Kajsa Igelström wants to study autism using V

Many people with autism or ADHD find sensory input and motor skills problematic in their daily lives. Researcher Kajsa Igelström from Linköping University in Sweden wants to understand why. “There is enormous diversity in the challenges faced by people with autistic traits and in the brain mechanisms that underlie them,” she says.

“Almost 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 these differences. The criteria used to diagnose autism are extremely broad. Two people with autism can be very different in aspects such as social and communication difficulties, and may have hardly any symptoms in common,” says Kajsa Igelström, assistant professor at Linköping University.

Additionally, the general population displays a wide range of behaviors in functions affected by autism. These traits are more or less expressed. In other words: people cannot be divided into two distinct groups – those who are autistic and those who are not, and this idea had a profound influence on Kajsa Igelström’s research. She conducted her first autism study while a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University in the United States. When reading previous research, she was struck by the strong indications that functions related to senses and bodily movement are affected in autism, ADHD and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

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

“I set myself 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 body language that works well if you don’t have full control of the motor skills of the body.

Rather than comparing a group of people who have received a diagnosis with a group of people who have not, Kajsa Igelström’s research group starts with the functions that interest them. They measure functions that relate to the different senses and bodily movements (also called sensorimotor functions). What they are looking for is whether there are correlations between these functions and the traditional symptoms of autism, which relate to social and communication skills and cognitive flexibility.

The results of their first studies are in the process of being published. They show links between sensitivity to everyday noise and autistic traits, such as inflexibility, and poor communication and social skills. The research group also found that increased sensitivity to noise plays a major role in autism.

“When we ask people with autism what they suffer from, they don’t answer ‘I feel inflexible’, but rather ‘the environment is difficult to manage'”, explains Kajsa Igelström.

The research group is currently working to set up laboratory experiments with virtual reality (VR) headsets, which they use to simulate images and sound. They want to study how the sound environment affects higher cognitive functions, such as attention and concentration. There are many well-established tests that look at what happens to the brain as 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 language cues that indicate whether the speaker is happy, angry, or sad.

“In the long term, we would like to create realistic environments in VR. Real daily life is too unpredictable and can complicate the task of some brains. Can we simulate a café environment when participants take the cognitive tests? I believe it is important to introduce more “chaos” into experiments, but we need to retain full control of sound and other stimuli if we are to be able to draw meaningful conclusions about brain function. »

Her own autism diagnosis came when she was a teenager. This was described in her case as an empathy disorder, which she disagreed with.

“I had a very restricted image of autism. It wasn’t until later, when I needed to read the research on autism spectrum disorders and their expression in women, that I realized how different it can be from person to person. other,” explains Kajsa Igelström.

Traits bring both strengths and challenges. She finds some of her most important traits, such as attention to detail, hyperlogical thinking, analytical skills, and an ability to focus intensely, to be valuable in her role as a researcher.

“And I’m more open to welcoming neurological diversity into my research group. Diversity gives deeper discussions, more perspectives and can improve research. If I hadn’t realized myself that neuropsychiatric disorders bring a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, I might not have had the courage to do so. In my experience, there is much to be gained by creating an environment that works for the individual.

She hopes her research can help us understand how sensorimotor functions differ from person to person and how disorders of these functions affect more complex behaviors in neuropsychiatric conditions. Improved knowledge can be used as the basis for recommendations on how best to support children and adults.

“It would actually be a good idea if there was support available for those who haven’t been diagnosed with autism. Right now it’s all or nothing. If you haven’t been diagnosed, we assumes you don’t need any help. That’s not how the reality is.

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