Researchers Study the Link between Autism and Seizures

A recent study has shown that autistic mice models develop abnormal social behaviors after continuously experiencing seizures. The research findings, which were presented this past Tuesday in Boston at the Autism Consortium Research Symposium, add further evidence that seizures and autism are often linked. Furthermore, seizures can amplify the effects of various autism risk genes.

Matthew Anderson, associate professor of pathology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and lead investigator of the study, states, “It’s sort of a gene-environment interaction.”
  The researchers explored the link between autism and epilepsy, as one in three autistic individuals suffers from epilepsy as well. These men and women typically score much lower in tests for social and motor skills compared to those without epilepsy.

In order to explore the link, researchers injected healthy mice with pentylenetrazole, a chemical that induces seizures, once a day over the course of ten days. Over the course of the study, the mice experienced increasingly severe seizures. Furthermore, they began to prefer spending time with an inanimate object as opposed to another mouse, demonstrating a social impairment.  Vaishnav Krishnan, postdoctoral fellow in Anderson’s lab, states that many mouse models of autism demonstrate the same social impairment evident in those experiencing seizures.

Although researchers cannot officially state that the social impairments stem from seizures and not the drug itself, Krishnan states that researchers have obtained very similar results using another drug that induces seizures. Furthermore, post-seizure, the mice showed dampened expression of an autism-linked gene called PTEN. The mice also showed an increase in the UBE3A expression after receiving the first drug dose. UBE3A is located in a chromosomal region that is duplicated in up to 3 percent of individuals with autism.

To further investigate the role of UBE3A in social behavior, researchers created mouse models that had either one or two extra copies of the gene. Their findings determined that the mice with two extra copies of the gene have impaired social abilities even in the absence of the seizure-inducing drug. Anderson states, “If they have this extra copy, their social preference is lost completely”. The next step for the researchers is to further investigate if seizures amplify other autistic symptoms, aside from issues with social behaviors, in mice. They also hope to pin down the specific brain regions that are involved in the process.

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New Evidence Supports the Link between Air Toxins and ASD

According to a recent investigation, many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been exposed to unusually high levels of air toxins during their mother’s pregnancy and in their first two years of life. With the diagnosis rate for autism disorders reaching an all-time high in the United States, these findings are critical in helping understand some of the potential reasons for the development of the disorder. This new study, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, is being presented today at the American Association for Aerosol Research.

Evelyn Talbott, professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health and principal investigator of the study, states, “Autism spectrum disorders are a major public health problem, and their prevalence has increased dramatically”. She continues, “The causes of autism are poorly understood. Very few studies have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors. Our analysis is an addition to the small but growing body of research that considers air toxins to be a risk factor for ASD.”

The team of researchers analyzed families with and without ASD within southwest Pennsylvania. Among the children with autism disorder, the researchers found links to increased levels of both chromium and styrene. Autism currently affects many families in the Pittsburgh region, reinforcing the idea that air quality is vital towards the health of young children. Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments which funded the study, states, “Our aspirations for truly becoming the most livable city cannot be realized if our children’s health is threatened by dangerous levels of air toxins. Addressing this issue needs to remain one of our nation’s top priorities.”

For the study, Talbott and her colleagues interviewed 217 families of children with ASD, comparing these findings with information collected from two sets of comparison families of children without ASD, who were born during the same time period and within the six-county area.  According to Talbott, “one of the strengths of the study was the ability to have two types of controls. [They] provided a comparison of representative air toxins in neighborhoods of children with and without ASD.” The research team used the National Air Toxins Assessment (NATA) to estimate the exposure of 30 different pollutants known to cause neurodevelopmental issues.

Researchers noticed that children who fell into high exposure groups for styrene and chromium were at a two-fold greater risk of ASD. Other toxins that were found to be associated with ASD risk are cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic. Styrene is used most commonly in the production of plastic and paint. It is also within the combustion of burning gasoline in vehicles. Air pollution containing chromium is typically a result of industrial processes such as the hardening of steel, and it can also come from power plants.

