Kids with autism often think and act differently than their peers. Now researchers say they may know why.

Using brain scans, researchers from University of California, Los Angeles say they found that important connections between areas of the brain that control language and social skills grow more slowly in children with autism. The delayed development extends into adolescence, according to the study published online this month in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

“Because the brain of a child with autism develops more slowly during this critical period of life, these children may have an especially difficult time struggling to establish personal identity, develop social interactions and refine emotional skills,” said Xue Hua, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA and first author of the study. “This new knowledge may help to explain some of the symptoms of autism and could improve future treatment options.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In order to assess brain development, Hua and her colleagues used a special type of MRI that allowed them to chart structural changes in brain development. They conducted two brain scans over a three-year period of 13 boys with autism and seven without.

Ultimately, the researchers found that boys with autism were developing more slowly and their brains were not discarding unused cells.

“Together, this creates unusual brain circuits, with cells that are overly connected to their close neighbors and under-connected to important cells further away, making it difficult for the brain to process information in a normal way,” Hua said.

By offering a better understanding of how the brain functions in people who have autism, researchers say the findings could help assess the efficacy of treatments and the best techniques for educating those with the developmental disability.