Entries in Autism (52)


MRI Brain Changes Seen in Early Infants with Autism

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Autism may be detectable in infants as young as 6 months old, according to a study released Friday in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggesting the condition has a stronger genetic and biological root.

The study, which tracked MRI images of 92 infants from 6 to 24 months, found that infants who went on to develop autism may have had brain abnormalities visible on MRI at 6 months of age, before the development of clinical symptoms.

The infants studied were already considered at high risk for the condition because their siblings were diagnosed with autism.

Researchers tracked brain changes in infants at 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years old.  Then, they formally tested for autism using the standard diagnostic test at 2 years old, the typical age when autism is diagnosed. 

Twenty-eight infants whose MRI results showed slower brain connections went on to be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Previous studies have looked at brain changes in babies as young as 1 year old, but researchers said the new study is the first to track changes in infants as young as 6 months old.

According to Dr. Nancy Minshew, director of the NICHD Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study, the current findings suggest that a child might have autism long before he or she begins to show outward signs.

“Parents and primary care physician determination of onset of autism or ASD in the second or third year of life is not an accurate assessment of onset,” said Minshew.  “This adds to the evidence that autism develops on its own, so to speak, and not because parents did something or did not do something to cause autism.”

Tracking changes could lead to earlier autism screening and intervention, which may lead to improved developmental outcomes, the authors wrote.

But, according to ABC News’ chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser, the imaging results are not distinguishable enough to make a clear-cut diagnosis.

“For a diagnostic test to be of value, you want to see extensive separation between your affected and not-affected groups,” said Besser.  “There appears to be a ton of person-to-person variability.  The likelihood that this will ever lead to a diagnostic test is pretty slim.”

The study authors acknowledged that the study was only performed on infants with a family history of autism, which inherently indicated they, too, were at high risk for the condition.  The test might be limited to babies already known to be at high risk.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Autism Plus Mental Illness Affects Disorder's Course, Study Says

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(BALTIMORE) -- Additional mental disorders, such as learning disabilities, speech problems and epilepsy, could help predict which children might grow out of their autism diagnosis as they age, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health studied more than 1,300 children who had been diagnosed with autism. The researchers found that certain disorders distinguished children who had a current autism diagnosis from those who had fallen out of the autism category as they aged.

The disorders varied for autistic children of different ages.  In children ages 3 to 5, those with autism were 11 times as likely to have a learning disability and nine times as likely to have a developmental delay as those children who had grown out of an official autism diagnosis.

Autistic children ages 6 to 11 were nearly four times as likely to have past speech problems and 3.5 times as likely to have moderate to severe anxiety.

Autistic teenagers were 10 times as likely to have seizures or epilepsy as children who were no longer classified as autistic.

The symptoms of these different disorders greatly overlap with the symptoms of autism, which is defined by a broad spectrum of behavioral, social and communication deficits.  But the researchers say the study suggests that separate diagnoses of learning disabilities or speech problems appeared to predict which kids would continue to be autistic and which ones might grow out of the diagnosis.

"This doesn't mean that a child who has a co-illness is definitely going to change their diagnosis status," said Heather Close, one of the study's authors. "But we were able to establish some associations with different disorders."

Lori Warner, director of the HOPE Center for Autism at the Beaumont Children's Hospital Center in Royal Oak, Mich., said that kind of information could prove valuable to therapists studying and treating autistic children.

"We're always looking for anything that helps us potentially predict who's going to continue to have a diagnosis and who won't," she said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


New Autism Definition Could Exclude Many

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Proposed changes to the definition of autism might make it much harder for a person to be diagnosed with the disorder. The change would likely slow the rapidly increasing rate of autism diagnoses but also spark fears that some children with autism would no longer fit its definition, excluding them from services and treatments they depend on.

A panel of experts from the American Psychiatric Association re-evaluating the definition currently published in the “bible” of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used to determine treatment, insurance coverage and access to services for a variety of mental illnesses.

That definition includes a number of disorders under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder, including autism disorder, Asperger’s disorder and  pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified, which usually includes people who don’t fit neatly into the other categories of autism. Currently, people must show at least six out of 12 possible behaviors to be diagnosed as autistic.

According to a report published Wednesday in the New York Times, proposed changes to the definition for the new DSM edition, slated to be published next year, would exclude Asperger’s and PDDNOS and consolidate autism diagnoses under a narrower category of autism. The person would have to show three deficits in social interaction and communication and two repetitive behaviors, a stricter set of criteria.