“The next step [of this study] will be confirming our findings with [additional research] that measures the specific exposure to air pollutants at an individual level to verify these EPA-modeled estimates,” Talbott states. For now, these results provide strong evidence that environmental exposure can in fact play a strong part in the development of ASD.

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Horses May Help Ease Some of the Symptoms of Autism

Many children have experienced improved behavior through therapy with animals.

A popular alternative treatment for children on the autism spectrum has been to have animals incorporated into therapy sessions. In particular, research has shown that interaction with horses has eased many of the symptoms of those with the disorder. Author Rupert Isaacson has pioneered the Horse Boy Method, which focuses on having the child interact with a horse. The foundation incorporates workshops, as well as 3-day or weeklong camp experiences.

Mr. Isaacson states that there is a wonderful psychological power to horses, and this power can help those dealing with obstacles that often come from the disorder. Mr. Isaacson noticed a special interaction between his non-verbal autistic son and the horses that he came across. “The moment I put Rowan on [the horse’s] back, he began to speak. A light bulb went off in my head,” he states.  After so many failed attempts at getting his son to express himself, he was confident that animal interaction could have an incredible effect on children and adults with ASD.

Mr. Isaacson is aware that many people are skeptical of this approach, but emphasizes that  primary focus should be to follow the child and how they are responding to this new interaction. “When you [are horseback riding] with the child in front of you, which is how we do it in Horse Boy, you can create these really dance-like rhythms. The reason it feels so good is it fills your body with a feel-good hormone called oxytocin, and the child who is racked with anxiety, with sensory discomfort, gets this industrial-sized shot of bliss hormone.” They have witnessed first-hand the improved behaviors among children that have participated in the program, with the children simply feeling at ease.

Although there is not a lot of scientific evidence to back Mr. Isaacson’s approach, there is currently a new wave of researchers who are looking into these alternative therapy methods. In addition, many parents have seen incredible benefits from having their child help take care of a pet, so participating in therapy with horses is something that many are willing to try.

Rowan Isaacson has made a lot of progress over his years of therapy. He has even started his own web-based TV series that focuses on animal characters. Mr. Isaacson is thrilled that his son has been able to better express himself, as well as find something he is so passionate about.  Mr. Isaacson is determined to expand Horse Boy and have other children and parents experience the benefits of animal therapy. His mission is to contribute to a society better integrates autistic individuals, allowing them to utilize their skills and interests.  

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Medical Center Unveils Autism-Friendly Emergency Room

A visit to the emergency room can be difficult or uncomfortable for anyone, but for a child on the autism spectrum, it can be incredibly traumatic. The fast-paced environment, bright lights, noises, and sense of urgency can have the individual feel very overwhelmed. Due to this issue, one medical center has developed a center specifically for the needs of individuals with autism.

Dr. Olga Goldfarb, director of the Autism Program at Capital Health’s Institute for Neurosciences in New Jersey, states, “For patients with autism and for their families or caregivers, [a trip to the E.R.] can be a nightmare experience”. She continues, “They have problems interacting and approaching other people. It can be very scary for them.” As a result, Capital Health Medical Center – Hopewell has launched the first “autism-friendly” pediatric emergency department in New Jersey.

All hospital staff in the pediatric unit spent the past few months receiving specialized training to help aid individuals on the spectrum. They were taught to recognize various behaviors associated with ASD, and how to help provide a calmer experience and work with their specific needs. For example, Heather Keller, nurse manager of pediatric services, states, “[Individuals with ASD] do not like fluorescent lighting, so [we] turn down the lights. We have an overhead light that we shine in the corner”.

The current pediatric emergency department at Capital Health is separate from its adult emergency department, and features 17 beds. Although it is being rolled out in the Hopewell medical branch first, they are already planning for expansion. In addition to the training that is being given to the medical professionals, the center incorporates a parent focus group who meets with staff to discuss ways that the hospital can best care for children with autism. Toys, blankets, and other comforting objects are provided at the nurses’ stations, categorized by their appearance and texture (depending on what the patient prefers).

The pediatric emergency nurses also use iPads with apps designed to help staff communicate with patients on the spectrum. This technology will assist the nurses to understand why the patient is there, their levels of pain, and their preferred method of communication.

