Broadway Goes Autistic

It can be difficult, if not impossible, for many parents of autistic children to expose their kids to a full range of cultural experiences because of their potentially disruptive behavior and other parent’s judgment and intolerance. This is why the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative is presenting an autism-friendly performance of Disney’s The Lion King on Saturday, September 28, 2014. 

The mission of the Autism Theatre Initiative is to make theater accessible to children and adults with autism and their families. The fact that tickets sold out in just three days shows there is a real demand for autism-friendly entertainment and family activities. 

“From the feedback we’ve received of the past seasons, this community is thrilled to finally have access to the performing arts,” said Lisa Carling, TDF’s Director of Accessibility Programs. “Not only do autism-friendly performances introduce the world of theatre to the person on the autism spectrum, but it allows a family to experience it together in a supportive environment with no judgments. The word is spreading as we are currently consulting with organizations from coast to coast on how to present autism-friendly performances. We thank Disney Theatricals for allowing us to present that first performance in 2011 and continuing to support the program so enthusiastically.” 

In addition to only selling tickets to the autism-friendly performances to groups that include individuals on the autism spectrum (at a discounted rate) to ensure an understanding, judgment-free audience, slight adjustments are made to the productions to make them more autism-friendly. Jarring sound and light cues are modified while strobe lights are completely eliminated. The theater lobby provides designated quiet and activity areas staffed with trained autism professionals to help make anyone who leaves their seats during the performance feel more comfortable. To learn about future Autism Theatre Initiative performances, vist www.tdf.org/autism.



Temple Grandin Spreads Hope and Honesty

Temple Grandin, author, inventor, animal whisperer, and autistic icon delivered a message balanced with hope and honesty last night at the University of San Diego.  More than 600 people were completely enraptured by the woman in her 60’s known best for her ability to understand animals (she was the subject of the 2006 HBO documentary, “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow”).

Grandin grew up autistic and attributes her success to a devoted mother and dedicated teachers. As a world-renowned livestock behavior expert, she is living proof of what it is possible for autistic people to achieve and serves to inspire parents to invest in their children’s futures.  

As a child, living with autism made life very difficult. She didn’t speak until three and a half, was mocked and bullied as an adolescent, and struggled to learn to navigate social interactions that were completely foreign to her. As an adult, however, she found her autism to be a great advantage. She credits her autism with her deep empathetic connection to animals and understanding of their nonverbal, sensory comprehension of the world. Her understanding of how animals receive and process sensory information enabled her to design humane cattle transportation systems that are currently used by more than half the cattle processing centers in America. 

Temple Grandin is an excellent role model for people with autism, and she is a tireless advocate.  In her talk last night, she delivered a twofold message. First, she detailed the differences between autistic and “normal” brains, using herself as an example.

“Parents must understand those differences to understand, for example, why a flickering light, a loud noise — or the click of a photographer’s camera — can be unbearable,” Grandin explained. 

The other half of her message was an honest, unsentimental instruction for parents on how to train push their children to learn the social skills necessary for them to become independent adults. She warned that children who aren’t pushed to do things they don’t want to or are afraid of will not grow. Parents and teachers must present a united front because, she says, “autistic children are masters of manipulation.”

She urged parents to take advantage of information, services, and materials that are freely available to help educate their children. With all the free information online about schools, therapy, medication, and resources, she is frustrated by parents who don’t put in the work to access this information. 

“I am appalled by the lack of resourcefulness. A parent came up to me and said, how do I find a college for my kid? Well, I got back home, I typed Ohio and colleges,” she stated unsentimentally to a laughing audience. “They had done no work.”

Temple Grandin’s honest delivery of a somewhat critical speech was met with cheers. The audience was a mix of fans of her work with autism and animals, and all gratefully accepted her message. 

“The thing I’ve appreciated about Temple Grandin for many years is her unabashed honesty,” said Mary Lau, who works at a school that has autism spectrum children. “And from that, I can glean a lot about the autistic community and the education community in general.”



Video Game Therapy for Autistics

A recent study from Vanderbilt University found that what children with autism hear is often out of sync with what they see. Dr. Mark Wallace, who lead the study, describes it as, “a badly dubbed video.”

By comparing 32 high-functioning children with autism to 32 typically developing children, matched by age, sex, and IQ, researchers found that the children with autism had an enlargement in their temporal binding window (TBW). Simply put, their brains had trouble linking visual and auditory events that happened within a certain period of time.