Many autism experts support the proposed changes, saying they will make it far easier to diagnose autism.

Experts say the changes will probably also arrest the rate of autism diagnoses, which have been rising sharply in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 110 children in the U.S. has autism under the old definition.

Dr. Fred Volkmar, director of the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, led a team of researchers who analyzed data from a 1994 study testing the criteria used in the current edition of DSM. According to a statement from Yale University, the researchers found that half of the people diagnosed with autism in that trial would no longer merit a diagnosis under the new proposed criteria.

In the statement, Dr. Volkmar emphasized that these preliminary findings suggest that, “only the most cognitively able” would be excluded from an autism diagnosis.

Lori Warner, director of the Hope Center for Autism at Beaumont Children’s Hospital Center in Royal Oak, Mich., told ABC News that these cognitively able, "high-functioning" autistic people still require a number of treatment and support services.

If patients lose their diagnosis status, they might not be able to get the treatments and services provided for autistic patients and their families, which often require a diagnosis to qualify for insurance coverage, special education and other assistance.

“Really, in a lot of states, you need that diagnosis in order to have treatment covered. If you don’t have that diagnosis, you’re going to try to pay out of pocket or you have no access to these services,” Warner said. “It could be devastating for a lot of families.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Calif. Clinic Brings Free Dental Care to Developmentally Disabled

Comstock/Thinkstock(MORENO VALLEY, Calif.) -- For most adults, a cavity calls for a quick prick of novocaine and a 20-minute filling. But for 40-year-old Tina Lumbley of Moreno Valley, Calif., the routine procedure was a day-long ordeal.

Lumbley has autism, a developmental disorder that makes the sounds, smells, tastes and bright lights of the dentist's office overwhelming.

"She would get so anxious and have meltdowns," Lumbley's mom, Marjorie, told ABC News. "When she was a child, we had a great pediatric dentist and she was fine. But as she got older, it just wasn't working."

Most dentists refused to take Lumbley after she turned 18. And the few who were willing would only treat her under general anesthetic, which raises the risk and price of the procedure.

Lumbley is not alone. Across the country, adults with intellectual disabilities suffer from a lack of access to dental care.

"It's the biggest health care problem in the country today," said Dr. Steven Perlman, professor of pediatric dentistry at Boston University School of Dental Medicine. "People with intellectual disabilities are the most medically underserved population we have, and dental care is by far the most unmet need."

Adults with disabilities are usually covered by Medicaid. But the reimbursement rate is so "pathetically low that no dentist wants to participate in the program," Perlman said. And they don't have to. Dental schools are not even required to teach students how to treat disabled patients.

"These kids are coming out of school with huge loans," said Perlman. "What are they going to do when they get out? I'll tell you who they're not going to treat: people who are poor or disabled."

In 2009, California dropped dental coverage for all adults on Medicaid. That prompted Marianne and Russell Benson to open We Care, a nonprofit that brings free dental care to people with disabilities.

Now Lumbley, with her parents, makes the hourlong trip to the Rancho Mirage-based dental clinic where she gets cleanings and fillings like any other patients, without general anesthetic. The clinic has four dentists and student volunteers from nearby Western University of Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine.

"They treat her with dignity and respect and expect her to come out with a beautiful smile," said Marjorie Lumbley. Other dentists, she recalled, suggested pulling her daughter's teeth. "Yes, Tina has a lot of challenges but she has a right to have decent teeth."

Having healthy teeth and gums not only looks good; it also guards against disease. And for people with disabilities who are unable to communicate, a minor toothache can quickly evolve into a major emergency.

Marjorie Lumbley said she's grateful for We Care but worries about the future, as her daughter's dental and medical needs will surely grow.

"They have all the same things that go along with people getting older, but they still have these needs that can't be met any other way," she said. "I think people forget what happens to them after they grow up. They're not cute anymore. She's 40 years old and she deserves good care."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Infants May Use Lip Reading to Learn Language

Tooga/The Image Bank(WASHINGTON) -- Infants learn language not only through sound, but also through lip reading, according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers say the new findings defy the conventional view that babies learn to speak through sound alone and the research may even assist in diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in the future.

Scientists from Florida Atlantic University studied 89 infants ranging in age from 4 months to 12 months old. They also studied 21 adults. Participants watched a 50-second video of a woman reciting a monologue in their native English, while researchers used an eye tracker to determine where they directed their pupils while watching and listening to the video.

