Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved therapy that has proven beneficial in treating different mental health conditions.
In the United States, millions of adults live with autism spectrum disorders. However, our societies have not yet created enough programs to support the needs of neurodivergent people. While some programs meet the educational or medical needs of children with autism, resources become limited later in life.
Once children with autism age out, many have to navigate the world without support, causing activities like finding a job or applying to college to become stressful.
However, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy has proven to be a great ally in helping people manage autism symptoms. Below, we explore the most important aspects of this developmental disorder and how TMS treatment can help people with autism improve the quality of their lives.
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term that explains a complex developmental condition affecting approximately 2.21% of adults in the United States.
Until 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) distinguished four different types of autism: autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). However, after 2013, the APA grouped these mental health conditions under the umbrella term for autism spectrum disorder.
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Does this mean that people experiencing autism have the same symptoms? Certainly not. And it definitely does not mean that people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder have the same level of functioning.
Every person is different, and the mental, emotional, or physical needs of someone living with autism may differ from the needs of another person with the same developmental condition. However, what most people with autism have in common is that their symptoms start in early childhood and continue for the rest of their lives.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Symptoms
Autism spectrum disorder is a condition that impacts different areas of a person’s development, including their social or communication skills, behaviors, interests, and sensory processing.
Autistic symptoms often become visible when a child is around 2 to 3 years old. Depending on the level of support and treatments a child receives, these symptoms can significantly improve or become worse. For this reason, early interventions are vital in helping a child with autism flourish and become an independent adult.
Below, we look at some of the most common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder and how they may look in early childhood.
Repetitive behaviors can manifest in several ways. Sometimes, it may look like repetitive physical movements, such as rocking or pacing back and forth. Other times, a child or an adult may repeatedly arrange objects (i.e., lining food on a plate or classifying clothes by type or color). Repetitive behaviors can also manifest as staring at things for a considerable time or being hyper-focused when participating in some activities.
Children often engage in repetitive behaviors as part of their learning process. The more they repeat, the more likely they will master any specific skill. This may cause you to ask, “how can I distinguish autistic repetitive behaviors from non-autistic behaviors?” Often, this requires an evaluation from parents, teachers, and a child’s pediatrician. Autistic repetitive behaviors tend to be more problematic or disruptive.
For example, a child may refuse to eat any food if it is not appropriately arranged, or they may spend a very long time lining their food without even bothering to take a bite. In addition, children may start to repeatedly clap their hands for no apparent reason and continue to do so even when they are asked to stop.
When children are interrupted by their repetitive behavior or when a routine is suddenly changed, they may become agitated or distraught.
Sensory Processing Issues
This may take the form of being hyposensitive or hypersensitive to sensory information. Hyposensitivity refers to a lower capacity to process sensory experience. Hence, the person needs to have a more intense or prolonged exposure to a sensory experience to find pleasure, joy, or comfort (i.e., washing hands many times per day or continuously rubbing hands with certain textures).
On the contrary, hypersensitivity refers to an over-reaction to sensory experiences. Therefore, a person will avoid moderate or intense sensory experiences (i.e., concerts, loud places, fluorescent lights).
Children with autism may find comfort in chewing objects (not food) with different textures. They may also rub their hands continuously with particular objects or clothes.
When a child experiences hypersensitivity, they may start covering their eyes and ears when sensory information increases. In some cases, a child may completely shut down when they have to join large groups, go to crowded places, stores, or parties.
Communication Issues and Language Development
People with autism may find it challenging to grasp non-verbal gestures, social cues, double meanings, or abstract ideas. In some cases, language can become one of the most affected areas in a child’s development.
Autism can impact a person’s capacity to understand what other people are saying and their capacity to communicate with speech.
When children start showing signs of autism, one of the most visible symptoms has to do with communication and language. For example, a child may excessively repeat a word or phrase someone else said.
Children may also start to repeat words unrelated to the conversation. Or, they may begin to pronounce words or phrases with an unusual tone of voice (i.e., high-pitched, robot-like voice).
Difficulties Establishing New Relationships
It is a myth that children and adults with autism spectrum disorder cannot engage in relationships. Autism does not prevent people from liking, loving, or being friends with others. However, difficulties establishing new relationships may arise due to the signs we mentioned earlier.
In other words, people with autism may find interacting with peers or others challenging because of a developmental language or cognitive delay, difficulties adjusting to some environments, or engaging in repetitive or hyper-focused behaviors, among others.
Children with autism may experience isolation or discrimination in schools or other settings where there is a lack of awareness about autism. Children with autism have the same emotional needs to connect, play, and relate to others. However, sometimes they may feel overwhelmed when new people enter their lives or when they have to process lots of information (i.e., learn new games, interact in large groups, attend school events, etc).
