Category Archives: Education

Interpreting the Correlation between Infant Communication and Autism Onset

autism diagnosis

Over the years, researchers have fiercely debated the origins of autism. Theories regarding its conception have targeted everything from inattentive parents to biological bases. Despite their sundry allegations, these theories all have one thing in common: an emphasis on infant development.

Experts maintain that a clear diagnosis of autism cannot be established until early toddlerhood. Before then, behaviors vary too much to create a firm connection. Studies regarding eye movement and tracking have come close to identifying early clues to autism’s onset; however, they remain somewhat insufficient to establish an accurate diagnosis.

Jonathan Green, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester, strives to substantiate an intensive evaluation and therapy approach that could create a stronger, more accurate method for infant diagnoses. He is currently supervising a study following 53 at-risk infants in order to document autism’s manifestation.

Green believes that it is a combination of genetic and parenting influences that activates autism during infancy. He has not been satisfied with the popular notion that biology alone determines autism development so he hopes to outline compounding factors. Thus far, he’s discovered that an intensive parental intervention correlates to increased social interaction and attention in the infants.

It is important to note that Green does not place the origin of autism on parents. Rather, he believes that parent-child relationships may simply influence the trajectory at which a biological predisposition towards autism may begin.

His intervention consists of training parents to recognize and interpret attempts at communication, fostering an interest in the infant’s changing attentions, and translating gestures into words to build verbal understanding. It also expounds on electroencephalography findings regarding brain response to speech sounds.

It is too soon to say whether this training can truly alter the course of autism’s development. Nevertheless, Green’s program does provide important feedback to parents regarding how their interactions play into the child’s development, whether they be typically developing or not.

“I don’t want to say that one can ‘cure’ autism like this, that’s not true,” Green says. “But I hope we’ll be able to make a difference.”

Sara Power, Fordham University



Albany Discussion Forum Addresses Workplace Diversity

autism in the workplace

As ICare4Autism gears up for its Global Workforce Initiative programs, more organizations are cropping up who recognize the importance of lowering the autism unemployment rate.

On Tuesday, March 17, The Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region sponsored a forum addressing workplace opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum. Directed at employers, the workshop emphasized the advantages of workplace diversity.

One topic discussed included the interview process, which can be extremely difficult for those on the spectrum since they are quickly judged on their social skills. The speakers also addressed the benefits of recruiting and training qualified candidates on the autism spectrum, who often possess degrees in science and technology but fail to snag jobs in their field because of their misunderstood condition.

Marcia Scheiner, the event’s keynote speaker, is the founder of the Asperger Syndrome Training and Employment Partnership. Scheiner spoke at ICare4Autism’s 2014 International Conference about ASTEP, which was created to bridge the gap between highly skilled, educated candidates with Asperger’s Syndrome and a sustainable job. According to Marcia, 35% of individuals with Asperger’s, a form of autism, have sought higher education. Some estimates assert that more than over 85% of “aspies” are unemployed or underemployed.

But this lack of success in the workplace does not typically result from poor job performance- in fact, 80-90% of people on the spectrum are terminated from their jobs because of social missteps. The lack of autism awareness in the workplace, coupled with an unwillingness to disclose the disorder, creates a roadblock in front of otherwise highly capable employees.

Also attending the conference were representatives from a newly-formed non-profit called Spectrum Employment Services. Jason Kippen, director of the program, works to seek out educated candidates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math and then match them with appropriate job openings.

Kippen is currently working with a talented young man who earned a computer science degree from the University of Albany. Although he graduated with a 3.2 grade point average, Kippen says, he is currently stocking shelves at Walmart since he has had no luck finding work in computer science.

“He is woefully underemployed,” Mr Kippen said to the Albany Business Review. “He has so much to offer.”



Robot Tutor for Children with Autism

robots helping autism

A Texas-based company called RoboKind has recently developed an innovative teaching tool geared towards children with Autism.

