Understanding Autism

Caltech researcher tries to pinpoint the thought processes that are different in people with autism than in people without it.

By Sharon Bernstein
|  Sunday, Oct 30, 2011  |  Updated 3:22 PM PDT
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Understanding Autism

California Institute of Technology

Scientist Ralph Adolphs seeks the biological roots of social behavior as a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Caltech..

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Autism and its cousin, Asperger Syndrome, are perplexing conditions that, at their most basic, make it difficult for people to communicate and connect with others.

Ralph Adolphs, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Cal-Tech, has an unusual approach to understanding what’s going on.

He uses the tools of psychology to understand how people with autism and Asperger Syndrome think. But then he turns to biology, using brain imaging and other techniques to try to see if he can actually locate a spot in the brain where such thinking takes place.

The 48-year-old talked with NBC LA this week about his latest research. It shows that high-functioning adults with autism don’t really realize that others may be judging them in social situations.

Q. What were you trying to learn with the latest study?

A. If you ask high-functioning people with autism what they have the most difficulty with it’s often interacting with their peers, and maintaining long relationships. So the broad aim of our study was to try to get more specific than that, and to ask what processes in their brains might be affecting this. We wanted to get a picture of how the minds of people with autism function.

Q. You tested only very high functioning adults with autism and Asperger Syndrome in your study. Why is that?

A. The reason we’re studying adults is that we believe we can get the best information and largest number of details from this population. These are all people who if you met them would seem smart; many have jobs, families, and have finished high school and college. But they would seem somewhat odd and aloof in their social interactions.

Q. Your study used research techniques from social psychology to see whether subjects would donate more to a charity – in this case UNICEF – if someone was in the room watching them. What did you find?

A. Neuro-typical individuals choose to donate a lot more to UNICEF when they’re sitting there with another person in the room. The reason they’re doing that is to improve their social reputation. But there was no effect like that at all in the group with people with autism. They donated the same amount whether somebody was watching them or not.

Q. What does that tell us?

A. It shows that high functioning people with autism have a very specific difference with neuro-typical individuals. They don’t instinctively register what others think about them and so they don’t respond in a way to influence what people think of them.

Q. Does it mean that people with autism don’t care what others think?

A. No, not at all. It shows that people with autism do not process what other people are thinking of them, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t care. They didn’t have an immediate response about what the person who was there might be thinking, but that doesn’t mean that that once you told them they didn’t care. .. If I have a physical disability, or if I break a leg, I would have some difficulty walking. And no one would think that I don’t care about walking. I care about walking – I just can’t do it because I broke my leg.

Follow NBCLA for the latest LA news, events and entertainment: Twitter: @NBCLA // Facebook: NBCLA 

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