Category Archives: Early Intervention

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.



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.



The Benefits of Early Behavioral Intervention

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

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.



Autism & Success Stories

Mark Macluskie, around 12 months, about two years before his autism diagnosis; and at home last month before his 16th birthday.

Researchers are finding more cases where early, intensive behavioral therapy can improve language, cognition and social functioning in children on the autism spectrum. Deborah Fein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Connecticut conducted a study of 34 young people who were all medically diagnosed with autism but now no longer meet the criteria for autism. She compared this group with 34 other typically developing peers and 44 young people who were considered “high-functioning” autistics. Another researcher, Catherine Lord, a leader in the field of autism diagnosis and evaluation and teaches at Weill Cornell Medical College, published a study that tracked the progress of 85 children from age 2, when the child was diagnosed, to about age 22, and found that nine percent of the cases no longer met the criteria for autism. They also found correlations with active parental involvement to play a role in the cases where the child was no longer autistic.

One such case was Mark Macluskie, who was diagnosed with medium to severe autism between the age of 2 and 3 years old. He didn’t seem to understand words, threw tantrums, engaged in self-harming behavior such as running his headfirst into the wall, and didn’t show any interest in the people around him. After being placed in a high functioning classroom Mark’s behavior actually got worse. Mark was then moved to the lowest functioning class where a neurologist told his mother to be prepared to someday put him in an institution.

Marks parents, Cynthia and Kevin, were desperate and so they made a lot of sacrifices to spend more time with Mark. Mrs. Macluskie quit her job and started doing all the research she could while also taking out a second mortgage on their house. They also had to empty all the furniture from their living room and instead made room for an inflatable trampoline with rubber walls so what Mark could get the sensory input he seemed to need by running into the wall, but without hurting himself.

She began to home school Mark, starting by watching episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” and “Little House On the Prairie” and then asking him what he thought the characters were thinking, feeling, or going to do next. Mark says, “I remember it being hard to answer my mom’s questions and being confused when I watched those shows. I knew she was doing all those things for a reason, I just didn’t know how it was going to help.” 

Later on Mark discovered a passion for robots after receiving a robot kit as a gift. His mother jumped on this development and formed a robot club where Mark was able to play with four typically developing children and build robots together. Soon, they were writing programming codes and entering into competitions. By this time, a specialist had concluded that Mark no longer met the criteria for autism.

Many parents are quick to read the cases and attempt to create their own plans for how to get rid of their child’s autism. Catherine Lord explains, “I see a lot of parents of 2-year-olds who have heard stories about kids growing out of autism and they tell us, ‘I want my kid to be one of those kids.’” She then serves to remind and counsel them that they should put their focus towards helping his/her child reach their highest potential, whatever that may beWhen you get too focused on ‘getting to perfect’ you can really hurt your childIt’s good to hope—but don’t concentrate so much on that hope that you don’t see the child in front of you.”

To read the full article, click HERE



Scientists Come Closer to Understanding Autism

(Source: http://scitechdaily.com/study-shows-oxytocin-improves-brain-function-children-autism/)

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has discovered that oxytocin levels in children actually have nothing to with the onset of autism. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for our feelings of attachment and closeness that help us in bonding and socializing with others. A Stanford researcher, Karen Parker, who led the study, along with her team studied 200 children that included autistic children, their siblings, and non-autistic children. As many theories claimed, Parker’s hypothesis was also that “the kids with autism would have the lowest oxytocin levels, the siblings would be intermediate, and the neurotypical controls would be the highest. That clearly wasn’t the case.”

This oxytocin deficit theory was popular because of the socialization difficulties many children with autism face. There have also been a few studies where giving people with autism a boost in oxytocin could help their social functioning. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and affects not only the brain, but also the body.

Parker’s study found that there was actually a high genetic influence on a child’s oxytocin levels. So if their parents had low levels of oxytocin then their children also appeared to have low levels as well. These different levels of hormone affected the social functioning of kids with autism and without autism the same way, “As your oxytocin levels got higher, your social functioning was more enhanced,” Parker explains.

However, there are still many parts of the story left to discover when it comes to oxytocin role and its potential benefits for those on the spectrum. Despite the fact that it is not actually a cause for autism, it can provide answers to questions such as why some autistic children have responded to oxytocin treatments and others do not. Regardless, there is promising research ahead for researchers studying this influential hormone. 

​Dr. Eric Hollander, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Director of the Autism & Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, Director of the Spectrum Neuroscience and Treatment Institute and also Chairman of the ICare4Autism Advisory Council, dedicates part of his research to studying the ways that oxytocin can benefit children on the spectrum ​and the role this hormone plays in social attachment and repetitive behaviors. So far, Dr. Hollander and his team have had positive results in manipulating oxytocin levels for the benefit of people on the spectrum and are still conducting research in order to create treatments and best practices. Dr. Hollander recently gave a presentation on Oxytocin at this past ICare4Autism Conference, click HERE to read more.


