Research shows that young autistic children have more typical behaviour (89%) than atypical behaviour, for example, they look at people’s faces, react (turn) toward voices, respond to their name when called, etc. (Gabrielsen et al. 2015). During the first six months, infants with ASD present a similar to typically developing infants’ pattern of face-gazing accompanied by vocalizations (Chericoni et al. 2017; Young et al. 2009).
However, already at the age of nine months, infants developing ASD were more likely to fail to respond to their names, persisting through 24 months; and infants who consistently fail to do that in the second year of life may be at risk not only for ASD but also for greater impairment by the age of three years (Miller et al. 2017). The researchers concluded that in addition to a recommended ASD-specific screening, response to name should be regularly monitored in infants at risk for ASD.
This was a common scene in our household when Alex was a toddler: I called out – or even shouted – my son’s name (who was in the same room) and… no reaction whatsoever (not even a blink) from him, as if the boy was deaf. At one occasion, a nurse was present and swiftly made some notes on his medical card, then turned to me to say that she’d refer him to a specialist to check his hearing. I knew it would be a useless exercise as his hearing was more acute than ‘normal’: when I unwrapped his favourite biscuits in the kitchen, Alex was next to me in seconds. When the sensory input became too intense and painful, the boy learned to switch off his hearing and withdraw into his own world.
Schwartz S. et al. (2020) found that minimally and low verbal adolescents and young adults with autism exhibit decreased neural responses to one's own name when heard in a noisy setting. In addition, decreased strength of neural responses in those with autism correlated with decreased auditory filtering abilities. They propose that these neural deficits may reflect the ineffective processing of salient speech [not just the name!] in a noisy environment and contribute to language and communication deficits observed in autism. That is exactly what some autistic adults have been talking about for many years.
Autistic children learn very early in life to control their environment and the amount of information coming in. When the person cannot cope with sensory overload, he may shut down some or even all sensory channels. Systems shutdowns are an involuntary adaptation when the brain turns certain systems off to improve the level of functioning in others. Many children are suspected to be deaf, as they sometimes don’t react to sounds. Their hearing, however, is often even more acute than that of an average person but they learn to shut it down when they experience sensory overload. (Though certain frequencies cannot be shut down.) Continuous noises (fans, microwave, heating) that do not bother other people may be very annoying. To shut down the painful channel, they may engage in stereotypic behaviours, or deliberately distract themselves through other channels (for instance, touching objects when their hearing is overwhelming) or to withdraw altogether.
If they learn to shut down their systems early in life, they create self-imposed sensory deprivation – thus missing out in development of social and communication skills and experiences of conventional (for the culture they were born into) ways of functioning.
Especially unpleasant (and harmful) for autistic individuals are total shutdowns (of all sensory channels): when, though, for instance, eyes continue to see and ears to hear, the brain does not process the meaning of what is being seen or heard, resulting in what Donna Williams calls ‘meaning-blindness’ and ‘meaning-deafness’.
The earlier the carer understands the differences and accommodates the person (via the adjustment of the environment and appropriate intervention), the more likely the individual will become a fully functional, but significantly different (in talents and thinking).
If there is no appropriate support, they may stay withdrawn from the outside world well into adulthood, unwilling and with time unable to leave the ‘sanctuary’ of autism. Their world becomes what Donna Williams calls ‘simply be’ – the world without words, but rich in experience of sounds, patterns, colours and textures.