Autism’s Relationship to Sensory Disorders

According to research, children on the autism spectrum often have abnormal sensory behaviors, as they have difficulty processing sensory stimuli. Furthermore, the brains of children with autism are wired very differently from other children with sensory processing disorders (SPD). Sensory processing disorders consist of sensitivities to sound, light, and touch. In addition, those that suffer from these disorders often have low motor skills and a lack of focus. For example, some children with SPD cannot hold an object properly, or focus on one subject for a long time. In contrast, many individuals on the autism spectrum have fixations on one thing and can spend a great deal of time focusing on it.

In a study that was recently conducted at UC San Francisco, researchers analyzed the brains of 15 boys with autism, and 16 boys with SPD. In addition, a control group of 23 neurotypical boys were used in the study. All participants were between the ages of 8 and 12. Researchers studied white matter, the area that links various parts of the brain, with an MRI. On average, the boys with autism and the boys with SPD both exhibited reduced brain connectivity in areas of the brain involved in sensory information. However, the boys with autism showed deficits in parts of the brain associated with social and emotional processing and abilities.

Dr. Pratik Mukherjee, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at UCSF, lead author of the study, states, “With more than 1 percent of children in the U.S. diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and reports of 5 to 16 percent of children having sensory processing difficulties, it’s essential we define the neural underpinnings of these conditions, and identify the areas they overlap and where they are very distinct.” Over 90% of children with autism disorders also have some type of atypical sensory behavior, but it has been difficult to pinpoint the differences that lie in sensory issues between those with autism and those with SPD.  This study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, is the first of its kind, as it compared structural connectivity in the brains of children with an autism diagnosis versus those with an SPD diagnosis, along with a group of typically developing boys.

Dr. Elysa Marco, cognitive and behavioral child neurologist at UCSD Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, another author of the study, states, “One of the most striking new findings is that the children with SPD show even greater brain disconnection than the kids with a full autism diagnosis in some sensory-based tracts.” She continues, “However, the children with autism, but not those with SPD, showed impairment in brain connections essential to the processing of facial emotion and memory.”

This study was incredibly significant in allowing parents and doctors to have more insight as to why children on the autism spectrum may suffer from sensitivities to various stimuli, and how they are different from the way children with SPD suffer from them. Larger studies will need to be conducted to understand the basis for differences in sensory and neurodevelopmental difficulties. Sensory challenges can be a huge obstacle in the lives of those with autism and those with SPD, so the next challenge is to configure ways to accommodate these sensitivities to make these children more comfortable in their surroundings.

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Inflexibility in Switching Tasks is Common in Children with ASD

According to recent research, children on the autism spectrum typically lack flexibility when it comes to switching tasks or going from a state of rest to a state of activity. This inflexibility has a strong correlation to other behaviors that are typical of autism disorders.

Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and senior author of the study, Vinod Menon, states, “One of the core clinical symptoms of autism is restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.” He continues, “Autism is characterized by significant behavioral inflexibility and we were interested in finding out the brain basis of inflexibility.” The inflexibility can impact how the child views and participates in the world around them. The inflexibility can be expressed through atypical behaviors, such as stimming, hand flapping, or having an intense focus on one particular subject or object.

Researchers at Stanford analyzed two different groups, each consisting of 17 children on the autism spectrum, and 17 neurotypical children.  The first group was exposed to social face recognition tasks which asked them to identify and respond to different facial expressions they saw on the screen. On the other hand, the second group was asked to solve simple math problems. Researchers studied the autistic brain through these tests, as research has shown that children with autism typically do not have many deficits in math, while they may have difficulty in the face recognition as autism is typically categorized by social deficits. Throughout the tasks, participants were undergoing an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan.

Brain inflexibility was evident in the group of children with autism disorders, as they showed reduced differentiation between brain connectivity during rest and during the activity. Furthermore, the res
earchers noticed a significant correlation between the degree of brain inflexibility and the severity of the repetitive or restrictive behaviors in the autistic participants. Vinod Menon states, “The more inflexible brain state signaling, the more severe the clinical symptoms”.

This study was a significant step towards helping other researchers and doctors understand clinical characteristics of autism, while also creating a pathway for more individualized cognitive behavioral therapy. More research needs to be done to understand the individual deficits and needs for those on the spectrum, but this research provides evidence that treatments need to be tailored to accommodate and improve the child’s inflexibility.