It is a 22-inch tall robot named Milo with cool, spiky hair, wide-eyes and a child-like voice. He is equipped with a video screen, sensors, cameras, and facial recognition software to evaluate the child’s responses and progress. They hope to help children with expressing empathy, self-motivation, and how to navigate social situations.

Two iPads are used, one for the student and one for the (human) instructor, to carry out each lesson. It is dependent upon the instructor whether they move on to next part or if they re-do the lesson. Throughout the entire session Milo is monitoring and recording data such as eye contact, speed and accuracy of answers, and frustration and interest levels. Lessons are also structured around particular social situations such as every day greetings, birthday party behavior, interpreting expressions, predicting others’ feelings, and how to be a good friend.

At the moment, Milo is being distributed regionally and used within private homes, treatment centers, therapy clinics, and schools. There are also some that are being tested for research in American and European universities.

One may think it is an odd approach to therapy, a robot teaching human emotions? It doesn’t make much sense. However, researches have found that children who are on the autism spectrum tend to respond better to technology rather than people. It is somewhat similar to when animals (such as dogs and horses) are used for therapy treatment. The Milo robots are different methods that help to achieve goals.

However, the company makes it very clear they are not replacing the traditional human therapist. Their goal is to create a new tool in which aides the therapists as part of their treatment plan. We all know that children with Autism can fall anywhere within the spectrum. So their therapies, as well, can be varied. The company states that the robot is best used for children who have the following skills: picture symbol recognition, ability to answer yes/no questions, ability to understand cause and effect, and the ability to use a tablet to communicate.

By Raiza Belarmino



Dr. Shore’s Music and Autism Lecture Resonates

Shema Kolainu hosted another successful community workshop with Dr. Stephen Shore on Tuesday. Entitled “Including Children on the Autism Spectrum in the Music Curriculum,” the presentation struck a chord with those in attendance.

The workshop held at Hotel Pennsylvania covered several topics that addressed involvement of special needs children in musical education. Currently a Special Education Professor at Adelphi University, Dr. Shore’s undergraduate work focused on music education. His teachings are influenced by his own experiences taking music lessons as a child with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Dr. Shore covered the benefits of introducing a child to a music curriculum. One of these benefits is that the students engage in social activity with their teacher and other students. There are many social rules to learn and practice when taking lessons in your teacher’s house, for example. It helps the child to be reminded that they should be courteous and say “hello” when arriving at the house and “thank you” once the lesson is over.

Dr. Shore displayed a numbered instruction sheet that one of his former students used:

autism music task list

 

In addition to helping the children with social cues, Dr. Shore has also come up with many methods that have been effective to teach them music. Sometimes charts can be helpful when teaching notation because children on the spectrum love structure. His students responded well when they had the letter names of notes placed on a piano.

Dr. Shore’s lecture also addressed how to adjust traditional classroom instruction within a school environment. Since there is rarely enough time to address each student individually, he suggests asking other students to instruct a child who is struggling. This also will help the “student instructor” obtain an even better grasp on the material as they mentor.

Often in a classroom environment, lessons have not been planned with a special needs child in mind. For a child on the autistic spectrum, these lessons can be adapted to suit their alternative learning styles. This is called a “substitute curriculum.” One avenue to take is to reach out for extra help from a paraprofessional. The teacher’s aide can work with a child separately until he or she is up to speed on the material. Once the part is mastered, the child can perform with the ensemble.

A musical education can improve the lives of young people in a number of ways, both for typical and atypical learners. When introduced before adolescence, musical literacy can improve a child’s motor coordination in regards to finger movement. The areas of the brain responsible for touch perception are more developed in people who learned to play music at a young age.



Emotional Regulation and Coping Strategies with ASD

autism emotional regulation

Regulating emotions can be a very daunting task for some individuals. Likewise, in an emotional situation or environment, keeping control can be very difficult.

If a situation which requires a higher level of composure is coupled with mental illness or a cognitive disorder such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, emotional control has the potential to become a secondary issue in this situation.

