Things I Wish I Could Have Known

ScienceDaily (Jan. 27, 2010) — Children as young as five months old will follow the gaze of an adult towards an object and engage in joint attention, according to research funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council. The findings, published January 26 in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters, suggest that the human brain develops this important social skill surprisingly early in infancy.

Joint attention — where two people share attention to the same object — is a vital human social skill necessary for many types of human behaviour such as teaching, collaboration, and language learning. Impairments in this skill are one of the earliest signs of autism.

Dr Tobias Grossmann and Professor Mark Johnson from Birkbeck, University of London, used a technique known as ‘near infrared spectroscopy’ (NIRS) to examine which areas of an infant’s brain are activated when paying joint attention to an object.

NIRS, an optical brain imaging technique which involves measuring the blood flow associated with brain activation, is well-suited to study freely-behaving infants. With this non-invasive technique, near-infrared light travels from sources on a sensor pad located on the head, through the skin, skull and underlying brain tissue, and is then detected by sensitive detectors on the same sensor pad.

In the experiment, conducted in Birkbeck’s Babylab, the babies were shown the computer-animated image of an adult’s face. The adult would make eye contact with the baby, raise her eyebrows and smile, glance towards an object at her side, back to the baby and then finally turn her head to face the object. In the control conditions, the adult would look away from the object or would look at the object without making eye contact with the baby.

The researchers found that only when the babies engaged in joint attention with the adult, they used a specific region of their brain known as the left prefrontal cortex — an area to the front of the brain involved in complex cognitive and social behaviours.

“Infants engaged in joint attention use a similar region of their brain as adults do,” says Dr Grossmann, a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow. “Our study suggests that the infants are tuned to sharing attention with other humans much earlier than previously thought. This may be a vital basis for the infant’s social development and learning.”

“In the future this approach could be used to assess individual differences in infants’ responses to joint attention and might, in combination with other measures, serve as a marker that can help with an early identification of infants at risk for autism.”

Journal Reference:

1. Grossmann T and Johnson MH. Selective prefrontal cortex responses to joint attention in early infancy. Biol Lett., 2010

Cade never demonstrated joint attention as an infant, and actually it is a struggle for us even now that he is over three years old.  Add this to my breastfeeding issues, and Cade’s issues with lack of constant movement, and his aversion to groups of people and I see the signs of autism spectrum disorder very very young.  Very young as in the hospital immediately following his birth.

I don’t really know that much earlier detection would have significantly helped him, but it would have helped me tremendously!  As most people are, I was woefully ignorant as to what autism really is.  I was also a first time mother, who had no other experiences to draw from.  I suffered  so much anxiety, stress and depression over my perceived inadequacies as a mother.  Not to mention just the difficulties of raising an ASD child on my own, especially without the knowledge of his true issues.

The more I learn about Autism the more I find peace with myself over the struggles of raising Cade.  But there is more.  I wish the pediatrician had known more, I trusted him.   I wish my parenting classes had included a section on autism so I could have recognized the signs.  As in a previous blog, I wish lactation consultants had been aware of sensory issues.  All my wishes point to one thing, there is a definite need for education at all levels.  We have to make this happen.  I think I smell a good letter to my senator!  Spread the word.


7 Responses to “Things I Wish I Could Have Known”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Melissa, I identify with your pain, your self-doubt, your feelings of inadequacy as a mother. I’m autistic with an NT child, but I don’t think neurology is the key thing here. The culture we live in gives us no sane guidance or support about how to mother. At all. It always leaves us feeling that there is something more we ought to be doing. Always.

    There are a zillion parenting books, and when you cut to the chase, every single one of them is about how to keep from screwing up your kid. Really. I stopped reading these books before my daughter was a toddler. I couldn’t stand it anymore. A few years later, I went to a homeschooling conference, at which one of these great educators told me that if my six year old got a question wrong, I was never to utter words like “No” or “You didn’t get it right” because it would severely damage her self-esteem. His exact words were: “You might as well just take a gun and shoot your kid in the head.” I swear to God, he said this in front of an entire group of people. His advice was to say, “Yes, Susie, 6+5 almost equals 71. Let’s try it again.” I was shaking I was so angry.

    Of course, there are another zillion parenting books about how to fix your kid if the doctors decide that he or she is already screwed up. And the problem is that the zillion books provide a zillion different solutions. How is anyone supposed to know which one to pick? It’s crazy making.

    Either way, we mothers are screwed. We start out motherhood with this notion that we’re either going to screw up our children for life, or not know how to fix the ones that the medical establishment deems broken.

    What’s wrong with this picture? It’s all negative. It’s all based on fear. It’s all based on blame. It’s all based on the idea that life inevitably screws up, rather than life being a positive, blessed thing full of possibility and promise. No. The best we can hope for is “normal.” Normal? I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen different. I’ve seen magical. I’ve seen brilliant. I’ve seen surprising. But normal? There is no such thing. And if there were, it wouldn’t be something to strive for anyway.

    Melissa, you are fine. Cade is fine. Really. I mean it. I’m fine. I’m just in a difficult place, same as you. But nothing is wrong with any of us.

    • Melissa Says:

      Ya, you’re right I AM OK! Maybe my tone didn’t come across right. This article actually helped me find some peace. It doesn’t change events, except for my perception, but it’s really nice to know I wasn’t crazy. I was pretty in tune with my child, and all my efforts to find help, medical, mental and education wise couldn’t provide me the answers that I really needed. This offers some perspective in a way that validates my concerns.

      It also encourages me that if this information is shared, maybe another family won’t have to endure the stress that Cade and I did.

  2. Cam Says:

    Came upon your blog while researching “Autistic Ant.”

    You sound frustrated in a lot of your blog; not frustrated with yourself but frustrated that the world around you does not understand you or Cade.

    Eh – you are commended for bypassing a lot of what society thinks and doing what you think and feel as a mother.

    Nothing really to say except for that.

  3. Cam Says:

    Yes, that author. I have used that ID on Yahoo for a few years (a story behind it) and today had Google up and did a search. And voila!

    A “different capacity?”

  4. Melissa Says:

    Ya, Diana Bleu and I met on another forum long before I knew my son was autistic and before she wrote Adam Ant. Small world. =)

  5. Cam Says:

    Small world or the universe setting things in order?

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