Category Archives: Early Intervention

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



Higher Obesity Rates in Autistic Children

We already know that rates of obesity have been on a steady rise in the US. As we become more health conscious, researchers have begun noticing trends in weight gain when it comes to children and youth on the autism spectrum. Using a large patient database from the Massachusetts General Hosp Researchers looked at 6672 children, ages 2 through 20 years old, and found 2075 with autism, 901 with Asperger’s, and 3696 typically developing to use as a control. They calculated the body mass index (BMI) of each child using their last recorded weight and height and then calculated the differences between the groups. Twenty three percent of children with autism and twenty five percent of those with Asperger’s were obese and another fifteen percent and eleven percent, respectively were overweight.

In the control group they found only 6 percent of the kids to be obese and 11 percent overweight. “ We found significant differences at the youngest age category (2-5 years old) and persisted to the oldest age category,” Sarabeth Broder-Fingert of the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and her colleagues wrote in this study, published in the July-August issue of the journal of Academic Pediatrics. 

Researchers have yet to identify the reasons behind the differences we see in these two groups, however, they say further study should examine how much time autistic children spend doing individual activities that don’t require moving, their access to physical activities and their physical abilities, and heir eating habits especially when it comes to food being used as a reward. Just earlier this year the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found obesity to be 50 percent more prevalent in adolescents with developmental disabilities and that those with autism face the greatest risk.

Many therapists and newer studies are finding that movement and exercises can have therapeutic results for children on the spectrum. Improvement in motor skills can have other positive impacts for children who struggle with communication even. This obesity disparity will be important to research and understand as we continue to develop best practices for those on the spectrum to lead happy and successful lives. 

 



Autism & Severe Problem Behavior: What Do We Do?

Some children on the spectrum experience very severe problem behavior, that includes causing themselves great physical harm or causing others harm, which poses a real challenge to parents, doctors, and educators alike when it comes to treatment.  Earlier this month a California couple was accused of keeping their 11-year-old autistic son in a cage, which elicited a lot of criticism and debate over how to best take care of those children who unfortunately engage in this behavior. Amy Lutz, the author of Each Day I Like It Better: Autism, ECT, and the Treatment of Our Most Impaired Children, and a mother of a severely autistic son, talks about how people are quick to judge when it comes to taking care of your child. Her son’s aggressive behaviors were so dangerous that he has to spend ten months at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at just nine years old. Without knowing the details and context for these parents accused of caging their own child, we can’t really say whether this was a form of abuse or maybe a short-term solution to a very difficult challenge.

Dr. Gregory Hanley, Professor of Psychology at the Western New England University and adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, gave a dynamic and informative workshop about how to assess and treat severe problem behavior for children with ASD at ICare4Autism’s International Autism Conference. He talked a lot about using effective and safe methods as a behavioral analyst to not only help children on the spectrum, but also making sure to treat them as an individual with dignity and respect. Much of the problem behavior that he used as examples throughout the workshop included children who would throw tantrums, or engage in self-harming behaviors, and even trying to physically harm others.

The method he described to work through these behaviors is called functional assessment. He then provided a few qualifications and adjustments to the way behavioral analysts used to and still do functional assessments. Many behavioral analysts can be afraid for their safety or the child’s especially if the case is one of producing physical injury. Dr. Hanley argues that with the right method and approach, the analyst can provide a safe environment that allows them to learn essentially what it is that causes the problem behavior. Functional assessments like the ones that Dr. Hanley described are just ways in which behavior can be treated, however, there are other cases where the problem behavior is in fact a mental issue that requires medical treatment. The medicine available today includes anti-depressants, anti-seizure drugs, or in extreme cases electroconvulsive therapy. 

We hope that as this field of research continues to grow, we can come to a better understanding about the individual and how to help them lead more successful lives. To see Dr. Hanley’s presentation slides used during his workshop, click HERE.



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.