Category Archives: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Iron Supplements May Prevent Autism

Low iron consumption during pregnancy can increase autism risk

The internet is flooded this week with reports on a new study linking low iron intake during pregnancy to an increased risk of autism. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, MIND Institute released findings that children whose mothers did not take supplementary iron during pregnancy, particularly mothers over the age of 35 with certain metabolic conditions, had a five times greater risk of developing autism.

Researchers analyzed data of mothers and children, both with and without autism spectrum disorders (ASD) gathered by the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study based in Northern California from 2001-2009. The information included the mothers’ diets and nutritional supplement consumption.

“Iron deficiency, and its resultant anemia, are the most common nutrient deficiency, especially during pregnancy, affecting 40 to 50 percent of women and their infants,” said Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences and a researcher affiliated with the MIND Institute. “Iron is crucial to early brain development, contributing to neurotransmitter production, myelination and immune function. All three of these pathways have been associated with autism.”

It is important for mothers to understand that the purpose of this and similar studies is not to blame them for their child’s autism, but to further understand how ASD is caused, can be treated, and maybe even prevented. It is stressful enough to be a parent of an autistic child without feeling personally responsible for causing the disorder.

There are many possible causes for autism, from genetic to environmental, but expectant mothers will no doubt want to reduce any possible risk for their children to develop ASD. Prenatal vitamins and iron-rich foods are always recommended for pregnant women, along with a litany of other dietary retrictions.

“Take vitamins throughout pregnancy, and take the recommended daily dosage. If there are side effects, talk to your doctor about how to address them,” Schmidt concluded.



Nutritional Therapy for Parents

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are developmental disorders that affect children by disrupting their ability to communicate and interact socially. To reduce a child’s symptoms of autism and improve social and cognitive behaviors in speech, parents can try nutritional therapy. This is because many children with ASD have reported to have allergies and high sensitivity to foods, especially gluten and casein. Children with autism, according to the theory, process peptides and proteins in foods containing gluten and casein differently than other people do and this difference in processing may exacerbate autistic symptoms.

Identify those food allergies as soon as possible can be vital to the developmental progress of a child with ASD.  Gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye) and casein (found in milk and dairy products), are important in caring for an Autistic child and is worth trying out as many parents have reported changes in speech and behavior after utilizing nutritional therapy.  Parents can seek allergy testing for confirmation or keep a food diary, and remove certain foods from your diet, to determine exactly what your child is allergic to.

Before going to the grocery store, you can make a list of what your child can have.  You can give pictures of foods the child can eat and have them participate in choosing the foods they would like to eat, that way the child gets a choice but the choice is within a list of acceptable food.

You can have the child with ASD help you cross items off the list while shopping with you. Or you can say the name of the item, point to the item, have the child hold the item or put into the basket so the child starts expanding their vocabulary via sight and sound. You can describe color of the apple, the texture as child holds item, is it a hard or soft object. You can make it a game where she has to help you find what’s next on the list, help you grab it off the shelf, and help you count how many items are left on the list.  Every moment can be a teachable moment that you can do with the child, and even thought at first it seem they aren’t getting it, keep trying, like all children they need lots of repetition and imagery to learn something new.

You can use stickers, stamps, tokens as reward for good behavior. Make sure the rules for earning the tokens are clear and consistent. For example: “Listen to mommy, calm voice, hands to myself.” Stay away from vague rules like “Be good,” and avoid telling her what NOT to do “No crying.” Then when she exhibits the behaviors in the rules, you reward her with a token and praise the good behavior you saw. You might say something like, “Wow, great job listening to mommy/daddy. You earned a happy face!” Once the child with ASD has all the tokens, the child can have a reward. This will help the child with ASD to tolerate the delay in getting what she wants, because she can see that she is working towards it. Here’s a simple example of what it might look like.