A recent study has recently been completed which demonstrates a neurological disconnect that may contribute to the inability of a person with ASD to handle a high stress/high sensory situation.

The study included 30 participants (15 with ASD and 15 without), and had them complete an emotional regulatory task while in an fMRI. This task had all participants view various pictures of people with neutral faces and no emotional cues. They were instructed to think positive, negative or neutral thoughts while viewing these pictures, and the neural areas that ‘lit up’ were recorded.

The results showed that regardless of instructed emotion, the participant’s pupils all dilated (meaning they were thinking hard about changing their emotion), and the prefrontal cortex and limbic systems of those without ASD ‘lit up’ much more than those with ASD. These two areas of the brain are significant as the limbic system is technically an evolutionarily ‘old’ part of the brain, and in tandem with the prefrontal cortex they control the regulation of emotions, decision-making, and needs.

These two areas were slow to start up and did not activate as strongly in participants who did not have ASD. If the structure that regulates emotion works differently in people with ASD, then emotions are expressed differently as well.

There have been many publications regarding overall strategies to help a child or individual cope with this unique style of emotional regulation. All of these publications include suggestions for the three pillars of ASD: communication, socialization, and behavioral patterns. In general, these strategies are repeated through each publication, which means they are tried and true for most cases.

Depending on who the tip sheet is written for, the child or individual is referred to as someone’s child, a student, or a client (if it is geared towards a behavioral therapist). Suggestions include having access to communication tools at all times and knowing how to paraphrase and simplify sentences without talking down to the child, helping the child/student understand common language like slang and puns, etc.

A key issue that is discussed is to not use sarcasm and to explain body language. Strategies to improve socialization include personal coping skills like not taking rude remarks/behavior personally, as well as using reinforcers to help condition proper social behavior. The child can be taught to recognize their behavior and emotions in addition to the behavior and emotions of those around them while working on simple social skills.

Finally, helping a child create positive habitual behavior patterns can begin to be accomplished by simply giving reinforcement, creating a routine, and being aware of anything that could cause anxiety. By utilizing resources that are aimed to help create a positive environment for an individual with ASD, one ensures their strongest chance for success and reaching their very best potential.

By Sydney Chasty, Carleton University



Intense Auditory Behavioral Training Shows Promise

auditory autism therapy

A new study conducted by researchers in Mississippi and California was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier in February and claims they may have found a way to rewire the brain to possibly treat autism.

Dr. Rick Lin, a professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and co-author of the study, explains how researchers were able to use a method called intense auditory behavioral training on rats to observe outcomes of the treatment.

The rats were first injected with a drug in order to stimulate serotonin receptors, causing the rats to exhibit autism-like symptoms.  They began to show antisocial behavior towards each other and acted very atypical of a normal rat.

“The rats, they were just not going to play with one another,” Lin explained.  “Just how a child with autism prefers to play by himself, so were these animals.  They were also super nervous, and when we would try to excite them with noise, they would just freeze – that’s not typical of a rat.”

Dr. Michael Merzenich of UCSF worked alongside the teams to subject the rats to a series of tones and ticks that Dr. Ian Paul, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at UMMC, explains can create “plasticity”, meaning the brain actually changes over time.  Dr. Paul explained that when the rats heard the noises, they were hearing them at distorted frequencies, causing them to sound muffled – similar to what children with autism sometimes experience.

“Through this training, animals progressively sharpened their abilities to distinguish the fine difference between the sounds that they had heard.  This training had a dramatic impact on all of the autism-like neurological distortions in their brains,” Merzenich concluded.

The study lasted two months and showed promising results for the populations of male rats exclusively.  Scientists still don’t know why, but autism is four times more likely to affect males than females.  In proportion, if this treatment was to be conducted on humans, it would last about two years in a normal child’s life.  Although this treatment is still new, the researchers of the study are confident that their findings in coordination more support and effort can bring hope to families suffering from the effects of autism.