Like everyone else, people with autism have unique strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Autism is not an illness, and it does not have to prevent someone from living a healthy, fulfilling, and independent life.
Depending on a person’s developmental stage, finding the right services and support is key to thriving and enhancing mental wellness.
What Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)?
Transcranial magnetic stimulation treatment is a form of non-invasive brain stimulation that applies magnetic pulses to a person's prefrontal cortex and other brain areas. These electromagnetic pulses may stimulate a target brain region, brain cells, and neurological networks.
Depending on a person's mental health condition, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) has the power to awaken or decrease networks of brain cells. This can be done by altering the intensity of the magnetic pulses from low to high frequency. Low-frequency stimulation helps calm brain activity, while high-frequency stimulation helps reactivate brain regions.
Read more: Pros and Cons of TMS Therapy
When we talk about high-frequency magnetic stimulation, we are not talking about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Electroconvulsive therapy is an entirely different treatment that uses a more invasive type of brain stimulation. This treatment is used under anesthesia as the person may risk experiencing seizures, and it is only employed following certain protocols for specific neurological and psychiatric conditions.
How Does TMS Work?
Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses a technology similar to an MRI machine. It is pain-free, well-tolerated, and non-invasive. It does not require anesthesia, and there are few to no side effects. During a TMS session, a technician places an electromagnet coil on your scalp. This coil sends gentle magnetic pulses to stimulate a specific brain region. This treatment only targets the affected brain area and not the entire brain.
Electromagnetic induction can vary in intensity, frequency, and duration depending on your specific neurological or developmental condition.
For more than a decade, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation has been an FDA-approved procedure to treat symptoms of major depressive disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addictions, and other conditions. Many studies and clinical trials also show that TMS treatment is safe in young people and adults.
Now, you may be wondering if transcranial magnetic stimulation is an appropriate, effective, and, most importantly, safe therapy for someone experiencing autism. After all, there are many promising treatments out there that do not consider the needs of this specific population.
Read more: What is the success rate of TMS Therapy
How Can TMS Therapy Treat Autism?
Every year, scientists and researchers recognize the benefits of using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) as a safe and pain-free approach to managing symptoms associated with autism. Nowadays, international conferences on clinical neuroscience and organizations around the world are raising awareness about the significant improvements transcranial magnetic stimulation has had on many people's lives.
Recent studies and controlled clinical trials have shown that transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy can activate several brain regions responsible for core autism symptoms. These brain regions include the prefrontal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and parietal cortex.
By targeting specific brain regions, transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy can:
- reduce repetitive behavior.
- address irritability or depressive symptoms.
- improve motor functioning.
- address attention issues (i.e., shifting attention, hyper-focus).
- address other ASD symptoms like sleep or eating issues.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy uses magnetic pulses that are not perceptible to most people. This makes TMS treatment an appropriate and well-tolerated alternative for people experiencing hypersensitivity.
Last but not least, studies have suggested that TMS treatment enhances brain plasticity - the brain's capacity to create new neural networks. Increasing brain plasticity in people with autism is important as it allows the brain to comprehend new things, engage in new behaviors, and learn new coping skills to regulate emotions.
Limitations of TMS Therapy for Treating Autism
Transcranial magnetic stimulation is not intended to be a cure to heal people on the autism spectrum. As we have mentioned before, the autism spectrum is not considered an illness but a different developmental condition.
Although TMS therapy is suitable for most people, it is not recommended for those with a history of seizures or brain injury. In addition, TMS therapy is not recommended for those who have metal or electrical stimulation devices implanted in their head.
What Can We Do To Help?
At GIA Miami, we are a team of compassionate, multicultural, and multilingual health care professionals ready to welcome you and listen to your needs.
Whether you or someone you love is experiencing autism, we are more than happy to discuss available treatment options for you. We are mindful of creating treatment plans that meet each person’s needs.
Our goal is to use our knowledge, modern technologies, and skills to enhance your lifelong wellness. We call this approach the GIA method.
What To Expect?
When you feel ready to come to our facilities, you can expect to enter a comfortable, safe space. You can expect to be listened to without judgment and be treated with the utmost respect.
Read more: How much does TMS Therapy Cost
You will learn about our treatments, including repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), psychotherapy, group therapy, and telehealth. And you will be more than welcome to share your thoughts, ask any questions, and express yourself as you are!
Contact Us Today
If you want more information on repetitive TMS or want to find out more about TMS benefits, do not hesitate to call us at 561.462.4099. We are available 24/7.
You can also send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to ask questions or share any concerns. We welcome people from all walks of life, and we feel proud to offer our services in English and Spanish.