Have you heard of mirror neurons? This is a relatively new area of science in which researchers have discovered a set of neurons (brain cells) that fire when watching others do activities. By watching others, we learn imitation and social functioning. Mirror neurons are the part of the brain we use to relate to the world. These neurons are why sports fans react so strongly to the action on the field… They are not only relevant to motor functioning but to emotional functioning. Think about the emotional impact of watching a movie…
You can see where I’m going. Autistic children have great difficulty “getting” social interaction. Problems in the mirror neurons may be why. This is a really fun to watch and educational piece from the PBS show NOVA – about Mirror Neurons. It is in two parts but it is TOTALLY worth watching. Come on – it’s a fun piece to watch:
Here is Part II –
Toward the end of the second piece, in discussing autism in relation to the mirror neurons, the researcher (and the author of this piece) suggest that autistics may have “broken” mirror neuron systems. More research needed to be conducted. And it was.
It turns out that the mirror neurons (at least in the autistics involved in this study- probably not all) do not have “broken” mirror neurons, but rather, slow developing ones. The exciting bit of news of late is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. It is a study that is the first demonstration of an age-related neurocognitive improvement in autism. Yes, that’s right. I said an improvement. A slow, slow improvement. Look at the article here.
This study means that, as some of our ASD children get older, their mirror neuron system gradually improves. In this study, that system becomes normal by the time these autistics are age 30, getting even better thereafter, while their neurotypical peers begin the decline of their mirror neuron system.
The study researchers documented that “autistic individuals seem to have a weak mirror system in their youth, but their mirror activity increases with age, is normal by about age 30 and unusually high thereafter.” The system is opposite that of neurotypicals according to the study. Look at this illustration:
This is an interesting area of research that is just beginning. The method of the study and more information concerning it in detail is available here.
As a parent, I find this research interesting because of the hope that it can provide to some of us for the adulthood of our autistic children. I’m sure this is not a result that carries over in all instances of autism but it is encouraging news. What is also interesting is that the article suggests that working on reading emotions in faces could help stimulate the mirror neuron systems in autistic individuals.
We have cards with pictures of people with different emotional faces. I’ll be pulling these out again and trying to work with the little guy on reading faces in light of this new study. Just thought I’d share it since I thought the whole area of research is interesting.
[Yes, I know this is a short post for me. Although Tootles’ daddy has finished the trial, believe it or not, the jury is still in deliberations. I have another huge case (110 witnesses minimum) going to trial on July 18th and only Mary, my loyal law clerk is there to assist me!! I’m finishing some paperwork fights and so you may tend to see some short posts while I make it through til trial time!]