Autistic Girls More Prone to Severe Epilepsy

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Throughout years of research, it has been evident that females are much less likely to develop autism disorders than males. However, recent findings have shown that autistic girls are more susceptible to epilepsy, with nearly three times as many diagnoses than autistic boys of the same age.

According to a recently published issue of Autism Research, girls on the mild end of the autism spectrum are highly vulnerable to “treatment-resistant” epilepsy. Approximately one-fourth of all individuals with autism have some form of epilepsy, compared to just 1% of the general population. The new study states that women with both autism and epilepsy typically have milder symptoms of ASD, but often deal with stronger effects of epilepsy, such as intense seizures. As a result, the study suggests that whatever is protecting women from autism, does not do the same for epilepsy.

Karen Blackmon, assistant professor of neurology at New York University, led a team of researchers, closely studying 125 individuals between the ages of 2 and 35, all of which were seeking treatment for epilepsy. Ninety-seven of these participants were male, and the other twenty-eight were female.

The team discovered that only 24 percent of the male participants were resistant to two types of epilepsy treatments, while forty-six percent of the females were completely unresponsive to the same drugs.

Each participant underwent MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans following the treatment. Scientists found that all of the female subjects with both autism and epilepsy were prone to cortical dysplasia, an abnormality of the brain region where neurons fail to migrate to the places they’re supposed to be. On the contrary, males showed no evidence of the abnormality.

Moving forward, researchers aim to conduct further studies to find whether or not chronic dysplasia has any relation to the resistance in females to the epilepsy treatments. Christine Nordahl, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at University of California – Davis states, “We know very little about the subgroup of individuals with [both] autism and epilepsy. [However[, this study is a great first step in exploring sex differences in this subgroup.”

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Enhancing Reading Comprehension through Intensive Training

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A new training regime that improves reading comprehension in children has been shown to also boost brain connectivity in kids with autism. This training, as written in June’s Human Brain Mapping, is able to enhance communication within the brain’s language areas.

Rajesh Kana, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama states, “This is a hard-core, long and intense intervention, which probably is the reason we are finding some changes in connectivity.” The therapy focuses on children who are capable of reading aloud but have difficulty comprehending the meaning of the words.

The researchers studied 31 children with autism who have average oral reading abilities but low comprehension skills. For the course of 10 weeks, at 4 hours a day, the therapists coached 16 of the children to use visual images to understand the words they were reading. The remaining 15 children did not receive this training.

By using visual aids, the children were able to further expand their interpretation of what the words meant, as they were able to describe the colors and shapes in each image.

The children were screened through a brain scanner, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record any changes in resting brain activity before and after the therapy sessions. With several sets of brain regions becoming active at the same time in the children, there was significant evidence that several areas were communicating as connected networks.  One network includes language areas such as Broca’s area, in the frontal lobe, which involves speech production and sentence comprehension. Another element of the network is Wernicke’s area, which is located under the sides of the head and incorporates the understanding words.

By the end of the study, it was evident that children that participated in the intensive training had stronger connectivity within the language network than the children who did not receive any training. Furthermore, the enhanced connectivity was associated with improved scores on a reading comprehension exam.

Lucina Uddin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami, states, “Knowing what effective therapy looks like in the brain may help clinicians predict how individuals respond. This is a great model for the kind of work that needs to be done in the field in general.”

For the original article, please click here.

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Autism in a New Light: The Benefits of Sensory Lighting

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Seeing the world through the eyes of someone else is a very important skill in life. But do you ever consider that the normal world you see around you can potentially be an entirely different world than yours?

How we see the world is an important factor in how we excel at different activities in our life. Making friends and playing sports, for example, can be either simple or difficult based on our perception of our surroundings. That is what makes Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a disorder that affects many individuals with autism, ever more important to understand and treat.

Dr. A. Jean Ayres, occupational therapist and neuroscientist, feels like SPD is best symbolized as a “traffic jam” within the brain. To those with SPD, certain parts of the brain cannot receive the information needed to process incoming sensory inputs from the surrounding environment.  The most concerning aspect of SPD is how it can negatively impact an individual’s life. Those diagnosed with the disorder are at higher risk of anxiety, depression, aggression and difficulty in developing motor skills.