GPS Trackers May Become Available for Families

Earlier this year, following Avonte Oquendo’s tragic death, Senator Charles Schumer introduced a bill that would allocate $10 million per year in federal funding that would provide electronic tracking devices to families of children with autism and other disabilities. “Our children are too precious for us to wait another day when life-saving precautions are right at out fingertips. Even if we do everything in our power, we may not be able to stop kids from wandering, but we can do much, much more to safely locate them and bring them home.” 

According to Schumer, New York Reps. Peter King and Grace Meng will introduce a companion bill with bipartisan support to the House of Representatives. The proposal allocates funds to the U.S Department of Justice that would give grants to local law enforcement agencies to provide families with tracking devices. In the meantime, Attorney General Eric Holder has said, back in January, that the Justice Department would offer existing grants to local police departments in the meantime. However, Schumer remains headstrong in pushing this legislation so that there is permanent funding.

Researchers have found that only about half of those children with Autism have the tendency to wander, and the free GPS service would of course be available as requested by parents. GPS trackers can be a great resource for families who are especially worried about their child’s safety. Trax Families, a GPS technology company, who was also present at the ICare4Autism International Autism Conference, has actually designed a small personal GPS tracker that can be monitored through an app or on the computer. It is especially designed for 2-7 year olds as something small and lightweight that won’t get in the way of their daily activities. For more information on Trax Family, click HERE



The Sensory World of Autistic Children

Children on the autism spectrum are characterized by their inability to begin picking up and social cues and engaging in regular social interaction.  Psychology experts say that people who are not as in tune with social interaction may be that way because they are trying to escape the feeling of sensory overload. Many people are quick to think that they have some sort of deficit of empathy or are mentally slow. This phenomenon is called “intense world” theory in psychology. 

Maia Szalavitz writes in her article The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism, “Consider what it might feel like to be a baby in a world of relentless and unpredictable sensation. An overwhelmed infant might, no surprisingly, attempt to escapeUnlike adults, however, babies can flee. All they can do is cry and rock, and later, try to avoid touch, eye contact, and other powerful experiences. Autistic children might revel in patterns and predictability just to make sense of the chaos.”

Autistic brains tend to be hyper-connected, so instead of being linked to 5 cells its actually linked to 20. “Just to survive, you’d need to be excellent at detecting any pattern you could find in the frightful and oppressive noise. To stay sane, you’d have to control as much as possible, developing a rigid focus on detail, routine, and repetition. Systems in which specific inputs produce predictable outputs would be far more attractive than human beings, with their mystifying and inconsistent demands and their haphazard behavior,” Szalavitz explains. 

For example, Adam, a boy on the autism spectrum, is at the park with his mother and playing in his own world. All of a sudden he cries out and starts pointing animatedly at the cars and traffic on the street. They make out the words “white police truck” as he’s saying them over and over. As his mother listened carefully the sounds of a distant siren could be heard. Adam had apparently isolated the distant sound of the siren amidst all of the playground and street noises.

This protection strategy does come at a cost however, in that it takes away from a very critical time in their neurodevelopmentwhich may lead to social and language impairments. Emotion is also is big player in sensory overload. The parts of the brain that are having strong reactions to things like sound or texture will then have stronger reactions to things like pain, and emotion. Kamila Markam, researcher at the Brain Mind Center at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, has an autistic son who, when asked if he thinks he sees things differently from others, explains, “I feel them different”.



Autism Parents Create Life Changing App

Birdhouse for Autism is Changing the way Caregivers Can help Children on the Spectrum

Parents with children on the spectrum are constantly looking for innovative ways to help their child develop the skills they need lead happy lives. One couple in metro Detroit has come up with an in genius idea to help parents and people in the autism community better help their children. Mother, Dani Gillman, would always take notes on her daughter’s behaviors and daily routines, including her diet, medications and vitamins, her bathroom use, doctor visits, sleeping patterns etc. She kept these notes in a well-organized binder. As parents with autistic children know, it can be difficult to assess the needs of your child. So although Mrs. Gillman had all of these notes documenting her childs behaviors, she had no way of synthesizing the information in a way that would provide some answers to how to address her daughter’s needs.

With help of her tech-savvy partner, Ben Chutz, they were able to create the idea that would become “Birdhouse for Autism.” “It’s chaotic for parents of autistic children because there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for a child with autism. It’s very individualized,” Mrs. Gillman says, “Managed care really comes down to the parents keeping everything organized. Even with doctors,, therapists, teachers and dieticians, we’re the ones trying different therapies, diets, and interventions to help our children thrive.”

The app ‘Birdhouse for Autism’ is meant to revolutionize our capacity to help children on the spectrum, by creating a digital space to store and organize a log of your children’s activities and behaviors to learn best practices to address their needs. There are currently two versions of the app, one that is free and the other that requires a monthly payment of $10. Although there has been an outburst of apps to help children with developing skills such as verbal communication, there hasn’t been a tool for parents themselves.  Even so the app can also be used by other caregivers, therapists, doctors alike. “Birdhouse is a place where all members of the care team—parent, therapist, caregiver, grandparent, or teacher—can go to in order to manage the child’s care together,” Dani Gillman explains.

To read more about their story and success click here.

To read more about the app and download a free version, click here