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ICare4Autism attends the 12th Annual Legislative Breakfast

L-R: NYS Senator Simcha Felder, Dr. Joshua Weinstein, CEO & Founder of ICare4Autism and Shema Kolainu – Hear Our Voices, Assemblyman Félix Ortiz

The 12th Annual Legislative Breakfast took place earlier today, Tuesday, July 9th, 2014, at the Renaissance Ballroom in Brooklyn, New York. This breakfast, which is hosted by Shema Kolainu-Hear Our Voices, school and center for children with autism, honored important figures in the community, such as elected officials, as well as civic and religious leaders.  ICare4Autism was proud to be a part of such an incredible event that focused on honoring the individuals that have made tremendous strides in improving the lives of those in the autism community.

ICare4Autism and Shema Kolainu both share a commitment in providing opportunities and resources for those on the autism spectrum. Each year, this breakfast honors members of the City Council as well as the State Legislature who have shown commitment and passion for helping those in the autism community.

The 2014 honorees include NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, NYC Councilmember Brad Lander, NYS Senator Simcha Felder, NYC Councilmember Mark Weprin, NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, NYS Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, NYS Assemblymembers Steve Cymbrowitz, Phil Goldfeder, and Dov Hikind. Recognition was also given to Mrs. Leah Steinberg, the Director of Project LEARN Special Education Affairs for the Agudath Israel of America, Jeff Leb, New York State Director of Political Affairs Orthodox Union, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and Larry Seiler from the Bronx Network Channel for his segment Special People Special Issues (SPSI).

The honorees and distinguished guests spoke about the hard work of individuals in the legislature that have pushed for funding and resources for autism community and more importantly the need to continue advocating on behalf of those children who need the support of therapists, teachers, parents, and community members alike. They stressed the fact that all children, whether they are on the spectrum or not, deserve access to a proper education that meets their appropriate needs.

Scott Stringer received the 2014 Appreciation Award, while NYC Councilmember Brad Lander received the Children Appreciation Award. NYS Senator Simcha Felder gave a special address where he emphasized the importance of advocacy and addressed the needs of those on the spectrum.

Dr. Joshua Weinstein, Founder and CEO of Shema Kolainu-Hear Our Voices and ICare4Autism, welcomed the guests at the start of the breakfast, thanking the honorees and other attendees for their support of the autism community. He also showed recognition towards their incredible efforts towards the progress of creating new opportunities for those on the spectrum. With thanks to their efforts, children on the autism spectrum are now receiving more of the attention and opportunities that they deserve.

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New Program Introduces Autistic Adults to IT Jobs

Several IT jobs focus on the strengths of many individuals on the autism spectrum.
(photo: griffithsandarmour.com)

Throughout the years, adults with autism have faced many difficulties in trying to attain an employed position, as employers often focused on the individual’s perceived limitations, as opposed to the unique attributes they could offer the company. Fortunately, many companies are beginning to realize the value that adults on the spectrum can offer, as they can be very focused in a certain subject or task, making them highly productive, and incredible assets to various businesses. Furthermore, many programs are being developed and implemented to help autistic teens and adults gain more experience and perspective as an employee, helping them transition into working roles.

In Calgary, a pilot project has been developed to help individuals on the autism spectrum utilize their strengths in information technology (IT). Many individuals with ASD have shown a strong interest in information technology, with strengths in working with numbers and analyzing data. The new project focuses on training individuals and helping them find jobs in quality assurance and data verification. The project is funded by the federal government, which allocated $150,000 to Meticulon, a non-profit autism organization in Calgary, and the Sinneave Family Foundation.

Tom Collins, president of the Sinneave Foundation, aims to increase the number of individuals on the spectrum in the workforce. He states, “At the moment, only about 20 percent of individuals who have [ASD] are employed. We think in the next 10 years we can double that number.” He continues, “We look for people who are comfortable with repetitive types of tasks, who have a real attention for detail, individuals who are comfortable doing the same thing and being very precise about it.” Many individuals on the autism spectrum enjoy focusing on one particular subject, and become comfortable following a rigid routine; therefore they are often best suited for a job that will not branch off into too many tasks. If an employer focuses on allowing the individual to work in a task that they feel comfortable, they will be able to work efficiently and with great dedication.

Mobility Quotient, a software company which produces apps such as JustWine (for wine enthusiasts) recently hired one of the Meticulon students. This individual now enters data at wine-tasting events. Although this may be a tedious task for some, the employee enjoys focusing on their task, and does an exceptional job at it. CEO Nikhil Sonpal states, “She doesn’t travel. She’s uncomfortable travelling, but she says she goes on a vacation every time she goes to work, because she can look at these different places that she would never go to that have these wine events.” He continues, “She’s excited every time she comes to work. I don’t believe in labels. Words don’t matter to me. It’s results.”

The pilot project lasts for the duration of one year, and has seen great success thus far. The Western Economic Diversification Office predicts that Canadian employers will need to hire over 106,000 IT workers within the next two years, creating a new recruitment challenge for businesses, but an incredible opportunity for many on the spectrum.

One of ICare4Autism’s largest goals is promoting autism in the workforce through Global Autism Workforce Initiatives.  ICare4Autism fully supports programs such as this one, as it enables individuals on the spectrum to gain various opportunities to potentially gain employment, as well as eases the transition into employed roles.

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Autism May Be Detected Earlier: Studying A Child’s Eye Contact

 

Researchers are studying how lack of eye contact and smiles can indicate a young child’s risk for developing ASD.
(photo: storify.com)

Although autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are typically diagnosed when a child is 2 years of age or older, recent research states that autism may be detected in babies younger than a year old.

A study from the University of Miami analyzed how babies interact with others, particularly eye contact and receptive smiles. This study targeted the relationship of ASD symptoms typically found later in childhood, with that of joint attention, an early form of communication that develops as a baby approaches one year of age. Previous research has shown that low levels of initiating joint attention are often linked to autism symptoms in high-risk children (such as children with an autistic sibling).

This new study focused on seeing if a child could initiate in joint attention with a positive affective component, meaning that they could respond to another with eye contact and a smile. Dr. Devon Gangi, lead author of the study, states, “The ability to coordinate attention with another person without a smile, without an emotional component, seems to be particularly important for high-risk siblings in the development of ASD symptoms.” He continues, “The detection of markers associated with autism early in life, before a child can be diagnosed with autism, is important to help identify children at the greatest need for early interventions.”

According to their research, babies that had less joint attention and did not smile were more likely to have elevated ASD symptoms by the time they reached 30 months. In addition, children that were at high risk for autism had lower levels of anticipatory smiles than children who were not at risk for ASD. Furthermore, researchers have reason to believe that joint attention impairments are one of the major deficits of ASD.

Daniel Messinger, professor of psychology and principal investigator of the study states, “High-risk siblings seem to have particular difficulty in sharing their preexisting positive affect with another person, which is what happens during an anticipatory smile”. He continues, “This difficulty may be indicative of a broader deficit autism trait among most high-risk siblings.”

This study is just one of many that is being conducted to help diagnose autistic children as soon as possible. Early diagnosis is always best for the child, as it allows parents and caregivers to provide the child with the therapy and services that fit their individual needs. Early intervention is critical, as it enables the child to receive the best care that will enable them to live fulfilling and happy lives.

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Peer-Led Interventions Can Help Mothers of Autistic Children

Parents of children with autism have seen great benefits from peer-led interventions and support programs.
(photo: burrellautismcenter.com)

According to researchers at Vanderbilt University, mothers of children with autism can experience several significant benefits from attending a class or program that is focused on reducing their stress. These classes, led by other mothers, were shown to reduce previously high levels of stress, as well as anxiety and depression in these women. The classes also improved the interactions that the mothers have with their children.

Research has shown that mothers of children with autism typically experience high levels of stress, as well as are more prone to depression and more vulnerable to developing other illnesses. As a result, depression and stress can decrease a mother’s ability to effectively participate in the home interventions that help the child develop skills and improve their behavior. Parents of children with autism dedicate their time and energy to focus on their child, causing stress to themselves, and allowing their own health to take a backseat.

This study was the first of its kind, as it examined two different treatment programs for a large number of primary caregivers of children with autism. Lead author of the study, Dr. Elisabeth Dykens, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development states, “The well-being of this population is critically important because, compared to parents of typically developing children, parents of children with developmental disabilities experience substantially higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and as they age, physical and medical problems.”

In an effort to help reduce the stress in mothers with autism, researchers arranged training for their peers, volunteer moms, who each ran stress-reduction classes for two different programs. The programs involved one class each week, for six weeks, with each class running the duration of an hour and a half. The first program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, focused on mindfulness training, as well as physical exercises such as deep breathing, and meditation. The other program, Positive Adult Development, focused on dealing with negative feelings, such as worry, or guilt, and changing the mother’s way of thinking through positive psychology. Mothers built various character strengths by using mental exercises that focus on optimism and gratitude. Researchers assigned nearly 250 mothers to either of the programs, at random.

Both of these peer-led interventions enabled the mothers to truly relax and develop a new positive way of thinking. The evaluations that were conducted after the study show that the mothers had lower levels of stress, less anxiety, improved sleep, and more life satisfaction. In addition, they had less negative or unhelpful interactions with their children. Furthermore, participants in both treatments continued to improve throughout follow-ups, and improvements in multiple areas of their lives were sustained up to six months after the program began.

