The Brain – Making New Connections

Dec 12th, 2011 | By | Category: Autism Spectrum Perspective, Recent Blog Posts

Jimmy Reagan creation

On September 30, 2011, I wrote a column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press about Jimmy Reagan, a young adult with autism who is an emerging artist (http://bit.ly/ntyE0A).  In this guest blog post, his mother, Peg Schneeman Reagan, provides a fascinating update.

Over the last six months, Jimmy’s art has been growing in ways that continue to surprise me. The density of the colors, combinations of color and subjects are all evolving. He is changing in other profound ways as well. I delivered some of Jimmy’s art pieces to be scanned for printing a few weeks ago.  As the printer perused the portfolio,  he remarked, “Jimmy’s work is changing in such interesting ways. I’ve worked with some artists for 10 to 15 years and their work never seems to evolve. Jimmy’s work is really growing.  This is so exciting.” I thought this was interesting.  He also remarked, “Jimmy isn’t inhibited by what others think.” This is certainly true with his art. I was pleased by these comments and it caused me to think.

His tutor, Ron, stopped me on Friday after class and said I need to tell you about something that I’ve observed over the last several month with Jimmy – it is so exciting. Math word problems have always been a challenge for Jimmy.  Ron stated that Jimmy is now able to complete near age appropriate math word problems. This is a remarkable change. Jimmy is more engaged and seeming to be able to follow multi-step instructions in a way that is very different. All of these wonderful changes seems to be happening together. Is it a change in his health, the way the material/information is being delivered,  less anxiety, a sense of purpose, motivation to perform because of constant positive feedback or is his art changing the way his brain is actually functioning?   I don’t know. But, certainly think this would be a fine research question to study.
When Jimmy was 5, I was told by a very knowledgeable psychologist that neuroplasticity ends at age 6.  “Neuroplasticity is a non-specific neuroscience term referring to the ability of the brain and nervous system in all species to change structurally and functionally as a result of input from the environment.[1] Plasticity occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes involved in learning, to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury. The most widely recognized forms of plasticity are learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage. During most of the 20th century, the general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by new findings, revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood.[2]” Wikipedia

My first thought was that this concept is ridiculous. If this were true, we would all cease to learn or develop complicated thoughts past age six.  In terms of autism, this established idea allowed therapies to be reduced or eliminated  because the thought was that they wouldn’t work and were not of value to be continued. Seems like giving up to me or an excuse to stop working with a challenging human being….how about trying to teach the skill in a different way since we all respond uniquely to ideas, concepts, etc… This is another one of those concepts that just didn’t make sense to me. So, I didn’t spend much time thinking about how things for Jimmy wouldn’t make much improvement after age six. I believed that his future was full of potential.

Since the human body is designed to generate new cells, why would connections in the brain be different? In her late 90′s, Brian’s grandmother asked me for suggestions for new periodicals so she could learn more about mega bit in an effort to complete her daily crossword puzzles. Her neuoplastiscity certainly didn’t cease at age six.  She lost her hearing as a 10 year old and had to re-learn how to communicate. She died at almost 105 and was interested in and learning new things into her 100′s.

I recently attended a speech by a Dartmouth professor. He discussed the economics of healthcare and employment. He identified some interesting correlations and recommended: new career in your later years, as in your 60′s, improves one’s health and reduces healthcare costs. Does learning something new and having purpose make us happier and healthier?  My guess would be yes. Does it challenge the brain to develop new connections? I hope so.

So, what am I thinking….Jimmy is becoming a different, more engaged and healthier human being. What is behind this drastic change? He is able to function in public settings that were previously nothing but frightening for him and us. As of late, his language output seems slightly improved.  I believe that his art is changing the way he thinks and is helping to make new connections in the part of his brain that has seemed to be so handicapped in the past. His interest in art has allowed him to be open to new things. He has found something that he loves that has given him a sense of purpose, worth and, perhaps, has improved his actual brain function.

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