Praxis and Autism: A Report by the Hussman Institute for Autism

The Hussman Institute for Autism

The Hussman Institute for Autism

The Hussman Institute for Autism recently published an interesting and insightful article about why people with autism may know exactly what they want to say, but may be unable to say it. Or why, even though they may know how to play a game, they sit motionless, or simply rock back and forth, when their turn comes.

As the article by Sarah Hansen, “Praxis and Autism: Bridging the gap between intention and action,” points out, while some people unfamiliar with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) might blame this type of behavior on laziness or distraction, another factor is often at play for these individuals: an aspect of neurology called “praxis,” or the ability to execute chains of smooth motor movements. As much as someone with autism might want to, it may seem impossible to turn a thought in his head into speech from his lips, or to convince her hand to pick up a pencil—in other words, to break free from the gap between intention and action.

The article discusses a research study published in 2007 by Luigi Cattaneo and colleagues investigated praxis in typically developing children and those with autism, in which the researchers measured the activity of mouth muscles controlled by motor neurons as children reached for a food item, picked it up, and then brought it to their mouths, and the difference observed in children with and without an ASD. As the article goes on to explain:

“Sequences of movements are controlled by “action-constrained neurons.” When a person starts to reach out for a piece of food with the intention of bringing it to her mouth, she activates neurons that control the “reach – grasp – bring to mouth” chain of movements, one of innumerable “action chains” stored in her brain’s parietal lobe. If she intends to reach out for a food item and place it in a bowl, however, a completely different set of neurons activate—despite the two action chains beginning identically.”

Understanding how differences in praxis affect communication and behavior, as well as how they may relate to differences in long-range brain connectivity, is an important focus of research at the Hussman Institute for Autism. As Dr. John P. Hussman, the executive director of the Institute, explains:

“Praxis relies heavily on long-range communication between the frontal and parietal regions of the brain, and emerging research suggests that this connectivity is affected in autism. When people have difficulty with praxis, we may still be able to play to their other strengths by providing extra visual or physical information as they learn new skills.”

For more details about this and other studies related to praxis, read the complete article: “Praxis and Autism: Bridging the gap between intention and action.”

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About the Hussman Institute for Autism

John and Terri Hussman

John and Terri Hussman

The Hussman Institute for Autism is a 501(c)(3) public charity incorporated as an independent nonprofit organization in Maryland. The Institute is located adjacent to the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) campus, with neuroscience laboratories located adjacent to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

In 2004, Dr. John P. Hussman, Executive Director and President of the Hussman Institute for Autism, established the John P. Hussman Foundation, a 501(c)(3) private foundation that supports medical research, education, and direct assistance to vulnerable individuals with urgent needs or significant disabilities. The Foundation focuses particularly on funding research and treatment of autism and other life-altering conditions, and providing assistance relating to global health, disease eradication, literacy, and education in developing countries.

Dr. Hussman holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford University and an M.S. in Education and Social Policy from Northwestern University. He served as a Professor of Economics and International Finance at the University of Michigan from 1992 to 1998. He has authored and co-authored numerous articles on autism and related matters. These articles have appeared in peer-reviewed journals including Molecular Autism, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Neurogenetics, and Annals of Human Genetics. He has also published extensive research relating to economic and investment analysis.

The vision of the Hussman Institute for Autism is to improve the lives of individuals with autism and their families by:

  • Advancing the understanding of the causes and neurological basis of autism
  • Identifying potential long-term interventions
  • Creating a continuum of supports and resources to address immediate needs for evidence-based teaching methods, communication, inclusion, and independence

The Institute’s principles and core values include, among others:

  • Communication as the Centerpiece – The ability to communicate should not be confused with ability or complexity of thought, particularly for non-verbal children, but also for children whose language may be limited to requests and objections. Communication is not simply a behavior-reduction strategy. It is a central human need.
  • Presumption of Competence – “Just because someone doesn’t speak doesn’t mean they have nothing to say” – autism often interferes with communication and initiation, and masks the competence of those on the spectrum.
  • Evidence-based Approaches – The maze of intriguing but unproven approaches in autism can be overwhelming to parents, while many approaches that are well-grounded in research remain underused, or lack the resources required for broad implementation.
  • Inclusion in schools and communities as a priority connected to all other supports – It can be short-sighted to pursue communication supports, behavior supports, and sensory supports without addressing the social aspects of autism and the need for connections and community. Issues of belonging, friendship, and quality-of-life should be valued and addressed alongside other goals.

“In the end, the best argument for inclusion is the simplest. It’s the one we know by heart – that all of us are created equal.”

John P. Hussman, Ph.D., MS.Ed.
Executive Director, The Hussman Institute for Autism

The Institute will provide an active seminar series in-house, as well as access to nationally recognized experts, in its efforts to focus on high‐quality research, evidence-based practice, and the importance of including the voices of those on the autism spectrum. For more information about the Institute and the services it offers:

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About Sarah Hansen

Sarah Hansen is the Communications Associate at the Hussman Institute for Autism. She works to share the Institute’s research and programs with families, educators, and anyone else interested in learning more about how to support individuals with autism. She holds a Master of Science in Biological Sciences from University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and Master of Arts in Teaching and Bachelor of Science degrees from Cornell University. Before joining the Hussman Institute, she taught middle and upper school science at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, MD.

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