Category Archives: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Study Supports Personalized Interventions & Tablet Use

Researchers at UCLA found that children with autism who face bigger challenges when it comes to speaking and communicating can actually develop those skills through personalized interventions and the use of tablets and apps. The study spanned over three years and looked at 61 children on the spectrum ages 5 to 8.  About 30 percent of children on the spectrum do remain non-verbal or minimally verbal even after years of intervention.

For the study, each child received communication therapy that focused specifically on social communication gestures as well as play skills and verbal communication, for six months. Then half of the children were randomly selected to use speech-generating apps for the majority of their session time. Therapists would work on communication therapy with the child and also use the apps where, for example, a child could tap a picture and the audio of the name of the picture would play. They found that using the apps during therapy was more effective that communication intervention alone. Children who had access to the tablets and learning apps were more likely to use language spontaneously and socially. 

Connie Kasari, professor of human development and psychology at the UCLA Grad School of Education and professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and senior author of the study, says “It was remarkable how well the tablet worked in providing access to communication for these children. Children who received the behavioral intervention along with the tablet to support their communication attempts made such faster progress in learning to communicate, and especially in using spoken language.”

The researcher also followed up with the children three months after the initial study and found that their improvements were consistent during that time. This was the first study that used multiple assessments and catered the interventions to according how each child responded.

This past ICare4Autism International Autism Conference highlighted ways in which technology could be beneficial for those on the spectrum. To see the slides for some of the speakers, click HERE.

Be Safe Campaign Teaches Life Saving Skills

Emily Iland is the mother of her 30-year-old autistic son, who has grown into an independent and productive member of society. He lives on his own, holds a college degree, and works as an accountant. Before he was independent though, his mother spent many years advocating on his behalf. Now that her son is independent she is pushing to train autistic students, young adults, and adults alike on how to appropriately react to being stopped by a police officer.

People on the spectrum are actually seven times more likely than someone not on the spectrum to be involved with law officers as a victim, witness, or offender. In these interactions, autistics may act inappropriately, misread social cues, or become overwhelmed in a stressful situation.

Since 2007, Illand has been trying to train Los Angeles Police Department officers on how to recognize and interact with people who are on the spectrum. However, as much training as she would give the LAPD there was only so much they could do. “The police told me something,” she says, “If someone runs, you have to chase them. If someone puts their hand in their waistband, they have to assume they are reaching for a weapon. Even if they know that the person has autism, they have to respond to what they see.” This feedback made her realize the importance of training those on the spectrum, the appropriate skills to deal with law enforcement scenarios.

As part of her “Be Safe” campaign, Iland gives a few simple tips; don’t reach into your pocket, stay calm, show them your hands, if you are handcuffed or put into a patrol car try to be quiet, patient, and still, and if you are arrested make sure to tell the officers you have a disability and would like to speak to a lawyer. The “Be Safe” campaign included a DVD that features young people with autism role-playing police encounters, as well as a guidebook for parents, teachers, and counselors.

The video is based on real life cases where autistic individuals were misunderstood by law enforcement because they didn’t react with the appropriate social response, thus putting themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations with the law. One mother, after watching the video, said about her autistic son who just got his license, “I worry about him all the time. He needs to know what to expect and how his actions are being perceived by police officers. He needs to know not to run, not to panic. I need to be able to trust his to let the officers do their job.”

Ever year, approximately 50,000 teenagers on the autism spectrum enter into adulthood and more recently because of expanding therapeutic services and programs, are able to enter the workforce, get a driver’s license, and be a part of mainstream society. It will be increasingly important for young adults, especially, who are on the spectrum, to have the appropriate skills to allow them to be safe and stay safe.

To read the original article, click HERE

New Program Helps Autistic Students Gain Work Skills

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christopher Charles, left, and Steven Sargetakis work on computers with SketchUp Make, a 3D modeling program.

The University of Utah and Columbus Community Center are testing a pilot program that hopes to help people on the autism spectrum gain work skills and become an important part of the workforce. The program was started by NeuroVersity, a company whose aim is to give students the appropriate training and skills that can translate towards productive careers. Ten high school students were selected by their high schools to take part in the program.

SketchUp Make is a 3D imaging software that was developed by Google and is used in construction, architecture, urban planning, and video game designing companies. Natalie Gochnour, associate dean for the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, says, “In economics, we’re always looking for investment and productivity. That’s when we grow. People with disabilities bring a very unique skill set, very valuable skills.”

For sixteen-year-old Mason Dimock, who is able to focus in on one subject, is a visual and spacial thinker, and is interested in technology, the program is something that he seems to actually enjoy. “I think it’s a great program. It not only helps you with SketchUp, but it helps with social skills too[The software] is good for architecture. You can make pretty good money; they use it for construction.”

