Category Archives: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Promising Research on the Development of the Autistic Brain

The synapse is a point of communication between two nerve cells

A new research study from the Columbia University Medical Center, looked at brain tissue from the temporal lobe, or the area known to be involved in social behavior and communication, from 26 individuals with autism ages 2 to 20 as well as samples from 22 typically developing children, all of who died from other causes. Researchers were actually able to gain some new insight into how autism develops, why people with autism experience symptoms, such as over sensitivity to their environments, and what we can do to treat these symptoms.

As our brains develop it goes through what’s called a pruning process as we progress from child to adolescent to adult. This pruning process limits or turns off certain synapses, or connections, in the brain that allow neurons to communicate with one another. This is a natural and desirable process for typically developing brain, as an overactive brain that is constantly active and releasing too much of a particular neurotransmitter, such as serotonin, can lead to things like seizures—more than a third of people with autism experience epileptic seizures. Kids with autism, however, seem to actually retain this extra brain connectivity that typically developing children weed out as they grow older. 

From the study they observed that the number of synapses was all around the same level in younger children from both groups but the adolescents had significantly fewer synapses than those with autism. David Sulzer, a professor of neurobiology at the Columbia University Medical Center who worked on the study, explains, “It’s the fist time that anyone had looked for and seen a lack of pruning during development of children with autism.” The typically developing 19 year olds had 41% fewer synapses than toddlers, but the ones with autism only had 16% fewer synapses. “Impairments that we see in autism seem to be partly due to different parts of the brain talking too much to each other. You need to lose connections in order to develop a fine-tuned system of brain networks, because if all parts of the brain talk to all parts of the brain, all you get is noise,” explains Ralph-Axel Muller, neuroscientist at San Diego State University.

This growing area of research in the field of autism is particularly promising as it provides new methods to treat autism, and researchers are hoping to do just that in the near future.

Back to School Tips for Parents of Autistic Children

Back to school is a stressful time for anyone, but for autistic children and their parents, the transition between sleepy summer Sundays and hectic Monday mornings can be traumatic.  That’s why we collected all the best tips to help make your back to school transition a little easier.

1: Countdown to change: The new school year brings a lot of changes all at once. The more prepared you and your child are (both practically and emotionally), the less stressful and more successful the transition will be.  Familiarize your child with everything that will be different. Arrange a visit to their new classroom and an introduction to their teacher before the new year starts. Take pictures if possible and add them to a visual calendar so your child knows what to expect and when to expect it.

2: Ease into new routines: Slowly adjust wake up times and other back to school changes in routine to mitigate the shock of that first day.  Practice leaving and coming home at the expected time and slowly introduce new after school routines.

3: Shop early and often: Buy all new clothes and supplies as early as possible and integrate them into your child’s world before school starts. It’s more important that your child feels comfortable on the first day of school than that they are seen in a brand new outfit.

4: Talk it out: Help your child be ready for unforeseen changes by talking about different scenarios ahead of time. Talk about what they will do in free times, at lunch periods, if they need the bathroom. Create stories around these scenarios so your child can visualize what to do when they need it. Also go over do’s and don’ts of school behavior, always demonstrating with a story.

5: Prepare yourself too: It’s easy to lose yourself in the endless lists of what to buy and do before that first day back to school, but you also need to prepare yourself and minimize your stress so you can be your child’s best advocate. Collect all the contact information for your child’s teachers, classmates, coaches, etc. as early as possible and keep it together so you always know who to call in any situation. Have your day mapped out as thoroughly as possible. See if you can’t find time for a walk, yoga class, or even five minutes to sit in the park. Regular scheduled time to de-stress will allow you to be a better parent and happier person.

Autism & Bullies

We consistently read news stories about children with disabilities, especially children/adolescents with ASD as victims of bullying, the most recent being Aaron Hill’s violent beating which was caught on video that later went viral on the internet. Studies in the past have shown that children on the spectrum are bullied nearly five times more often than their typically developing peers. In fact, higher functioning kids on the spectrum are three times more likely to be bullied than those who are nonverbal or have a harder time communicating. Another challenge autistics face is reporting the bullying act itself; they need to be able to understand that they are being harassed and effectively communicate how so.

