In what’s called the “intense world theory,” a leading neuroscientist is arguing that autism should be seen as a result not of cognitive deficits but of cognitive overload.

Henry Markram’s radical rethinking stems from observation of his own son, Kai, who is on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum. And his research with rats offers evidence, he argues, for the theory the autistic brain is actually hyper-responsive to stimuli. The rigid and repetitive behaviors associated with autism, not to speak of the meltdowns, are explained as attempt to manage bewildering sensory and emotional overload. And social unresponsiveness is seen as a coping mechanism for a “barrage of chaotic, indecipherable input, a cacophony of raw, unfilterable data.”

A story about Markram and his theory on the website Medium is riveting, and it has important implications for treatment. Since children learn social skills in specific windows of development, could it be that “early intervention to reduce or moderate the intensity of an autistic child’s environment” might keep kids from shutting down during crucial learning periods and hence protect their development?

Learn about another theory of sensory issues in autism based on brain imaging, from Dr. Wendy Chung, who reaches a remarkably similar conclusion concerning tailoring learning environments and experiences for young people on the spectrum.