Category Archives: Research

“You Said What?” The Importance of Lip-Reading in Conversation

lip reading

One of the hallmark symptoms of autism spectrum disorder is an inability to read other person’s facial expressions and link them to their emotional state.

Not only does this disabled understanding of the face diminish emotive recognition, but it also contributes to an overall lack of attention to the face during conversation. Such a lack means that persons with ASD are not well practiced in communicating in noisy environments, where lip-reading pays an enormous contribution to conversation. Indeed, researchers have discovered that persons with ASD barely use other people’s faces as a point of context in identifying both emotions and linguistic elements; as a result, large parts of communication are lost on them.

At Southern Connecticut State University, researchers have been working with autistic adolescents on this skill in their program “Listening to Faces” which is aimed at improving conversational skills. Working with these adolescents, they have discovered a disconnect between participants’ understanding of communication and the face. In studying this discrepancy, researchers hope to improve early therapy that could significantly increase the quality of relationships for young children with ASD.

With the use of brain imaging technology, Professor Julia Irwin, who runs the program, hopes that she and her students may be able to better identify the neurocognitive components underlying this behavior. For the time being, however, she is just grateful to be able to offer further insight and therapy into this phenomenon. Parent Diane Vergara shares her gratitude that her son “definitely made an improvement even though it was a short period of time” with this therapy program, and lauds their attempt to identify the right tools in increasing productivity.

If interested in learning more about this research, you can email

Written by Sara Power, Fordham University

Quick Behavioral Observations Frequently Overlook Signs of Autism

Lynn Burton reads to her daughter Adelaide. Many toddlers her age are not receiving potentially life-saving autism screenings. | Medical XPress

Lynn Burton reads to her daughter Adelaide. Many toddlers her age are not receiving potentially life-saving autism screenings. | Medical XPress

Parents should not rely solely on a medical professional to detect a child’s autism, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Research shows that bringing a child to a 10-20 minute pediatric behavior monitoring session is not sufficient to determine if a child has autism. Parents who trust that their child’s doctor will be thorough in their examination without paying attention to their child’s developmental signs day to day could be missing some key information.

These short sessions simply do not give the clinician enough time with your child to make an accurate diagnosis. The medical professional cannot gather enough information at a simple checkup. Thus, many children with autism will show normal behavior during this window, and will not get referred to a professional who can provide the treatment needed.

If autism symptoms are missed early on in a child’s life, they may miss a crucial point in their development in which early intervention is most effective. Autistic children who receive early intervention and treatment before age three have been shown to vastly conquer or eliminate their symptoms before entering school. Just like learning a new language, changing the child’s brain in this way becomes more difficult after they leave the toddler years behind.

In the study, ten minute videos of children ages 15-33 months were viewed by experts in the field. Children with autism, speech delays, and normal development were all included. It was found that the quick observation was not sufficient to gather accurate conclusions, and the experts missed 39 percent of the children with autism since they displayed typical behavior during this time.

The CDC reports that autism diagnoses have increased 30 percent during the past two years, when the statistic jumped from 1 in 88 to 1 in 68 children. This is why a correct diagnosis early on is especially important.

What this means for young children with autism is that they would benefit from more detailed observation. Exploring in-depth autism screenings and extra attention from parents are key steps in understanding a child’s development.

A parent usually knows their children more intimately than anyone else, and if educated properly, can recognize the symptoms of autism on their own, and alert the child’s care provider to determine the next step.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a formal autism screening for children at the 18 and 24 month mark. A few simple screening tools that help parents know the signs to look for are available to use free of charge. One of these is the M-CHAT-R Checklist. Another resource to use is the CDCs Learn The Signs, Act Early campaign.

Early Intervention: How Effective Is It?

early intervention success

Children are the most precious gifts that any mother could have.

Before the child even takes its first breath of air in this world, a mother carries him or her for a full for nine months. In those nine months, a woman is advised to take care of herself, her body, and her soon-to-be child by  exercising as much caution as possible with her daily routine. A mother creates a relationship with her child in those nine months through the simple things such as the way he or she may kick or move. As we all know, having a child comes great responsibility, no matter what kind of problems it may come with on both the physical and mental spectrum.

