The Role of Mirror Neurons in Autism

During our week 4 lecture, I first learned of mirror neurons and their role in social development. I immediately thought of the possible implications this could have had on my nephew, Michael. Now 15 and recently released from his Individualized Educational Program for the first time in his school history, Michael was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of four. As a toddler, family members and preschool teachers began noticing slightly odd behavior. Michael had a great deal of difficulty maintaining eye contact, trouble making transitions from one activity to another, obsessive interests such as matchbox cars, preferring categorizing toys over pretend play, little interest in peers, preferring to sit apart from groups in situations such as circle time, sensitivity to light, sound, and textures, and would exhibit stress behaviors, such as twisting his shirt and tugging his hair. It became clear that although Michael was highly functioning and extremely intelligent, he was not developing normally in his social and emotional behavior.

 

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http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v295/n5/images/scientificamerican1106-62-I1.jpg

 

Since his diagnosis, the new DSM V no longer classifies Asperger’s Syndrome as a separate disorder but has incorporated these behaviors and symptoms into the Autism Spectrum Disorder (also referred to as ASD) and Social Communication Disorder (also known as SCD). ASD criteria include persistent deficits in social communication and interactions (both verbal and non-verbal), difficulty developing and maintaining relationships, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. The symptoms must be present early in the developmental period and must cause significant impairment in social or occupational functioning, and are not better explained by an intellectual disability or developmental delay. (DSM V, 2014) SCD criteria are similar, including deficits in using communication for social purposes, impairment of the ability to change communication style to match the context of the situation, difficulties following rules for conversation and storytelling, difficulty understanding what is not explicitly stated, functional limitation in effective social communication, participation, and relationships. The onset of symptoms is typically early in the developmental period, and must not be otherwise explained by another medical or neurological condition. (DSM V, 2014)

 

There are countless theories regarding the cause of Autism and Communication disorders, particularly in recent years as the number of individuals diagnosed has exploded. Could the discovery of mirror neurons hold the answer? Mirror neurons, discovered in monkeys, are a type of nerve cell in the inferior frontal and inferior parietal regions of the brain, which relay signals for planning movement and carrying it out. First discovered in studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, they have not yet been proven to exist in humans. However, brain imaging of human subjects has revealed activity that strongly suggests a similar system of mirror neurons in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. These neurons fire both when performing an action and when observing another perform the same action. Scientists speculate mirror neurons seem to be important for understanding the actions of other people and learning new skills by imitation. They may also be important in language acquisition. (Fact Sheet, 2014) This connection between experience and perception might play a role in developing empathy and the ability to understand social cues, which are considered to be some of the main issues associated with the symptoms of ASD and SCD. (Rain, 2014)

 

 

Our ability to interpret other people’s behavior is critical to social interaction and relationships, as well as learning about and understanding our world. Within an infant’s first few days of life, they begin to imitate their caretakers’ expressions and movements. It is thought that this early imitation could be an important foundation for the development of motor control, communication, and social abilities. (Ahmed, 2011)

6a0147e0ba5e57970b0154337dc510970c-320wiThe Broken Mirror Hypothesis states that people with ASD which lack the comprehension and imitative skills have problems with the mirror neuron system and is a primary cause for their poor social skills. Brainwaves in pertinent areas were only detected in these people when they were performing an action, and other when they watched someone else perform, or mirror, the action. (Ahmed, 2011) This not only has implications for understanding others actions, but also the intentions and emotions experienced when someone is performing an action. In evolutionary terms, this type of ability could help humans predict someone’s behavior and aid in social cooperation. What is unclear is how exactly these mirror neurons interact with other brain processes, such as language and memory. It is too simplistic to merely say that a dysfunction in the mirror neurons directly cause the symptoms of Autism. A great deal of new research and understanding must be done before a clear link can be established. (Jaffe, 2007) Although there is currently quite a bit of debate surrounding mirror neurons and autism, one scientist believes their importance has been understated up to this point, rather than overstated as others are claiming. Vilayanur Ramachandran’s 2007 TED Talks, The Neurons That Shaped Civilization, provides a much more thorough and easily understandable explanation than I could hope to deliver.

 

As for my nephew, Michael, I am proud to say he earned nearly all A’s for his first year of high school. He is well adjusted and his teachers adore him. He is aware of his weaknesses and areas where he still needs to improve, such as maintaining eye contact and interpreting body language. He has made so much amazing progress thanks to his dedicated mother and a team of fantastic educators, and particularly the hard work that he has done for all of these years to overcome many of his challenges. I will be following this topic closely and hope for more answers that will solve the autistic puzzle for future children diagnosed and their devoted families.

 

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Aunt Kelly and her “First Baby” Michael!!

