Autism spectrum disorders appear very early in a child's life, generally before the age of three, and are characterised by problems in the following areas of development: social interaction, communication skills and behaviour. Included in the autism spectrum disorders are autism and Asperger's syndrome. Individual children with these disorders may present with very different sets of symptoms, with varying degrees of severity.
While we don't know exactly what causes autism spectrum disorders, we do know that there are differences in the development and function of the brain when compared to healthy children.
We are currently investigating the ability of children with autism spectrum disorders to recognise emotions. Our goal is the examine the brain regions underlying these fundamental deficits in emotion recognition and how they diverge from normally developing children.
Autism affects approximately 1 in 160 individuals, and is more common in males than females. Common symptoms of autism include a lack of interest in other people, an impaired understanding of what other people are feeling or thinking, and a delay in or lack of development of speech. Children with autism may not engage in make-believe play and have interests that are unusually narrow or intense. Some degree of intellectual disability is common in children with autism.
Asperger’s syndrome shares some of the characteristics of autism, such as difficulties in social interaction, including recognition of emotions in others, and restricted interests. Children with Asperger's, however, show no intellectual disability or significant delay in the development of speech, although they may sometimes use language in unusual ways. Asperger's is more common in males than females.
The Lenroot group is using brain imaging to examine why children with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time understanding what other people are feeling. A diminished ability to recognise emotions is one of the biggest challenges for children with disorders such as autism, and may also contribute to aggressive behaviour in others.
We are using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify subtle brain differences that may have developed in children with autism spectrum disorders. In particular, we are examining the structure and function of the brain regions that help us recognise when someone is happy, sad or afraid.
We are exploring whether autistic or aggressive children pay less attention to the eyes of the person they are interacting with by asking them to identify different facial expressions while in the MRI scanner.
By the close of this project, we will have gained vital insight into how differences in brain development might lead to problems with empathy. Pinpointing these and other differences will help us to craft interventions that we hope will minimise or even prevent symptoms from emerging so that children with these kinds of disorders can lead happy and healthy lives.