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How Autism Affects the Amygdala

Autism research reveals a complicated network of connections within people on the autism spectrum. These connections relate to just about every part of the body, from hormones to genetics to physical and mental health. As we study more and more of autism and the brain, we are better equipped to handle the way autism’s symptoms might manifest in children on the spectrum. Research on autism’s effects on the Amygdala, the part of our brains wired to be a threat detector and emotion handler, reveals some broad connections to autism symptoms. In this post, we’ll discuss how autism affects the Amygdala.

The Amygdala

The Amygdala is a brain structure commonly known as a threat detector. In other words, it is responsible for handling emotions and processing fear, which then informs the way we react. Research suggests that it plays a much bigger role in just about every facet of our lives than we originally thought. Autism research in particular points to the Amygdala as a sort of social behavior informer. 

Social Behavior

Research suggests a deep connection between the amygdala and our social behavior. Biomedical researchers like Wei Gao, for example, point to the importance of emotions in our everyday interactions. With the Amygdala acting as a sort of surveillance system for the rest of the brain, it helps inform our response to a person or thing’s actions, movement, and more. 

When someone makes an angry face, our Amygdala helps decide how we process that information. The same goes for when someone is demanding or motioning for your attention. It helps discern when we should listen, run away, or react in any particular way. For someone familiar with the symptoms of autism and how they can hinder social communication, the potential connection between the two becomes clear. People on the autism spectrum may struggle with:

  • Difficulty verbalizing thoughts or delays in complex sentence formulation.
  • Issues with general language skills and vocabulary.
  • Inability to read social cues and in turn, inability to grasp pragmatics and prosody when speaking in social settings.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Difficulty reading non-verbal cues and body language.

With the amygdala involved in so many of these functions, a link is established, but the exact nature of the role it plays in autism is still unclear. Autism research broadens its horizons to uncover more about the connection, by analyzing the way the amygdala plays a part in other conditions and disorders. Specifically, how the amygdala plays a role in anxiety.

Emotions and Anxiety

Anxiety and depression are unfortunately common in people on the autism spectrum. Knowing this, the way autism affects the amygdala becomes increasingly difficult to uncover. Anxiety is typically connected to heightened activity in the amygdala, whereas social behavior challenges in people with autism point to diminished activity. 

The complex connection of emotion management, anxiety, and autism gets only more difficult when you take into account the variables of sex, age, and even the size of the amygdala in each individual. Children with autism who experience anxiety may display several physiological symptoms like increased heart rate, gastrointestinal issues, muscle tension, and repetitive or self-destructive behaviors. Some of the strategies for dealing with this anxiety include: 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or other professional interventions like medication.
  • Practicing confronting anxiety-inducing situations and environments with and without supervision.
  • Scheduling quiet and low sensory stimulation time into your child’s daily routine.
  • Practicing self-soothing techniques like counting to ten, deep breaths, removing themselves from the situation, and more.

As research on the amygdala continues, we can hope for better-informed treatments and management of autism’s symptoms, especially in relation to social behavior, communication, and anxiety.

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October 14, 2020

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