Four-month-old infants, along with adults, spent more time looking at the speaker's eyes. But babies between 6 and 12 months shifted their attention between the speaker's mouth and eyes. It is unknown at what age the shift from mouth to eyes is totally complete, but the older infants tended to look at the speaker's eyes more than her mouth.

"By this time at 12 months, babies are already producing their first words and have mastered the first sounds and structures of the language," said David Lewkowicz, an expert on infant perceptual development and lead author of the study. "They no longer have to lip-read as they ramp up their first speech patterns, and they are free to shift back to the eyes, where you find a great deal of social information."

"This research confirms and extends what we already know about typical development: Language is not just an auditory process, it is the integration of visual and auditory information as the child learns words," said Stephen Camarata, professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University. "What happens in infancy has important ramifications for later development."

Researchers said the data could contribute to autism research, as well. Two-year-old children with autism attend more to speaker's mouths, according to past literature on the developmental disorder. This study shows that attention to the mouth is a normal developmental phase during the first year, and the comparision could aid in autism diagnosis at an earlier age.

"Right now, the earliest one can diagnose a child with autism is 18 months, so this could possibly be a way in the future to diagnose infants as early as 12, 13 or 14 months if we find babies are not making a shift back to the eyes around this age," Lewkowicz said. "If that is the case, this would be a huge step forward in the development of diagnostic tools for autism because it would be six months earlier than what we can do now."

But Rhea Paul, director of the Yale Child Study Center's Laboratory of Development Communication Disorders, warned that an autism diagnosis is not so easily simplified, and it could be dangerous to make blanket claims regarding autism and eye attention.

"I think caution is always warranted when attempting to identify a single early 'marker' for a developmental disorder, such as failure to go back to looking at eyes at 12 months as a sign of autism, simply because of the great variability in behavior and development that is normal in the first couple of years of life," Paul told

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


School Put Autistic Boy in Bag To "Calm Him Down", KY) -- “God, they do not have my son in that bag …”

That’s what Sandra Baker, of Harrodsburg, Ky., said she thought when she walked down a hall toward a big green bag, with a teacher’s aide sitting beside it, at her son’s school.

“Mama, is that you?” a voice coming from the bag said.

Christopher Baker, 9, is autistic and has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Sometimes his school calls Baker, 35, to come to the school to help calm him down, she said.

“They said he was ‘bouncing off the walls,’” Baker said, describing the call she got.

The bag was not mesh; it was opaque cloth, with a drawstring, which was pulled tight, Baker said. Christopher could not see out, she said, adding that he asked “Who’s out there?” before asking,

“Mama, is that you?”

“You need to get him out of that bag, now,” Baker  said she told the aide, who struggled to open the bag, according to Baker. “

That startled me: What if he aspirated on food, or a fire broke out?” she said.

When she met with the principal and another school official after the incident, they answered this question by saying they would have dragged the bag away with Christopher inside, Sandra said with a laugh.

Baker and her husband, Scottie Baker, from whom she’s separated, said they were dissatisfied with the school district’s response to this incident.

She said she and her husband had not received an apology from the teacher who instructed the aide to put Christopher in the bag, which they were promised in the meeting with the principal. The meeting did not include anyone directly involved in the incident, Scottie Baker said.

They had not been contacted by Mercer County Schools Interim Superintendent Dennis Davis. In a statement, Davis said he couldn’t comment because of confidentiality laws.

“The employees of the Mercer County Public Schools are qualified professionals who treat students with respect and dignity while providing a safe and nurturing learning environment,” Davis  said in the statement.

Bags are used to calm and control special-needs children, the Bakers said, but they are elastic and allow the child to stand, move around and get out if they need to."

Baker  said she was told the school had used the bag to try to calm Christopher at least three times in the past, but she assumed he would roll on the bag, filled with balls, using it as a sensory stimulus — “not be inside the bag, with the drawstring pulled.”

Moreover, Christopher should have been put in a room the school has for special-needs students, not in a public hallway, the Bakers said.

A social worker for the state of Kentucky was investigating the incident, including reviewing surveillance video of the hallway Christopher was in, according to the Bakers.

More than 4,500 people have signed an online petition demanding Mercer County improve teacher training and a school’s ability to handle special-needs students.

“I’m excited about that,” Sandra Baker said. “I don’t want this to happen to my son or anyone else’s child. It’s wrong.”