With the autism diagnosis rate in the United States reaching a high of 1 in every 68 children, it is becoming more essential to develop programs that assist individuals on the spectrum in various aspects. This model for an autism-friendly medical center is something that other medical centers in the nation should consider adapting, as there are increasing numbers of individuals who need specialized services in order to receive the most effective care.

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Researchers Study the Barriers Adults with ASD Face Upon Entering the Job Market

As many teenagers and young adults with autism disorders phase out of high school settings, they face the difficulty of trying to obtain stable employment. For example, Jay Tyner-Wilson, a 21-year-old on the autism spectrum, aged out of Fayette County Public Schools over six months ago, but has been unable to land a paid position at any company, despite his many attempts. His mother is particularly concerned, as many individuals with autism are never given the opportunity to gain employment, and therefore never get to experience growth in certain areas of their lives, or get the chance to make a living for themselves.

This mother and son have taken part in a focus group that is part of a three-y
ear study at the University of Kentucky College of Education. This study addresses the difficult transition from school to work for those on the spectrum. The biggest challenge, according to Ms. Tyner-Wilson, is “getting that one person that might be willing to take a chance on somebody like my son and give him a job”.

In particular, res
earchers from the UK are looking at these students in the focus group, and trying to see how they can build a life after high school. The National Institute of Mental Health awarded a $693,000 grant to professor Lisa Ruble of UK College of Education, as well as a cross-disciplinary team of co-investigators at UK and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Lisa Ruble hopes that funding can help reduce the disconnect from services that often occurs when students with autism complete high school. “What we are trying to do is maximize opportunities”, Ruble states. She continues, “We need to do a better job in understanding what the needs are and how to better respond to this large number of students who need to be employed.”

As the first year of the study carries on, researchers are meeting with the parents of the students, as well as school administrators, policy makers, and job coaches. They are trying to get a better understanding of the issues involved with the plans an individual has after graduation, and then implementing those plans. They are focusing on what a good transition between school and employment would look like, as well as identifying the barriers and finding the solutions to overcome them.

Melanie Tyner-Wilson said the most “powerful thing” about the study is that it brings national attention to the issue. She adds, “It is exciting when something gets researched, it gets attention and it counts. We have all kinds of people like my son Jay [in the country] and we need to figure out how we are going to meet their needs and give them a quality of life.”

Like Jay, individuals on the autism spectrum have a lot of great qualities and strengths they can offer to particular jobs, they just need “different layers of support”, according to his mother. While some students with varying degrees of autism have gone on to college and or/employment, there is still a significant number who struggle. Lisa Ruble hopes that this study will “raise the nation’s capacity to provide services to children and adults with autism spectrum disorder”.

ICare4Autism is incredibly dedicated to the Global Autism Workforce Initiative, which focuses on the importance of creating Autism-friendly workplaces, as well as helping to ease the transition from high school to an employed setting. The next ICare4Autism Conference, which will take place in Washington, D.C., will focus on the challenges individuals on the spectrum have faced in gaining employment, and how companies can give individuals on the spectrum better opportunities by implementing programs that will highlight and utilize their strengths.

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Studies Find Lack of Differences between Boys and Girls with ASD

Although autism affects both genders, it is primarily associated with boys. In fact, the diagnosis rate for autism in the United States is nearly five times as high for boys, in comparison to girls. As a result, scientists and researchers have begun exploring why current diagnostic tests may miss many girls who are on the spectrum. Furthermore, they are trying to get a grasp on how autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may affect girls and women differently.

A recent study, reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, used multiple measures of language, social, and communication skills in 234 boys and 54 girls that had been diagnosed with autism.  Based on common perceptions, the researchers expected the girls to have better verbal skills, poorer nonverbal skills, and fewer repetitive behaviors. However, they discovered that there was no significant difference in any of these aspects.

