Entries in Autism (52)


For Some, Autism Considered Strength, Not Disorder

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(ROYAL OAK, Mich.) -- Of all the famed names in autism, Temple Grandin is perhaps one of the quickest to come to mind.

Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism in 1950, didn’t speak until she was about 4 years old. At the time, the definition of autism seemed clearer cut than it is today. Looking back, many experts would say she exhibited classic signs of the disorder. But the spectrum of the disorder has grown wider since then. Grandin has arguably landed so far on one end of the spectrum that it could be hard to see what the other side of autism looks like.

About 1 in 110 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, characterized by problems in social interaction and communication, and delayed and repetitive behavior. Unlike Grandin, many will not be able to develop the necessary skills to speak, or hold a stable job. Many remain dependent on caregivers for the rest of their lives.

These stark differences have prompted many researchers to suggest that autism should not be grouped under one diagnosis, but in fact, should be labeled as different conditions.

“Research is starting to show us that there is not just one pathway that makes it necessary for the condition to be called autism,” said Dr. Lori Warner, director for the HOPE Center for Autism at Beaumont Children’s Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. “The core features are still there. How it’s manifested is different.”

And because of this, Warner said the seemingly different way the condition is displayed is better off staying grouped as "autism."

In fact, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) seems to be moving away from differentiating autism any further. Some experts say that for those who function well, autism should not be considered a disability or a disorder.

Instead, in some cases, the condition could serve as an advantage. Grandin went on to earn a doctoral degree and her redesign of livestock handling equipment became the standard for many cattle plants across the U.S. and Canada. Grandin then became a best-selling author and speaker.

In fact, Laurent Mottron, who holds the Marcel and Rolande Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Autism at the University of Montreal, directs eight members of his lab who are considered autistic.

“In certain settings, autistic individuals can fare extremely well,” wrote Mottron. “One such setting is scientific research.”

Mottron doesn’t consider his lab members to be extraordinary workers, or savants, he wrote in an editorial published November in the journal Nature. But their strength in research has been a huge asset to his lab, he said.

“Without question, autistic brains operate differently,” Mottron wrote in his editorial. He added that most autistics are better at detecting changing sounds, detecting visual structures, and manipulating 3D shapes. But, Warner cautioned against minimizing the limitations of their conditions.

“If you put anyone in an environment where they can display their strengths, then of course they’ll thrive,” said Warner, who called for a “bigger-picture” look at strengthening other life situations beyond the work environment.

“Just because they do well in one environment doesn’t mean their condition is not necessarily a disorder,” she said.

While autism, by definition, is marked by impaired communication, social and physical behavior, Mottron said research so far is hyper-focused on the deficits of a person with autism, and how to treat them. Instead, the focus should be on developing their strengths and abilities, he said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Robots Used To Help Children with Autism

Robotics Research Lab at University of Southern California(LOS ANGELES) -- An endearing little robot named Bandit may be the newest technology to help children with autism better understand social cues and emotional behavior.

Researchers at the Robotics Research Lab at University of Southern California have created studies for children with autism to interact and play with Bandit, a small human-like robot with movable eyebrows and mouth, and motion sensors that allow him to back away or move forward.

The designers hoped to create a balance between human and robot so that he is approachable and engaging without being too realistic or intimidating.

In initial pilot experiments with the robots, Maja Mataric, co-director of the Robotics Research Lab at USC, and her colleagues found that children with autism exhibited unexpected social behaviors, including pointing, initiating play, imitating the robot and even showing empathy.

"One of our successes is the development of software that can analyze the movement of the child interacting with the robot and determining, automatically, whether the child is having a positive, desirable interaction or not," said David Feil-Sefer, a PhD student who has worked on all the autism studies with Mataric.

Mataric said she first became interested in using technology for developmental treatments when she realized that it could be used to fill the "care gap" in personalized medicine.

Many populations consist of individuals who need one-on-one personalized care, she said, but that care can require many hours per day, for years or even a lifetime.

About one percent of American children ages 3 to 17 have an autism spectrum disorder and it is the fastest-growing developmental disorder, according to the Autism Society.

Eye tracking research has shown that children with autism prefer looking at objects rather than human faces. They have difficulty understand facial expression and even sometimes recognizing a person's identity. Debra Dunn, outreach director for the Center for Autism Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, says the lack of experience in reading faces could be contributed to that difficulty in facial recognition.

