While generalizations are usually absurd and damaging (asking “What is it like to be in a relationship with someone who has Asperger’s?” is almost as ridiculous a generalization as asking “What is it like to be in a relationship with a blonde?”) it is true that in general, working with an autistic person may be hard, living with one could be unbearable, and being one is…

Some, let’s seek relief and help in knowledge.

From the genetic research field come some exciting news:

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in language and social behavior. While the brains of people with autism appear broadly normal, previous brain-imaging studies have revealed unusual growth patterns in very young children with the disorder. “It’s clear that in the first two years of life, the brain grows too large, too fast”.

Scientists don’t yet understand the reason for the strange growth spurt–whether it’s caused by too many neurons in a particular part of the brain or a failure to prune extraneous neurons, a common occurrence in normal development. They hope that an unusual set of tools developed for the Allen Brain Atlas, a database of gene expression in the mouse brain, could finally yield clues.

The researchers will focus on the prefrontal cortex, an area in the frontal lobes involved in higher-order social and emotional communication, and one of the brain regions most affected by abnormal early overgrowth. The DNA probes will allow researchers to compare the location and organization of specific cell types, such as excitatory neurons that connect to brain areas outside of the cortex and inhibitory neurons that form local cortical circuits.

“It’s fundamentally important to identify the cause of that overgrowth”. “It may help us understand how best to tailor interventions for autism, not just behaviorally, but for medical and chemical interventions down the road.”

In related news:

A specific structural variation on chromosome 16 dramatically boosts the risk of autism, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The finding–one of the most significant to date–permits the development of new diagnostic tests to identify children at risk, and could ultimately point to specific biochemical pathways to target in drug development.

Great: potential findings in DNA research may lead to fast and inexpensive tests, and also to future medication. So what do we do in the meantime?

In yet another study:

By imaging the brains of adolescents with a high-functioning form of autism as they played a social-interaction game, scientists have identified a physiological deficit specific to the disorder. The researchers believe that the change is linked to a diminished sense of self. The findings, recently published in the journal Neuron, could help guide future research into the nature of autism and potentially lead to new ways to diagnose and treat the disorder.

If you have ever had the pleasure to interact with an autist in any deep and meaningful way, the _diminished sense of self_ (“tell me, define me, show me, explain, demonstrate…”) is something quite obvious. But now there is a neuro-anatomical abnormality to account for that. Great.

In the meantime, experiments like this one may help those of us who seem to have our social compass somehow distorted.