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Autism Disorders Affect More Than Just the Brain

Children on the autism spectrum often need extra care in areas other than behavioral and speech therapy, so it is essential to bring any concerns to the attention of a pediatrician.
(photo: kids.britannica.com)

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are typically categorized by deficits in three main areas: social interaction, speech delays, or unique behaviors. However, in addition to these characteristics, the individual may have symptoms that are not typically associated with autism, although they may be very common to those in the autism community.

A common misconception about ASD is that it only affects the individual’s nervous system, when in fact, the individual may need to follow certain precautions or special diets because the disorder can affect other parts of their body. Doctors have called autism a “whole body condition”, as it affects multiple systems, including the digestive and excretory systems. Scientific discoveries have focused on the connections between autism and the gut, as the microbes that live there have a relation to mental functioning. The microbes also play a critical role in the development of one’s immune system as an infant, creating the ability, or inability, to digest most foods.

Unfortunately, according to clinical research, many children on the autism spectrum suffer from gastrointestinal issues, making it difficult for them to eat many common foods. Furthermore, digestive problems can show up as the child being a picky eater, having temper outbursts, being hyperactive, or displaying rigid behavior. As a result, it is important for parents and caregivers to bring this to the attention of a pediatrician, who can help configure if the child will benefit from following a new diet.

Food sensitivities or intolerances are often found in products such as wheat, dairy, eggs, soy, and corn. By testing and removing these sensitive foods from the child’s diet, doctors have found considerable improvement in the child’s behavior, as well as an improvement in speech and mental functioning. Therefore, it has become more evident that by treating physical symptoms that may be afflicting the child, they can display improvements in other areas.

In addition to gastrointestinal problems, children on the spectrum often have problems related to a build-up of toxins in the body. These toxins typically come from the environment (such as pesticides, metals, and solvents from household products). Toxins that accumulate in their body can amount to additional behavioral problems, as well as lead to chronic illnesses. Therefore, it is essential to limit children to these exposures as much as possible. Gentle nutrient medicines can also reduce toxins in the body.

Although speech and behavioral therapies are critical to an autistic child’s development, it is now more evident that the child also deserves additional care in other aspects. By focusing on the child’s nutrition and their environment, changes can be made to help improve their behavior and symptoms that may be affecting them.

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New App Allows Parents to Analyze Their Child’s Behavior

A new app allows parents to analyze their child’s behavior patterns.
(photo: thesocialexpress.com)

A new app has recently been developed to help parents track and record their child’s behavior at regular intervals. This app will allow them to analyze behavior patterns and see if there is any cause for concern, and if they should contact their pediatrician.

Dr. Michael Lewis, founding director of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Autism Center at Rutgers, and Nish Parikh, CEO of WebTeam Corporation, global leader in the field of autism management technology, recently announced the launch of EARLYThree, an iPhone and iPad app that is now available for download. EARLYThree is based on over 50 years of extensive research on child development, including five longitudinal studies involving 12,000 children. These studies were conducted by Dr. Lewis himself, along with Dr. Tara Anne Matthews. Dr. Lewis and Dr. Matthews used their research findings, along with their clinical pediatric practice, to collaborate with WebTeam to develop a functional tool to help parents analyze their child’s behavior. EARLYThree also serves as a tool to help pediatricians screen for autism at its earliest stages.

EARLYThree evaluates a child’s most critical stages of development, studying the child at the intervals of 8, 12, 15, 18, 24, and 36 months. The app consists of sets of questions that help pediatricians and parents examine communicative and behavioral development in their child, and after each screening session, users can immediately view results, represented by color. Green indicates that the child does not show signs of autism, yellow signifies that the child is on a stable course of development, but their behavior should be monitored, and red indicates that the child’s cognitive abilities are not developing at the correct rate, and parents should seek further medical evaluation.

Furthermore, the interface allows users to add video, text, and voice notes that can be shared amongst parents, pediatricians, and caregivers. Dr. Lewis states, “We [now] have a tool backed by years of clinical research and pediatric practice that has a proven degree of accuracy in the early detection of autism at our fingertips. This is a breakthrough for parents and pediatricians everywhere.”

Dr. Lewis adds,”early signs of autism often go undetected, simply because there are not enough physicians around the world to screen the growing number of children with autism. An ideal time to identify early signs of autism is when a child is six to eight months old, although symptoms may appear anytime during the first three years.” With autism diagnosis rates reaching an all-time high in the U.S., it is incredibly beneficial for parents to seek new opportunities to help care and treat their child. Over the past few years, mobile apps and other digital programs have proven to be incredibly beneficial in building various skills, as well as helping treat certain behaviors of children touched by autism.