“Children with autism have difficulty processing simultaneous input from audio and visual channels. That is, they have trouble integrating simultaneous information from their eyes and their ears,” said co-author Stephen Camarata, Ph.D., professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences. “It is like they are watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed, the auditory and visual signals do not match in their brains.”

The second part of the study found that the autistic children also showed weakness in how strongly they associated audiovisual speech stimuli. Dr. Wallace believes this explains why autistic children often cover their ears or eyes. “We believe that one reason for this may be that they are trying to compensate for their changes in sensory function by simply looking at one sense at a time. This may be a strategy to minimize the confusion between the senses.” 

Building on the findings of this study, researchers are now in the testing phase of an interactive video game that they designed to retrain autistic brains in how they link different sensory input. As Dr. Wallace describes, “It basically takes the tuning of the nervous system and shapes it, so that they get better.”



Tablets Help Autistic Kids Maximize Language Skills

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that using tablets with speech generating applications in the context of blended, adaptive treatment can help minimally verbal children make significant and rapid gains in their language skills.

For the study, 61 minimally verbal children with autism aged 5to 8 years old participated in six months of therapy geared towards improving language skills, play skills, and social skills. Half of the children were given a tablet to use during the therapy sessions loaded with a speech-generating app programmed with pictures objects used during the therapy. These children were able to touch a picture of an object they were using in therapy and hear an audio file of the objects’ names.

The study found that the children with tablets were much more likely to begin using language on their own, especially when they used the tablets from the beginning of therapy. The children appeared to have retained their skills when followed up on three months later.

“It was remarkable how well the tablet worked in providing access to communication for these children,” said Connie Kasari of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Children who received the behavioral intervention along with the tablet to support their communication attempts made much faster progress in learning to communicate, and especially in using spoken language.”

Shema Kolainu Hear Our Voices School and Center for Children with Autism is launching it’s iPad program this year. We will be sure to keep you posted!



Can Babies Exhibit Symptoms of Autism?

Sally Rogers, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California-Davis MIND Institute, conducted a study that looked at treating subtle but telling signs of autism in babies. The findings, recently published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, gives further evidence to support the idea that early intervention can help your child be more successful as their brains are still so flexible as a baby. Though study was quite small, including only seven infants who exhibited potential symptoms of autism, the results were promising. It is difficult to find infants who are likely to have autism since it is usually diagnosed in the toddler years.

Dr. Rogers explains that babies who may be at risk of developing autism exhibited the following symptoms:

  • Spending too much time looking at an object. Typically developing babies do look at objects but eventually they’ll do something with it for example, banging it, showing it to someone else, etc.
  • Showing signs of repetitive behaviors. For example, one little boy kept dropping the lid in a certain way to try to get it to spin.
  • Don’t exhibit any sort of communication or connection to parent. For example, they rarely make eye contact, smile, or look at the parent even if the parent is doing something interesting
  • They’re not trying to use their vocal chords often as typically developing babies do. Laughing and making baby sounds is part of them learning and wanting to communicate with the people and things in their environment.
  • Babies exhibiting these symptoms consistently for over two weeks are a good indicator that you may consider getting your baby screened for ASD.

Dr. Rogers helped the parents take the lead in the treatment process by coaching them on the “Denver Model,” which is all about having the child enjoy the rewards of social interaction. For example one mom, while playing patty-cake with her baby’s feet started playing a little too roughly and her baby made a sound, signaling the mom to stop. While smiling is enough to establish a connection for typically developing babies, others respond to different cues. The aim of this model is to give parents and caregivers the tools and knowledge to help their baby if they see symptoms.

She states, “I am not trying to change the strengths that people with ASD bring to this world…My goal is for children and adults on with autism to be able to participate in everyday life and in all aspects of the community in which they want to participate.”

