If I have autism, is my brain a different structure?

Safiya Zaloum

You or someone you know may have autism, and sometimes you might hear that people with autism have brains that are structured differently to people who don’t have autism, but is this true?


What is autism?

Autism is a condition that describes a collection of traits that the person with autism has. People with autism might find it hard to communicate or interact with other people and find it hard to understand how other people think or feel. Many people with autism find bright lights or loud noises overwhelming and uncomfortable, or have other sensory needs. Unfamiliar situations and social events can be challenging for some people with autism. Others may take longer to understand information and some people with autism do the same things over and over again.


Autism is an umbrella term, describing what is possibly a group of many different conditions. Autism is a spectrum, meaning those who have autism will have different needs. Autism isn’t easy to diagnose, like when anyone has a broken leg, doctors can see the break on an x-ray. Not having one easy way to determine if someone has autism reflects the diverse nature of those who have the condition.


No two people with autism are the same, just like no two people who at 7 years old are the same. Different people with autism will like different things and find different things challenging. Autism is not a disease or an illness, but a way of describing how people with autism may act differently to those who do not have autism.


Because autism is a spectrum, those who have autism can have any level of intelligence. Some may have a learning disability whereas others may have above average intelligence. People with autism also need varying levels of support depending on the challenges each individual faces.


Do people with autism have brains with a different structure?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition. Currently autism is diagnosed when a group of behaviours are seen in an individual, such as having difficulties with verbal communication or social situations. The three key areas doctors look for are difficulties with social interactions, differences in communication compared to those without autism, and restrictive or repetitive behaviours. There are many behaviours which an individual might have in each of these categories and this can vary between individuals. For example, someone might not be able to match their facial expressions to what is being said, whereas someone else may have trouble understanding others’ point of view. It is thought that changes in the brain are what causes these behaviours. These changes, or differences compared to people who don’t have autism are thought to involve how different parts of the brain form and connect with each other.


Scientists aren’t exactly sure yet on how the structure of the brains of people with autism is different to those who don’t have autism. It is more likely that the way the brain of someone with autism works is different to someone without autism, and this won’t necessarily relate to structures of the brain that can be seen on scans. Connectivity, the way that different parts of the brain communicate with each other, is more likely to be affected in the brains of people with autism.


Studies trying to compare the brains of people to autism to those who don’t (often termed neurotypicals) have found conflicting results. Some have found that people with autism have more connectivity in their brains whilst others have found that there is less connectivity when compared to neurotypicals. The patterns of connectivity found in individual brains of those who have autism were found to be different from neurotypicals but varied vastly amongst those with autism. They all had areas of over or under connectivity compared to the neurotypical brain but there were no overall patterns of this amongst people with autism. Often these differences in connectivity do strongly correlate with the behaviours someone with autism may display, or the things that they find challenging. More research is needed before anything can be said for definite, but there do seem to be some differences in connectivity in the brains of people with autism.


The connectivity in all human brains change over time and are typically shaped when you are young. The theory behind the different connectivity in brains of people with autism is that neurotypicals tend to have a similar amount of interaction with other people and their environments at a young age, causing their brains to be more similar to each other due to shared experience. In autism, perhaps the interactions with the environment and other people differ more, so people with autism develop more unique organisation patterns.


Generally, it is thought that in autism there is short range overconnectivity and long range underconnectivity. Let’s think of this like a country that has many cities in it. There might be good transport links between closeby towns and cities e.g. great bus links, but not many trains connecting cities to each other that are hours away. Therefore, tasks that require the cooperation of many parts of the brain might be harder for someone with autism, such as social interaction. Many people with autism are excellent at very specific detail focused tasks – these often require only one region of the brain which could be explained with the increase in short range overconnectivity.

What does it mean if someone has a brain with a different structure?

People with autism don’t have a totally different brain structure compared to those without autism. There will be small differences in the structure and connectivity of everyone’s brains, not just those with autism. It is likely that these differences are just a little more between people with autism and those who do not have autism. Autism isn’t the only condition where changes in brain structure may be able to be seen.


Instead, it is more useful to think of these changes in brain structure as a tool, that will help scientists to better understand conditions such as autism. Having differences in your brain structure isn’t bad, it just means that perhaps you will be better at some things than others and find some things more challenging.


All people with autism are unique and have different abilities and face different challenges. What is most important is that everyone gets the support that they need to be able to do the things that they want to do and achieve their potential.