Category Archives: Research

Video Game Therapy for Autistics

A recent study from Vanderbilt University found that what children with autism hear is often out of sync with what they see. Dr. Mark Wallace, who lead the study, describes it as, “a badly dubbed video.”

By comparing 32 high-functioning children with autism to 32 typically developing children, matched by age, sex, and IQ, researchers found that the children with autism had an enlargement in their temporal binding window (TBW). Simply put, their brains had trouble linking visual and auditory events that happened within a certain period of time.

“Children with autism have difficulty processing simultaneous input from audio and visual channels. That is, they have trouble integrating simultaneous information from their eyes and their ears,” said co-author Stephen Camarata, Ph.D., professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences. “It is like they are watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed, the auditory and visual signals do not match in their brains.”

The second part of the study found that the autistic children also showed weakness in how strongly they associated audiovisual speech stimuli. Dr. Wallace believes this explains why autistic children often cover their ears or eyes. “We believe that one reason for this may be that they are trying to compensate for their changes in sensory function by simply looking at one sense at a time. This may be a strategy to minimize the confusion between the senses.” 

Building on the findings of this study, researchers are now in the testing phase of an interactive video game that they designed to retrain autistic brains in how they link different sensory input. As Dr. Wallace describes, “It basically takes the tuning of the nervous system and shapes it, so that they get better.”



Tablets Help Autistic Kids Maximize Language Skills

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that using tablets with speech generating applications in the context of blended, adaptive treatment can help minimally verbal children make significant and rapid gains in their language skills.

For the study, 61 minimally verbal children with autism aged 5to 8 years old participated in six months of therapy geared towards improving language skills, play skills, and social skills. Half of the children were given a tablet to use during the therapy sessions loaded with a speech-generating app programmed with pictures objects used during the therapy. These children were able to touch a picture of an object they were using in therapy and hear an audio file of the objects’ names.

The study found that the children with tablets were much more likely to begin using language on their own, especially when they used the tablets from the beginning of therapy. The children appeared to have retained their skills when followed up on three months later.

“It was remarkable how well the tablet worked in providing access to communication for these children,” said Connie Kasari of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Children who received the behavioral intervention along with the tablet to support their communication attempts made much faster progress in learning to communicate, and especially in using spoken language.”

Shema Kolainu Hear Our Voices School and Center for Children with Autism is launching it’s iPad program this year. We will be sure to keep you posted!



Can Babies Exhibit Symptoms of Autism?

Sally Rogers, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California-Davis MIND Institute, conducted a study that looked at treating subtle but telling signs of autism in babies. The findings, recently published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, gives further evidence to support the idea that early intervention can help your child be more successful as their brains are still so flexible as a baby. Though study was quite small, including only seven infants who exhibited potential symptoms of autism, the results were promising. It is difficult to find infants who are likely to have autism since it is usually diagnosed in the toddler years.

Dr. Rogers explains that babies who may be at risk of developing autism exhibited the following symptoms:

  • Spending too much time looking at an object. Typically developing babies do look at objects but eventually they’ll do something with it for example, banging it, showing it to someone else, etc.
  • Showing signs of repetitive behaviors. For example, one little boy kept dropping the lid in a certain way to try to get it to spin.
  • Don’t exhibit any sort of communication or connection to parent. For example, they rarely make eye contact, smile, or look at the parent even if the parent is doing something interesting
  • They’re not trying to use their vocal chords often as typically developing babies do. Laughing and making baby sounds is part of them learning and wanting to communicate with the people and things in their environment.
  • Babies exhibiting these symptoms consistently for over two weeks are a good indicator that you may consider getting your baby screened for ASD.

Dr. Rogers helped the parents take the lead in the treatment process by coaching them on the “Denver Model,” which is all about having the child enjoy the rewards of social interaction. For example one mom, while playing patty-cake with her baby’s feet started playing a little too roughly and her baby made a sound, signaling the mom to stop. While smiling is enough to establish a connection for typically developing babies, others respond to different cues. The aim of this model is to give parents and caregivers the tools and knowledge to help their baby if they see symptoms.

She states, “I am not trying to change the strengths that people with ASD bring to this world…My goal is for children and adults on with autism to be able to participate in everyday life and in all aspects of the community in which they want to participate.”

For more information, click HERE



The “Little Brain” & It’s Big Influence

(Applied to autism, cerebellar injury could hinder how other areas of the brain interpret external stimuli and organize internal processes. Based on a review of existing research, the researchers found that a cerebellar injury at birth can make a person 36 times more likely to score highly on autism screening tests, and is the largest uninherited risk. Credit: Samuel Wang)

As researchers dig into the root causes for autism, they are finding that our cerebellum or “little brain” may play a bigger role in shaping our cognitive and language abilities than previously thought, especially in the prenatal phase. The cerebellum actually only makes up a total of 10 percent of our brain’s mass, but is the home of 50 percent of it’s neurons. The cerebellum is usually associated with movement and coordination, so a doctor checking for damage in the cerebellum would conduct a number of tests that check balance and motion. However, a recent study published in the journal Neuron suggests that dysfunction in the cerebellum in crucial moments during development could be one of the leading contributors to autism spectrum disorders as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Dr. Samuel Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, and his research team, put forward the theory that the cerebellum is not only responsible for movement but also for helping developing minds process more complex sensory information that also aids in establishing social bonds. He explains, “Some of the clinical and animal-research evidence for cerebellar involvement in autism has been known for years, but this evidence doesn’t fit into the textbook wisdom that the cerebellum controls sensory processing and movement. At some level, researchers have been trapped by whatever framework they learned in college or grad school.”

In their study, Dr. Wang found that for children who experience damage to their cerebellum at birth are at an increased risk for ASD that he shows is comparable to the risk of a smoker developing lung cancer. So how is the cerebellum connected to developing “higher functioning” social and language capabilities? The study explains that a baby seeing their parent smile will eventually connect that experience to certain rewards that come along with it, for example being fed, which would overtime lead to the child’s ability to understand these social cues—a connection that is facilitated by the cerebellum. These connections that will eventually help with social behavior are especially vulnerable in the prenatal environment.

In Dr Wang’s words, “because the risk factor from cerebellar injury is bigger than any other know environmental risk, we think this provides deep insight into the basic biology of how ASD brains go off track. Problems in cerebellar function aren’t the (only) cause of autism, but they are potentially a significant cause of autism.” 

Studies like this one are important in developing best practices for treatment and therapy for those on the spectrum. Another recent clinical study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines for physicians in diagnosing specific intellectual and developmental disabilities. The report argues that it is important to know the root of the child’s disability whenever possible in order to find the most appropriate treatment plans. Moreover, a better diagnosis will help families manage expectations and advocate for their child in the best way possible.



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.