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Common Genes Linked to Autism Risk

According to recent research, the genetic risk for autism is primarily associated with versions of genes commonly found in the population, as opposed to rare variants. These rare variants, or spontaneous glitches in DNA, only accounted for 2.6 percent of the genetic risk for autism, while common gene variants accounted to 52 percent of the risk. This recent study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The study focused on data from Sweden’s universal health registry, using medical records from 3,000 people with autism compared with an age-matched control group.

Dr. Joseph Buxbaum of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in NYC, states, “Genetic variation likely accounts for roughly 60 percent of the liability for autism, with common variants comprising the bulk of its genetic architecture.” He continues, “Although each exerts just a tiny effect individually, these common variations in the genetic code add up to substantial impact, taken together”.

The research provides a better understanding of the genetic factors that drive autism. Dr. Buxbaum states, “Within a given family, the mutations could be a critical determinant that leads to the manifestation of ASD in a particular family member.” He continues, “The family may have common variation that puts it at risk, but if there is also a spontaneous mutation on top of that, it could push an individual over the edge.” Autism geneticists can better detect common and rare genetic variations associated with risk.

Studying the genetic code that is shared by most people has been challenging, as limitations of sample size and composition make it difficult to estimate the relative influence of common and rare spontaneous variation. As a result, researchers are focusing on new statistical methods to allow them to sort out the heritability of the disorder with more reliability. This recent study allowed investigators to compare quite a large sample of individuals on the spectrum with matched controls. Dr. Thomas Lehner, chief of NIMH’s Genomics Research Branch, states, “This is a different kind of analysis than employed in previous studies. Data from genome-wide association studies was used to identify a genetic model instead of focusing just on pinpointing genetic risk factors. The researchers were able to pick from all of the cases of illness within a population-based registry.”

With researchers getting a better grasp on the genetic framework, they are gaining a better understanding of which duplications of genetic material and spontaneous mutations are correlated to autism development. The researchers stated, “Even though such rare spontaneous mutations accounted for only a small fraction of autism risk, the potentially large effects of these glitches makes them important clues to understanding the molecular underpinnings of the disorder.”

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A Mother’s Immune System May Play a Role in Autism Development in their Child

According to a recent study, a mother’s immune system may be correlated to the development of autism disorders in their children. Some mothers of children with autism appear to have immune system deficiencies, as well as antibodies in their blood, which attack the brain proteins of their fetuses.

Autism disorders have been studied for many years, and there is still no clear answer of how they may develop. However, Dr. Andrew Adesman, Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, states, “This latest research takes us one step closer to clearing away some of the befuddlement and suggests why some children may develop autism”. Genetics play a major role in autism development, and this study makes it more evident that autism may begin to develop while the child is still in their mother’s womb. Dr. Adesman adds, “If maternal antibodies are indeed responsible for causing some cases of autism, then there is the possibility that a blood test could be done prenatally or even prior to getting pregnant to assess one’s risk of having a child with autism.”

As a result, this research may lead to potential advances in drug development, as this serves as a target for areas that need to be treated. Researchers have named this form of autism Maternal Autoantibody-Related (MAR) autism. Researchers state that upwards of a quarter of all cases of autism disorders may be of the MAR kind.

The study utilized blood samples of nearly 250 mothers that have children with autism, as well as the blood samples of 150 mothers of children without autism. The mothers of children with ASD were more than 21 times as likely to have the MAR antibodies in their systems that reacted with antigens, or fetal brain proteins. MAR antibodies were not found in the blood of mothers of children without autism.

In addition to this study, previous research has found that women with certain antibodies in their bloodstreams had an increased risk of having a child with autism. These children typically exhibited more severe language delays and irritability as opposed to the behaviors of children with autism whose mothers did not have the antibodies in their blood. Judy Van de Water, immunologist and professor of internal medicine, states, “Now we will be able to better determine the role of each protein in brain development. We hope that, one day, we can tell a mother more precisely what her antibody profile means for her child, then target interventions more effectively.”

By being able to identify the proteins associated with MAR autism, new therapies can potentially be developed to help treat those with the disorder. Furthermore, doctors may administer “antibody blockers” to the mother during pregnancy to aid in the development of the fetal brain. This research also leads to the possible development of a test for MAR autism, which would be available to mothers of young children who are showing signs of developmental delay. Results of the test could allow the child to receive early intervention and the best individualized care.

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