Parents with children that experience the disorder are no stranger to occupational therapy, which aims to appropriate responses to sensation so that children can behave more functionally in a variety of environments beyond their comfort zones. In fact, efforts to treat SPD by means of occupational therapy can be bolstered by actions that parents take to continue therapeutic sensory experiences at home. Sensory items, like bubble tanks or swings, can be extremely beneficial for children to have in their homes.

One of the most notable sensory therapy methods are sensory lights. Sensory mood lighting has been used in various studies, and researchers unanimously agree that various colors of light can positively affect people’s moods and attitudes, when used correctly. Harsh, bright lights and flickering lights often have a counter-effect on a child’s focus and calmness. However, sensory lights are adjustable so that the best, unique light settings can be used to soothe each individual user.

Sensory mood lighting can be used in rooms to create a safe haven where those on the spectrum can stimulate and balance their sensory systems. Moreover, the lighting can make children much happier, a perk that all parents would love to see. Companies like Valuelights, a Manchester-based lighting company, strive to provide a fun variety of lighting options to the public. For example, the company creates bubble tanks that emit different colors of light. (To learn more about what their company offers, check out their website:http://www.valuelights.co.uk/novelty-lights/sensory-lights.html)

While it may be difficult to picture exactly how those with SPD view the world, we should focus on is how we can make the world a better place for them. The least we can do is show them that the world is a much brighter place than it may seem.

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Low Levels of Hormone Linked to Social Inabilities for Children with ASD

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According to a recent study conducted by Stanford University, there is a prevalent connection between low levels of the hormone vasopressin, and the way children on the autism spectrum respond to social situations.

Vasopressin, a small-protein hormone, is similar to oxytocin in the sense that it plays a significant role in social behavior. This hormone has been found to contribute to the struggle that autistic children face in understanding the behaviors and actions of those around them.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine measured hormone levels simultaneously in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid of 28 individuals, and found that vasopressin levels in the blood accurately reflected that of the brain. The researchers then recruited over 150 child participants (between the ages of 3 and 12) for behavioral testing. Fifty-seven of these children had been diagnosed with autism, forty-seven had a sibling on the spectrum, and fifty-five were neurotypical without a sibling on the spectrum.

Each child provided a blood sample that was measured for vasopressin. They then participated in psychiatric assessments of their neurocognitive abilities, as well as social responsiveness and their ability to recognize emotions in others. The researchers focused on a particular social trait, known as “theory of mind” – the ability to understand that other individuals have their own opinions, feelings, and perspectives. Many individuals with autism have relatively poor “theory of mind”, making it difficult to connect with others and form relationships.

In all three groups of children studied, there was a wide range of vasopressin levels. The neurotypical children had similar scores on theory of mind tests regardless of their vasopressin levels. However, those with low vasopressin levels that were on the autism spectrum had a significant link to low theory of mind ability.

Karen Parker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the study, states that they are now looking into the possibility of vasopressin treatment, in order to improve social ability in autistic children.

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Seeing Autism Differently: Neurodivergence vs Neurodisability

It’s a shame that prejudice often exists against the “atypical.” In a society where conformity is crucial, distinctions are frequently condemned, whether one chooses to be different or not.

This even applies to outcomes  of our genetic makeup like race and sex, which we have no control over. Having autism is not a choice, but people on the spectrum are too often compared to neurotypicals. Instead, we should be regarding people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as their own incomparable category, one with weaknesses but also strengths.

Oftentimes, autism is portrayed as a disability. The disorder’s weaknesses are enhanced through the use of words like “suffer,” “illness,” and “disability,” neglecting the unique strengths exhibited by those on the spectrum. As a result, the common misconception that autistics are intellectually disabled is quite common.

Einstein, Mozart, Warhol and many more geniuses displayed characteristics like obsessiveness, acute attention to detail, and lasting, undisturbed focus. These are qualities that people with ASD often display. Alternatively, people with Asperger’s syndrome often describe the condition as provoking a sensory overload. While this oversensitivity may create chaos and confusion within their minds, it may also inspire artistic creativity. Thus, people on the autism spectrum should be considered a “neurodivergent” population, not a disabled one.

Dr Rosa Hoekstra, a lecturer in Biological Psychology and Genetics at The Open University, conducts research that attempts to disprove the idea that autism is linked to intellectual deficiencies. “Autism and intellectual disability often occur together in clinical settings, and this has made many researchers think that the conditions must share the same genetic causes. Our research challenges this assumption,” she reported. Her research suggested that the genes responsible for autism are not those responsible for learning disabilities.

