Brain Patterns of Autistic ChildrenWhy do children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have trouble playing with others? A study from Vanderbilt University Medical Center recently investigated the psychobiology of play in children with ASD. They discovered that children with ASD have similar brain patterns when playing with children and when playing with a computer. The findings suggest that the brains of children with ASD may not process social situations in the same way the brains of typically developing children do. The study may lead to a more thorough understanding of why children with ASD face difficulties when interacting with others.

Children with ASD and typically developing children participated in the study. For the first part of the study, the ASD children played with a typically developing child on the playground. In the second part of the study, all of the children played a computer game. The children played the game with the computer program, not with another child. However, the children were told that they spent the first half of the computer game playing against the child they met on the playground earlier. During the computer game, the researchers monitored the children’s brain activity using a functional MRI (fMRI). The researchers also measured physiological arousal by analyzing the levels of cortisol in saliva samples taken before and after the playground exercise.

The fMRI imaging revealed differences in how children with ASD and typically developing children view other people. The typically developing children had unique brain activation patterns based on whether they thought they were playing with another child or playing with the computer. Children with ASD, in contrast, had the same brain activation patterns when they thought they were playing with another child and when they thought they were playing with the computer. These findings suggest that the brains of individuals with ASD may process social agents in the same way as non-social agents.

The study, which is the first of its kind, may reveal why children with ASD have trouble with interactive play. Lead researcher Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator, explained that the findings suggest that “some children with autism not only find social engagement with peers less motivating, but it may be stressful, even aversive.”

This research is published in the journal Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience.

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