For more information, click HERE



The “Little Brain” & It’s Big Influence

(Applied to autism, cerebellar injury could hinder how other areas of the brain interpret external stimuli and organize internal processes. Based on a review of existing research, the researchers found that a cerebellar injury at birth can make a person 36 times more likely to score highly on autism screening tests, and is the largest uninherited risk. Credit: Samuel Wang)

As researchers dig into the root causes for autism, they are finding that our cerebellum or “little brain” may play a bigger role in shaping our cognitive and language abilities than previously thought, especially in the prenatal phase. The cerebellum actually only makes up a total of 10 percent of our brain’s mass, but is the home of 50 percent of it’s neurons. The cerebellum is usually associated with movement and coordination, so a doctor checking for damage in the cerebellum would conduct a number of tests that check balance and motion. However, a recent study published in the journal Neuron suggests that dysfunction in the cerebellum in crucial moments during development could be one of the leading contributors to autism spectrum disorders as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Dr. Samuel Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, and his research team, put forward the theory that the cerebellum is not only responsible for movement but also for helping developing minds process more complex sensory information that also aids in establishing social bonds. He explains, “Some of the clinical and animal-research evidence for cerebellar involvement in autism has been known for years, but this evidence doesn’t fit into the textbook wisdom that the cerebellum controls sensory processing and movement. At some level, researchers have been trapped by whatever framework they learned in college or grad school.”

In their study, Dr. Wang found that for children who experience damage to their cerebellum at birth are at an increased risk for ASD that he shows is comparable to the risk of a smoker developing lung cancer. So how is the cerebellum connected to developing “higher functioning” social and language capabilities? The study explains that a baby seeing their parent smile will eventually connect that experience to certain rewards that come along with it, for example being fed, which would overtime lead to the child’s ability to understand these social cues—a connection that is facilitated by the cerebellum. These connections that will eventually help with social behavior are especially vulnerable in the prenatal environment.

In Dr Wang’s words, “because the risk factor from cerebellar injury is bigger than any other know environmental risk, we think this provides deep insight into the basic biology of how ASD brains go off track. Problems in cerebellar function aren’t the (only) cause of autism, but they are potentially a significant cause of autism.” 

Studies like this one are important in developing best practices for treatment and therapy for those on the spectrum. Another recent clinical study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines for physicians in diagnosing specific intellectual and developmental disabilities. The report argues that it is important to know the root of the child’s disability whenever possible in order to find the most appropriate treatment plans. Moreover, a better diagnosis will help families manage expectations and advocate for their child in the best way possible.



Connecting the Dots: Leaky Gut, Gluten-Free, Casein-Free, Low-Carb, and Probiotics

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the impact of diet on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), even though they are typically considered a neurological condition.  Many people with an ASD experience chronic digestive symptoms that, when treated often results in the alleviation of behavioral and neurological symptoms. But we talk so much about gluten-free diets, casein-free diets, low-carb diets, probiotics, and leaky gut syndrome separately from each other that it gets really confusing. Do these approaches contradict each other? Is one better than the others? What does it all mean?

We’ll start with leaky gut. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that children with ASD are three times more likely to suffer from leaky gut syndrome, inflammation in the digestive tract that is characterized by chronic diarrhea or constipation. People with leaky gut syndrome are said to have increased intestinal permeability, which means the lining of their digestive tract allow things to be absorbed that shouldn’t, including gluten, bad bacteria, undigested food particles, even toxic waste. A strong indication of leaky gut is multiple food sensitivities. Partially digested proteins (like gluten) and fats are absorbed into the blood stream, causing an allergic reaction aka inflammation. This allergy won’t cause sneezing, but bloating, fatigue, joint pain, headaches, skin issues, weight gain, or digestive issues and can develop into inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, eczema, psoriasis, depression, anxiety, migraines, muscle pain, and chronic fatigue.

Leaky gut also affects the brain. Proteins like gluten and casein can act similarly to an opioid drug on the brain when absorbed and recirculated by the bloodstream. This is why autistic people respond so well to gluten-free, casein-free, and low-carb diets. All of these approaches minimize the proteins and food allergens that are most likely to wreak havoc when absorbed inappropriately by a leaky gut.

So where do probiotics come in? One of the main causes of leaky gut syndrome, in addition to poor diet, chronic stress, and toxin overload, is bacterial imbalance. Many of us are born with an imbalance of good and bad gut bacteria inherited from our mothers, or develop them through an overuse of antibiotics, sensitivity to chlorinated or fluoridated drinking water, or a lack of probiotics rich foods in our diets. Research from Arizona State University revealed that children with autism tend to have significantly greater risk for imbalanced bacteria levels, which can cause leaky gut, which causes inflammation, which triggers an autoimmune response. So, probiotics taken in supplement form and in foods like yogurt and kefir rebalance digestive bacteria and help the leaky gut that makes gluten and casein a problem in the first place.

So, while we often talk about these different nutritional approaches separately, they are related and should be integrated for maximum effect. It’s a good idea to be tested for food allergies and eliminate them immediately from your or your children’s diet. If you suspect leaky gut syndrome, you can find many different diet protocols to set you on your way to a healthy gut, which may someday process proteins like gluten and casein without adverse reaction. Add foods rich in probiotics to your or your child’s diet like yogurt and kefir. Other foods thought to help heal the gut include bone broth, fermented vegetables, coconut (in every form), and sprouted seeds.



Autistic Super Hero May Be Worth More Than Face Value

Autistic Super Hero Takes On Aliens and Emotions in "Face Value"

There’s a new super hero in town and he’s already a huge hit with the Autism Community. Just days after its release, the first issue of Face Value, the world’s first comic book series featuring an autistic hero, is sold out.  Parents of autistic children are flocking to buy (or back-order) the comic that not only shows children that their ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) can be an asset, but aims to help them better understand emotions.

The year is 2072 and the Steampunk (a futuristic world powered by steam, rather than electricity) Earth is threatened by a race of aliens who have declared humans dangerously emotional. Enter our hero, Michael, a middle school aged boy with autism who must fight through social pressures, misunderstandings, and bullying on his way emotional understanding of himself and others. He’s helped along on his journey of emotional discovery of his therapeutic robot support staff and science.

The comic books are also aided by science, employing tested teaching techniques of visually encoding emotions. In other words, the comic features exaggerated drawings of the characters’ facial expressions, linking them with specific emotions.

Founded by Dave Kot in the United Kingdom, Face Value aims to provide both education and entertainment focusing on emotional understanding in social situations. It’s based on an ideal of Comic Awareness; both the use of comic books as a means to share a message like autism awareness, and helping people with ASD to decode emotions by being made aware through comics.

“Everyone can learn more about emotions,” says Kot, “anyone with any level of autism can learn and utilize this.” The Face Value series is geared towards the middle school set and pledges to be strictly PG rated, but it may lead to comics for a more mature audience.

The first issue of the comic is sold out, but the company urges parents to ask their local comic books store to back order it – and pre-order the next issue to be released in October. The first issue is also available for digital online purchase.  Whether or not the comic unlocks emotional understanding for its autistic readers, it can only help them to see that what makes them different also makes them special. It may even help people without autism understand their autistic peers a little bit better.



Bully Preparedness Is Even More Important for Autistic Youths

Bullying is a pervasive problem in private and public schools alike, and unfortunately children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are easy targets. 46 percent of all middle and high school aged children with ASD reported being bullied in 2011, while a staggering 70percent of autistic youths in mainstream schools were bullied. As we head back to school and for many, back to bullies, it’s time to review a few things we can do to help safeguard our autistic children against bullies.

As always, our first bit of advice: talk to your child. Help them understand what bullying means and why it’s wrong to mistreat others. Offer specific examples of appropriate interactions, but also help them know what kinds of behaviors to look out for in others. If someone pulls their hair, they may know it hurts, but them may not know if it’s bullying. Keep the lines of communication open so they can come to you with any questions.

Next, make a recess game plan with your child. Make sure they have been introduced to playground monitors, cafeteria aides, and other school staff so they can feel comfortable going to them if they are bullied. Tell them to always play where they can see a playground monitor and never to follow bigger kids or a group of kids away from adult supervision. Try making a detailed recess schedule (5mins on swings, 5 mins jumping rope…).

Make a plan for what they will do if they are bullied. If your child recognizes that they are being bullied and they know what to do next, it may help to reduce some of their terror and anxiety while it is happening. Make sure they know to report it immediately to their teacher and to you.

Talk to your child’s teacher, bus driver, cafeteria aides, anyone at the school who may be able to keep an eye out for your child. If they are aware of your child’s special needs, they will happily help keep him safe. Keep an open dialogue so they will report anything they see, but also so your child knows whom they can trust when they get into trouble.

Talk to other parents. Get to know the parents of other children with disabilities at your school, and make sure your children get acquainted. They may not become best friends, but they can help look out for each other. Many children who are bullied are too ashamed or afraid to report their abuse to a teacher, parent, or official. Help your kids help each other by knowing how to report bullying they see happening to someone else.

Every school has an anti-bullying policy, yet it seems that we hear of worse and worse cases of bullying every year.  As school resources get stretched further and further, parents have to get involved more and more to protect their kids and safeguard their education.



The Birds, The Bees, and Autism

A recent study from the University of Toronto found that autistic adults are at greater risk of sexual victimization and indicates lower levels of sexual knowledge than their typically-developing peers.  The study revealed that 78% of the participants on the autism spectrum reported at least one instance of victimization versus less than 50% of the non-autistic control group.

The survey-based study asked participants a range of questions regarding unwanted contact, knowledge of reproductive health, contraception, and sexuality. Compared to the control group, the ASD participants were also found more likely to turn to the Internet and television for sexual information rather than their parents, teachers, or peers.

The best way to safeguard our children against sexual victimization is through education, but having “The Talk” with a child with autism can be even more difficult and awkward (especially for the parent) than what’s already an uncomfortable rite of passage for any parent. That’s why we’ve pulled together some basic tips to help you keep your autistic children safe by talking to them about sex.

It’s an awkward subject, which is why we often use euphemisms and metaphors to talk about sex, especially with children. For a child with autism who is extremely literal, however, talk about birds and bees and flowers and trees can be extremely confusing and lead to difficult misunderstandings. That’s why it’s very important to always be as clear and specific as possible. Think about how your child may interpret your words before you choose them. Preparing your son for his voice to change and get deeper like Daddy’s will probably cause less anxiety than bracing them for their voice to “break.”

Be open to any questions and ready to answer clearly. If you don’t know the answer to one of their questions, be honest – don’t make guess or make something up. Simply answer, “I’m not sure, why don’t we look that up together?” Your child may ask awkward questions at inappropriate times, so get the whole family on board with the stock answer, “That is a good question, but we’ll talk about it when we get home.” Just be sure to talk about it as soon as you get home so your child continues to go to you with their questions.

Start the dialogue as early as possible by talking with your child about their body and any questions they may have. You want them to feel comfortable talking with you, get used to coming to you with their questions, and develop an awareness of their body. This will help pave the way for the puberty talk.

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have difficulty with transitions and need more time to adjust to changes than their non-autistic peers. That’s why it’s important to start preparing your child for puberty early. Discus the changes they will experience as clearly and calmly as possible to minimize their anxiety when it happens. Again, be prepared for questions beyond the standard, “Why?” and know how you will handle questions you don’t have answers to.

Don’t be afraid to use pictures (that you deem appropriate) if your child is a visual learner. Remember, you are doing this to protect them. You can show your child pictures of you from infancy to adulthood and notice and point out the more obvious ways that you have changed as you grew up. The idea is to introduce them to the notion of physically changing in a way that isn’t scary. You can also use basic outlines of the body to assist with more intimate lines of discussion.

Talk to your child’s teachers and school. Find out what and how they will handle sexual education every year so you can make sure that home and school explanations and terminology are consistent.  You may determine that the school’s curriculum isn’t paced appropriately for your child or that it assumes more prior knowledge than your child is prepared with. You may need to supplement the school’s lessons by helping your child understand them on a deeper, clearer level. Children with ASDs may need to understand why we have to bathe every day before they accept it. Also concepts like friendship and appropriate behaviors may need to be clarified at home.

Don’t be afraid to get your pediatrician involved in the conversation. They are already experts at not being embarrassed by awkward conversations and this will help prepare your child for future examinations and conversations about contraception and sexual health.

Building your child’s understanding of private vs. public behavior as well as appropriate behavior for both themselves and others can be a bit tricky. Set guidelines about whom your child is allowed to discuss certain subjects with and start to introduce the idea of private vs. public spaces. Let them know what behaviors are only acceptable in the bathroom or the bedroom and when it’s necessary to knock before entering a room.

It can be painful to see our children grow up, and it is a natural instinct for many parents to maintain their children’s innocence and avoid awkward conversations by keeping them in the dark about sex-related issues. For children with autism, that darkness can be a very dangerous place. Misinformation or inappropriate relationships are readily available on the Internet, so be sure to set filters and blocks to safeguard your child while online. Also monitor their computer usage and check their browser history – this may help you understand what information your child is looking for and ensure you are the one to provide it. Keep your autistic child, teen, or young adult safe by always knowing where they are and whom they are with. Always be ready to field their questions, and never be shy about asking them questions. By establishing open and clear communication with your child about their body and sex, you are paving the way for a safer future.