But, Dunn warned that, in a world where children with autism tend to retreat into a world of objects, robots may not be the best solution.

"Being engaged while playing with a robot and gaining skills from using it are two different things, and research is needed to test the effectiveness of this and any new intervention," said Dunn.

Mataric and colleagues have already expanded Bandit's assistance beyond children with autism. Researchers said they plan to test Bandit out in other populations, including Alzheimer's patients, stroke survivors and in elderly people living alone.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Children With Low Birth Weight More Prone to Autism, Study Shows

Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock(PHILADELPHIA) -- Children weighing less than 4.4 pounds at birth may be more prone to autism spectrum disorders, a new study suggested.

The estimated prevalence of autism spectrum disorders reached five percent in a group of more than 1,100 low-birth-weight babies, Jennifer A. Pinto-Martin of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and colleagues found.

That prevalence was five times higher than expected from the general population, the group noted in the November issue of Pediatrics. Indeed, by comparison, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 0.9-percent prevalence among eight-year-olds across the United States in 2006.

"This prospective study, using rigorous diagnostic procedures, confirms that the rate of autism spectrum disorders is elevated among low birth weight/preterm survivors," the researchers wrote in the paper.

That low birth weight and prematurity put children at risk of cognitive and motor disability has been well established, but their link with autism spectrum disorders was largely through retrospective studies and those that screened without diagnostic confirmation, the group noted.

About three percent of children born in the United States weigh between 1.1 and 4.4 pounds at birth.
Pinto-Martin's group studied a population-representative group of 1,105 such infants followed in the Neonatal Brain Hemorrhage Study.

That study was done at three hospitals, covering 85 percent of low-birth-weight births in three central New Jersey counties from 1984 to 1987. At the time, these three counties were demographically comparable to the nation except for slightly higher incomes and slightly fewer minorities.

Low birth weight tended to be more often linked to autism spectrum disorders in boys than girls (9.9 percent versus 3.3 percent).

The lower the low birth weight, the higher the risk of autism spectrum disorders tended to be, with a 10.6 percent prevalence at less than 3.3 pounds versus 3.7 percent at 3.3 to 4.4 pounds at birth weight.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Autistic 'Elopers': Technology Helps Track Kids Who Bolt

Adam Crowley/Thinkstock(FRISCO, Texas) -- The successful search for a missing autistic boy in Southern California who was found safe and sound this week is a happy but humbling end to a common tale.

Eight-year-old Joshua Robb, who went missing from Twin Peaks elementary school Monday morning, weathered a night of lightning and heavy rain in the woods near the San Bernardino Mountains before he was found Tuesday afternoon. Joshua fled to the forest after squeezing between the bars of a metal playground fence. And it wasn't the first time.

"If it happens once, it will happen again unless you do something about it," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a neurologist specializing in autism at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, of the tendency for kids with autism to bolt or "elope."

In a 2007 survey by the National Autism Association, 92 percent of parents said their children with an autism spectrum disorder had wandered away from safety at least once.

To help recover kids quickly if they do get away, Jim Nalley and Chris Buehler founded Emfinders -- a Frisco, Texas-based company that makes tracking devices integrated with the national emergency services system. Since 2010, the company has sold more than 4,000 devices, called EmSeeQ, and aided 60 recoveries.

"The first couple hours are the most critical," said Nalley, who named the company Emfinder after his young daughter, Emily. "The average time from when we get a call to the police pickup is about 30 minutes. That makes me feel good."

The EmSeeQ device looks like a watch with a clasp that can only be opened by a caregiver. It costs $199 up front and $25 a month for the service, which sends a locatable 911 signal when activated.

In May, EmSeeQ helped police find 9-year-old Jakob Lund, who has Asperger's syndrome, just 10 minutes after he wandered from his Spokane, Wash., elementary school. And the device allowed residents of the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., all of whom were at a high risk for running off, to attend a Tennessee Titans game, Nalley said.

Other similar tracking device options are listed on the National Autism Association's website.

