Inflexibility in Switching Tasks is Common in Children with ASD

According to recent research, children on the autism spectrum typically lack flexibility when it comes to switching tasks or going from a state of rest to a state of activity. This inflexibility has a strong correlation to other behaviors that are typical of autism disorders.

Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and senior author of the study, Vinod Menon, states, “One of the core clinical symptoms of autism is restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.” He continues, “Autism is characterized by significant behavioral inflexibility and we were interested in finding out the brain basis of inflexibility.” The inflexibility can impact how the child views and participates in the world around them. The inflexibility can be expressed through atypical behaviors, such as stimming, hand flapping, or having an intense focus on one particular subject or object.

Researchers at Stanford analyzed two different groups, each consisting of 17 children on the autism spectrum, and 17 neurotypical children.  The first group was exposed to social face recognition tasks which asked them to identify and respond to different facial expressions they saw on the screen. On the other hand, the second group was asked to solve simple math problems. Researchers studied the autistic brain through these tests, as research has shown that children with autism typically do not have many deficits in math, while they may have difficulty in the face recognition as autism is typically categorized by social deficits. Throughout the tasks, participants were undergoing an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan.

Brain inflexibility was evident in the group of children with autism disorders, as they showed reduced differentiation between brain connectivity during rest and during the activity. Furthermore, the res
earchers noticed a significant correlation between the degree of brain inflexibility and the severity of the repetitive or restrictive behaviors in the autistic participants. Vinod Menon states, “The more inflexible brain state signaling, the more severe the clinical symptoms”.

This study was a significant step towards helping other researchers and doctors understand clinical characteristics of autism, while also creating a pathway for more individualized cognitive behavioral therapy. More research needs to be done to understand the individual deficits and needs for those on the spectrum, but this research provides evidence that treatments need to be tailored to accommodate and improve the child’s inflexibility.

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