Normally, autistic children do not show noticeable signs of their disorder until they are around the age of three. Even though the signs may be hard to find when they are very young, there are ways to determine if your child may have autism. To begin, it is common for children that have autism to lag in their speech development. They cannot make certain sounds or many noises to “talk” or communicate with their loved ones, or whoever it may be. They also tend to be focused on one object or concept for a very long period of time, which makes it hard to direct his or her attention towards something else.

Kristin Hinson, who is a mother of four, participated in a study conducted by Sally Rogers, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral studies at UC Davis MIND Institute. Hinson began to see signs indicating that her son Noah may have autism when he was just nine months old. Rogers was curious what a difference it would make if parents intervened before their children were officially diagnosed with autism.

The study involved behavioral therapy for twelve weeks, in which Hinson was taught behavioral mechanisms and techniques, including sensory. Six other parents that saw signs of autism with their toddlers participated as well.  After therapy was over, 18 month-old Noah caught up developmentally with other children his age, if not even better. He became more engaged. Along with Noah, the six other children showed much more improvement.

The sample size for this study was small, so it is difficult to draw a conclusion stating that early intervention before age three can prevent autism symptoms from becoming severe later on. But in general, scientists do agree that early intervention can change the outcome for toddlers at risk for the disorder.

Taja Nicolle Kenney, Eerie Community College

University Programs that Help Autistic Children Cope with Anxiety

Drawing made by a child at Temple University's Coping Cat Program | The Philadelphia Inquirer

Drawing made by a child at Temple University’s Coping Cat Program | The Philadelphia Inquirer

For an autistic child, all kinds of issues can arise which may seem trite to most; but for them, even pizza bubbles could trigger anxiety.

Between 40 and 60 percent of people on the spectrum suffer from at least one anxiety disorder, while around 20 percent report living with more than one. Research programs to discover more information about these symptoms have conducted some interesting work recently, notably those at Temple University, Drexel, and UCLA.

Conner Kerns works as an assistant professor at A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Kerns has experienced a lack of effective treatment for anxiety disorders in people with autism. The current methods for treating anxiety disorder are not usually designed for those affected by autism.

Children with autism, for instance, are often disgruntled at a small change in routine. These atypical triggers are specifically associated with symptoms of autism, so a specialized knowledge and diagnosis is required for effective treatment.

Kerns is now developing a specialized diagnostic criteria for autism-associated anxiety disorders, which includes the trademark characteristics of social and communication difficulty and repetitive actions. She attributes the lack of comprehensive understanding about autism-specific anxiety disorders on clinicians’ tendency to group all symptoms under the broader disorder.

The need for proper treatment, however is apparent as the children grow older. In the state of Pennsylvania, it is projected that 36,000 adults will be seeking treatment for autism. In a 2011 survey, between 20 and 50 percent of children and adults in the state reported that their mental health care needs were not being met. This includes anxiety disorders.

Philip Kendall is the director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic. With the help of Conner Kerns, a former student of his, he will be carrying out in-depth research on anxiety disorder treatment for autistic children using two psychosocial treatments.

One of these projects is The Coping Cat Program, which was created by Kerns 20 years ago. This program runs for 16 weeks and teaches children to first recognize the signs of anxiety, such as increased heart rate and shaking. They are then taught how to cope with this anxiety, which requires them to expose themselves to their triggers in order to deal with them. The children must go to crowded places with unfamiliar people and alter their routines in order to face their fears; sitting around and talking about them is simply not enough.

The second program children will be participating in is called the BIACA (Behavioral Interventions for Anxiety in Children with Autism) program. BIACA will build on the methodology of The Coping Cat program, but sessions will be tailored for kids on the autistic spectrum. Treatment includes more parental involvement and emphasizes social skills, and a reward system is implemented to mark progress.

Both of these programs will be studied for their effectiveness, and will include a control group of children who receive no treatment. Researchers want to know which of these programs is most effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety. They are also paying special attention to whether each program reduces autism-linked symptoms.

Sensory Chairs Comfortably Snuggle Children with Autism

Students in the CAPS program at Blue Valley High School built the Sensory Chair to comfort children with deep tough therapy. TAMMY LJUNGBLAD, THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Students in the CAPS program at Blue Valley High School built the Sensory Chair to comfort children with deep touch therapy. TAMMY LJUNGBLAD, THE KANSAS CITY STAR

A group of engineering students at a Kansas City High School have developed a special piece of furniture that provides comfort to anxious children, which they hope to patent soon.