In the first week of the program, the students were able to design their own creations, which included trucks, tanks, dragon worlds, 260-house neighborhoods, and raceways. The organizers from Big-D Construction told the boys, “If you want to come back next week, you’ll be able to work on a real project and get paid.” All ten boys showed up the following Monday ready to get to work. Mike Plaudis who works for Big-D Construction and also has a son with autism, trained the students on the basics of design building, including converting a 2-D drawing of a building to a three-dimensional blueprint. 

Mason’s mother, Denise Dimock says, “The entire experience has been magical. It’s empowered him.” She explains that being around kids who have the same interests as him has allowed Mason to gain confidence about his talent and work. He has even presented his project to an audience of about 15 people. 

ICare4Autism’s past conference addressed their own goals to drive global workforce initiatives as well as other local initiatives being taken by other companies such as Walgreens, Freddie Mac, and Specialisterne.  The conference speakers highlighted ways in which we can change our thinking in order to address the growing need for jobs for the autistic community and also how students on the spectrum are willing and able with a variety of skill sets to bring to the table. This pilot program with NeuroVersity is a great example of how these efforts really make a difference in the lives of those living on the spectrum.

Summertime Safety

Keeping an eye on your child can be a challenging task especially now that summer is here and kids want to play outside or go to parks and beaches with their families. This task can be especially challenging for families with autistic children. And water safety concerns are also particularly heightened for families of children with autism, says Varleisha Gibbs, OTD, OTR/L, occupational therapy professor at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

“Although water safety is a concern for all parents, children with autism are especially at a higher risk fordrowning because they may seek isolation by fleeing to unfamiliar territories,” says Dr. Gibbs. Drowning actually accounted for approximately 90 percent of the total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger, according to statistics from the National Autism Society. Research shows that about 50% of children with autism tend to flee or escape a safe environment and put themselves in dangerous situations. Dr. Gibbs outlines some tips for families during this hot summer:

  • Learn to swim: enroll your child in swimming or water safety classes as soon as possible
  • Visual learning: Use videos and images to talk to your child about water safety
  • Display reminders: if your child responds well to visual cues, consider posting signs on doors that lead to outside such as STOP or DO NOT ENTER, or even a hand signaling “stop”
  • Key information: Make sure your child knows his or her name, address, and phone number in case of an emergency. If they are nonverbal, they should wear a bracelet or have theiridentification information on them at all times.
  • Avoid sensory-overload: Try to prepare your child ahead of time for what they can expect as they enter a new environment such as a beach or theme park.
  • Alert others: Communicate with your neighbors and others in your community to alert you immediately if they see children wandering by themselves. 

“Swimming and aquatic therapy is actually a wonderful sport for children with autism because it can address many of their body’s sensory and motor needs. By preparing and communicating with your child with autism, family, and friends, summer trips and activities can be much less stressful and more enjoyable,” says Dr. Gibbs.

Using Technology as a Tool for Skill Development

Dr. Dana Reinecke Presenting at 2014 ICare4Autism Conference

Dr. Dana Reinecke gave a presentation at the 2014 International Autism Conference titled, “Technology Opens Doors for Students of All Ages on the Spectrum” where she discussed the best ways to use different aspects of technology to help those on the spectrum. She also discussed the reasons and situations where technology might not be so helpful and even so far as detrimental to a child’s development. For example, if the technology you are using does not actually meet a particular need that you may trying to address, if it becomes more of a distraction than it is helpful, and if it is too expensive and time consuming, then using technology may not be the best choice in your situation.
Another important point she was about using technology as a replacement for social interaction or as a babysitter for your child. Using technology too much and to the extent where it is being used in place of any other types of exercises can be counteractive towards the progress you are trying to make with your child or student.
​Young adults need to have social skills in today’s world to be able to ​maintain a job make personal decisions that are helpful and beneficial for their lives. Individuals need to be able to negotiate with others in order to have their needs met, which can be an especially difficult thing for people on the spectrum as many of them process the environment differently than we do.
​She also stressed the increase of autism diagnoses and rising need for different kinds of treatment and therapies to help people on the spectrum lead productive and fulfilling lives. Dealing with the stresses of daily life, the working life, the young adulthood life can be overwhelming for people who are not on the spectrum, and for people who are these could be disabling for them as they need certain skills in order to thrive in today’s social and tech savvy society. ​
Teachers, parents, and therapists all listened in to learn ways in which they could use technology to further their goals in teaching students on the spectrum different skills. She made sure to provide examples of sources as well as her own program design that people can create themselves to focus on specific needs. Overall, Dr. Reinecke was able to convey alot of useful tools for the audience.

