A pieced together description of The Intense World Theory of autism, gathered from an interview with its originators, Henry and Kamila Markram on the blog Wrong Planet:
The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain…
The brain is supercharged because the elementary functional units of the brain are supercharged. These units are called neural microcircuits. Neural microcircuits are the smallest ecosystem of neurons that can support each other to carry out functions. The brain is made up of millions of these units. These microcircuits are hyper-reactive and hyper-plastic. That means that they react and process information much faster and more intensely, they can learn much more and remember much longer, and they can remember things with much greater detail. The Intense World Theory proposes that having such powerful units makes orchestration difficult—like trying to play a piano with a million run-a-way keys…
What strikes me about this explanation is how exhausting it must be. To constantly be processing, in a more intense way. Such a busy mind must be distracting to the point of madness. One theorist described the workings of the autistic brain in terms of building a city without any highways, only side streets. You can get there, but it will take longer.
While earlier theories have characterized autism by a lack of empathy and social knowledge, the Intense World Theory maintains that “autists could actually be seeing much deeper into the minds, thoughts and emotions of themselves and others, which triggers active avoidance and lock down behaviors. It also requires the ability to simulate others as if you where them and to extrapolate to where their thoughts and behaviors are leading them. Seeing into the minds of others can be extremely disturbing.”
As Emily Willingham (a biologist, self-diagnosed Aspergian, and mother of an autistic child) puts it, “The overwhelmingness of understanding how people feel can lead to either what is perceived as inappropriate emotional response, or to what is perceived as shutting down, which people see as lack of empathy.” It’s not that autistic people are being unemotional, but rather that they are “taking it all in like a tsunami of emotion that they feel on behalf of others. Going internal is protective.”
This makes sense to me, though I’m not autistic. But Jonah is. (Every so often I need to see the obvious in print. I need to tell myself Jonah is autistic because sometimes I try to talk myself out of his autism. J doesn’t fit into the parameters others—myself included—have set up to typify autism.)
So though we knew he was a quirky, non-typical person from the get-go, he didn’t fit the brand of autism everyone was selling at the time so we resisted having him evaluated. Jonah has always been keyed into others. He may not have communicated verbally until he was 3 1/2, but he communicated what he needed, usually with sign language. He is sharp and can be incredibly attentive (to what he wants to be attentive to). He is warm and loving. Sure, he’s physically and emotionally intense (our priest’s wife gave him the superhero name, Dr. Kinesis) and a little bit clumsy, but he also has crazy-good agility skills (tree climbing, acrobatic swinging, bicycle riding). I can see his brain working working working, never stopping…
The Intense World Theory is the only unifying theory of autism out there today, and it makes sense of what we have come to know as the autistic spectrum. Just as there are varying degrees of impairment and disability, there are as many different kinds of autistic people as there are non-autistic people in the world. As the Markram’s put it: “The diversity comes from the fact that we are normally diverse and if you add hyperfunctional circuits to that then naturally each autistic child will be even more different from each other. It is like taking all our normal differences to an extreme.”
The powerful combination of hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity (stronger, more intense connections in the brain) results in the hyper-functionality previously mentioned, the consequences of which are hyper-perception, hyper-attention, hyper-memory and hyper-emotionality. These traits express themselves in behaviors such as sociability, attention, multi-tasking and repetitive behaviors—all things autistic children and adults struggle with on a daily basis. All things our Jonah struggles with to a moderately (shall we use the word again?) intense degree.
The research supporting the Intense World Theory also supports the paradoxical autistic trait involving under-reaction to pain. Jonah has an incredibly high pain tolerance. He is indifferent to cold; he can fall down a set of concrete steps on his head, producing a knot the size of a small egg, and be back at play within minutes. But a relational misunderstanding can result in a meltdown of epic proportions. His emotional pain is palpable, and it’s hard to know how to help. He gets stuck, not unlike the image of the serpent feeding on its own tail.
This is where I need to remind myself that the Intense World Theory is a theory, and a very early, working one at that. It’s not without gaps either. What do we make of “sensory seeking” (a craving for intense sensory stimulation) autistics (such as Jonah)? I might hypothesize that such people are seeking a way to match the intensity of what’s going on in their brain with a similarly intense experience in their bodies. Jonah seems to have been doing this from the day he was born. He screamed a full hour upon entering the world before exhausting himself and passing out. But I’m no scientist, and my hypothesis might be better categorized as an instinct.
Still, I can’t help but be encouraged and affirmed by the theory and how it aligns with both my understanding and misunderstanding of J. I am also reminded to appreciate his wonderful difference. I especially love his use of language and his palpably tender heart. He is the sweetest soul I know, and certainly his brain has something to do that.
I’ve read several accounts of autistics describing the way they experience people. Kai Markram (son of aforementioned Henry Markram) says “I feel them different.” Emma, of Emma’s Hope Book, has told her mother she can “hear” people. Her mother, Ariane Zurcher, writes that “when I asked her what she meant by that, she wrote that she could sense people’s emotions and inner turmoil. She could hear their moods.” Tangentially, Emma also says that “music is stars for your ears.”
Jonah hasn’t expressed himself in this way concerning other people, but when he talks about the woods he uses a similarly deep vernacular: “You know what the woods are? When there’s lots of trees crowding the people so that the sun doesn’t cover their eyes.”
Resources for this post:
The Intense World Theory: A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2010.00224/full
The boy whose brain could unlock autism: https://medium.com/matter/70c3d64ff221
Emma’s Hope Book: http://emmashopebook.com
Intense world theory raises intense worries: