Autism Journal Club

The Autism Palette: Combinations of Impairments Explain the Heterogeneity in ASD

Elliot Millington will be presenting Fothi, Soorya and Lorincz (2020). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous neuropsychiatric condition traditionally defined by core symptoms in social behavior, speech/communication, repetitive behavior, and restricted interests. Beyond the core symptoms, autism has strong association with other disorders such as intellectual disability (ID), epilepsy, schizophrenia among many others. This paper outlines a theory of ASD with capacity to connect heterogeneous “core” symptoms, medical and psychiatric comorbidities as well as other etiological theories of autism in a unifying cognitive framework rooted in neuroscience and genetics. Cognition is embedded into an ever-developing structure modified by experiences, including the outcomes of environment influencing behaviors. The key constraint of cognition is that the brain can handle only 7±2 relevant variables at a time, whereas sensory variables, i.e., the number of sensory neurons is orders of magnitude larger. As a result, (a) the extraction, (b) the encoding, and (c) the capability for the efficient cognitive manipulation of the relevant variables, and (d) the compensatory mechanisms that counteract computational delays of the distributed components are critical. We outline our theoretical model to describe a Cartesian Factor (CF) forming, autoencoder-like cognitive mechanism which breaks combinatorial explosion and is accelerated by internal reinforcing machineries and discuss the neural processes that support CF formation. Impairments in any of these aspects may disrupt learning, cognitive manipulation, decisions on interactions, and execution of decisions. We suggest that social interactions are the most susceptible to combinations of diverse small impairments and can be spoiled in many ways that pile up. Comorbidity is experienced, if any of the many potential impairments is relatively strong. We consider component spoiling impairments as the basic colors of autism, whereas the combinations of individual impairments make the palette of autism. We put forth arguments on the possibility of dissociating the different main elements of the impairments that can appear together. For example, impairments of generalization (domain general learning) and impairments of dealing with many variable problems, such as social situations may appear independently and may mutually enhance their impacts. We also consider mechanisms that may lead to protection.