To say that autism “is” a set of emergent systems features is to say that the autism behaviors we observe are not directly programmed into the system by genes or neurological wiring.
Instead, these behaviors are manifestations of (“emerge from”) ways that the brain (and body, depending on how you look at it) act under certain kinds of circumstances. There has been some discussion of emergence in autism literature. In Anderson (2008) (see hyperlink) the author states ” A number of autism-related phenomena including intellectual disability, seizures, persistence of primitive reflexes, stereotypies, self-injurious behavior, savant abilities, and morphological abnormalities, among others, are discussed as potentially being emergent. It is concluded that consideration of the role of emergence in autistic behavior and related phenomena should complement a reductionist approach and might help illuminate the components and complexities of autism.”
EMERGENT SYSTEMS FEATURES – WHAT’S THAT?
“Emergence” means features that develop or “emerge” out of the activities of a system. Examples include the generation of an infinite variety of six-sided snowflakes from frozen water in show – there is nothing in the water molecules that predicts the exact patterns of each snowflake – each snowflake’s shape is an “emergent” property.
The term “emergence” has a long history. It is used to talk about new properties that appear as self-organizing systems develop and evolve.
In the brain two functions that are examples of “emergent systems features” are sleep and consciousness. It appears that neither one is “programmed into” the brain or its cells. Instead, each one “emerges” from the interaction of cells and networks in the brain. It follows that factors which change either the cells or networks may change the properties of sleep or consciousness.
The “emergent systems features” model of autism applies the same line of reasoning to “autistic” behaviors. It suggests that changes of various conditions in the brain modulate the way the brain processes information and responds to the world, and that some combinations of such modulating factors lead to what looks from the outside like “autism.”
HOW DOES THE MODEL OF “EMERGENT SYSTEMS FEATURES” RELATE TO OTHER LEVELS OF AUTISM
Behavior: Saying that autism’s behaviors are a set of “emergent systems features” is a way of explaining where autism’s behaviors come from. If they are “emergent features” they may not be strongly or specifically determined by genes or brain “wiring” or any other fixed feature intrinsic to someone with autism.
Sensation, perception and thinking: The same reasoning applies to sensation, perception and thinking. These capabilities and experiences are the outcome of interactions amongst brain cells and networks, as well as other things. They may occur differently depending on the circumstances.
Genes: A gene may contribute to the tendency of the system to create these “autistic” behaviors, rather than others, by shaping some molecules that contribute to generating behaviors. But so many things contribute to any one behavior that there are questions about how strong the influence of any one gene may be.
Brain: Talking about the “wiring” or “hard-wiring” of the brain is a loose metaphor that does not fit a growing body of brain science. Brain activity is not understood not to emerge from local modules but networks and, on a moment to moment basis, from “brain waves” — that is, oscillatory activity that constantly moves and shifts and engages large portions of the brain simultaneously. Many aspects of brain activity are shaped by multiple levels at once – chemistry, energy production, cellular health, informational input from the world, the prior set of experiences which have shaped may tiny features of the brain. The brain is constantly remaking itself based upon all of these inputs and more.
Physiology: Physiological factors may influence how the brain generates behaviors, by acting on cells and shaping how they do their jobs and interact. The behavioral variation may be “downstream” of the physiology. Factors such as inflammation and oxidative stress are known to increase irritability and excitability of cells. Some modest increase may increase sensitivity, but there may be a very fine line between exquisite sensitivity and hypersensitivity.
Whole body dysfunction: Whole body dysfunction may be driven by physiology that also affects the brain. Or the problems may start with physiology which then affects the brain milieu.