Here are some signs that your child is being bullied:

-       Reluctance to attend school

-       Extra emotional, sensitive behavior and anxiety

-       Change in their daily routines, such as sleeping patterns or diet

-       Torn clothing or damaged possessions

-       A decline in academic performance

As parents there are definitely steps you can take to help your child have a more stress-free and healthy learning environment:

1)   Talk to teachers, councelors, and administrators and ask what programs they have in place to combat bullying at their school. For example, social and emotional learning (SEL)  helps kids develop skills to handle school relationships and attitudes about self and others.

2)   Address your concerns when developing an IEP. Making sure that self-advocacy skills are on the agenda in an important part of preventing bullying and helping your child handle a bully. Also consider if the school has peer programs to make sure your child has a buddy with them going to class or lunch etc.

3)   Prepare you child in your home. Talking to your child about friendship and how friends should and shouldn’t treat each other is an important way for your child to learn the skills necessary to recognize when they are in a bad situation and either need to stand up for themselves or try to get help.

For more resources on helping your child with bullying:

Using Routines to Help Autistic Students With Post-High School Transition

The transition from high school to employment or college is a stressful challenge for any teenager, but that change in environment can be exponentially more difficult to navigate for a teen on the autism spectrum. Educators and parents can use routines to help prepare children for post-high school transitioning and cultivate skills they will need once they graduate.

Establishing routines can help autistic young adults become more independent and practice foundational skills they will need in their adult lives. Everything from telling time and self-grooming to balancing checkbooks and going on job interviews can be cultivated and practiced through routines. 

Start by identifying the task or activity you want to teach. Break it down into ordered steps and individualize the routine. Make a routine of practicing the routine. (Practice regularly, preferably at the same time and in the same environment.) Start by using a combination of natural and instructional cues. Use instructional cues to reinforce natural cues so that eventually the student will be able to complete the routine independently, using only natural cues.  Once the routine is mastered and becomes… routine, you can introduce changes such as location or time. The goal is for the student to understand the natural cue to begin the activity. 

If an autistic young adult practices routines they will need when they move on to college or employment, they will feel less overwhelmed by a new environment. If they are prepared with proper responses to possible scenarios, their transition will be less stressful and more likely to be a successful one.

Creating More Equal Workplaces

Jeff Long was one of 21 men with intellectual disabilities discovered in 2009 toiling away at an Iowa turkey processing plant and living in deplorable conditions while earning just $65 per month from an employer with an expired subminimum wage certificate. (Melanie Burford/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

The National Disability Rights Network are now advocating for a nationwide effort to crackdown on employers who are paying their disabled workers unfair wages. Currently, employers can engage in a legal process where they get permission from the U.S Department of Labor to pay people with disabilities what is known as a subminimum wage, or less than the minimum wage. These special wage certificates do have strict procedures attached to them, including regularly checking on worker productivity levels among the list of requirements.

These sheltered workshops, as they are called, have recently come under extra scrutiny as there is an increased focus to create sustainable programs for people with ASD as well as other disabilities. Also as the population of working age people either on the spectrum or with other disabilities, is growing each year or creating an imperative need for revamped workforce program.

Amy Scherer, a staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, says that individuals can contact the protection and advocacy organization in their state is they are aware of any violations or potential violations. The Department of Labor welcomes these tips and investigations since they have trying to find ways to make sure employers comply with the law.

Last month alone, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act that would put significant restrictions on placement into a sheltered workshop or other work environments where people with disabilities are paid below minimum wage. For example, disabled individuals who are 24 and younger are no longer allowed to be paid less than min. wage unless they first explore their other options such as pre-employment transition services or vocational rehabilitation services. In the cases where they are in a placement earning less than min. wage, the new law requires that the state provide career counseling periodically and are informed of other work opportunities. This new law, however, won’t actually be effective until two years after its enactment.

For more information on workforce initiatives being taken by Shema-Kolainu’s affiliate organization, ICare4Autism, click HERE.

For the original article, click HERE.

Study Finds Inclusive Classrooms Boost Language Skills

Inclusive Classrooms Can Boost Language Up to 40%

A new study published in Psychologilcal Science finds that young children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), particularly those with speech delays, improve their language development more rapidly in inclusive educational and social environments. The study found that preschoolers with disabilities who attended mainstream classes were using language on par with their highly skilled peers within just one school year. In contrast, ASD preschoolers who were surrounded solely by other children with a similar level of disability lagged far behind their typically-developing peers in the same time frame.

The study focused on 670 preschoolers in Ohio, of which slightly more than half had a language impairment, autism, or Down syndrome. Language skills of all the children were measured at the beginning and end of the school year via standardized testing.