Creating New Understanding around Autism Spectrum Disorder​

Dr. Stephen Shore presenting at 2014 ICare4Autism International Autism Conference

On Day 3 of the 2014 ICare4Autism International Autism Conference, Dr. Stephen Shore, assistant professor in the Special Education Dept. at Adelphi University and ICare4Autism Advisory Council member, gave a presentation of Autism and the Arts: Movement, Music, and the Sensory System. In his presentation he engaged audience by having them participate in an activity that would help them better understand what it means when autistic people experience sensory overload.

In groups of five, audience members chose one person to “have autism”, while the other people in the group were told to read loudly, tap the person’s head, scratch their necks, etc. The person designated to have autism’s goal then was to listen carefully to a passage being read to them by one of their group members in order to answer questions about it after. At the end of the activity, the audience shared their experience and feelings.  Many of the responses included feeling overwhelmed and annoyed, feeling the need to lash out or run away, and just an overall sense of loss as to how to appropriately complete their task and focus. 

The first step to helping an autistic person really is to understand the hows and whys of their feelings and actions. Behavioral therapists do a good job of this as they assess why children react or act out in certain ways and in turn, develop ways to help translate these behaviors into something productive. Dr. Shore’s demonstration let the audience have a glimpse into an autistic person’s mind who is suffering from sensory overload.  With that understanding comes the ability of the parent, teacher, therapist, or other professional, to better deal with and help the individual on the spectrum. 

Dr. Shore focuses on music therapy as an important creative outlet for students on the spectrum.  He has developed his own ways of teaching music that is tailored to the meet the needs of autistic individuals for example by having his students engage in a more visual and creative learning process. ​Another main point of his presentation focused on the way movements and your ability to understand the environment is an imperative part of helping people on the spectrum gain control of their bodies and minds. Research has shown that o​nce you have control over your body and understand your environment, you are able to function and communicate more effectively .

Overall, Dr. Stephen Shore left the audience with a renewed sense of creativity and some important lessons in learning how to address the needs of people on the spectrum so that they are able to succeed in mainstream society.

Making Global Connections at Shema Kolainu

Dilara Mitu discussing how to help poverty stricken children with disabilities in Bangladesh with Dr. Joshua Weinstein, CEO & Founder of Shema Kolainu & ICare4Autism

Today Dilara Mitu, Managing Trustee and Director of the SEID Trust took the time to visit Shema Kolainu in the hopes of starting a collaborative relationship and learn some best practices used at the center. The SEID Trust is an NGO in Bangladesh that is a voluntary development organization working towards promoting the rights of underprivileged children with disabilities, especially those with ASD. It specifically serves poverty stricken children within the community who need the resources the most; they do this through their own fundraising efforts, as they are not publicly funded.

Ms. Mitu met with Dr. Weinstein, CEO & Founder of Shema Kolainu and ICare4Autism, to discuss ways in which she could help the children and the larger community that she serves. After attending the 2014 International ICare4Autism Conference this past June 30th thru July 2nd, she says that she was able to learn a lot. When she heard about the conference there was no doubt in her mind that it would be worthwhile. She says the expenses that she paid to make the trip was nothing compared to the insights and knowledge that she gained from the 3 days. She especially enjoyed the presentations by Anat Baniel and Martha Herbert who gave her different perspectives in which to learn about ASD and best practices.

Ms. Mitu has a strong belief in simply having faith in children and promoting their abilities so that they can be productive members of society similar to Shema Kolainu and ICare4Autism’s goals. Dr. Weinstein was enthusiastic to learn about her organization’s commitment to giving autistic children a voice of their own and also listened to many of the challenges they faced in doing so.

After having an constructive discussion, she was then given a tour of the center so that she could see for herself the practices they had discussed. Overall we are excited to have another organization reach out and are more than happy to share resources. ICare4Autism is dedicated to its mission of collaborating on an international level so that people on the spectrum are able to live more fruitful and happy lives. We thank Ms. Mitu for her visit and will be keeping in touch!

Emma Zurcher-Long Inspires at ICare4Autism Conference

Ariane Zurcher & Emma Zurcher-Long at ICare4Autism Conference

Ariane Zurcher, popular blogger and writer for the Huffington Post, along with her daughter Emma Zurcher-Long sat down to have a very intimate talk with the audience on Wednesday for Day 3 of the ICare4Autism International Autism Conference. Their presentation titled, My Body Does Not Obey My Mind, was actually Emma’s idea. She shared with the audience, through typing on her iPad the personal struggles she faces as a person on the spectrum. Ariane Zurcher explains how at first, her and her husband didn’t really understand Emma and her ability to express herself. All they were able to see was her childlike appearance accompanied by silly faces and uncoordinated movements. Whenever they would talk about Emma in front of her they never knew that she actually understood everything they were saying about her and was actually quite hurt from what she heard.