Stuart Jackson, a concerned father from the local community, approached students at the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) to help find some relief for his autistic son Joshua. Mr. Jackson found that he was able to soothe his child’s anxiety by using deep touch pressure.

This type of contact is what a person would feel if they were embraced tightly, and some have found it highly effective in treating children with autism when they experience meltdown symptoms. Seniors at CAPS have already tested their chair on some children, and found that it calmed a panicked child right away.

The students have created two prototypes- The Sensory Chair and The Sensory Lounger. The items are designed to resemble a normal price of furniture and will likely retail for under $1,000.

Jackson has previously searched for such items currently on the market, and found no good solution. Available devices were either too loud or clunky, or not effective. An engineer and entrepreneur himself, Jackson came to CAPS to bring his idea to life- an affordable, practical and effective therapeutic chair.

The idea can be credited to Temple Grandin, an autism activist and academic scholar at Colorado University. Grandin has had an extremely accomplished career despite living with autism. As a teenager, she witnessed some calves receiving vaccinations on her aunt’s farm. When they received the shots, they were placed in a “cattle squeezing” device, which calmed them down noticeably. Grandin tried the machine on herself and also found it quite comforting.

Following that discovery, Grandin invented a “squeeze machine” that worked similarly to the cattle chute but could be used on children. The device provided deep, evenly applied touch stimulation for the child.

Jackson hopes that this special invention will be used at Timber Creek Elementary School, where his son attends the LIFT program for children on the severe end of the autistic spectrum. Administration told him that Grandin’s “hug” machine was far too expensive for the school to afford.

Both prototypes designed by the engineering students at CAPS use inflatable airbags surrounded by a swimming noodle for extra padding. The interior components are covered by stretch fabric and secured with an elastic band. Caregivers are able to control the airbag’s pressure by using a remote.

Though they use similar technology, the chair was created using a papasan circular design, while the lounger is more like a small chaise lounge that children can lie down on.  The lounger provides a bed for deep relaxation, while the chair is smaller and lighter for easier transport.

The lounge prototype was taken to Timber Creek for testing. Out of the five children who tried it, none of them wanted to get out.

Deep touch sensory therapy has proven effective for many children, but the future of The Sensory Chair and The Sensory Lounger depend on proving there is demand for the product. If the creators of the sensory therapeutic devices are able to demonstrate this need, their next step will be to present their business model to investors for manufacture and distribution.

Samsung App “Look at Me” Helps Children Improve Eye Contact

child uses iPad

On Monday, Samsung announced the development of a new app that helps children who struggle with eye contact, facial expression recognition, and emotional expression. The program “Look at Me” has been launched in Korea and is still in the clinical testing phase.

The curricula on the software was designed with the assistance of cognitive physiologists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. Using an interactive “smart camera” which is hooked up to a Samsung tablet device. Using the tablet screen, children can view facial expressions and play games in which they identify the emotion and improve their eye contact.

The child is also able to take photos of themselves with the smart camera attachment and load their own facial expressions into games that are fun and instructive. In addition, parents are provided with daily feedback on the child’s progress. Samsung recommends that children use the app 15-20 minutes per day.

Although Samsung has not revealed when the app will be released on the Android platform, the company has collaborated with a non-profit in Canada to create a training program in which 200 recipients are given the Samsung Galaxy Tab S free of charge, which comes with the “Look at Me” app already installed. So far, this program is limited to Canadian residents only.

According to Samsung’s website, “Look at Me” was designed to keep families connected to each other. Their introductory video on the Youtube channel “Samsung Tomorrow” follows the journey of an 11 year old Korean boy, Jong-Hyun Kim and his mother. Jong-Hyun has autism and experiences difficulty connecting to others and coping with everyday challenges. By the end, his mother (in an actual interview) praises the program for the marked improvement she has seen in her son.

“At first I wasn’t sure about the program,” says they boy’s mother. “But these days I feel like he’s changed for the better. He can express himself in various ways and more naturally, and I feel like he looks at me as a mother. Now that we can look into each other’s eyes, we’ve become much closer.”