Joshua Robb was not wearing a tracking device when he disappeared on Monday. But a search-and-rescue team of more than 40 people and two dogs found him after plodding through the wet brush while a helicopter scanned the forest from above. The team reportedly played music from Ozzy Osbourne -- Robb's favorite heavy metal musician -- to lure him out.

Other autistic children have not been so lucky. A 2010 presentation to the Department of Health and Human Services' Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee reviewed 30 recent fatalities among autistic elopers, many caused by car strikes, accidental drownings or prolonged exposure to the elements.

In March 2011, the Interactive Autism Network launched a national survey to study elopement in autism, which researchers hope will shed light on causes and preventive measures.

"Although similar behavior has been studied in Alzheimer's disease, and autism advocates identify elopement as a top priority, virtually no research has been conducted on this phenomenon in ASD," Dr. Paul Law, director of the IAN Project at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in a statement. "The new survey will provide vital information to families, advocates and policy makers alike as they work to keep individuals with ASD safe."

Wiznitzer said tracking devices are a helpful fail-safe for people who wander.

"Not just kids with autism, but also kids with significant cognitive impairment or problems with impulse control," he said, adding that adults with Alzheimer's or dementia are good candidates, too.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Study: School-Based Health Services Favored by Autistic Teens 

Creatas Images/Thinkstock edit Delete caption(ST. LOUIS) -- Many autistic teens look toward their school’s mental health services for treatment, a new study reports.

HealthDay reports that data was collected over the span of 10 years from over 920 autistic adolescents—aged 13 to 17— enrolled in special education.

The study began in 2000 and found that more than 46 percent of autistic teens relied on some form of a mental health service in the past year for help with their condition. Of those students, 49 percent used mental health services at their school.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that black teens and those from lower income families were more likely to seek mental health services from their respective schools.

The findings point to the necessity for transition plans for mental health services to be instated as teens with autism leave high school and receive services elsewhere, said study author and social work doctoral candidate Sarah Narendorf.

"Those that have accessed services at school are especially at risk for service discontinuities as they lose access to services through the school," Narendorf said in a university news release. "This is especially important for African-American and low-income students who are more likely to get their services in the school setting."

Findings were published in the August issue of Psychiatric Services.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Siblings Face High Recurrence Risk for Autism

Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock(DAVIS, Calif.) -- Infants who have siblings with autism have a three to 10 percent increased risk for autism -- a higher chance than the one percent risk among the general population.  But a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics now suggests the risk is higher than previously thought.

The study, considered the largest autism study to follow infants for sibling recurrence, found that infants with an older autistic sibling have a near 19 percent risk that they too will develop the disorder.

"We were surprised and distressed to see how high the recurrence risk is," said Sally Ozonoff, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the MIND Institute at University of California Davis.

Researchers from 12 different sites across the U.S. and Canada followed 664 infants with at least one older sibling diagnosed with autism.  Within three years, nearly 19 percent of the infants were diagnosed with autism.  Thirty-two percent of those infants who had more than one sibling with autism were also diagnosed with the disorder.

And the risk of autism nearly doubled for male infants, the study found.

Since there are several risk factors for autism that could include genetic markers, an individual family's risk differs, Ozonoff said.

In fact, many parents overestimate the recurrence risk.  Ozonoff said that in her clinic, many parents predict as high as 50 percent likelihood that their subsequent child will have autism.

"For parents, it's awareness and a more accurate estimate," said Ozonoff.

These findings could help parents who may be considering another child understand their overall quantifiable risk of autism recurrence.  But these findings do not mean that every family is at the higher spectrum of risk, Ozonoff said.

Ozonoff said the findings could also change the way pediatricians examine infants with familial risk for autism.

"These children need careful monitoring and special surveillance [more] than what would be done at a well child visit," said Ozonoff.

A closer look at infants at higher risk could lead to earlier detection of autism symptoms, Ozonoff said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Fetal and Birth-Related Complications May Be Linked to Autism

Photodisc/Thinkstock(BOSTON) -- Pooling the results of 40 previously published studies, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have identified conditions in the womb and just after birth that may be linked to autism.

After examining more than 60 prenatal and neonatal risk factors, they found that more than 15 were associated with an increased risk of autism.  Among them were: umbilical-cord complications, fetal distress, birth injury, maternal hemorrhage, low birth weight, congenital malformations, feeding difficulties, neonatal anemia, and a low 5-minute Apgar score.

