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Growing Up Different

Photo of Tariq Making Eye-contact
  Therapy encourages eye contact—something autistic people avoid.

Autism is a spectrum of developmental disorders characterized by the inability to form social relationships. Symptoms usually appear around eighteen months of age. At an age when a child should be the most delighted by and engaged in his or her surroundings, autism sends up a seemingly impenetrable wall between the child and the outside world.

Geraldine Dawson seeks to help break down that wall with specialized intensive therapies. In "Breaking the Shell," Alan meets one of Dawson's patients, two-and-a-half-year-old Tariq, who seems to be benefiting from the twenty-plus hours of therapy he receives each week. During his sessions, his tutor encourages eye contact—something autistic children routinely avoid—while trying to get Tariq to imitate her actions. If he doesn't, she mimics his to help reinforce the connection between his behavior and her own.
Photo of Elizabeth Preparing for an MRI  
Brain scans reveal marked differences between normal and autistic brains.  

To better understand why autistic children have difficulty relating to other people, Dawson fits an autistic child with an electrode cap, then reads his brain signals as he's shown images of faces—one of a stranger, one of his mother. A normal child's brain responds quite differently to the two images. But the autistic child's brain reacts the same way to both images—though the child himself does recognize his own mother. At the University of Washington, other brain scans reveal that the autistic brain is actually larger than a normal one, with a disproportionately oversized amygdala, the region that processes emotion.

Scientists are just beginning to unravel the connection between these findings and the cause of autism. Until more is known, Dawson hopes early intervention will allow Tariq and children like him to develop language skills and be able to lead as normal lives as possible.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
My Experiences With Autism
A Dangerous Choice

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