions (De Martino 2008)
What is curious is how many “deficits” so closely relate to needed, useful and required behavioral traits for creativity, talent and genius.
The most striking observations (of how Autistic see themselves) were that all of them pointed out that unusual perceptions and information processing, as well as impairments in emotional regulation, were the core symptoms of autism, whereas the current classifications do not mention them.(Chamak2009)
Autistic traits seem to be qualities that would allow these subsets of the population to have an increased awareness of their surrounding environment, increased or altered perceptual awareness inherited and evolved from one generation to the next as an outlier or a peripheral mind. This natural variation for unique processing makes many if not slight, structural, functional and hormone/neurophysiologically unique.
These traits may also make them uniquely vulnerable to a very specific pattern of dysfunction. Which is why they can be so varied and almost polar opposite (a scientist vs an artist vs an athlete)…but still end up, at extremes, similarly dysfunctional (Stimming, sensory social dysfunctions, hypersensitivity and emotional dysregulation). This may suggest that Aspergers, Autism, schizophrenia, bipolar, ADHD, PDD-NOS and personality disorders manifestations, variations on a tune. Similar initial conditions, multiple influences, variable but predictable outcomes; A Pattern
Three aspects of ASD
Perception & Sensory
1.) A wider view of reality would take longer and a more fundamental learning skill-set in order to file info into long-term memory. And when learning every aspect of a particular problem is required in order to resolve a condition, it’s easy to understand that in some cases it never happens, so the foundation of said subject never gets laid and built upon, or the child/adult lives their lives unresolved and in constant conflict/crisis mode. It could be hypothesized that the brain was set-up this way to finish thoughts started, to inspire or even demand for human to “figure things out” and all of these pathways serve a purpose, anger, frustration, obsession, compulsion, single-mindedness…starting a multitude of “branches”, more than the normal individual, gives their brains much more to do, more directions to follow, more information to take in…which could serve a purpose for the greater good, greater understanding, and a more diverse and expansive evolution potential.
Nutrition & Resources
2.) Intense mental needs (equivalent to running mini-mental marathons on a daily basis) lead to intensely delicate balance of chemicals, requirements, recovery and restoration. Just as physical demands require additional provisions, so does mental demands, they actually require MORE energy and resources. The brain uses 20-30% of total calorie needs, up to 75% during infancy, (McCleary 2007) daily for “normal” functioning, the brain represent 2-3% of body weight, it also receives its energy from primarily glucose, unlike the body which can use either glucose or fat for energy. So living in the mind and especially when the mind is in overdrive, can be a drain on systems, resources and organs of the body.
Social & Acceptance
3.) So what would happen to any child if they felt or knew they were fundamentally different and that being different would mean that they would not be understood or accepted, socially rejected or shunned? And the alternative, what would happen to any child if they spent their lives trying to fit in by being something they are not? Because this competition to be the best “normal” as possible, when that normal is defined by personality characteristics as opposed to value characteristics, causes emotional unrest in these individuals, when our values are on a personality preferences that they simply can never become. You cannot wish or train yourself into physiological personality characteristic & traits. The pain of social rejection is as real and runs the same neurophysiological pathways as physical pain.(Eisenberger 2004) And is sometime more damaging (Chen 2008).
People evolve for a multitude of purposes, our bodies are created to adapt and change. If the “geeks/artists/scientists” of the world are lacking filters or have other chemical uniqueness that allows them to live with more possibilities, than the biochemically individuality of these individuals may also set them up to be more environmentally sensitive or have compensatory actions, such as emotional sensitivity (different than norm) as a way to balance the influx of information.
Community and Cooperation: Everyone is unique in their own way and we are finding patterns of similarities. We all have different potentials and different inborn skills. We are equal, needed, special and important to our community, our families, and the advancement of the human race. But there could be an evolutionary benefit to having a minority with variable neurophysiological experiences of the world…
There could definitely be an evolutionary advantage to having “most” people being stable and social-oriented and a smaller subset of individuals as novelty-seekers, explorers and adventurers
Lowering Nutrition Resources: Increasing Body Burden
It could be hypothesized that children develop the more distressing symptoms of Autism from what could be any combination of stress or stressors from the environment as well as many other neurological and behavioral disorders, depending on the individual’s initial “starting point” and the combination and timing of environmental factors involved. This stress would impede the ability to build neural pathways and the brain would then attempt to protect itself from excessive stimulation, more than what it can handle at the time, due to lack of and combination of resources needed. What the evidence seems to be suggesting is that our genetic or neurophysiological make-up, our responses to and our influences coming from the environment, the increases in our exposures to toxins that affect mineral balances (heavy metals), neurotoxins, inflammation (autoimmunity) and endocrine influencers (pesticides/hormones) could be creating a greater stress on the systems within particular populations. And quite possibly these populations, in evolutionary terms, could be ones that filter less of their sensory information, allowing them to be what some consider more “creative”, but the trade-off could be an increased susceptibility to dysfunction when the environment is not conducive to neural growth.