Research indicates that autism is an example of natural variation. Generally speaking, between 56% and 95% of observed characteristics are genetic in origin, as found by a recent study that used identical and non-identical twins to measure origins of comparable traits. Polymorphisms are the genetic differences that cause autism. Approximately 1% of the world population has ASD, with cases occurring in every racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic group.  

The pharmaceutical industry funds a large portion of the research focusing on autism. This industry, however, frames autism as a disability by developing a “disease model.” Under this model, they plan to discover drugs that will treat and possibly cure autism, but also learn to identify the disorder prenatally, creating the option to terminate pregnancy on these grounds. The question is, then, is it desirable for autism research to be inspired by this sort of mentality? The fact that autistics are at higher risk of developing mental health issues than non-affected individuals does not convince the pharmaceutical industry otherwise.

However, it must be taken into account that the prejudice against autism may actually raise the risk of mental health issues. It’s not absurd to predict mental issues for children who were bullied and left-out, as many children with ASD are. Even in adulthood, autistic individuals often find themselves alienated from society. This sort of abuse and segregation is bound to leave scarring emotional trauma.

It’s true: autistic people may learn, react, and express themselves differently that non-autistic people. Nevertheless, they are still worthy of kindness and opportunity. If one in every sixty-eight children has ASD, it’s quite probable that everyone knows someone who is autistic, whether they realize it or not. After all, not all autistic people have a learning disability (since they are not directly linked to autism) and about 75% of autistic people are verbal.

Prejudice against autistic people, who constitute a “minority group” of sorts, can be reduced through advocacy and compassion. We must start to appreciate their uniqueness and strengths rather than condemn what most would call “limitations” when comparing ASD individuals to non-ASD individuals. We have and continue to fight against racism, homophobia, and sexism; it is now time to combat sanism, too.

By Maude Plucker

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Lab-Grown Brain Clumps Shed Light on Causes of Autism

Organoids prove revolutionary when used in autism research. Made of stem cells, which are undifferentiated cells that can specialize into various kinds of cells, organoids resemble tiny brains, like those of human embryos. These lab-grown organ buds are very new and developing quickly; in 2013, The Scientist called organoids one of the biggest advances in science. Just last week, the very first study using organoids to investigate the causes of autism was published.

Flora Vaccarino, a professor of child psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale University, led the study with the aim of identifying whether autism is the outcome of abnormal brain development. The researchers made stem cells from the skin cells collected from autistic patients with enlarged heads, a characteristic that exists in about 20% of autistic people. They made stem cells from the skin of the patients’ fathers who do not have autism spectrum disorder as their control group. Next, they manipulated the stem cells to develop into an assortment of forebrain neuronal cells. These became organoids. 

To verify that the organoids produced necessary components found in fetal brains, genetic sequencing and physiological tests were conducted on the organoids. When comparing the organoids derived from the patient’s cells with those from their fathers’, three major observations were made.

First, the genes contributing to the proliferation of cells were over-expressed in the autistic organoids as compared to in the non-autistic organoids. Second, an imbalance in the number of two types of neurons that are usually the same in quantity was identified. Third, gene expression data indicated a particular gene crucial for early brain development was over expressed in the autistic organoids. By engineering the DNA from the autistic organoids to reduce the over-expression of that particular gene, an incredible challenge was accomplished: the scientists successfully transformed cells from the autistic patients into organoids that lacked the neuronal imbalance.                 

Such research would be unsuccessful without organoids. In the past, researching misunderstood diseases often meant scanning affected individuals’ genomes for mutations in combination with the observation of animal brain development.  With organoids, however, the brain-like clumps form beautiful 3D displays of the brain’s natural conditions, far exceeding the accuracy of two-dimensional models. Now, the dimension of organoids are being taken advantage of to study other complex diseases such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

This new study upholds the belief that organoids can be used to analyze the nature of many diseases and disorders, like autism. Soon enough, thanks to organoids, scientists could be discovering how to manipulate and reverse certain key genes that cause autism.

By Maude Plucker

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Starting with the Man in the Mirror: Repetitive Behaviors and Ethics of Research

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Little brothers aren’t always easy to have around. Needless to say, my relationship with my brother was always very different from my friends.