Written by Mara Papleo, Cleveland State University



Untying Knots of ASD and Associated Syndrome

understanding autism: untying knots

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is like a dense bundle of knots. Getting to its core can only be done by unraveling the complexities of numerous syndromes that are linked to ASD, one by one.

Doctor Alexander Kolevzon is currently working to comprehend Phelan-McDermid syndrome (PMS). A clinical director at Mount Sinai, Kolevzon directed a pilot study that aimed to improve the social impairments of those suffering of PMS, many of which also have ASD. The study was originally published in the December 12 issue of the journal Molecular Autism.

“Because different genetic causes of ASD converge on common underlying chemical signaling pathways, the findings of this study may have implications for many forms of ASD,” Kolevzon reported. The chemical signaling pathways he refers to involve the role of SHANK3, a gene found on chromosome 22. SHANK3 is highly involved in synapses, the gaps between neurons through which chemical messages are passed to reach individual target cells. Mutations and deletions of the gene cause developmental and language delays, as well as poor motor skills.

While the deletion or mutation of the gene causes PMS, it has remained unclear whether there exists a link between variations of the gene and autism until now. Mount Sinai’s preclinical study persuaded Doctor Kolevzon that a link exists, and inspired the hospital to conduct the first controlled trial of any treatment for PMS. Using SHANK3 deficient mouse models and neuronal models of SHANK3 deficient humans, the preclinical study indicated that reversal of synaptic plasticity and motor learning deficits may occur due to insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1. IGF-1 is highly involved in synaptic transmission; it boosts synaptic circuits viability by promoting nerve cell survival and synaptic maturation. In addition, IFG-1 increases synaptic plasticity, the tendency for synaptic connections to change in structure and function to efficiently process novel stimuli.

The Mount Sinai placebo-controlled, double-blind study exposed nine PMS-suffering children, ages 5 to 15, to three months of IGF-1 treatment and three months of placebo. The order of treatment was random. Major improvements were observed during the IGF-1 phase as opposed to the placebo phase. Specifically, the children showed fewer signs of social withdrawal and restrictive behaviors, two indicators that standard behavior scales such as the Aberrant Behavior Checklist and the Repetitive Behavior Scale employ when assessing the effects of ASD treatments. Thus, the study became the first to explore the probability that the growth hormone IGF-1 can greatly ameliorate social impairment linked with ASD.

This study is just the beginning. Improving PMS symptoms helps untangle the cluster of knots that is ASD. Joseph Buxbaum, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry, Genetics and Genomic Sciences and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai, affirmed that “this clinical trial is part of a paradigm shift to develop targeted, disease modifying medicines specifically to treat the core symptoms of ASD.”

Maude Plucker, Tufts University



Utilizing Restricted Interests Improves Reading Comprehension

literacy research for autism

Narrow, specific interests are a characteristic for those with autism spectrum disorder. A group of university researchers wants to channel this tendency into a method that will improve literacy.

“Perseverative interest” is the term that describes this phenomenon. Researchers at UVA have discovered that by including a child’s restricted interests frequently in their reading material, literacy instruction may improve the child’s comprehension.

University of Virginia Curry School of Education Professor Michael Solis collaborated with Cleveland University Professor Farah El Zein and designed a literacy curriculum which uses a child’s specific interests frequently within a story. If a child loves trains, the texts references trains several times.

When he tested his model, Solis discovered that the method improved enagement with the material for the children who participated. They then performed better on curriculum-based tests as well following the experiment.

Solis was inspired to delve into this research after conducting a thorough search on the availability of instructional methods designed to improve the scholastic performance of children with autism. He discovered that there was a surprising lack of such data available on reading comprehension, and much of the data available lacked stringency.

According to Solis, most of the specialized instruction for autistic children focuses on improving their social skills and behavior. The most widely accepted methods for increasing reading comprehension among children with autism is to apply the same methods used for a variety of disabilities.

