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What If People With Autism Are Actually Hyperfunctional?

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Most people who think about autism think of people who struggle or are inept in some ways, especially when it comes to social behaviors. But there's growing evidence that the autistic brain may actually be more super-wired to detect and absorb cues from the outside world.

Now, a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggests that the brains of people with autism are actually hyperfunctional rather than stunted or impaired, and that if treated early in a very predictable environment, symptoms could diminish.

In 2007, researchers Kamila Markram, Henry Markram, and Tania Rinaldi developed an alternative theory for what autism is, called the "Intense World Syndrome." They believe that autism is not some form of mental deficit, but that the brain is actually supercharged and hyperfunctional. This makes stimuli overwhelming to people with autism, causing them to socially and emotionally withdraw as a mode of self-protection.

In the new study, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), including Henry Markram and Kamila Markram, showed how autism might be treated following this theory.

The researchers took a group of rats and exposed them to a drug called valproate (VPA), which is a process commonly used to model autism in the rodents. The researchers then exposed the rats to three different environments. The first was a standard environment: a typical laboratory cage. The second was a unpredictable enriched environment, which had things like a running wheel, toys and places to hide. In this environment, the researchers would regularly clean the cages, change out the toys and reorganize the space. The third was a predictable enriched environment, which had stimuli like toys and a running wheel, but after every cleaning the cage remained the same and nothing was moved out of place.

The researchers found that rats exposed to VPA were more sensitive to their living environments compared to control rats. The VPA-exposed rats living in the predictable environment did not develop the same emotional behaviors like anxiety and fear that the VPA-exposed mice living in the unpredictable environment or the standard environment did. The researchers concluded that an unpredictable or impoverished environment exacerbates the autism-like symptoms in rats, but a very predictable environment can prevent these symptoms from developing.

Though the study is still preliminary and was done in rats and not humans, Kamila Markram says she thinks it does have implications for how children with autism might be treated in the future. "Many therapies do recognize that structure and predictability is important, but none of the approaches has put this at the center," she says. "We say you have to put it at the center and you need to be addressing sensory overflow."

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In the ideal scenario, Markram says kids with autism could be diagnosed when they are very young and then raised in a very stable and predictable environment. "You would approach the child from the same direction, books are on the same shelf, toys are always in the same place," she says.

Markam says that it's also necessary to change the way people view the disorder as a whole. "It's important to us that we move away from the autism as a deficit model. These children are hyperfunctional and they can't bear their environment," says Markan. "If you have that view, it changes the way you look at research. If you're a parent, you'll treat your child in a different way."

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