The children with disabilities in inclusive classrooms outperformed those in exclusive classrooms for children with disabilities by 40 percent at the end of the year. Laura Justice, a professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State University and co-author of the study concludes that, “the typically-developing children act as experts who can help their classmates who have disabilities.”

It should be noted that while the children with disabilities were positively influenced by their highly-skilled peers, the children with the highest skill level were in no way negatively impacted by their exposure to their peers with disabilities.

The findings of this study certainly indicate that children can only benefit from an inclusive setting where they can learn from more advanced children and assist less advanced children. “We have to give serious thought to how we organize our classrooms to give students with disabilities the best chance to succeed,” Justice said.

Probiotics May help Alleviate Autism Symptoms

Probiotics are a diet supplement trend credited with magical properties ranging from weight loss to anti-aging. Several new studies however show that they very well may help to alleviate Autism symptoms as well.  These studies link Autism with digestive issues which probiotics are known to help manage.

One such study from the National Institute of Heath reports that probiotics can reduce inflammation in the digestive tract that is thought to be partly responsible for some symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  The study found that the balance of microorganisms in an infant’s digestive tract influences postnatal development.

Studies from the California Institute of Technology indicate that microbiomes of autistic people are differ from those without autism, which they believe contributes to the disorder.  Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supports this theory, reporting that autistic children are more than three times more likely to suffer from chronic diarrhea or constipation. These chronic inflammatory conditions in the digestive tract are commonly attributed to a condition referred to as “leaky gut syndrome”, or intestinal permeability. The Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition reports on a study that concludes the incidence of intestinal permeability is significantly higher in patients with ASD and their first-degree relatives.

Caltech researchers injected test mice with microbes that induced leaky gut syndrome. These mice then exhibited symptoms associated with Autism such as anxiety, aloofness, and excessive grooming in addition to the expected digestive discomforts. After targeted probiotics were added to the mice’s diets, their leaky guts healed, bacterial molecule level dropped dramatically, and their microbiomes started to resemble those of healthy mice. The most exciting changes though, were in the mice’s behavior – within five weeks, they became more vocal, less anxious, and decreased their obsessive activities.

The bottom line: researchers are convinced that at the very least, probiotics will alleviate inflammation that can affect language as well as cognitive and social development. It has not yet been determined whether probiotics are more effective when taken in supplement form or in whole foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles, and kimchi. A range of 15 to 30 billion healthy microorganisms are recommended as part of a daily diet to alleviate intestinal inflammation.


The Benefits of Early Behavioral Intervention

Researchers have analyzed the success of early behavioral interventions. (photo:

According to researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, children on the autism spectrum have benefited tremendously from behavior-focused therapies, in comparison to those who did not receive the early behavioral intervention. The recent study updates the prior systematic reviews of interventions, with a focus on recent studies of behavioral interventions.

The review, which was conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, funded by Vanderbilt, states that the quality of research studies has improved dramatically within just 3 years, when authors reported that there were significant gaps in the research that documented the benefits of certain treatments. The new review provides evidence of the effectiveness of early intervention, specifically interventions with behavioral approaches based on applied behavioral analysis (ABA) principles.

Dr. Amy Weitlauf, assistant professor of Pediatrics and an investigator at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, states, “We are finding more solid evidence, based on higher quality studies, that theseearly intensive behavioral interventions can be effective for young children on the autism spectrum, especially related to their cognitive and language skills.” Dr. Weitlauf continues, “We are also finding evidence that some of these targeted interventions, especially related to cognitive treatments for anxiety disorders, are also very effective for many, many children. Again, responses vary substantially and there are some children for whom these treatments have not yet been studied. So there is lots of promising evidence that these interventions are helpful, but we definitely need more research on which kids the treatments are more helpful for over time.”

Dr. Zachary Warren, director of TRIAD, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, focused on the improvements in children receivingearly behavioral intervention. These children were documented to display impressive progress in cognitive, educational, and language skills. Dr. Warren states, “Given the potential for interventions to powerfully improve children’s quality of life, in combination with the significant costs and resources often associated with treatment, it is not surprising that many groups — parents, providers, policymakers, insurance providers — are searching for an enhanced understanding of which interventions work the best for children with ASD.”

One of the biggest topics facing medical experts is finding the fastest and most effective ways to diagnose a child with ASD, as the diagnosis will enable the child to receive theearly intervention that can truly make the biggest difference in their lives. This study is just one example of howearly behavioral intervention can build multiple skills in the child, and provide them the methods to grow in various aspects to live a life full of opportunities.