** Special thank you to my sister, Kathy, and my nephew, Michael, for sharing part of their story **

Reference List:

 

DSM V Diagnostic Criteria. (2014). Autism Speaks. Retrieved from: http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/diagnosis/dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria

 

Fact Sheet: Mirror Neurons and Autism. (2014) Synapse. Retrieved from: http://www.autism-help.org/points-mirror-neurons.htm

 

Ahmed, Sammy. (Fall, 2011) Mirror Neurons And Autism: A Social Perspective. Online Publication of Undergraduate Studies. New York University, Department of Applied Psychology. Retrieved from: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/opus/issues/2011/fall/mirror

 

Jaffe, Eric. (May 2007) Mirror Neurons: How We Reflect On Behavior. Observer. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2007/may-07/mirror-neurons-how-we-reflect-on-behavior.html

 

Rain, Ella. (2014) Mirror Neurons As the Cause for Autism. Love To Know Autism. Retrieved from: http://autism.lovetoknow.com/Mirror_Neurons_As_the_Cause_for_Autism

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10 Comments

  1. Kelly, as usual you hit the nail on the head. My nephew has autism and asperger’s syndrome, and many other disabilities that coincide with these two spectrum’s. It is a disability that has many speculations as to the cause, but no definitive answers as to why these numbers are exploding in children with disabilities. I thought the data with the vaccines that contain mercury was a valid reason why children have autism.
    I know the number of shots babies receive by the age of one is like 20 vaccines in these little precious bodies. i’m sure you can relate to that with your beautiful son in the number of vaccines he had already. I just wonder why some kids accept the shots and remain healthy, and why some children after the age of 9 months begin to stare into space and go backwards in the milestones.
    The word was that the drug companies are making a killing in profit, and then make parents feel guilty for not vaccinating their children.

    • I think the topic of vaccines and autism definitely needs to be addressed. Shortly after Michael was diagnosed, the idea that vaccines may be linked to the rise in Autism diagnoses became hugely popular. It’s extremely important to get the word out to new parents that this has been almost completely dispelled. There is no evidence of any link from any childhood vaccines resulting in any form of autism. Sadly, the campaign against vaccines and a lot of misinformation put countless children at risk by well-meaning parents who decided not to have them vaccinated. The latest findings can be reviewed here: http://www.autismsciencefoundation.org/autismandvaccines.html

  2. Very touching story of your nephew. I have a few friends who have children with autism and it takes a kind soul, strong heart, and patient person to raise a child with autism, you sister is one of these people. I know with my short fuse I couldn’t do it. That said it is very interesting to see these newly found mirror neurons could be an answer to better understanding autism. I would have never thought they could work together, but now it makes some sense. I think there will be a lot of conditions better understood and maybe manageable if not curable once we truly understand mirror neurons.Autism is a disorder that affects a lot of people. I’ve been told Autistic people are just wired differently and we need to understand their wiring to understand them. Hopefully the mirror neurons will be that answer. Imagine how many will be affected if they can find a was to better manage it or cure it.

    • A deeper understanding of what is happening in the autistic brain would help in so many ways. Interventions and treatments for different symptoms are based on assumptions of what is causing the issue. Until that is known, it is hard for programs to be effective. The more is learned, the more we can create really helpful treatment plans!

  3. Kelly, I also wrote my blog on Autism as the subject has many different paths of study. My daughter is turning 21 this month and was diagnosed at the age of three with PDD in North Carolina, Who at the time was pioneering a program called TEACH. It was a behavioral modification with intense therapy. She had a Para professional with her all day long during school hours and even some evenings at home. Schedules were made and had to be adhered to daily. Back in 1995 when she was diagnosed it was much harder to find support as a parent, or even information about the disorder. Some days before we got her outbursts under control I would wish there was an outward sign like a down syndrome child at least then people would understand there is an issue.
    I am just glad all sorts of research is being done to help find a cure or at least making the public more aware of the scope of this disorder. Mirror neurons research sounds promising but I also know I will love my child no matter what. She is extremely high functioning and verbal. Thanks for sharing your blog information.

    • I know my sister felt a huge relief once there was a diagnosis for my nephew. It didn’t solve anything over night, but once they knew what they were dealing with, it made things much easier. I think she was able to approach outbursts and emotional issues from a different light once there was greater understanding. Kudos to you too for your journey with your daughter!

  4. Thank you for sharing your nephews story. I worked in special education many many years ago and recall the numerous autism diagnosis’s. I remember the psychologists looking for answers to parents questions. I know
    longer work in special eduction but wonder what the psychologists would think of the mirror neuron theory.
    Your nephew has a lot of support and that is so helpful. I know from
    working with children who were diagnosed with autism it was so helpful to have a supportive family. There are so many places that people fall on the spectrum and various levels of assistance that is needed.
    I am so glad to see that you touched on the vaccines. This often can get controversial between advocates for and against vaccines. The many other danger potential from not getting vaccines to me far out way the risk of vaccines causing autism.
    It was nice reading how well your nephew is doing. I am sure you will follow this closely going forward because it could just lead to the answers families are looking for. Great post!

  5. This is a very touching story, it’s good that your nephew is doing so well. I work with the intellectually disabled in a day program, so I experience first hand the challenges of people on all parts of the autism spectrum. They can be extremely challenging, but also very rewarding to work with. They are the clients who make me smile the most and who I feel benefit the most from the work I do. I think it is a really interesting hypothesis that the mirror neurons would be responsible for the lack of ability to understand and reflect emotions of others. I definitely agree that there needs to be a better understanding of how these individuals brains work, so that they can be better served and lead more productive, happy lives.

    • I’m sure you see more than most of us with ever get a chance to working with a variety of individuals every day. I would love to see how many overlapping similarities there are with people on the spectrum and what cognitive differences are seen as well. There must be some starting point for researchers to compare brain structures and abnormalities between individuals at different points on the spectrum. With such a huge increase in diagnoses over the past decade or so, I hope that there will be a similar increase in research that can help provide some of the answers needed.

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