Another study, published in the same journal, compared play behaviors of 40 girls with autism and 40 boys with the disorder, matched by age and severity of the disorder. The children were recorded over the course of 20 minutes, to analyze how they played. In particular, they analyzed two different skills: joint attention, which means attending to the same object as another person, and behavioral requesting, which means they elicit help in getting objects from someone else, or responding to these requests. Difficulties in either of these skills can be a signal for autism.

Although there is some previous evidence that typically developing girls, and girls with autism, have better play skills than boys, the res
earchers of this study did not find any significant differences in play type of complexity between the children used in their sample.

Catherine Lord, lead researcher of the first study, states, “I’ve been looking for the differences for years, but I haven’t been able to find them so far.” Many teams have tried to find the differences between genders of children with autism and of comparable intelligence and capabilities, but have failed to find anything. Despite this, many small pieces of empirical evidence state that autism manifests variably in boys and girls. In order to find these dissimilarities, researchers will need to do a more extensive recruitment of girls with autism disorders for their studies. This poses an issue, as many girls may be on the autism spectrum, but are not receiving the proper diagnosis. Lord states, “I don’t think we can say there are no differences [between genders]; they’re just overshadowed by bigger things.”

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Families Have Seen Great Success in Several Therapy Methods

A child participates in a therapy session based on Applied Behavior Analysis.

With the recent discovery that a molecule in broccoli may alleviate several symptoms of autism, it is essential to look at all of the other developments that can truly help individuals struggling with the disorder. In particular, certain therapies are becoming increasingly more prevalent in the U.S. and internationally due to the positive responses that they have received.

For example, many parents have seen gr
eat benefits from having their children participate in animal therapy. Pet ownership has been known to improve social functioning skills, and furthermore, children with ASD who own a pet have been noted to develop comforting skills and a better ability to share. Children with ASD have also experienced improvements in behavior through assisted therapy programs such as horseback riding. Sara Gee, a riding instructor, states, “For autistic children, we find the benefits are many. The simple aim of the therapy is to teach children to sit quietly and enjoy the ride whilst taking part in exercises that encourage listening and following, color recognition, counting, and making choices.”

Another successful therapy method is CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This therapy is a psychological intervention that is used to change how people think and behave. This therapy is based on the principle that how people think and feel has a direct relation to how they will behave. People with autism often get stuck in the same pattern of thinking or responding, so CBT uses various techniques to help them become more aware of how they think, therefore changing how they respond. Therapists have made this method more ASD-friendly by making certain exercises more repetitive, as well as more visual. For example, instead of asking a child how to rate their anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10, the therapist uses a visual image of a scale, where children can go to the image and illustrate their feelings.

Lastly, many parents have seen great success from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). This method of therapy breaks down actions into small steps that are easier for the child to understand. Each step is taught through repetition, with specialists providing intensive training of up to 35 hours per week. Families across the U.S. have reported incredible progress in their children, as they were noted to be significantly more expressive, as well as have a better ability to spontaneously engage in imaginative play, as well as have a better understanding of how to interpret the gestures of others.

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Chemical Present in Common Vegetables May Improve Several Symptoms of Autism

A recent study has discovered that a daily intake of vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage can significantly improve several symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in conjunction with MassGeneral Hospital for Children, reported that daily treatment of sulforaphane, a molecule commonly found in certain vegetables, resulted in improved behavior and communication.

Although this is a pilot study and larger investigations need to take place, researchers are rather hopeful about sulforaphane’s therapeutic benefits. In their report, which is being published in PNAS Early Edition, participants who received a daily dose of sulforaphane showed significant improvement in both behavioral and communicative assessments in just four short weeks.

Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, co-corresponding author of the report, states, “Over the years, there have been several anecdotal reports that children with autism can have improvements in social interaction and sometimes language skills when they have a fever”. He continues, “We investigated what might be behind that on a cellular level and postulated that it results from fever’s activation of the cellular stress response, in which protective cellular mechanisms that are usually held in reserve are turned on through activation of gene transcription.” Dr. Paul Talalay, co-corresponding author, found that sulforaphane particularly supports key aspects of the cell stress response.

