As medical knowledge has expanded over the past decades, the differences between autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and schizophrenia appear clear-cut. But both disorders share similar social dysfunctions, a commonality that lead to a new research study by Noah Sasson, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Dallas.
Historically, many young people with ASD were thought to have a childhood version of schizophrenia because of their social deficits. Sasson points out that symptoms of ASD can be seen from very early in life, while the onset of schizophrenia typically occurs in young adulthood. And individuals who have schizophrenia often experience hallucinations and delusional thoughts, which are rare in individuals with ASD.
Both groups have problems with social interaction and recognition of social cues. They often have difficulty identifying emotion in other people, so their reactions may seem inappropriate.
For adults with ASD or schizophrenia, the inability to perceive subtle cues in interactions may alienate other people, limiting friendship development or camaraderie.
In the research study, Sasson and colleagues compare the basis for social interaction impairments between adults with ASD and adults with schizophrenia — trying to understand the mechanisms that underlie their social limitations.
“Because the two disorders are different in so many ways, it is likely that the basis for their social impairments differs as well,” he said.
“Understanding these differences will be key for developing effective treatments. What works well for individuals with ASD might be very different than those with schizophrenia.”
In previous research, Sasson and his colleagues found that neither adults with ASD nor adults with schizophrenia look at social information in the same way as those without either disorder.
His colleagues also found that parts of the brain that process social information are underactive in those with ASD and schizophrenia.
However, researchers have also found significant differences between the two disorders. Individuals with ASD do not spontaneously orient to emotional information, while individuals with schizophrenia do.
While both groups show aspects of paranoia in social situations, Sasson and his colleagues are discovering that the root cause of the paranoia is different for each disorder.
“People with schizophrenia have a much higher likelihood than the general population to attribute ill will to others, and this is likely tied to their delusions,” he said. “On the other hand, people with autism are more ‘socially cynical.’ They seem to be exhibiting fairly realistic responses to people as a result of the challenges they’ve faced in life because of their condition.”
Sasson and his colleagues believe observation of individuals’ reaction in social settings will help researchers develop new strategies to counteract negative social experiences.
If successful, the new approach could significantly improve the quality of life for the individuals.
Source: University of Texas at Dallas