By Kiran Chetry, CNN
Eight-year-old Zander Pridy has no trouble reading big words.
“I read books of science and watch this cool show called ‘Nova,’” he tells me.
Today Zander is helping scientists make some discoveries of their own. Zander has an autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger syndrome.
Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia are using a MEG machine – short for magnetoencephalography – to study the brain waves of children like Zander with autism disorders.
“We're trying to study how children's brains respond to stimuli – to sounds, to words, to speech,” says lead researcher Tim Roberts.
They are hoping to unlock the mysteries of how an autistic brain works. Roberts says new clues are already emerging.
“When you hear a sound, the brain responds. When a child with autism hears a sound, their brain responds too, but a little bit later. … So what we're seeing is a fraction of a second, a split second delay in recognizing that sound.”
How does that play out in how children with autism learn and communicate?
Roberts says, “What happens is as speech becomes more complicated, we have more and more sounds building up and these delays cascade on each other leading to a difficulty in perceiving or recognizing the word.”
For Zander, those delays mean that too many sounds can be a real distraction – especially in the classroom.
“His teacher has an amplification device she wears and he has a speaker on his desk so that his teacher's voice stands out,” says Tara Pridy, Zander's mom.
Pridy says her son also struggles with conversation.
“He monologues. He'll get going and someone has to tell him – the person is not interested anymore. They were interested, but you're speaking too long about the subject. So we say TMI – too much information.”
It's an example of some of the difficulties that kids like Zander have in relating with their peers.
“Kids with autism really have a difficult time with social perception – understanding people's expressions,” says Dr. Robert Schultz, head of the hospital's center for autism research.
Dr. Schultz is using MRIs to understand the biology of the autistic brain.
“When we ask children with autism to do specific tasks that we know they have difficulty on, those areas of the brain that normally do those tasks are under-active.”
This research won't answer the question of what causes autism, but Schultz says it may lead to better diagnosis and earlier intervention.
“The ultimate goal is to understand at the level of the cell, the nerve cell in the brain, why are those cells functioning differently. And if we can understand why they're functioning differently, there's probably going to be a combination of treatments.”
“I really hope it helps us understand some of his strengths and the ways we can help him over any weaknesses,” says Zander's mom.
Zander has his own idea about what tests on his brain will reveal.
“So when they looked at your brain with the MEG machine, what did they see,” I ask him.
“Geniusness!” says Zander.