In a sense, our friendship really started because of the music of a moonwalking man, who wears a single glitter glove.

My brother, Justin, has autism. But if you met him in person, you might just think he was a pretty impressive super-fan of the King of Pop. While most sisters try to prevent little brothers from making any sort of contact with their friends, my friends and I love to come to my house because of Justin. One day, Justin even walked in with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” costume.

My friends tried to simulate strobe lights with their phones, and we tried our best to be his crazed audience.

So how does Justin do it? He practices, like any other superstar. Some of his favorite pastimes involve researching details on Michael Jackson’s life and dancing along with old MJ music videos over and over again until he got the routine down to a T.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that his passion for all things Michael Jackson was a normal behavior associated with autism. Researchers are currently conducting studies on this lesser-analyzed aspect of autism, formally called “repetitive, restricted behavior”, or RRB.

“What is really defining about the behavior is that it is unusual, appears non-functional, and occurs over and over again,” explained Ericka Wodka Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist in the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and the Department of Neuropsychology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Interested by how researchers viewed behaviors like my brother’s, I delved into more articles. And the more articles I read, the more apparent it became that people can exploit such research to force people with autism to act less like they have autism. That issue led me to wonder: Is the research conducted with ethical motivations and goals?

“If the objective of an intervention is simply to reduce autistic traits, it is possible to do real harm to the individual,” says Ari Ne’emen, who has autism himself, and works as  director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a Washington-based advocacy group that applies the raises awareness of disability rights.

Luckily, researchers and advocates agree that the studies are meant purely for forming a greater understanding of RRB, and how to use the behavior to tap into individuals’ full potentials.

An important aspect of treating a behavior is understanding the purpose of it, Dr. Wodka explained. “Something that is pleasing is not going to be responsive to the same kind of intervention as something that is a response to anxiety,” she said.

Research should be geared more towards the positive aspects of RRB. More creative approaches to learning can be developed. I know that my brother’s motor skills have significantly improved after hours of pops, locks, and moonwalks.

If you ever meet my little brother, the six-foot-tall Filipino Michael Jackson impersonator, you might never detect his autism. He’ll jump right in and ask you what your favorite Michael Jackson song is, and if you reply with anything at all, he’ll continue to educate you on the King’s favorite foods, and he’ll instantly become your friend.

Yes, understanding how to tone down these obsessions would help out my family during times when we can’t buy the MJ album that Justin wants so badly. But, I believe that the greatest advantage to this research is that it teaches others that behaviors don’t make individuals with autism any less valuable as human beings. A lot of them can still learn the same material as everyone else, if we just recognize and respect that they learn in different ways.

My brother’s love for Michael Jackson is not an error on his behavioral report card that needs to be corrected. In truth, it is the passion that allows him to face the world while being proud of himself. And, it is the reason why I’ll always feel proud to be his sister.

By Samantha Mallari

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When Teachers say “Action”, Students Go Animate

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In traditional classroom settings, when students have to read books or listen to a story, how long do they really pay attention after the words, “Once Upon a Time”?

The monotony and narrow agenda of a typical school day can be the greatest obstacle to student learning, especially for students on the spectrum.

A wide range of behaviors are associated with autism. Communication difficulties and obsessions with specific topics or objects, like Spongebob or dinosaurs, are examples of such behaviors. With such different behaviors, how can average schools accommodate autistic students’ everyday needs? How can kids improve their abilities in a system that treats them all the same?

Those are the questions that rattled around the minds behind the new organization, Go Animate. This online company provides easy-to-use animation software that allows students and teachers to create their own cartoons. The classroom experience is no longer limited by distractions and disinterest. The only limit is the imagination of the students themselves.

The ability to create animations could be a key to making substantial academic progress, especially in Special Education classrooms.

For students who have trouble communicating verbally, animations provide a chance to articulate their perspectives on certain topics, allowing them to be captivating storytellers. The software acts as a blank page for students with autism to create narratives, situations, and worlds of their own. Go Animate provides a text-to-speech option as well, so recording audio for videos is now ancient history.

All in all, this opportunity for students with autism can expand their social and communication skills like no other software can.

For students who express interest in a specific topic, the animation program gives them space to talk about what they love. Enthusiasm for school is fuel for developing a deeper insight into more complex lessons.