To demonstrate this concept to the audience, Emma would make some silly faces, including one of her favorites, which is doing “fish lips”. She types, “Doing fish lips to the audience is an expression of funny playfulness, but can be misinterpreted as simple-mindedness. Silliness is acceptable in those who are believed smart, but for those like me, it indicates stupidity.” When people come across an autistic child doing silly things or perhaps engaging in a calming activity such as stimming etc., they are quick to judge and perceive the child as slow or stupid, when in fact they just don’t have control over their bodies the way other children do and are able to understand situations and conversations as much as the next person.

Emma types, “In my mind, I am graceful and move like a dancer and speak with a passion and the articulation of an acting coach.” When it comes to autistic children there is always more that meets the eye. They have complex webs of thought and emotions that sometimes get expressed in a way that we don’t understand. Emma really opened a lot of eyes with her presentation and shed some much needed light on the thoughts and feelings of an autistic child. Hopefully many people left with new and inspired ideas of what it means to have an autistic child and how to perceive their actions, maybe not as stupidity but rather just a different form of complex expressions.

To read Ariane & Emma’s Blog, click HERE


Pesticides & Links to Autism

A new research study aimed to determine whether living close by to an area where agricultural pesticides are used have an influence on developing autism. The study used 970 children born in farm-rich areas of Northern California to test this theory. 

The study found that the babies of moms who live within a mile of crops treated with widely used pesticides were more likely to develop autism by 60% when compared to children whose mothers do not live close to treated fields. This risk was greatest during their second and third trimesters.

Though the study does not show that pesticides themselves are a cause for autism, it does show that any exposure to farming chemicals during pregnancy could have negative and lasting effects for your child. This is actually the largest project to date that has attempted to explore the links between autism and environmental exposures.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto of the University of California, Davis MIND Institute, who worked on the study explains, “what we saw were several classes of pesticides more commonly applied near the residences of mothers whose children developed autism or had delayed cognitive or other skills.” For example, kids born to mothers exposed to organophosphates were 60% more likely to have autism. Pyrethroids were also linked to an increase risk in autism and carbamates were linked to developmental delays. 

Many of the mothers lived next to fields that were treated with several different pesticides throughout their pregnancies so separating the potential risks of each chemical was a challenge that scientists are still working on. Apart from this, researchers want to look at how environmental exposures affect people with different genetic make-up in different ways. Janie Shelton, epidemiologist and lead study author says, “We need to know if some moms are at a higher risk than others and what that risk is. Knowing who is most vulnerable is key to understanding how to better protect them.”

The ICare4Autism International Autism Conference will feature presentations from top medical professionals in the Autism field, including a presentation on “Detecting Risk for ASD in the first year of life” by Celine Saulnier, Clinical Director for Research at the Marcus Autism Center and Assistant Professor in the Division of Autism and Related Disorders at the Emory University School of Medicine. To see her presentation as well as many others, click here for tickets!

Century Old Drug Provides Promising Furture In Autism Treatment

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine was recently published in Translational Psychiatry. Researchers found that a century old therapy originally meant to treat sleeping sickness may actually be used to reverse autism symptoms. The drug appeared to restore normal cellular signaling in a mouse model of autism by reversing the symptoms of autism in animals that were the human biological age of 30 years old.

Dr. Robert K. Naviaux, co-director of the Mitochondrial and Metabolic Disease Center at UC San Diego explains, “Cells behave like countries at war. When a threat begins, they harden their borders. They don’t trust their neighbors. But without constant communication with the outside, cells begin to function differently. In the case of neurons, it might be making fewer or too many connections. One way to look at this related to autism is this: When cells stop talking to each other, children stop talking.”

The mice groups used in the study are engineered to exhibit symptoms of autism spectrum disorder and so the researchers gave them the drug suramin, which was created in 1916 to treat African sleeping sickness, hoping that it would block the signal pathway that would stimulate the “cell danger response.” They found that the drug did work to this end and the cells and metabolism in the mice actually began behaving normally. Though this trial was successful, the drug is not permanent or preventative as a single dosage was only effective for about 5 weeks. Also long the drug cannot be used for long term since it can have serious side effects of anemia and adrenal gland dysfunction.

However the study was promising in that they were able to create normal cell behavior in the mice. Later this year they will be conducting a clinical trial that will assess the treatment using children with ASD.

Dr Naviaux suggests that “the treatment, rather than being used as an autism ‘cure,’ may be used effectively to complement non-drug behavioral and developmental therapies.” He says that this new drug provides a new perspective on the way we thing and address the challenges of autism. 

ICare4Autism’s International Autism Conference, less than two weeks away, will be talking about new drug developments and biomedical perspectives on Day 2 of the conference. Martha Herbert, director of the TRANSCEND research program and pediatric neurologist at Mass General Hospital,  will be giving a presentation called “Taking a Fresh Look at Autism: Chronic Dynamic State—Not Fixed Trait.” To see her presentation and others, CLICK HERE!