“The school shouldn’t be asking Sandra to do their job,” said her husband. “What if she or I aren’t available? They need to learn how to handle [situations like these]. Right now, they seem like they have no patience for it.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Program Helps Selectively Mute Children Overcome Anxieties

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- At home, Jake Semmel acts like a happy-go-lucky 6-year-old who loves Star Wars and fire trucks. At home, Maya Walker, 7, is a chatterbox.

But in public, Jake will only speak to a select few adults in his life and can't even talk to his grandparents. At school, Maya hasn't said a word in class for an entire year. She doesn't move a muscle when she's on stage during the school pageant. She could never blow out the candles at her own birthday parties.

Even sitting in her dad's lap, Maya is very quiet.

"People make assumptions about people who don't talk," her father, Vincent Walker, says. "That they are shy, that they're not as intelligent."

While many quiet kids like Jake and Maya are misdiagnosed with autism or Asperger's, child psychologist Dr. Steven Kurtz said he believes these children suffer from "selective mutism" -- an extreme anxiety disorder often combined with social phobia.

"Selective mutism" is different from extreme shyness. Kurtz explained that shy kids will benefit from "warm up time" in ways that kids with selective mutism do not.

To treat kids with this condition, Kurtz created an intensive week-long therapy program in a simulated school-like setting for the Child Mind Institute in New York City. There are only 22 coveted spots for the five-day "boot camp," of which both Jake and Maya made the cut, and it could change the course of their lives. Some kids are prescribed anti-anxiety pills, but others, like Jake, take no medication.

"Our goal is to get out into the real world as quickly as possible," Kurtz said, "gradually exposing them to and giving them a lot of reinforcement, providing kind of training wheels, until they can do it confidently on their own." From day one, the first rule is for the counselors to let the painfully long silences continue long enough for the kids to answer questions. It's not what the question is, but how the question is asked. Yes/no questions lead to nodding, but forced choice questions prompt verbal answers -- and every mumble is praised. The hard part begins when the group leaves the building to interact with strangers. At the end of the day, kids are rewarded with stickers they earn at the "prize store."

Part of the therapy session is to re-train the parents to ignore their protective instincts to spare their child a painful silence.

No parent likes to see their child suffer, but Dr. Kurtz said that's essentially the answer. When any kid develops even a mild phobia, parents too often rescue them too soon. Instead, the grown-ups are taught to stop over-protecting their children, and simply wait five seconds before jumping in.

Both Jake and Maya made dramatic progress their first day in the program with responding to questions in short answers, but Maya suffered a setback when the anxiety overwhelmed her. But the camp is called "Brave Buddies" for a reason. After a change of clothes, Maya mustered up the courage to try again.

On day two, Jake still struggled to make eye contact, but then shocked everyone when he said a full sentence. Maya, who didn't utter a word for an entire school year, aced a "show and tell" of her Smurf doll.

The next day, with guidance of a Brave Buddy, Jake was able to order ice cream by himself for the first time, but his nerves got the better of him. By day four, Maya, the girl who was once terrified to blow out her own birthday candles, finally did it, but even by the last day, there were still moments when Maya disconnected and went mute.

After being shown videos of their once-quiet kids suddenly chatting away, some of the parents had tears in their eyes.

"You want to make sure that your child is happy and to see your child smiling," Maya's mother, Tessie Scroggins said. "That's another thing Maya didn't do in public. Maya didn't smile much."

"Brave Buddies" have not only helped Jake, Maya and other kids find their voices, but also helped them find their smiles.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


‘Sensitive Santa’ Meets Kids with Autism

File photo. Photodisc/Thinkstock(BLAINE, Minn.) -- A trip to the mall to sit on Santa’s knee is a special event for families, but the holiday hustle and bustle can be overwhelming for kids with autism. That’s why Northtown Mall in Blaine, Minn., opened its doors early Sunday morning for some low-key “sensitive Santa” time.

“A lot of children with autism aren’t able to have the experience of seeing Santa,” said Northtown’s marketing director Linda Sell, describing the typical bright lights, loud music and long line. “This is our way of helping.”

The mall dimmed the lights and lowered the music volume to make autistic children more comfortable. And instead of waiting in line, kids colored or walked around with their families.

“It’s something very small on our end but it means so much to families,” said Sell.

An illustrated pamphlet showed families what to expect during their visit -- a helpful aid for kids with autism who often rely on routines. And a form filled out by parents in advance gave Sensitive Santa the scoop on their wish lists.

“Its’ such a wonderful event,” said Sell. “It’s heartwarming to see the joy in the kids’ faces, and in the parents.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 10 children is on the autism spectrum.

