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How To Think About What Causes Autism Spectrum Disorder

Considering the biological, cognitive, and behavioral causes of Asperger's is a better way of understanding
It’s helpful to consider a broader view when asking yourself what causes Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Everyone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), knows someone who does, or is simply curious about it has probably asked themselves, how did this happen? In other words, what causes Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Simply put, there is no known cause. But that is an easy answer. In fact, it’s both an easy answer and a false answer.

You might think right away that I mean to suggest there are multiple causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and this is both true and not true. Since there is no known cause, a likely bet is that multiple sources, operating on their own or jointly, come together at some point in the person’s early life to create ASD. It’s hard to imagine that one specific factor, one source and no other, is directly responsible for something as complicated as Autism.

The reason I say it’s not true that multiple sources cause Autism is because the question itself, “what causes Autism Spectrum Disorder” actually has not just one meaning but different meanings. For example, a car accident has a certain kind of cause. Something, perhaps another vehicle, hits a car unintentionally and…there’s an accident. One thing (car) hits another and causes an event (accident).

Similarly, when we think what causes Autism Spectrum Disorder, most times our first thought is that something biological operates on the person’s body to create this condition. Chromosomal abnormalities are one example of a biological influence. Another is an environmental agent, like thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative used to prevent contamination of measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines. It has been discredited, nevertheless there are people who believe that thimerosal causes autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Biological explanations help us in the search to prevent or cure Autism Spectrum Disorder but they don’t tell us much about how to manage it. Research into chromosomal causes can’t really aid in developing social skills training programs for adults with ASD. Improving those skills depends upon an understanding of behavioral descriptions. Yes, we can safely bet that ASD is caused by a problem at the biological level, something in the anatomy or physiology of the brain or central nervous system, but what does that really tell us? How is that useful?

A more beneficial way of understanding what causes Autism Spectrum Disorder is to consider three separate aspects of the condition: the biological, cognitive and behavioral. The biological, as we know, is relevant to the understanding of prevention or cure. The cognitive, that is, mental processes of perception, memory, and judgment, is useful in understanding learning differences, language, and verbal and nonverbal communication. The behavioral aspect helps us recognize and understand why people with ASD act differently than neurotypical, or normal, people.

Consider the question of where people with Autism Spectrum Disorder lie on a continuum from normal to abnormal. From a biological perspective they would be considered abnormal. Some biological mechanism creates a difference in people with ASD that is clearly different from the norm.

The same is true when we consider the cognitive perspective. Difficulty understanding jokes, taking things too literally, trouble understanding how other people think and feel, short-term memory problems, deficits in comprehending emotions, are examples of areas in which the adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder differs from the normal person.

However, with respect to behavioral aspects, it’s often a little harder to locate someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder along a normal-abnormal continuum. I can be shy and withdrawn but be normal in other respects. Or, I can be shy and withdrawn and have ASD. In social settings, I can dominate conversations with a focus on subjects that interest me and have Autism or simply be someone with an inflated sense of my importance, or both. Nevertheless, recognizing typical ways that adults with ASD behave is necessary to an overall understanding of this condition.

The bottom line, if you will, about what causes Autism Spectrum Disorder is this —not only is it a complex condition with origins in one’s biological makeup but really understanding how it happens requires a broader sense of what we mean by cause.

With a perspective that includes the biological, cognitive and behavior we have a sharper, clearer and more comprehensive angle on what Autism is all about.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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