Since Solis is an expert on tailoring reading instruction to suit a variety of special needs, he set out to create a more specialized, and therefore more effective method of teaching reading comprehension to children with autism.

“Reading comprehension is critical to academic success, enabling attendance in college and meaningful employment,” Solis said to NBC29. “We really need to close that gap. Conventional reading interventions used in special education classrooms are not bringing the results with children of autism as they are with others.”



Unique As a Snowflake: Study Finds No Two Cases of Autism the Same

autism cases are unique

If you were to put a group of children together, the differences in their personalities would be obvious- the extroverted kids would lead the game, the shyer would hang back, friends would form bonds and take on a partnership role, and the rest filling the various dynamics of the group.

It is the same as children affected with Autism Spectrum Disorder- if they were to fill a room, their personalities shine and their unique differences would be immediately seen.

Although it has been commonly accepted that no two people with ASD are the same, the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, (Canada) recently conducted a study which looked at the genetic makeup of siblings affected with autism and their respective parent’s. They found that a significant (69.4%) amount of these siblings’ DNA code had varying aspects of ASD, making them as “unique as snowflakes”.

This means that siblings who both have the same autism diagnosis can have a different coding scenario, in turn showing a greater variation in their expression of the disorder. This helps to explain how a family with two children with the same diagnosis of autism can show significant differences in their behavior, as any other family can attest.

In the above mentioned article, Valerie South’s two sons (Thomas and Cameron) were both diagnosed with a type of low-functioning autism, which leads to difficulties in learning development. And like most brothers, they have their own expressions of self, different from one another.

In the study, their entire DNA sets were assessed, and it was found that, although they had the same diagnosis, the expression of the ASD-related genes were largely differentiating. The study had 170 participants with ASD, and looked at all genetic variations that were relevant to the disorder (both their genetic makeup and the outward expression of the gene). It also looked at the structural variation of the genes associated with the spectrum.

With almost 70% of the siblings showing significant genetic variation in relevant genes, this scientifically backed hypothesis confirms the anecdotal knowledge parents with children of ASD have known for years; the variability between siblings is as significant as any brothers or sisters without the disorder, and ultimately, no two cases of autism are ever the same.

This innovative study brings to light how Autism Spectrum Disorder is viewed, studied, and treated. The concept that no expression of this development disorder can be considered thesame calls for complete tailoring of therapies, treatments, as well as how people are diagnosed.

The image of this disorder as a spectrum has now been reinforced with the information from this new study, and it is time to open the discussion on how these individuals should be cared for, and how we talk about autism.

Written by Sydney Chasty



Book Reaches Out to Parents Struggling with Child Disabilites

 

mental disorders and autism

For any parent of a special needs child, he or she is well aware of the challenges that crop up on a constant basis. A mother of four children with mental disabilities has now written a book to help parents cope with that overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to turn.

Ann Douglas’ book “Parenting Through the Storm,” reaches out to gather a large variety of perspectives. Over 50 parents of children with mental health challenges were interviewed, as well as mental health professionals. Their stories carry a message of hope for parents and provides advice on how to cope with mental disorders and illnesses.

The author’s own story has been a tumultuous one. Her daughter has battled depression and bulimia, and all three of her sons were diagnosed with ADHD. Her two youngest sons struggled in school with writing-based disorders, and her youngest son Ian has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder.

She mentions in the book how the genetic variations that are linked to ASD often result in other mental disabilities within a sibling, like bipolar disorder. This is why it can sometimes feel like mental challenges are “stacked up” within a single family.

Douglas herself has fought against the current and suffered through mental health issues as a result of her childrens’ difficulties. She battled clinical depression for about three years. The author makes a point in her book to emphasize caring for onesself for her readers. In order to provide the best life for your children, you must make your own health a priority.

“You find yourself in the situation and you have no choice but to cope because the kids are counting on you to cope,” Douglas said in an interview with Brandon Sun.