Tips for Successful Summer or Anytime Travel for Kids with Autism

Parents of children on the spectrum understand that transitions are particularly challenging and that structure, continuity and familiarity are their child’s best friends – so how can vacation travel be made more manageable for the parent and child (and their siblings) and even create opportunities for growth? Businesses and services that cater to families with children on the spectrum are no longer obscure, but are springing up constantly – particularly because of campaigns for autism awareness.

Even savvy parents, however can still benefit greatly from a ‘how to’,  just to get the wheel turning, so here are some essential things they can do to plan a vacation or just a getaway with their special needs child.

1. Partner With Your Destination (PWYD)

Planning cannot be stressed enough, so once a decision is made on where to go—even if the vacation is coordinated by a travel agent, it’s essential to partner with your destination – always speak personally with hotel staff, park and recreation members, restaurants, car rental companies in advance.  Be secure by obtaining maps, confirming locations, checking road and traffic and hours of operation.

2. Partner with the child’s spec education teachers, any occupational/physical behavior therapists, or art/music therapists to have them introduce and incorporate ideas about the planned trip as far in advance as possible.

3. Create a visual story

Create a visual story (ie:  picture Board) to prepare child for travel away – can be done by the parent and reinforced by the child’s educators or play therapist or introduced outside of the home and practiced there. Check out DO2Learn Products for an excellent assortment of picture boards and visual displays, or make your own like the ones Kathie Maximovich posted on Pinterest.

4. When in Doubt, Use an APP

There are no shortage of apps to entertain and educate all children and adults alike, so try an app to prepare tech-loving kids such as Smart Fish: Frequent Flyer, available on ITunes and compatible with Apple mobile products.

5. Visit the Airport ‘for Fun’ or try a Air Travel Dress Rehearsal

What started as a small-scale program, Wings for Autismoriginating at The Charles River Center in Massachusettsis now a national initiative by The ARC, that offer ‘pre-travel’ or practice boarding program experiences for special needs children.

6. Travel Check -What a Relief

The TSA can be “called in advance” to prepare for family boarding – TSA Cares – ask for a Passenger Support Specialists. 

7. Familiarity is Crucial

Your child likes and needs familiarity to reduce stress (on them and you) and meltdowns.  Pack wisely – bring familiar bedding such as sheets, favorite blanket, pillow, etc.

If renting a car, try to rent the same type/model car (same color if possible or at least same color)

Anticipate special dietary needs to bring along and inquire about availability of a microwave and/or refrigerator at the destination, as well as any eateries that will be suitable.

8. Some Important add-ons:

**Headphones:  If possible invest in a pair of noise canceling headphones if the child will wear them or work in advance with the child’s OT to help with just that.

**Portable timer/stopwatch– fantastic to help the child when waiting on lines.

**Pack inexpensive “new” toys or novelties for distraction

9. During the Vacation:Travelling can seem endless and exhausting on everyone – and much more so on a child with autism.  Take sensory breaks as needed and cool down periods during and between activities.


Even the most well planned va-stay -cations can go awry when you are traveling with a child on the spectrum.  Make contingency plans and be prepared to switch things around.  If the child prefers to go swimming in the pool before, or do another activity, try to be flexible.  Use all aforementioned pre-travel resources to help alleviate the stress for the child and for the parent.

Virtual Reality Programs as a Social Learning Tool for ASD

Does using technology to assist children with ASD further alienate them because social interaction is missing, or can it actually effect the opposite- by teaching them to socially interact? While some researchers say that    sitting at a computer screen reinforces isolation and brings out obsessive traits, another study done in Spain defends the use of special programs using virtual reality environments that are designed to stimulate awareness in children on the spectrum, while helping them feel safe.

As children with all forms of autism share a difficulty in attention, interpreting social cues as well as following directions, the goal of these Virtual Reality applications is to increase their understanding of body language, facial expressions, the use of imitation and environmental interactions, such as crossing the street. Avatars or characters have long been shown to help children to identify emotions, however, when they are in the protective computer generated environment, children can gain confidence by learning the rules and repeating the tasks. Verbal and gesture based interaction go hand in hand with these skills.

These applications are designed to be used not only on computers but also with more mobile technology such as phones and tablets. As a therapeutic accessory, they complement any other teaching method employed.  By helping the child build confidence through virtual reality learned interactions, we can help them adapt these skills into their every day lives.

Click Here for original study.