Updated: Jul 28, 2021
‘We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty’ Maya Angelou
What do butterflies have to do with autism? Well, you might need to bear with me on that one, like the butterfly I am struggling to fly in a straight line to get to my point, there are so many interesting things to see along the way! I think I get there in the end so if you are willing to give me a few minutes of your time then allow me to take you on a journey to explore the butterfly effect of autism. We will start by considering eye contact.
It has long been thought that autistic people were less skilled at identifying the emotion behind facial expressions than their non autistic peers. The ‘eye test’ (Test your social intelligence (labinthewild.org)) is designed as a diagnostic tool for autism and uses the ability to correctly identify the emotion being displayed through the eyes as an indicator of autism. The expectation is that autistic people will be less accurate at picking the correct emotional expression. I tried this test and scored a respectable 32 but does that mean I am skilled at reading the emotions of others? Not necessarily. Research suggests that our facial expressions do not necessarily reflect our inner emotional state but they are instead a way to communicate something to another person. For example you may put on an ‘angry face’ to convey that you would like someone to stop doing something without actually feeling angry or put on a ‘sad face’ to convey sympathy and understanding to another person without feeling sad. The emotion they did find that was communicated most authentically through facial expressions was amusement. Further research demonstrated that the facial expressions of autistic people were harder to read than the facial expressions of non-autistic people. This was true whether the person trying to read the facial expressions was autistic or non-autistic suggesting that each autistic person may have unique facial expressions and that these facial expressions may be more likely to indicate genuine emotion rather than being used to deceive or manipulate others as the non autistic population do.
We know that differences in eye contact can be an early indicator of autism and is evident from 2-6 months of age. It is interesting to note that there is a higher than average prevalence of autism in people who are born blind. What is more interesting is that many blind people who would meet the diagnosis for autism in early childhood no longer meet the criteria for diagnosis in adolescence. This seems to suggest that whilst visual differences may play a role in the development of autism there is more to the story than this.
Many autistic people report that they find making eye contact uncomfortable or even painful for example Judy Endow describes how ‘avoiding eye contact is one of the things I find myself automatically doing to minimize the quantity of incoming sensory information’. This leads us to one of the other early indicators of autism, sensory sensitivities. Sensory sensitives are evident in autistic children from 7 months of age. Autistic people can be unusually sensitive to information from the internal (such as emotions) and from the external environment (such as sights, sounds and tactile experiences). Sensory sensitives can lead to talents such as the perfect pitch or artistic ability but they can also lead to difficulties when the sensory information being received is too much and becomes overwhelming. Debora Lipsky describes her experience of shopping at Christmas time as ‘The totality of the large mass of people squeezing themselves down crowded aisles, the pungent smell of overly used colognes, the same Christmas music playing over and over again, and the noise and flashing tree lights increase my anxiety level to the point where after just a few short minutes I end up running out of the store in panic mode every time.’
It is my view that sensory sensitivities really lie at the heart of autism and that they are the catalyst for a butterfly effect that leads to many if not all of the other characteristics of autism (there, I told you we would get to the butterflies in the end!). The term butterfly effect describes how a butterfly flapping its wings it in one location can cause a tornado to develop in some far-off destination. It is a term used in chaos theory to explain how a small action can have much larger and seemingly unrelated consequences. If we apply this theory to autism, sensory sensitivities are the butterflies and autism is the tornado. Victoria McGreer in her 2001 paper suggests that babies that will go onto develop autism may find others far too stimulating to be tolerated due to these sensory sensitivities. She describes how babies learn to regulate their emotions through mutual imitation with a care giver but that if these interactions are experienced as overwhelming the baby may pull back and this can lead to delays in social development.
Early development differences can cause more widespread consequences on the developing brain as the brain adapts to the different way it experiences the world. Mark Johnson, Emily Jones and Teodora Gliga are the authors of a paper called ‘Brain Adaptation and alternative development trajectories.’ In this paper they refer to evidence from MRI studies which demonstrate that many autistic people use different areas of their brains to perform tasks compared to non-autistic people. For example they cite a study that showed that autistic participants use a different area of their brain when looking at faces than did the non-autistic participants. Not everyone who experiences sensory sensitivities will develop the same brain adaptations which could explain why the autistic spectrum is so wide and varied. The authors of the above paper go on to look at the role of executive functioning differences in brain adaptations. Executive functioning refers to a set of thinking skills that are often thought to be less developed in autistic people such as flexibility of thought, attention, planning skills and impulse control. The authors of this paper turn this theory on its head a little by suggesting that individuals with stronger executive functioning skills may develop more effective brain adaptations than those with weaker executive functioning skills suggesting that executive functioning difficulties are not a feature of autism per se but that strong executive functioning skills may act as a protective factor by supporting the brain to adapt more effectively to the initial difficulty. What this implies is that there may be a difference in how autism presents itself in those with and without executive functioning difficulties.
One of the most majestic sights in nature is to see the yearly pilgrimage of millions of Monarch butterflies as they return to their ancestral grounds in Mexico. In this paper we have done much the same thing as although we have flown about and hopefully enjoyed the journey we should in the end return to something known, which is that many of the quirks and characteristics that are seen in autism such as avoiding eye contact and self-stimulatory behaviors serve as important adaptive functions. Laura Ivanova Smith for example describes how self stimulatory behavior ‘helps my body to regulate the sensory information from the world’. What we can learn from the butterfly effect is that we should be very careful before trying to change any of the features of autism particularly when we do not know the adaptive function they may serve. The consequences of doing so could be far reaching and beyond anything we could possibly imagine.
‘Never hide your wings, for without them, you would not have flown above the past. Always show them… For they are the strength that you have become.’ -Ach