Although children on the autistic spectrum often have difficulty with eye contact and social skills, it has been noted that they often demonstrate interest in electronic devices. Use of iPads, for example, has proven helpful in many ways to improve many skills that they struggle with. According to a study conducted by parents of autistic children using Look at Me, 60% of the children demonstrated improved eye contact after using the app, as well as being able to identify emotions more easily.

Research for Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Gets a Boost


A Canadian University received praise in response to their use of a treatment for autism called Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy.

The research program at Simon Frasier University received this prize in the form of a $500,000 grant from Central City Brewing and Distillery President Darryl Frost. Frost and his wife were compelled to donate to the program after seeing the improvements their son had made after receiving intensive HBOT.

5 year old Callum, who had struggled with behavioral issues, began undergoing the treatment along with dietary changes to improve his symptoms. Before the therapy he began, his father Daryl described him as an “extremely low-functioning child” who was not capable of communicating, feeding himself, or getting dressed independently. He also exhibited aggression, tantrums, and self-harming behavior.

Now, Callum’s father claims he can speak in full sentences, can eat and dress by himself, and is fully potty trained. His behavior and communication has largely improved and he attends kindergarden with the help of an aid.

During an HBOT session, the patient is placed in a pressure chamber where they are able to breathe 100% oxygen. The researchers claim that this allows for greater tissue saturation by up to ten times when compared to normal pressure.

The newly funded HBOT study will be conducted by SFU’s Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit and the university’s associate dean from the Faculty of Science. The study is planned to accept 40 volunteers, both children and adults. Some of the individuals will have autism while others will not. Research will likely begin by 2016. Though studies on HBOT and its effectiveness on autism symptoms have been conducted in the past, the results were fairly subjective and difficult to measure scientifically.

This time around, SFU will be using the university’s Magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine. This piece of technology is the most modern brain imaging device available to the university. Using the MEG machine, scientist will be able to track brain oscillations and note changes in mental network connectivity. It will also enable scientists to determine which patients will benefit most from HBOT.

It is not yet clear how this treatment will improve symptoms of autism. What researchers do know is that HBOT increases the oxygen supply to the blood stream, therefore allowing more oxygen to reach the brain. In turn, they theorize that this increased oxygen energizes brain cells and cell pathways. This may actually help repair cells that are damaged or functioning at a low metabolic level.

You can read the original article here.

Special Behavioral Autism Therapy May Alter Brain Activity



Preliminary results from a four-month study show that pivotal response training (PRT) can alter brain function in children with autism.

Areas of the brain that process social information showed changes after the therapy was used on children. Several mental areas showed improvement after the experiment which was measured by response to visual stimuli.

Pivotal Response Training was used with half of the participants in this study with autism spectrum disorder. This therapy uses some of the child’s favorite playtime activities. The therapist then develops certain ways to communicate by engaging the child in their own interests.

Researchers showed photographs of houses as well as pictures of human faces to children in two groups. The first group contained 40 children with autism spectrum disorder and the second was a control group of 20 children who did not have autism. All children were shown the photos before the treatment and then after receiving it for 4 months. Functional magnetic response imaging (fMRI) was used to monitor activity in the brain.

At the beginning of the study, the children with autism showed more brain activity when shown photos of houses than when they looked at the face pictures, which was the opposite of what the control group demonstrated. This indicates that they respond more to physical objects than to social stimuli.

Early results from the therapy showed that following the treatment, children in the autistic group showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. This area is associated with social cognition. The children within this same group who did not receive treatment showed a small decline in mental activity in the same area.

However, in one way the results were contradictory. Some of the children were monitored to determine which regions of the face they focused on. The children with autism actually focused more on the subject’s mouths than they did on their eyes during the second observation after receiving the therapy. This indicates that the children read mouths for social cues more than eyes, like most other children would, though researchers expected to see the opposite after the therapy was complete. This data was only recorded in nine children, so the results should be noted with a larger sample size.

While the research is still in its early phases, the findings show that PRT may be effective in normalizing social cognition in children with autism. Students and associates at Yale University conducting the study hope to have more in-depth results published early next year.

