Some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are aggressive to themselves or other people. This can be distressing for everyone involved.
New research from BYU's autism experts is providing clues into the
link between aggression and autism - clues the team hopes will
eventually lead to more effective intervention.
‘There is an inverse correlation between aggression and brain stem volume in children with autism: the smaller the brain stem, the greater the likelihood of aggression.’
In the study, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders
researchers report an inverse correlation between aggression and brain
stem volume in children with autism: the smaller the brain stem, the
greater the likelihood of aggression.
The finding, though preliminary, is significant in part because "the
brain stem is really involved in autonomic activities - breathing,
heart rate, staying awake - so this is evidence that there's something
core and basic, this connection between aggression and autism," said
coauthor and BYU clinical psychology Ph.D. student Kevin Stephenson.
For the project, the team examined MRI images from two groups of
children with autism: one that exhibited problematic levels of
aggression and one that didn't. Study coauthor Terisa Gabrielsen, a BYU
assistant professor of school psychology, said identifying the brain
stem as having at least a partial involvement in aggression helps lay a
foundation for better treatment. "If we know what part of the brain is
different and what function that part of the brain controls, that can
give us some clues into what we can do in the way of intervention," she
Coauthor and BYU psychology professor Mikle South added, "Once the
body arousal in a child is too much - the heart is beating, the hands
are clenched and the body is sweating - it's too late. Some of these
kids, if the brain isn't working as efficiently, they may pass that
point of no return sooner. So with behavioral interventions, we try to
find out what the trigger is and intervene early before that arousal
becomes too much."
BYU's Autism Connect team originated three years ago in BYU's David
O. McKay School of Education, though it now includes researchers from
other colleges on campus and collaborators beyond BYU. This paper,
spearheaded by BYU psychology assistant professor Rebecca Lundwall, had
11 authors from BYU, one from the University of Utah and one from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. The group used data collected from a
University of Utah autism study funded by the National Institutes of
Studying aggression is Autism Connect's "overarching agenda," said
Gabrielsen, "because it impacts families' quality of life so
significantly. If we look long-term at things that affect the family the
most, aggression is one of the most disruptive."
South recounted a conversation with the mother of a child he
recently diagnosed: to cope with stress, the child often pulled her
mother's hair, "so I just have a lot less hair than I used to," she told
him. Aggression, South noted, "makes the family dynamic very difficult,
the school dynamic very difficult. It's just a particularly difficult
type of autism."
In addition to a number of other studies planned or in process, the
team is interested in exploring further how the brain stem is connected
functionally to other areas of the brain, "because usually the brain
doesn't work from just one area; it's a network of areas that all work
together," Stephenson said. "So if one area is disrupted, it's likely
that other areas are disrupted as well."