21 November 2022

Many people with autism or ADHD find that sensory input and motor skills are problematical in their everyday life. Researcher Kajsa Igelström wants to understand why. “There’s an enormous diversity in the challenges that people with autistic traits experience, and in the mechanisms in the brain that lie behind them,” she says.

 person wearing a VR headset.Can virtual reality games that require accurate motor skills and careful listening contribute to autism research? PhD student Peter Bang hopes so. Photo credit Anna Nilsen

“Nearly all research studies show that the brains of people with autism differ from those of people without autism, but different studies have found a range of such differences. The criteria used to diagnose autism are extremely broad. Two people with autism may be very different with respect to such aspects as social and communicative difficulties, and may have hardly any symptoms in common,” says Kajsa Igelström. Kajsa Igelström.Kajsa Igelström. Photo credit Anna Nilsen

Furthermore, the population in general displays a wide range of behaviour in the functions that are affected by autism. These traits are expressed to a greater or lesser degree. In other words: people cannot be divided into two distinct groups – those who do have autism and those who do not, and this insight has had a profound influence on Kajsa Igelström’s research. She carried out her first autism study while a postdoc at Princeton University in the US. When reading through previous research, she was struck by the strong indications that functions related to the senses and body motion are affected in autism, ADHD, and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

Previous research had demonstrated differences in those parts of the brain that control body motion, or motor skills, and how we interpret the world around us through hearing, touch, sight, and the other senses.

“I fixed onto the idea that these functions are so fundamental that it would be logical to assume that they have a direct influence on everything else. For example, you can’t develop a well-functioning body language if you don’t have full control of the body’s motor skills.”

Rather than comparing a group of people who have received a diagnosis with a group of people who have not, the starting point for Kajsa Igelström's research group is the functions they are interested in. They measure the functions that concern the various senses and body motion (also known as sensorimotor functions). What they are looking for is whether there are correlations between these functions and the traditional symptoms of autism, which are concerned with social and communicative abilities and cognitive flexibility.

Results from their first studies are now being published. They show connections between sensitivity for everyday noise and autistic traits, such as being inflexible, and poor communicative and social skills. The research group has also seen that an increased sensitivity to noise plays a major role in autism.

“When we ask people with autism what they are suffering from, they don’t reply ‘I feel inflexible’, but rather ‘The surroundings are difficult to cope with’,” says Kajsa Igelström. persons i a lab.The researchers are working to create realistic surroundings in VR in which participants are disturbed by sound and other stimuli while they are taking cognitive tests. PhD student Peter Bang demonstrates the VR headset. Photo credit Anna Nilsen

The research group is now working to set up experiments in the lab with virtual reality (VR) headsets, which they use to simulate images and sound. They want to investigate how the sound environment affects higher cognitive functions, such as attention-focus and concentration. Many well-established tests are available that examine what happens in the brain when it processes various inputs. These can be used to measure properties such as working memory, the ability to focus on a task, and whether a person can interpret the language signals that show whether the speaker is happy, angry or sad.

“In the long term, we would like to create realistic surroundings in VR. Real everyday life is too unpredictable, and may make it more difficult for certain brains to cope. Can we simulate a café environment when the participants are taking the cognitive tests? I believe it’s important to get more ‘chaos’ into the experiments, but we must retain full control of sound and other stimuli if we are to be able to draw meaningful conclusions about brain function.”

Her own diagnosis as autistic came when she was a teenager. It was described in her case as an empathy disorder, which she didn’t agree with.

“I had a very restricted image of autism. It was only later when I needed to read up on the research about autism spectrum disorders and how they are expressed in women that I realised how different it can be in different people,” says Kajsa Igelström. Photo credit Anna Nilsen

The traits bring both strengths and challenges. She finds some of her most prominent traits, such as attention to detail, hyperlogical thinking, analytical abilities, and an capacity for intense focus, to be valuable in her role as researcher.

“And I’m more open to welcoming neurological diversity into my research group. Diversity gives deeper discussions, more perspectives, and can improve the research. If I hadn’t myself realised that neuropsychiatric disorders bring a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, maybe I wouldn’t have the courage to do so. It’s my experience that there's a lot to be gained by arranging surroundings that work for the individual.”

She hopes that her research can help us to understand how sensorimotor functions differ from one person to another, and how disorders in these functions affect more complex behaviours in neuropsychiatric conditions. Better knowledge can be used as a basis for recommendations of how children and adults can best be supported.

“It would actually be a good idea if support was available for those who have not received an autism diagnosis. At the moment, it's all or nothing. If you haven’t received a diagnosis, it’s assumed that you don’t need any help at all. This is not how reality is.”

Translation by George Farrants

The article (in Swedish) has also been published in LiU Magasin issue 3/22.

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