New Treatment Reduces Autism-Like Symptoms in Adolescent Mice


According to a new unpublished study, a compound used to treat genetic deficits may be effective against symptoms linked to autism.

Scientists announced at the 2014 Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting that experimental treatments using an immunosuppressant called rapamycin have been met with success when used on adolescent mice. At 6 weeks old, the rodents are at a similar development phase to that of a human teenager.

This treatment has previously been used to treat a genetic mutation associated with the TSC1 gene. Abnormalities in this gene can cause a condition called tuberous sclerosis, which is characterized by the growth of benign tumors. About half of the population that suffers from tuberous sclerosis also has austim spectrum disorder.

It was observed that mice who lacked TSC1 in their Purkinje cells, neurons located in the cerebellum, exhibited autism-like symptoms, such as social difficulties, narrow interests, and repetitive behaviors, when they reach 2 months of age. It was noticed that when these cells died, symptoms associated with autism became apparent.

A previously released study demonstrated that rapamycin could prevent the symptoms when used on mice that were 7 days old. It was however not determined how effective the treatment was in older mice. In the most recent study, researchers found treated at 6 weeks of age did not develop these behaviors.

The results suggest that this therapy may be used to reduce- or even reverse- behaviors associated with autsim in children of a wide age range. Though the therapy is still in the developmental stages, these findings could be indicate promising discoveries in the field of behavioral treatment for children with autism, even at the later stages.

The average age of an autism diagnosis in children is 4 years. Older children who were diagnosed years ago are often still searching for treatment options into their teenage years, since they may not have had access to intervention in the formative years. Since them symptoms are not always understood at the onset, others are not diagnosed until adolescence, and some not until adulthood. Along with traditional speech therapy, occupational therapy, and psychiatric treatment, biological methods of treatment could signal a huge leap in our understanding of autism spectrum disorder.

Elephant Therapy Improves Skills for Autistic Children

Child riding elephant

Sometimes, a little understanding from an animal can be very comforting- even if the therapy animal is 9 feet tall and weighs around 4 tons.

Examples of service animals for individuals with special needs abound, from the more well-known service dog to slightly more obscure horse therapy or even dolphin therapy. In Thailand, researchers have seen noticeable improvements when using elephants to help children with autism spectrum disorder.

Several children who have struggled with developing life skills were brought to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in the city of Lampang to participate in a pioneer elephant therapy program. The children are taught to bathe the elephants, play ball games with them, and even ride them bareback. They also sing nursery rhymes and dance with with the elephants, and complete chores at the conservation center.

Nuntanee Satiansukpong, the head of the Occupational Therapy department at Chaing Mao University, says that the pachyderms’ size works to the advantage of children who have a difficult time paying attention, since their presence is so stimulating. The children bond with these large, gentle mammals who are so captivating to spend time around.

Not only is there an emotional benefit from working with the therapy animals, the children also learn to complete tasks on the grounds that translate to real life skill development. The children learn to follow directions by visiting a store to purchase supplies for the elephants, like sugar cane and corn. If the elephant rejects the food, participants must return to the store to exchange it until they find something the animal accepts, which teaches them how to cope when problems arise. Playing games and dancing improves social skills among the children. Bathing the elephants helps the kids get over the strange rough and sticky texture of the elephant skin they have an aversion to.

An initial study was conducted to determine the effectiveness of elephant therapy on children with autism, which was followed up by two more studies. In the first round, 4 male volunteers ages 11-19 were instructed to complete their chores and also learn to ride the elephants. At the conclusion of the study, the children’s motor and communication skills were tested, and researchers determined that they had all improved in the areas of “sensory processing, social skills, postural control and balance, performance of daily living activities, and adaptive behaviors.

The second study built on the methods of the first, using the same group of participants. This time, researchers also noted that children were able to transfer their learned skills and behaviors to benefit them at school. The third study used a larger group, and divided participants into two groups, measuring social behaviors (16 individuals) and motor planning (20) individuals. Improvements were also noted in both categories.

Both statistical analysis and observation were used to measure results. The relatively small sample size presents some limitations, so larger participant groups are needed to collect more accurate data.

The success of elephant therapy begs us to question what types of alternative therapies may still remain untested within the animal kingdom, some of which could continue to bring groundbreaking results for treatment of development disabilities.