The intense world theory of autism holds that autistic people experience the world in extreme ways. They perceive the world as so intense that it can become difficult or unbearable at times.
This theory may explain...
- Sensory hypersensitivity
- Stimming and self-injury as coping mechanisms
- Intense feelings, including severe distress at others' pain and meltdowns
- Heightened fear
The theory is still undergoing some debate, but may help individuals to better understand and accept themselves and their loved ones.
Kamila and Henry Markram consider the autistic brain to be "supercharged," noting how autistic children's brains grow quickly and are usually 10% larger than average by age 2 or 3 (when autism symptoms are usually first noticed).
"The proposed neuropathology is hyper-functioning of local neural microcircuits, best characterized by hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity. Such hyper-functional microcircuits are speculated to become autonomous and memory trapped leading to the core cognitive consequences of hyper-perception, hyper-attention, hyper-memory and hyper-emotionality."
In plain language, the Markrams argue that neurons in the brain are especially sensitive and flexible. This can lead to intense perception, hyperfocus, a remarkable memory, and strong emotions.
The Markrams examined rats that had been prenatally dosed with valpronic acid (VPA), which gave them autistic symptoms. The VPA rats were found to learn more quickly, with stronger fear responses, and stronger memories of that fear.
It has also been found that autistic children's brains produce on average 42% more information than non-autistic children's brains do (in a resting state).
“I know [me biting myself] upsets people, but it’s not about them, it’s about not being able to describe massive sensations that feel too much to tolerate.” —Emma Zurcher Long
The intense world theory aligns with many autistic people's experiences, and their parents have also suggested it. Ariane Zurcher explained that the "theory of intense feelings and pain memory and how this causes the child to withdraw… well it was like being told you really are seeing what you thought you’d been seeing all these years." The intense world theory has been applauded for presenting a kinder and more accurate view of autism.
"We had 70 years of autism research [based] on the notion that autistic people have brain deficits. Instead, the intense world postulates that autistic people feel too much and sense too much. That’s valuable, because I think the deficit model did tremendous injury to autistic people and their families, and also misled science." — Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes
Sfari notes that the theory does not describe all autism aspects. For example, many autistic people also experience sensory hyposensitivity (under-reaction to stimulation).
“We agree that autistic people do have a number of cognitive advantages and it’s valuable to do research on that.... [However,] people have worth regardless of whether they have special abilities. If society accepts us only because we can do cool things every so often, we’re not exactly accepted.”
The intense world theory, while in many cases able to improve understanding and acceptance, has not yet been investigated enough to be considered scientific fact.
- The Telegraph: Autism is caused by a 'supercharged' mind, scientists claim
- The Intense World Theory – A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism
- Medium: The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism (content warning for some ableism)
- Intense World: Autistic Brains Create 42% More Information at Rest
- Emma's Hope Book: What To Do When Someone Hurts
- Emma's Hope Book: A Different World
- SFARI: Intense world theory raises intense worries