The body/mind does not always distinguish one stressor from another, oxidation (Nobel), cytokines, cortisol, NMDA, peroxynitrite (Pall), glutamate, increase utilization of nutritional supplies all become engaged when the body must realign homeostasis, or prepare for action. Stress leads to neuroexcitation and depletion of resources. Any number of stressors will result in the same mobilization and utilization of resources. Nutritional and energy resources will be depleted accordingly and need to be replenished or risk failure to respond appropriately and timely to adversity. These depleted resources due to stressed environmental needs will no longer be available for cognitive function. -a unique sensitivity to stress: oxidation/mito, cortisol responses- Chronic stress weakens immune system, decreases bone, impairs healing, impairs inoculation, risks recovery from minor to major incidents or procedures (OSU).
Pollution & Toxins
We are an intricate conglomeration of wiring, responses, compensations, and ever evolving dependence on our environment (Levitt). And environmental factors, such as pollution, chemicals, vaccines and illnesses will have the potential to impact our systems or create collateral damage through oxidative stress and overburdened systems.
“The human brain is a precious and vulnerable organ. And because optimal brain function depends on the integrity of the organ, even limited damage may have serious consequences,” says Philippe Grandjean , adjunct professor at Harvard School of Public Health and the study’s lead author.
A developing brain is much more susceptible to the toxic effects of chemicals than an adult brain. During development, the brain undergoes a highly complex series of processes at different stages. An interference—for example, from toxic substances—that disrupts those processes, can have permanent consequences. That vulnerability lasts from fetal development through infancy and childhood to adolescence. Research has shown that environmental toxicants, such as lead or mercury, at low levels of exposure can have subclinical effects—not clinically visible, but still important adverse effects, such as decreases in intelligence or changes in behavior.
- NonMonotonic Dose Response: Dose and timing is the poison. Lesser amounts greater effects.
- Needed for processing/Detoxing of pollutants/chemicals: fats, antioxidants, energy, special qualities of herbs and plants like cilantro and mercury
- Susceptibility of immune system, oxidative stress, mitochondria depletion….
Young children are potentially more susceptible to certain organophosphates for a longer period of time than previously thought,” said Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and director of CHAMACOS and the Center for Children’s Environmental Health Research. “Policymakers need to consider these vulnerable populations when establishing acceptable levels of exposure to different pesticides.”
Traits becoming dysfunction
From the cell’s point of view, I don’t think it matters. Am I oxidized because of an inflammation? Am I oxidized because I got mercury? I don’t care, I’m oxidized, I am in electron deficit. The data that I am hearing just keeps agreeing with that. Even this idea of astrogliosis and the white-matter tracks, when we take these oligodendrocyte progenitors and expose them to oxidative stress, they turn into astrocytes. So even that is a really intriguing outcome. We have to look at specific astrocyte populations there. (Nobel 2008)
Environmental vulnerability, neuroexciticity. NOBEL. PALL.
In utero and neonatal exposure to PCBs altered the development of brain cells in rats. (pessah). PCBs affected brain-cell circuits in the hippocampus, target of PCBs, the calcium channels known as ryanodine receptors, and shows that PCBs lock these calcium channels in the open position, which likely contributes to the over-excitations of neural circuits observed in the two other studies.
Decreased LI might therefore be regarded as advantageous, in that it allows for the perception of more unlikely, radical and numerous options for reconsideration, but disadvantageous in that the stressed or approach-oriented person risks ‘‘drowning in possibility,’’ to use Kierkegaard ’s phrase.
- -Heavy metals, pollutants create stress and increase nutritional needs and utilization.
- -Nutrition needed for neural growth
- -Why has it been missed?
The role of nutrition may be particularly important in order to build membranes – “and myelin is the ultimate membrane” (Bartzokis )- the body requires sufficient supplies of essential fatty acids found in fish oils, flaxseed, grains and nuts. But the diets of young people are notoriously poor, he says, and likely to be deficient in key nutrients. (Omega 3 studies. Why did science ignore the importance of fats (What if it’s all been a big fat lie-Taubes 2008)
Gomez-Piniella -It has long been suspected that the relative abundance of specific nutrients can affect cognitive processes and emotions. Newly described influences of dietary factors on neuronal function and synaptic plasticity have revealed some of the vital mechanisms that are responsible for the action of diet on brain health and mental function. Several gut hormones that can enter the brain, or that are produced in the brain itself, influence cognitive ability. In addition, well-established regulators of synaptic plasticity, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, can function as metabolic modulators, responding to peripheral signals such as food intake. Understanding the molecular basis of the effects of food on cognition will help us to determine how best to manipulate diet in order to increase the resistance of neurons to insults and promote mental fitness.
