How Does Autism Affect the Brain?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a brain development disorder that is believed to affect the social and communication centers of the brain. Many researchers believe that the centers of the brain develop differently and are wired improperly in autistic children. In order to process information, our brain relies on intricate wiring and when this wiring is faulty behavioral problems can surface. According to Discovery Health, imaging studies have revealed that children with autism have too many nerve fibers but that they perform inadequately to facilitate communication between various parts of the brain. Although autistic children are born with normal to smaller than normal sized brains, they go through a period of rapid growth between 6 and 14 months that by the age of four leads to a larger than normal brain size. Genetic defects during this rapid growth are believed to lead to this abnormal brain development. Understanding how ASD affects the brain allows us to develop treatments to help children affected by this disorder.

What Areas of the Brain Are Affected?

Scientists have discovered irregularities in brain structures of autistic children. These areas are the amygdala (affect social behavior and emotions), corpus callosum (facilitate communication between the two halves of the brain), and the cerebellum (motor activity, balance, and coordination). It’s believed during prenatal development is when these abnormalities occur. Scientists are studying how irregularities in these parts of the brain affect a child’s social behavior and development. The earlier autism is detected and diagnosed; the sooner behaviors can be modified through therapy. However, in an article published by WebMD, new research is challenging the theory that autism only targets the social, communication, and reasoning centers of the brain. This study was funded partially by The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health. Their study discovered that even highly functioning autistic children had difficulty processing complex information even when these tasks involve other areas of the brain. The inability of different parts of the brain to work together may be the driving force behind autism. It’s the understanding of how the different parts of the brain communicate with each other that can lead to the origins of autism and the development of tests to diagnose autism earlier and even treatments.


In studying the autistic brain, scientists have discovered imbalances in neurotransmitters. These are chemicals that help nerve cells communicate with each other. The two neurotransmitters that seem to be affected the most are serotonin and glutamate; they affect emotion and neuron activity respectively. It’s believed that these imbalances may lead to autistic behavior. Further understanding of these chemicals can lead to earlier detection of autism and possible treatment.

Other Research

Further research into brain development and chemical/genetic abnormalities are ongoing. Studies of how neurotransmitters in children with autism are using animal brain models. Scientists are examining brain images to discover which areas of the brain are active during obsessive and repetitive behaviors of ASD. Discovery Health discusses testing a computer program that would help children with facial expressions.


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