Important Questions to Ask Your Autistic Child’s Teacher

We’re about a month into the new school year, and for parents of children on the autism spectrum, getting the information you need about how they’re doing in school can be even more difficult than it is for parents of “neurotypical” children. This is partly due to the difficulties many autistic children have with communication in general, but also because their perspective on their social progress and behavior can be very different. 

Why wait for the formal parent-teacher conference where the teacher has limited time and is focused mainly on academic performance? Whether in an integrated or specialized school for autism, your child’s teacher should be happy to set up an informal meeting so you can get on the same page and get all the answers you need. For many parents with autistic children, it can be very emotional and overwhelming to talk about their child’s condition and progress, so we recommend being prepared with a list of questions. 

Does my child seem to like school?

Allow the teacher to respond with their honest opinion, but ask for specific examples. Be sure to share your opinion and experiences too, so that together you can form a more complete picture. If your child is upset every day when you pick them up, it could be because they are having difficulty transitioning from school time to home time, they could love school so much that they don’t want to leave, or they could hate it so much that they have been upset all day. This is important information for you to know. 

How is my child’s behavior in school?

Again, get specifics. If the teacher says your child is being disruptive, try not to be defensive. Ask how you can work together to provide consistency on behavioral issues. Ask for a list of class rules and school policies so you can go over them with your child and help prepare them for a successful day at school. Most importantly, discuss discipline. Ask how the teacher punishes bad behavior, rewards good behavior, and how effective they think those methods are with your child. Be sure to share what works for you at home. 

How’s my child doing socially?

If your child isn’t enrolled in a specialized school or special ed program, their teacher may not be fully aware of the social difficulties your child faces. If they are high functioning this can be particularly easy for a teacher to overlook, so ask them to look. Ask if your child has made friends and whom they play with at recess. Ask if they’re making eye contact or ignore direct questions. Because children with ASD are so sensitive to their environments, their social behaviors can differ dramatically from home to school. Get a clear picture, but also share your child’s “other side” with their teacher so they have a better idea how to relate to your child. 

How is my child doing academically?

Ask which subjects they have difficulty with and which they find more interesting. Just as with any child, you want to find out what you may need to work on outside of school and what talents and interests to cultivate. Find out how much time they should be spending on homework and whether they are handing in their assignments. 

How can we work together?

Find out the best way to communicate with your child’s teacher. If they prefer email, you don’t want to call them every day, but if they don’t read their e-mail you’ll only get frustrated. Make sure they understand that you are all on the same team with the common goal of giving your child the best foundation for a good education and life. It can be easy to establish adversarial relationships with teachers, but when parents and teachers work together, your child wins.



Sticks and Stones and Autism Break Bones

A new autism study has found that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have much higher rates of bone fracture than people not on the spectrum. This may be due in part to decreased bone density and partly to common differences in nutrition and exercise among the autistic population.

The nationwide study, led by Harvard neurologist Ann Neumeyer and endocrinologist Madhusmita Misra began as a small pilot study of 37 adolescent boys, 18 with ASD and 19 without. The autistic boys were found to have lower bone density, but the sampling was too small to produce conclusive results. This lead the researchers to review emergency room records across the country from 2010, comparing fracture rates 22,537 people affected by autism to 17.8million people without ASD diagnoses ranging from childhood to age 50. The results were startling.

The greatest disparity in fracture rates was found in the female population, where autistic girls had eight times higher incidence of hip fractures and the rate of spinal fractures among women were ten times higher for those with ASD. Women with autism were also found to be twice as likely to suffer arm, wrist, and hand fractures. Autistic men and women between the ages of 23 and 50 were found to have nearly twelve times the rate of hip fracture than other adults and boys with autism had double the rate of hip fracture.

While largely considered a neurological condition, autism also is known to affect other systems throughout the body. Whether this decreased bone density is due to autism affecting the skeletal system, the established digestive issues that impact the absorption of key vitamins and minerals in many autistic people, or is a result of differences in diet and exercise is not yet known.