A Tipping Point. An Information Overload. When does an adaptive trait create a vulnerability to a maladaptive dysfunction? The Autistic-Trait to the Autistic-Dysfunction.
Children having a genetic predisposition could make them more prone to environmental damage. A neuro-atypical individual, plus neurotoxic exposure could create greater and more pronounced neurophysiological dysfunction
What are these environmental influences that impact neural resources? How do chemicals impact the interactive and interdependent systems? :
Do they impact mitochondrial function? Do they impact glutamate or GABA (excitatory and inhibitory regulators of the brain)? Do they create cytokines (stress reaction)? Do they impact glutathione levels? Do they impact myelination? Dendrites? Calcium regulation? Do they create oxidation? Do they cause inflammation and autoimmunity? Does it impact genetic expression?
Spectrum disorders could be seen like weather patterns within a particular climates. It could make sense that this climate could be those who either receive more sensory information or are at unique critical developmental timelines when those challenges overwhelm them. This can be from any number of stressors that overburdened the body’s resources. When we lack the resources, energy, or nutrition to myelinate and create dendrites, when we over-excite the brain, the brain/nervous system will falter and instead devote its energy and focus to the “squeakiest wheel”…survival. Those children can’t build the sensory pathways from their experience of the world. They go into information overload. Removing these obstacles and either the body naturally, or with help, “recover” its balance and create natural improvement. The improvement of “symptoms” improves the ability for information to get through and processed.
Autism is not caused by a single source
Orthodox medicine previously operated in a science that had absolute truths, hard science had such definable outcomes mechanisms, it was difficult not to be seduced by the simplicity.
Physicists, such as David Bohm, have been warning us for decades that if we continued down a path of separatism and reductionism (foundations of orthodox medicine), we would end up with a crisis of our own creation, this “Crisis of Perception”. Systems thinkers believe the same, that not only are we blind to our problems using old methods of science, we are in fact creating them (Sterman 2002). Because of this limited view of the human body, we have ignored it’s interdependent systems and interactions in favor of simplicity and easier methods of “proof and repeatability”.
The art of medicine concentrates on diagnosis (finding problems) and treatment (fixing problems). The task of physicians might be described as “find it and fix it.” The find-it/fix-it model exemplifies what engineers call linear thinking. The linear model has been the predominant view of the world since the time of Sir Isaac Newton, who focused his attention on discrete components of the world and assumed that these components operated independently from one another. Many things work in a linear fashion. For a complex machine or organism, linear function means that each component operates independently of the others. The environment receives relatively little attention. In contrast to this linear thinking, a recent and more popular trend is toward “systems” thinking. Kaplan 2006:
Spectrum conditions as Deterministic Chaos Patterns
Autism is the first clear and concrete example or evidence of a disorder that can be delineated and modeled through the knowledge of advanced physics. This type of evidence has the potential to overturn or expand our current paradigm of orthodox medicine and the testing methods that it had depended on.
Single source causation, reductionistic reasoning, and separate disorders.
Instead we have multiple influences creating variable, but predictable outcomes. The same insult can create unique results, and different insults can create the same result. This resembles a Systems Model. It will depend on the system that neural insults are put into that will create an outcome. In a sense, it’s the system itself causing the malfunction (Meadows 2008). Our body/mind compensating from neurotoxic events in the environment and availability of resources.
No longer NATURE vs. NURTURE
There are many groups and advocates that are arguing their specific agendas, though many times pitted against one another, I believe they are fighting a common enemy; An outdated mode of scientific thinking.
Damage to a person’s mind. Whether it from heavy metals, chemicals, pesticides, insults, viruses, illness, deteriorating interactive systems of the body or deteriorating social systems. Damage to our minds, our bodies and our ability to function as a collective whole. It is hurting all of us.
It may have been our well intentioned but misguidance of nutrition information, environmental influences (chemicals), educational standardization (assumptions of normal) and our communities (competitiveness and comparisons) have created these unbalanced and unhealthy outcomes. Changing our understanding of the human body to an ecosystem scientific framework that interacts, is challenged and intimately influenced by our environment, nutrition, attitudes, economic motivations, community, and educational expectations will hopefully be accepted to guide our future endeavors and begin to correct our mistakes of the past.
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