Do you ever hear a sound when there is nothing around to explain it? Or perhaps you have the feeling that someone is nearby when they’re not? Some people have a lot of these experiences. Others, hardly any. Certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, can cause them, but unusual perceptions also happen in people who don’t have mental health problems. A new finding from my research group suggests that adults with autism are particularly likely to have these kinds of experiences.
In our study, adults with and without autism were presented with a list of unusual perceptions and asked to indicate how many they had experienced. Those with autism reported three times more of these unusual experiences than typical people. For example, we found that 63 percent of adults with autism answered yes to the question: “Do you ever feel that someone is touching you, but when you look, nobody is there?” compared with only 7 percent of typical adults. Similarly, 47 percent of adults on the spectrum answered yes to the question: “Do you ever see shapes, lights or colors even though there is nothing really there?” compared with 14 percent of typical adults.
However, unusual hallucinatory perception is different from being sensitive to particular stimuli. Some of the items in our questionnaire asked about changes in stimulus intensity, which we might expect to be increased in autism, but other questions focused on strange or distorted perceptions, such as “Do you ever experience unusual burning sensations or other strange feelings in or on your body?” and “Do you ever hear your own thoughts spoken aloud in your head, so that someone near might be able to hear them?” Three times more adults with autism than typical adults responded yes to both of these questions, indicating that our finding doesn’t just reflect more sensitive perception.
Different levels of certain chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters) may explain why some people have more unusual perceptions than others. Migraines, for example, are often preceded by hallucinations, such as seeing lights and shapes that aren’t there. Similarly, epilepsy can be associated with strange perceptions.
Both migraine and epilepsy have been linked to changes in levels of the neurotransmitter GABA. Within the brain, some neurotransmitters have an excitatory role and stimulate neural activity, whereas others have an inhibitory role and serve to reduce neural activity. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Reductions in GABA levels can therefore lead to overactivity in the brain, causing both visual disturbance and seizures. Altered GABA levels have also been implicated in autism.
Not the only culprit:
The link between unusual perception and autism may not come just from innate differences in chemicals in the brain, however. Recent work suggests that negative experiences, such as being bullied or socially isolated, may lead to hallucinations.
Unfortunately, many people on the spectrum suffer social isolation and bullying, and these negative events may contribute to the development of unusual perceptions. A recent article in The Conversation described how people who face discrimination, such as immigrants, also have more hallucinatory and paranoid feelings than people who are not discriminated against. Similar mechanisms may be at work in autism.
In addition to finding that unusual perceptual experiences are much more common in autism, we found that the experiences are much more distressing in autism. And it’s important to consider what can be done to limit this distress. One of the first places to start is with understanding and acceptance.
If someone with autism has these experiences, knowing that they are quite common in other people with autism can help to reduce their worry about it. Doctors may not always think to ask people with autism about unusual perceptions, but our research suggests that this could be an important area to discuss in the clinic so that methods can be introduced to help people cope with it when it happens.
Perhaps most crucial is the importance of developing a better understanding of autism in the general public. More and more people are being diagnosed with autism, including a growing number of people who don’t receive a diagnosis until adulthood. Often, only small changes are needed to help people with autism integrate more fully into society. These small steps can go a long way to reducing social isolation.
If social isolation and bullying do contribute to the development of unusual perception in autism, reducing the distress caused by these unusual perceptions is one of many benefits that would be brought about by the creation of a society in which autism is more clearly recognized and understood.
Elizabeth Milne is reader in cognitive neuroscience and director of the Sheffield Autism Research Lab at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. It has been slightly modified to reflect Spectrum’s style.