“We need to learn more about bone development in autism and how to optimize bone development in children with autism,” says Dr. Neumeyer.  Before changing diet or exercise regimes, it is always wise to consult your or your child’s doctor, but increasing consumption of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and exercise are known to help build stronger bones.



The Best Careers For Autistic People

While unemployment rates are improving across the US, for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), finding and keeping a job can still be an elusive pursuit. Even though many people on the autistic spectrum have the necessary technical skills to complete a job’s duties as well as or better than their neurotypical peers, landing a job that lends financial security and personal fulfillment can be much more difficult. 

The transition from school to employment is exceptionally difficult for autistic people. Preparing for a career in a specific field while still in high school or even earlier, can make that transition a little easier and will also allow them to build their skills and experiences with a focus that will give them an advantage over other candidates. There are some exciting new resources available to help people on the spectrum prepare for and obtain employment. The International Center for Autism Research and Education, also known as ICare4Autism helps autistic adults ages 18 and up find the vocational and employment training services they need from semi-skilled to high-functioning individuals. To learn more about ICare4Autism’s Global Autism Workforce Initiative, visit:http://www.icare4autism.org/global-autism-center/comprehensive-autism-workforce-development-initiative/ 

For many autistic adults, the hardest part of any job can be the social aspect. Because the subtleties of social interactions and political positioning associated with most corporate careers can be lost on people with ASD, and adapting to changing situations and requirements can be extremely difficult for them, we’ve researched the best jobs and work environments for autistic people.

Of course, talents, skills, interests, and level of functionality are as individual as people with ASD, and should be weighed and balanced on an individual basis before choosing a career path. These are simply broad recommendations based on the most common characteristics associated with the autism spectrum.

Computer Coding and Software Testing: For the autistic individual who has an uncanny eye for pattern and detail, this is definitely an avenue worth pursuing. Several software companies now give preference to candidates with autism because they can be much better at these jobs than people whose brains lose focus or can overlook tiny syntax errors that translate into software bugs. These jobs also have limited social interaction and exposure to like-minded people. 

Scientific Research: They call it the scientific method for a reason – it’s methodical. High functioning autistic people often thrive on meticulous, repetitive activities that require objectivity and extreme focus. There are some aspects that some people with ASD may find difficult, like obtaining funding and managing staff, but lab work itself can be ideal. 

Working With Animals: Many autistic people have difficulty interacting with other people, but have a talent for relating to animals. Therapy dogs and cats (yes, therapy cats!) are becoming more and more common for autistic people because the animals have a soothing affect. Autistic people can thrive in work environments that have more interaction with animals than people, such as veterinary clinics and farms. 

Stocking Shelves: Whether in a warehouse, library, or retail environment, inventory is (usually) filed systematically. There’s not a lot of social interaction required and very little chance of unexpected obstacles to pop up. Once a person with autism understands the established shelving system, they can thrive in a position like this where their day can be very structured and they are free to go about the systematic execution of their tasks. 

Mechanics: Autistic people with good fine motor skills often excel with mechanical maintenance jobs. Whether motorcycles, cars, computer hardware, or heavy machinery, the ability to find the one loose wire or worn sprocket in a massively complicated schematic can be right up the autistic alley. This is also a field where social skills and graces are not a huge priority. Many high functioning autistics are used to their friends and family asking them to fix things, so they might as well get paid for it. There are excellent entrepreneurial prospects here too.

Data Entry: In the age of big data and digital marketing, data entry is a huge part of most marketing and corporate companies. Because it is repetitive, requires attention to detail, a systematic approach, non-social, and can often be completed via telecommuting, this can be a great way for people on the autism spectrum to earn a paycheck. 

Many people who have autism spectrum disorders have amazing artistic abilities or exceptional math skills. Obviously they should pursue careers that allow them to best apply their talents. For all people, though – autistic or not, the work environment, interpersonal communication, and structure should be considered just as important as the required technical skills and salary.



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.



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.