The authors of the study, published Monday in Pediatrics, concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to implicate any one perinatal or neonatal factor in autism etiology, although there is some evidence to suggest that exposure to a broad class of conditions reflecting general compromises to perinatal and neonatal health may increase the risk.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Antidepressants Linked to Increased Risk of Autism

Creatas Images/Thinkstock(LOS ANGELES) -- It is estimated that about 1 in 110 children in United States have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), however, despite decades of research, there are only a few known genetic risk factors for ASD which account for a minor portion of the risk for the disorder

A new study by Kaiser Permanente in Northern California has found a link between maternal antidepressants and the risk of autism.

The study saw researchers reviewing the medical records of over 1,600 children and their mothers in California; 298 of those children having been diagnosed with ASDs. The authors of the study evaluated whether there was an association between maternal use of SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) antidepressants and the occurrence of ASD.

According to the findings of the study published in Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers found that 3.3 percent of the mothers of healthy children took antidepressants in the year before delivery compared to 6.7 percent of the mothers of children with ASD. These findings have been interpreted as the maternal use of SSRI antidepressants in the year before delivery being associated with a two-fold increase in the risk of ASD in a child.

Study findings show that the association was even greater if the medications were taken during the first trimester, with almost a four-fold increase in risk.

Although these numbers may sound alarming, researchers say in the general population, the fraction of cases of ASD that may have resulted from the use of antidepressants by the mother during pregnancy is less than three percent. Authors of the study also say it is reasonable to conclude that prenatal SSRI exposure is “very unlikely” to be a major risk factor for ASD.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Brain Scan Reveals Abnormal Brain Sync in Autistic Toddlers

BananaStock/Thinkstock(SAN DIEGO) -- Brain scans are continuing to unmask new abnormalities in the brains of young children with autism.

In a study published Monday in Neuron, researchers at the University of California in San Diego spotted another difference when they compared the connectivity in brain areas involved with language processing between young children with autism, those with language delay problems, and those developing normally.

They found that children with autism have disrupted synchronization between the left and right side of the brains, something not seen in the other two groups. Furthermore, the lower the degree of synchronization, the greater the severity of autism.

The authors of the study are hopeful that utilizing this type of brain scan "could be used to diagnose autism at a very young age -- around one year."  However, they still don't know if this brain scan would actually be useful for predicting autism in such young children, since the study involved 2 1/2-year-old toddlers who had already been diagnosed with autism.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Asperger's Syndrome Set to Lose Its Name

Comstock/Thinkstock(ARLINGTON, Va.) -- The American Psychiatric Association formalized the diagnosis of Asperger's -- a syndrome marked by impaired social interaction and sensory overload -- in 1994, 50 years after it was first described by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger.

But the association plans to remove the term "Asperger's" from its new diagnostic manual, set for release in 2013 -- a decision that has sparked criticism from advocacy groups.

"When the term 'Asperger's' started to get used, it was a tremendous relief for families of children and adults with the syndrome.  They finally had a name for what was going on; they could finally understand what the struggle in their lives was about," said Dania Jekel, executive director of the Asperger's Association of New England. "My worry is that we'll go back 16 years to a time when folks with Asperger's syndrome will not be recognized."

But members of the American Psychiatric Association's Neurodevelopment Disorders Workgroup, the group spearheading the change, said removing the term "Asperger's" from its manual and instead refering to it as an autism spectrum disorder will help focus the diagnosis on an individual's special skills and needs at that moment in time.

"The Asperger's distinction is based on early language delay, but many people come in as adults and have difficulty reporting this reliably," said Francesca Happe, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and a member of the workgroup. "We have known for years that autism is a spectrum, which is enormously heterogeneous...There is no good basis to distinguish Asperger's from high-functioning autism. The distinction doesn't make scientific sense."

The term "high-functioning" refers to language and intellectual ability -- skills that set Asperger's apart from other disorders on the spectrum.  But Jekel worries that removing the term "Asperger's" might open the door for misinterpreting it as just a mild form of autism.

"For many, Asperger's is not mild," she said.  "If you have an IQ that's fairly high and you're verbal, people expect you to be like everyone else and get along in the world.  But this is something that really can be very, very difficult for people to live with."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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