Go Animate’s software also helps keep teachers afloat in a sea of sensory distractions. Children today are growing up using tablets and touch-screens, so it only makes sense to adapt the learning process in a way that resounds with them. If lessons are taught through cartoons, teachers can grab (and keep) the attention of students by providing headphones and tablets/computers to watch the lesson individually, and at their own pace.

The website offers custom payment plans that best fit the number of teachers and students who use the software. The animation program is incredibly affordable, especially when compared to more popular video editing systems.

Each child with autism has unique sets of learning needs, but everyone wants the ability to create whatever their heart desires. That natural attraction to storytelling can prove to be the greatest academic boost teachers aiming to have more engaging schooldays.

With Go Animate, you might be surprised how many students actually pay attention after the words “Once Upon a Time.”

By Samantha Mallari

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Girl with Asperger’s Syndrome Tells Her Story to Raise Awareness

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In 2010, Marta Bustos was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. After being diagnosed, she felt embarrassed and always wanted to hide her disorder. However, after starting a blog, she’s learned to open up and write about her feelings.

Jacki Bustos, Marta’s mother, always knew that her daughter wasn’t the same as other babies. Her mother says that she was always fussy, couldn’t be alone, would constantly blink her eyes, and didn’t speak a word until she was a year a half and then only full sentences.

After her diagnosis, Marta felt as though she needed to hide her disorder because of the stigma that followed it. Her mother says that she remembers crying after she found out because she was only familiar with low-functioning autistic individuals. Jacki Bustos also said that she had no reference point as to how their journey would be. That’s when Jacki decided to journal about her perspective and feelings on her daughter’s diagnosis. 

Once Jacki got started on her blog, it quickly became a way to translate Marta’s everyday thoughts and actions. She was also able to connect with other families whose children have Asperger’s Syndrome.

Later on, Marta added to the blog.  She finally “came out” as autistic and it has given her a sense of encouragement. She now understands that her disorder isn’t a problem, its part of who she is.

Along with the success from her blog, Marta has been invited to speak at the Autism Spectrum Disorder Entercational Conference. The organizer of the conference enjoyed Marta’s positive approach to living with Asperger’s. Marta is excited about speaking but her main hope it to help other people struggling the way she did. 

By Sejal Sheth 

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Mate Crime: More Children and Adults with Autism at Risk of Being Bullied by So-Called “Friends”

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New research shows that children and young adults on the autism spectrum are being bullied, abused, and even robbed by people they think are their friends. An autism charity found that a disturbingly high amount of people with autism are subject to “mate crime,” a form of disability hate crime in which a person is exploited or abused by people they believe to be their friends.

Based off of an online survey conducted by a British autism charity, the report uncovered heartbreaking stories of abuse––including a 17 year old girl whose iPod and phone were stolen by her classmates at school. She also had a boyfriend who exploited her disability living allowance (i.e. Disability benefits provided by the government). A young man was tricked into giving up his debit card and PIN to a so-called friend, who used it to pay his bills.

Unforutunately, these two stories are just a fraction of what has become a widespread phenomenon. Out of the 150 people that participated in the survey, 80 per cent of the respondents over the age of 16 had been bullied or taken advantage of by someone they considered a friend.

The most vulnerable age group was 16-25. All respondents in that group reported having difficulties distinguishing genuine friends from people who might be potential abusers or manipulators. Eight out of 10 said that they have turned down valuable social opportunities due to fear of bullying.

It was also found that 71 per cent of autistic people from all age groups who had been victims of mate crime were subject to verbal abuse. More than half of all 12-16 year-olds had had money or possessions stolen. Nearly three quarters of people over 25 reported being manipulated by their “friends.”

Some adults with autism even experienced sexual abuse. Over a third of adult participants were subjected to bullying and manipulation of a sexual nature––including being coerced into sexting.

“Mate crime is morally reprehensible and these people are cowards. People with autism struggle enough with the complexities of daily life without having to live in fear that people who pretend to be their friends will steal from them, assault them or encourage them to commit crimes on their behalf,” said Robin Bush, the CEO of Wirral Autistic Society.

The report concluded that people with autism were often unaware that they were in an abusive friendship. Parents and caregivers were the ones who recognized the problem but did not know who to turn to for help.

You can read more here.

By Nina Bergold

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