The current study focused on 44 males between the ages of 13 and 27, with each individual being in the range of moderate to severe on the autism spectrum. Each participant was either randomly assigned to a daily dose of sulforaphane, which was extracted from broccoli, or a placebo. Participants were assessed over the course of 18 weeks, using standardized measurements of behavior and social interaction.

Dr. Kanwaljit Singh, lead author of the study, states that the assessments were significantly better for the 26 individuals receiving sulforaphane than the 14 that received a placebo. In as little as four weeks, individuals showed improvement in factors such as irritability, repetitive movement, hyperactivity, and communication.

Dr. Zimmerman concludes, “It’s important to note that the improvements didn’t affect everyone – about one third had no improvement – and the study must be repeated in a larger group of adults and in children, something we’re hoping to organize soon.” He continues, “Ultimately we need to get at the biology underlying the effects we have seen and study it at a cellular level. I think that will be done, and I hope it will teach us a lot about this still poorly understood disorder.”

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Autism Disorders in Children May Be Linked to Iron Deficiency in Mothers

According to a recent study, autism disorders in children may be linked to the iron intake of their mother during pregnancy. Mothers of children with autism were noted to have taken less iron supplements before and during their pregnancy than those with typically developing children.

The Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study incorporated over 350 pairs of mothers and children, which included both children with autism, and children developing typically. Among the participants, it was found that mothers with a low iron intake were five times more likely to have a child on the autism spectrum if they were older than 35 at the time of the child’s birth, or if they suffered from metabolic conditions such as diabetes.

Dr. Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor with the Department of Public Health Sciences and researcher with the MIND Institute states, “The risk associated with low maternal iron intake was much greater when the mother was also older and had metabolic conditions during her pregnancy”. She continues, “The association between lower maternal iron intake and increased ASD risk was strongest during breastfeeding, after adjustment for folic acid intake”.

Researchers precisely analyzed the supplements the mothers’ took during pregnancy, including vitamins, as well as the nutritional content of their breakfast cereals. Researchers examined the frequency and dosages of the supplements consumed in order to accurately study iron intake through supplementation.

Dr. Schmidt states, “Iron is crucial to early brain development, contributing to neurotransmitter production and immune function. These pathways have been associated with autism”. She adds, “Iron deficiency is pretty common, and even more common among women with metabolic conditions. However, we want to be cautious and wait until this study has been replicated. In the meantime, the takeaway message for women is to do what your doctor recommends. Take the recommended daily dosage [of vitamins throughout pregnancy].”

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Individuals with ASD May Have Impaired Predictive Ability

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have recently created a hypothesis stating that individuals with autism may lack the ability to predict what may happen next, which therefore creates difficulty in understanding the events occurring around them.

Richard Held, along with his colleagues at MIT, have discussed the fact that individuals on the spectrum may have difficulty in predicting future events, with an impaired predictive ability explaining many symptoms of autism. This new study is currently appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although traits of autism are incredibly diverse, Held and his colleagues wanted to see if any of these traits had a common cause. By analyzing their previous research and looking at first-hand accounts, they were able to determine that certain traits associated with autism disorders may be manifestations of an impaired ability to predict or understand the events that are about to occur. For instance, although the world is ever-changing, many individuals on the autism spectrum find it difficult to adapt to change, and therefore engage in repetitive behaviors, and are most comfortable sticking to a strict schedule, in order to create a feeling of “sameness”.

According to the researchers at MIT, another indicator of impaired predictive ability is the extreme hypersensitivity to stimuli that individuals on the spectrum often possess. Held and his team believe that people with autism never familiarize themselves to stimuli. Therefore, it is difficult to be able to predict a certain stimulus that one does not familiarize themselves with.

Furthermore, impaired predictive ability may also explain why some individuals on the spectrum have difficulty with dynamic objects. For example, children on the spectrum may be overwhelmed in places like the playground, where there are children running around, throwing balls, and a lot of movement is taking place. An inability to process where an object in motion is headed can result in confusion or fear. Held’s study states that in order to interact successfully with a moving object, you need to be able to have a sense of where it is headed, and to plan your motor movements accordingly. Held and his team will be conducting further research to better understand the capabilities and deficits of those on the spectrum in processing what is about to occur.

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