Category Archives: Research

Promising Research on the Development of the Autistic Brain

The synapse is a point of communication between two nerve cells

A new research study from the Columbia University Medical Center, looked at brain tissue from the temporal lobe, or the area known to be involved in social behavior and communication, from 26 individuals with autism ages 2 to 20 as well as samples from 22 typically developing children, all of who died from other causes. Researchers were actually able to gain some new insight into how autism develops, why people with autism experience symptoms, such as over sensitivity to their environments, and what we can do to treat these symptoms.

As our brains develop it goes through what’s called a pruning process as we progress from child to adolescent to adult. This pruning process limits or turns off certain synapses, or connections, in the brain that allow neurons to communicate with one another. This is a natural and desirable process for typically developing brain, as an overactive brain that is constantly active and releasing too much of a particular neurotransmitter, such as serotonin, can lead to things like seizures—more than a third of people with autism experience epileptic seizures. Kids with autism, however, seem to actually retain this extra brain connectivity that typically developing children weed out as they grow older. 

From the study they observed that the number of synapses was all around the same level in younger children from both groups but the adolescents had significantly fewer synapses than those with autism. David Sulzer, a professor of neurobiology at the Columbia University Medical Center who worked on the study, explains, “It’s the fist time that anyone had looked for and seen a lack of pruning during development of children with autism.” The typically developing 19 year olds had 41% fewer synapses than toddlers, but the ones with autism only had 16% fewer synapses. “Impairments that we see in autism seem to be partly due to different parts of the brain talking too much to each other. You need to lose connections in order to develop a fine-tuned system of brain networks, because if all parts of the brain talk to all parts of the brain, all you get is noise,” explains Ralph-Axel Muller, neuroscientist at San Diego State University.

This growing area of research in the field of autism is particularly promising as it provides new methods to treat autism, and researchers are hoping to do just that in the near future.



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.



Virtual Reality Programs as a Social Learning Tool for ASD

Does using technology to assist children with ASD further alienate them because social interaction is missing, or can it actually effect the opposite- by teaching them to socially interact? While some researchers say that    sitting at a computer screen reinforces isolation and brings out obsessive traits, another study done in Spain defends the use of special programs using virtual reality environments that are designed to stimulate awareness in children on the spectrum, while helping them feel safe.

As children with all forms of autism share a difficulty in attention, interpreting social cues as well as following directions, the goal of these Virtual Reality applications is to increase their understanding of body language, facial expressions, the use of imitation and environmental interactions, such as crossing the street. Avatars or characters have long been shown to help children to identify emotions, however, when they are in the protective computer generated environment, children can gain confidence by learning the rules and repeating the tasks. Verbal and gesture based interaction go hand in hand with these skills.

These applications are designed to be used not only on computers but also with more mobile technology such as phones and tablets. As a therapeutic accessory, they complement any other teaching method employed.  By helping the child build confidence through virtual reality learned interactions, we can help them adapt these skills into their every day lives.

Click Here for original study.

 



Dogs May Be Able to Increase Concentration and Socialization in Children with ASD

Therapy Sessions Incorporating Dogs Have Seen Great Success (photo: allaboutautismbni.com)

A recent study has shown that autistic children who take part in therapies involving animals, particularly dogs, tend to be more relaxed and have a better ability to concentrate. Furthermore, introducing children to dogs can potentially improve a child’s socialization and ability to express themselves.

Researchers at Green Chimneys in Brewster, NY, have analyzed how the use of various animals can play therapeutic roles for individuals with autism, as well as those with other disabilities or disorders. At the Sam and Myra Ross Institute at Green Chimneys, researchers have looked at how groups of autistic children react when certified therapy dogs are incorporated into their therapy sessions. According to the researchers, animals, particularly many breeds of dogs, can serve as a bridge between the therapist and the child. Michael Kaufman, the institute’s director, states, “Intuitively and anecdotally, we can see how contact with animals works.” He continues, “What we don’t have is the date and quantifiable evidence.”

As a result, the institute has conducted a 12-week experiment that focuses on finding the ways in which the presence of animals, particularly dogs, have an effect on those on the spectrum. Over thirty students at Green Chimneys, who range between the ages of 8 and 15, where broken into four groups. Each week, two of the groups attended traditional therapy sessions that focused on their social skills, while the other two groups attended sessions that incorporated therapy dogs.

Lead researcher and clinical psychologist Erica Rogers analyzed how the groups differed, focusing on the difference in concentration and if dogs were either a distraction or an assistance to the therapy session. Thus far, the dogs have shown to improve expression in the children, and “they are certainly more excited to go to group therapy”, Rogers states. This alone may prove to be a huge benefit, as kids who are more eager to attend therapy will be more open to the experience and will find more fulfillment out of the session.

Michael Kaufman states, “The field of animal assisted therapy is about 30 years old. [But] in terms of data, it’s in its infancy.” As a result, Rogers and her team will continue to focus on this study throughout the remainder of the year. All findings will be published.

This study is just one instance of incorporating animals into therapy sessions. For example, the TherapeuticEquestrianCenter in Cold Spring uses horses for those with autism, as it helps them focus and calms them down. In addition, Guiding Eyes is an organization that trains dogs to partner with a child with autism. Many children, as well as individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum, have seen great benefits from incorporating animals into their lives; not only can they provide excitement and joy, but they can allow certain abilities to grow, such as socialization and expression.



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



Autism Students Are College Ready, Now What?

Findings recently published in the Harvard Review of Psychology reveal that there has been a significant upsurge of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder applying to and arriving on college campuses.  Studying this particular increase is difficult, however, because “for every student receiving special services, there are 1-2 on that same campus who have not identified themselves to anyone,” says lead author of the review, Stephanie Pinder-Amaker. “We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of these students seeking to access higher education.”

As the statistics for autism seems to be on an upward trend—reported by the Center for Disease Control that 1 in 68 children are autistic—the need to create opportunities for those on the spectrum to thrive also increases. Many colleges and universities across the country are beginning to establish their own programs for people on the spectrum that include things like academic tutoring, anxiety reduction, and social skills workshops. Students are not forced to enroll in these programs, however, they are simply available if a student feels a need for them.

The Rochester Institute of technology requires its students to have real paid work experience before they can graduate and actually attracts about 20 to 30 students on the spectrum each year. Through their Spectrum Support Program, students are able to engage in a 15 week program of job interview seminars, resume help, networking, interview practice, and other necessary skills needed to feel confident when transitioning to the workforce. “Every program looks different, and families need to know how much time students will spend with the program staff. It’s equally important to know what a program is not going to do,” explains Lurie Ackles, director of the RIT program.

Mercyhurcy University in Erie, Pennsylvania actually offers special residential housing devoted to the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM). The program houses 25 students and grad student mentor where they have optional meetings for meals, support groups, off-campus outings, on campus activities, etc. One student reports that it was the first time she was able to suggest watching Disney movies on a Friday night without being laughed at. 

It’s great that different schools are recognizing the importance of opening their doors to this growing population of autistic young adolescents. Giving them more options on campuses and the ability to choose one that matches their goals and needs the best. Jane Brown Theirfeld, E.D, co-Director  of College Autism Spectrum, explains, “The reality is, students on the spectrum are going to be your next door neighbor, the person in the cubicle next to you and the parents of your kids’ friends. As long as you can understand the possibility of some social awkwardness, then people on the spectrum are equally as prepared and qualified.”

 



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