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The Sensory Impact of Arousal Levels on Attention in Autistic Children

By Portia Iversen

A compelling description of the possible sensory integration impact of autism on arousal levels and the resultant impact on attention. This description is excerpted from the book, Strange Son by Portia Iversen, which tells the story of Tito, a highly intelligent boy with autism.

I had no idea why these kids had such a roller coaster of an arousal system, but I knew it made matching their internal world to the external world almost impossible.

I posted my laptop across the room and I jumped up and brought it back into bed. The room glowed blue as the screen came to life. There they were, the original graphs from our GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) study. I stared at the screen. Somehow what Soma was doing had to do with this. She was regulating their arousal and attention - second by second, moment by moment.

The graphs showed that the autistic kids' average amplitude was three times greater than normal. Their arousal was racing between extremes that most people rarely experience. And these peaks were occurring abut twice as frequently. Their arousal was careening higher and lower than normal, and the arousal evens were occurring more often. What would that do to perception, learning, and memory? I wondered.

When we did our study, we were going on the assumption that autistic people responded abnormally to the environment and we were trying to see what it was they were or were not responding to, and to what degree. We had recorded an autistic child's response to an object and then compared it to their response to a face. But what I realized now, looking at these graphs again, was that this was not a series of responses to stimuli - it was activity without a pattern.

The autistic children's arousal was erratic and seemed completely uncoupled from the environment. What did that mean?

It meant that stimuli in the environment was being perceived and subsequently encoded according to arousal levels that were not necessarily relevant to the stimuli itself.

I tried to think about what that would feel like. What happened when my arousal was to high? I remembered when I was in a car accident; I could still clearly see the watch I was wearing, how my arms looked, the steering wheel, the belt buckle of the sheriff - none of which were important. It seems that when arousal is cranked up, your brain captures everything with crystal clarity including irrelevant stimuli, and stores it forever.

What happened when my arousal was too low? I thought about the times I'd missed my exit off the freeway because I was thinking about something else, like what color to paint my kitchen. Apparently when we are in a low arousal state, we sometimes fail to perceive highly relevant stimuli altogether.

I imagined rocketing up and down between these two states. This would mean that it would b very hard to predict what I might notice or store in memory. Sometimes I would be in a normal arousal state, encoding normally, and sometimes I would be hyperaroused and encode everything indiscriminately and still other times I would be hypoaroused and encode nothing.

No wonder Soma had to teach Tito everything he knew by providing him with facts and information. His own experience was completely unreliable. Whet he noticed and encoded spontaneously was unpredictable because his arousal levels were unpredictable. Facts and information, on the other hand, were completely stable and predictable; they did not change according to your arousal state.

Soma had to conduct Tito's arousal activity like an orchestra, to keep it in a range where he could attend to the information she was presenting long enough to encode it. And no wonder she had to juggle his attention, like keeping so many balls in the air, to get that information out of him later. Soma's method worked well to recruit Tito's attention to information, but it wasn't clear how her method would ever be able to bring Tito's attention to focus n the moment-to-moment reality of his own everyday life.

Yet was not as if Tito couldn't think on his own. He had ideas and opinions and feelings. But he always needed Soma to get the words out.

And yet, if Tito's mind had been populated only with facts and information, why wasn't Tito just a "walking encyclopedia"? How could he be capable of independent thought - which clearly he was?

The answer to this question held much hope and promise; although Tito's perception, arousal, and attention were abnormal, once information made its way into his brain, it became ordered and grew and connected as it would in any brain.

The problem with this sort of mind, though filled with not only information, but feelings and thoughts, was that it was not connected to the environment. It grew like an isolated island of humanity apart from our world; a world that was defined by interaction and behavior.


Portia Iversen is the author of Strange Son, the story of her search to understand autism and to find a cure for her son through the vehicle of a young autistic Indian boy, Tito. Although he is basically nonverbal, Tito confides his extremely intelligent self observations via the keyboard. This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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