More than 50 kids of all ages attended this year’s event. The mall spreads the word by sending flyers to schools and therapy centers.

“We will continue to do it because obviously there’s a huge demand,” said Sell.

Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a neurologist specializing in autism at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said parents want their children to have the same opportunities as their peers.

“A visit with Santa is one of those things you expect to happen,” he said. “And why should the special needs population not have it?”

Some movie theaters now have special screenings for autistic kids. And Walt Disney World offers special passes that allow them to skip long waits in crowded lines.

“This is our culture recognizing that if the kids can’t fit into the template, the template has to fit the kids,” said Wiznitzer. “It’s happening more and more.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Bigger Brains in Certain Types of Autism, Study Finds

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(DAVIS, Calif.) -- A new study adds to an increasing amount of evidence suggesting a link between brain size and autism.

Researchers at the Mind Institute at the University of California at Davis have found that children with a certain type of autism, called regressive autism, generally have larger brains than children without the disorder, and for kids with early onset autism.

A number of recent studies have found a link between brain size and autism, confirming suspicions long held by many autism experts that the disorder is linked to neurological growth and development. But the authors of this latest study, David G. Amaral and Christine Wu Nordahl, say their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that the causes of autism may vary among children with different types of the disorder.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of 180 children, ages 2 to 4, and analyzed the records of head circumference taken throughout the life of each child. Of those children, 61 had regressive autism, a form of  autism in which children seem to develop normally until about 18 to 24 months, when they begin to lose the language and social skills they’d already acquired. Of the study’s remaining children, 53 had early onset autism and 66 did not have autism at all.

The researchers found that boys with regressive autism had six percent more brain volume than their peers who didn’t have autism at all; the brains of boys with early onset autism were similar in size to the brains of non-autistic children.

Amaral said the findings shed light on the complexity of autism and its many subgroups, which he and his colleagues are trying to understand through a long-term study of autistic children. He said that only about 10 percent of the children in the current study had larger brains.

"There’s enormous heterogeneity in the disorder, and there’s a lot of kids with characteristics that overlap with kids who develop normally,” Amaral said. “This study confirms the idea that big brains are one scenario of autism, but it’s not the only scenario.”

Adding even more complexity to their findings, the researchers found that brain size differences seemed to be tied to gender. All the autistic girls in the study, even those with regressive autism, showed no difference in brain size than their non-autistic peers.

Autism is four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but scientists know very little about the neurological underpinnings of this gender difference.

The study adds to a growing chorus of research suggesting that abnormal brain growth plays a crucial part of the development of autism.

“It’s important to remember that not all kids with autism have the same form of brain pathology,” Nordahl said. “We need to keep looking for these different subgroups of autism so we can better target our treatments for the disorder.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Study: Autistic Brains Have Abnormal Number of Brain Cells

BananaStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A new, small study provides a tantalizing clue to the causes of autism, suggesting that children with the disorder have heavier brains and an overabundance of brain cells called neurons.

Autism researchers had suspected for more than a decade that the disorder might be the result of abnormal brain growth and development. Previous studies have shown that autistic children have larger heads and brains, and that brain regions crucial for social, emotional, and communication processing are particularly overgrown.

This study, however, is the first to provide hard evidence of brain development gone awry in autistic children, gleaned from actual counts of these brain cells.

In the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists investigated the brains of 13 boys from ages 2 to 16, whose brains were donated for scientific study after they died. Using a precise microscopic technique, the researchers counted the neurons in the brains of these children, seven of whom had autism and six who did not.

They found that the brains of the autistic children had 67 percent more neurons in a region called the prefrontal cortex, an area linked to social, emotional, and communication processing— functions that are typically lacking in autism.

The brains of the autistic children also weighed an average of 17.5 percent more than the brains of children without the disorder.

Eric Courchesne, the study's lead author and a neurobiologist at the University of California, San Diego Autism Center of Excellence, called these differences "dramatic and surprising."

"We didn't expect to see such a big effect," Courchesne said. "Since the brain doesn't generate new neurons in the prefrontal cortex after birth, we know that this happens during prenatal development. So this points to something going wrong with how the brain initially forms itself in autistic children," he said.

Many researchers point out that these new findings are very preliminary and don't apply to children and families currently dealing with autism. The study was very small, and currently, there is no way to analyze the brain tissue of living children.

But it does give researchers a tantalizing avenue for future research on the causes of autism. Courchesne noted that studies finding genetic links to the disorder are also crucial to understanding how it develops.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio