Aromatherapy as Part of Sensory Stimulation Therapy for Autism

There has been a lot of research of late into the beneficial effects of sensory stimulation for autistic children. Parents are encouraged to stimulate their children’s senses at home where they are comfortable, and to engage multiple senses at a time to allow their child’s brain to build connections across different modes of input. Aromatherapy is possibly the easiest way to add a new sensory layer to any activity, and one of the most effective.

One of the reasons aromatherapy is so effective is the close connection between smell and memory. Associating certain activities, images, or feelings with a certain smell helps the brain to build connections and file away other sensory data. We are all aware of the impact of walking into a house that smells of freshly baked cookies (as are real estate agents across the globe). It doesn’t matter who’s house it is or where the house is located, the sensory memory of freshly baked cookies tells us it is appropriate to feel welcome, comfortable, and at home. Using this same principal can help children with autism trigger different feelings and behaviors.

Aromatherapy can add certain ‘medicinal’ benefits specific to the scents being proffered. While some may consider this aspect to be hocus-pocus, Eastern medicine has credited certain fragrances, generally via essential oils, with healing powers that may be just help autistic children feel better for centuries. Some suggestions include frankincense to stimulate the limbic system, cedarwood to calm and purify, and lavender to calm and relax the nervous system.

Another reason aromatherapy is so widely used in autistic sensory therapies is just how easy it is to incorporate. A gentle massage using aromatic oils can be a great way to relax your child while engaging their senses of smell and touch simultaneously. Use an oil diffuser, available in myriad shapes and forms, to deliver the scent on its own or dab different oils onto fabrics with different textures and patterns to engage multiple senses at the same time. You can even add essential oils to bath water or spray on bedding to encourage relaxation at bedtime.aromatherap

Aromatherapy is just one more way parents and teachers can engage children with autistim spectrum disorders and help build connections between senses and helps children to relax while working on their social and motor skills.

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MicroRNAs Could Provide Biomarkers for Autism

A new study out of the Department of Psychiatry at Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan suggests, “that a set of serum miRNAs (microRNAs) might serve as a possible noninvasive biomarker for ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders.” While this could revolutionize the way autism is diagnosed, treated, or possibly cured, this study is just one of the early steps to understanding the role of genetics in autism.

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a nucleic acid present in all living cells that carries instructions from DNA to control the synthesis of proteins.  MicroRNAs refer to large families of genetic code fragments that regulate different physiological and developmental processes by suppressing the expression of certain genes or interfering with the protein production by genes.

The study, lead by Mahesh Mundalil Vasu, focused on the expression of miRNAs in 55 people diagnosed with an ASD compared to 55 non-autistic counterparts, with matched ages and genders. The researchers found 13 miRNAs that were expressed differently in autistic group and 600 genes and 18 biological pathways that may have been influenced by those 13 miRNAs, many of which were related to neurological pathways.

Research continues on traditional genetic issues such as changes to the genome that may be linked to autism, but this study indicates that these differently expressed miRNAs could be a biomarker for autism. Much larger studies need to be conducted before any conclusions are drawn, but this study provides a roadmap for that future research. 

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Low-Carb Diet Can Improve Autism Symptoms

A gluten-free diet has been long recommended for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), but a new study published in Frontiers in Pediatrics suggests it may be beneficial to take it a step even further, and adapt a Ketogenic High-Fat Low-Carb Diet. The ketogenic diet (KGD) has been proven effective for treatment of epilepsy and certain deficiencies, and tests reports indicate that children treated with the KGD exhibited improved social skills and learning abilities in addition to decreased seizure frequency. This Atkins-like diet could be especially beneficial to for those with ASD affected with epileptic episodes or pyruvate dehydrogenase deficiencies.

The ketogenic approach to nutrition comprises a high-fat and protein content combined with carbohydrate levels that are not sufficient for regular metabolic function, forcing the body to burn fat rather than carbohydrates as its primary fuel source. This is a very difficult shift to make, and very difficult to maintain, but can be worth it. 40% of the children involved in the study could not comply to or tolerate the diet. Among the children who did comply, the ones with the mildest autistic behaviors saw the most improvement, but all so mild to moderate improvement. These children continued to benefit from their time on the KGD even after the study was concluded.

A gluten-free diet is a less severe lifestyle, but has also proven beneficial to ASD children.  This type of non-ketogenic (fat burning) low carbohydrate diet did not differ dramatically in metabolic benefits from the ketogenic diet, but may present less risk of inflammation or fatigue. Either diet is likely to produce some beneficial effects, but it may be easier to start with a gluten free diet and then graduate to the full ketogenic diet. If no significant improvement is felt after switching from gluten-free to ketogenic, then the easier gluten free diet is sufficient. By slowly isolating suspect foods individually, you can gauge the effect of those specific foods. It is always wise to consult your doctor or child’s pediatrician before making any major dietary changes. 

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The Benefits of Yoga for Children with Autism

A young child participates in a special yoga class designed for children with autism and special needs.
(photo: David R. Jennings/ Daily Camera)

Many children on the autism spectrum have seen incredible benefits from participating in various physical activities, such as swimming, horseback riding, and running. Recently, the impact of yoga has been proven to be incredibly effective in improving the behavior and focus of many children with autism disorders. Although music and art therapy are the primary treatments used for children with autism, physical activities such as yoga are becoming increasingly popular.

Pop.Earth, a New York nonprofit, offers free or low-cost services for children on the autism spectrum. Founded by Debbie Stone, the mother of a son with autism, Pop.Earth offers multiple treatments in one location, with programs that are either low-cost, or free. One of the offers is a once-a-week yoga class for children with autism or special needs.

Chris Capitelli, the instructor of the yoga classes, incorporates aromatherapy and craniosacral therapy into the session. He also utilizes visualizations, stories, and flip-books to help engage the children into the class. Capitelli states, “Even within the class, there is a holistic approach with different components.”

These classes have shown to help children control their energy, as well as connect with others. The session allows for children to gain a better focus, calm their nerves and lessen feelings of anxiety, as well as improve body awareness. Debbie Stone found that yoga and breathwork, in combination with craniosacral therapy and proper nutrition, alleviated her son’s sudden rocking, and gave him a sense of discipline to control his movements and stay in one place. Furthermore, studies have shown that physical activities, such as yoga, have shown to improve communication, increase eye contact, and initiate feelings of calmness.

Some physical activities, such as contact sports, can expose autistic children to injury. However, yoga provides an opportunity to participate in a calm physical activity without the risks that other activities may have. By using slow movements, along with repetition, children can build a better sense of balance and improve their control. Furthermore, parents state that they have noticed an improvement in their child’s mental capabilities, as well as their spirit.

Pop.Earth plans to expand to multiple branches across the nation. With autism diagnoses for children in the United States reaching the high rate of 1 in 68, it is essential for programs such as these to be implemented, as they give children opportunities to improve various skills, and grow in multiple aspects.

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Invitation to Play Reduces Playground Stress in Autistic Children

A new study led by Vanderbilt University Professor of Psychiatry, Blyth Corbett, PhD is looking at how children with autism interact with children who are not on the spectrum, particularly on the playground. Playgrounds can be a great opportunity for children to have fun and make friends, but for many children on the autism spectrum, they can also be a source of stress and anxiety.

Corbett explained the purpose of the study is to, “Better understand what things help (children with Autism Spectrum Disorders) interact, but also what things are getting in the way of being able to play with others.”

Researchers measured stress levels of the children participating in the playground study by testing cortisol levels in saliva samples. Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress.

By measuring their cortisol levels and observing the children’s behavior, the study found that often, all it took for the children with ASD to join in playground games without a spike in their stress hormones was a simple invitation to play. Corbett says an invitation from a peer, “can significantly improve their willingness to engage with others.”

The study concludes that it is vitally important to bring children with autism and their typically-developing peers together in social situations. It also reveals a simple key to teaching children with ASD that it is safe to interact with others – an invitation.

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The Correlation between Gut Bacteria and Autistic Behavior

Although people may typically think of autism as a brain disorder, autism can have a significant effect on various parts of the body. In particular, nearly 9 out of 10 individuals on the spectrum suffer from some type of gastrointestinal problem, such as inflammation, bloating, digestive issues, or nausea. For many years, scientists have wondered why individuals with autism typically have abnormal digestion, and why they suffer from intense behavioral symptoms which may result from these abnormalities. Now, new studies suggest that restoring the proper microbial balance could alleviate some of the behavioral symptoms common to those with autism.

Researchers from Arizona State University have recently reported the results of an experiment in which they measured the levels of microbial by-products in children with autism, compared with that of neurotypical children. They found that the levels of fifty substances that were found were significantly different between the two groups. Furthermore, levels of several intestinal bacteria species were significantly altered in children with autism. In particular, they were found to have low levels of Bifidobacterium, which promotes good intestinal health.

Although researchers do not know for sure how bacteria influences behavior, they have reason to believe that having a leaky gut may allow for substances to flow into the bloodstream, causing harm to the brain. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology implemented a study using autism models in mice, and found that by treating some of the autistic mice with Bacteroides fragilis, a health-promoting bacterium, researchers were able to alleviate several behavioral symptoms. These mice became less anxious, and starting using their vocals to become more expressive.

As a result of these studies, doctors aim to focus on drug developments that would implement a healthy microbial balance. Although researchers are hopeful that these studies have provided leads to discovering the relation between autism and a specific system of the body, more studies will need to be conducted to establish how to use drugs to properly restore a balance in individuals with autism. Sarkis K. Mazmanian, biologist, and co-author of the study at the California Institute of Technology, states, “Many more years of work will be needed before we are confident that gut bacteria impact autism and whether probiotics are a viable treatment.”

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New Insights Into Brain Plasticity and Autism

Researchers at the University of Montreal conducted a fresh analysis of autism research including cognition, genetics, and brain imaging has shed new insight to potential causes of autism and also why it can present so differently in different people. The team of researchers, led by Laurent Mottron, developed a new model they dubbed, “Trigger-Threshold-Target.”

While there are as many theories on the potential causes of autism as there are researchers, the premise for this particular study is that autism is a genetically induced plastic reaction. The term “brain plasticity” refers to the brain’s ability to adapt by responding and remodeling itself. In the Trigger-Threshold-Target model, the “trigger” is a set of genetic mutations that enhance brain plasticity. The individuals’ threshold for brain plasticity then determines whether the result will be autism with intellectual disability, autism without intellectual disability, or intellectual disability without autism.  This model confirmed that much like a blind person will develop a heightened sense of smell and hearing, autistic brains develop a heighted ability to process different kinds of information. The result is a brain that scans the environment for the type of information it prefers, while ignoring the materials it doesn’t. “One of the consequences of our new model will be to focus early childhood intervention on developing the particular strengths of the child’s brain, rather than exclusively trying to correct missing behaviors, a practice that may be a waste of a once in a lifetime opportunity,” explains Mottron.

The team of academics developed their model by reexamining research that measured brain activity in animals implanted with genetic mutations associated with autism while undertaking perceptual tasks. Those studies revealed that most of those mutations increased brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to create connections when processing new information. They also reexamined established evidence that present in autism is an altered balance between the processing of social and non-social information. “The Trigger-Threshold-Target model,” explains Mottron, “builds a bridge between these two series of facts, using the neuro cognitive effects of sensory deprivation to resolve the missing link between them.”

Mottron’s team concluded that the different superiorities in perception or language present in different subgroups of autistic people indicate that an autistic infant’s brain is adapting to information the same way a blind or deaf infant’s brain does. Because their brains are unable to process a certain type of stimuli, their brains develop their other senses to compensate, just as autistic brains enhance their brain plasticity with heighted activity, connectivity, and structural modifications in the perceptive areas of the brain. The different parts of the brain that host this increased plasticity become the “target” and develop as the autistic individual’s particular strengths or weaknesses.

“Speech and social impairment in some autistic toddlers may not be the result of a primary brain dysfunction of the mechanisms related to these abilities, but the result of their early neglect,” Mottron said. “Our model suggests that the autistic superior perceptual processing compete with speech learning because neural resources are oriented towards the perceptual dimensions of language, neglecting its linguistic dimensions. Alternatively, for other subgroups of autistic people, known as Asperger, it’s speech that’s overdeveloped. In both cases, the overdeveloped function outcompetes social cognition for brain resources, resulting in a late development of social skills.”

This model also provides new insight into why some autistic people have intellectual disabilities while others do not. They believe this is the result of the underlying mutation altering the brain cell networking function. Rather than simply triggering an enhanced normal plastic reaction, those mutations trigger a reaction that does not occur in non-autistic brains. If brain cell networking is functioning normally, the only change is in the allocation of resources.

Mottron and his team conclude that the implications should influence the methods employed in early intervention. They believe that rather than focusing on each child’s particular difficulties or deficits, they should encourage the compensational strengths of that child to allow them to receive a broader spectrum on information that their brains are individually designed to processes. “Most early intervention programs adopt a restorative approach by working on aspects like social interest. However this focus may monopolize resources in favor of material that the child process with more difficulties, Mottron said. “We believe that early intervention for autistic children should take inspiration from the experience of congenitally deaf children, whose early exposure to sign language has a hugely positive effect on their language abilities. Interventions should therefore focus on identifying and harnessing the autistic child’s strengths, like written language.” 

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Software Testing Company Exclusively Hires ASD Candidates

There are roughly 500,000 adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who have completed high school and/or college and offer certain attributes that make them better suited to high-level jobs like testing and debugging software than their neurotypical (i.e. not autistic) counterparts. These characteristics include a heightened ability to focus, pattern recognition, attention to detail, and a high threshold for repetitive tasks. Approximately 80% of these ideal candidates for employment in an ever-growing field remain unemployed, largely because of social difficulties faced in typical work places. ULTRA Testing, a New York City based software testing company, however, is anything but typical.

Rather than expect the candidates who are best qualified to adapt to uncomfortable and unpredictable environments, the founders of ULTRA testing devised a new business model that adapted the work environment conducive to allowing ASD workers to produce the best software product testing possible.  Testers with Asperger’s or similar ASD profiles are given specialized training in a professional environment suited to their unique needs. Testers are teamed with managers not on the autism spectrum, who interface with clients and oversee project execution. The company believes this allows them to provide their clients with their best product, while providing opportunities for high functioning adults on the Autism Spectrum to excel at their jobs.

This particular company was not founded with the goal to maximize profit margins, but to produce a top quality product for their clients. This is already beginning to pay off, as they are winning jobs over some of the largest companies in the technology space. As the software industry continues to grow, so too will the demand for employees on the Autism Spectrum that make them uniquely suited to jobs that are beyond the abilities of the larger population.

ICare4Autism hosted it’s annual International Autism Conference on June 30th-July 2nd, 2014 in New York City. June 30th was the International Autism Workforce Conference Day dedicated to developing and promoting Autism Workforce Programs. This year in the United States alone, the number of 18 year-olds with autism entering into the workforce or higher education will reach 50,000.  ICare4Autism understands the challenges these individuals will face when trying to find proper job training and employment once they finish their education.

Our solution to this challenge is to enact several initiatives to facilitate transition. ICare4Autism’s Global Autism Workforce Initiative, the world’s first global comprehensive autism workforce development initiative will enable us to   collaborate with and create dynamic major workforce entities to develop the best practices in workforce development internationally and effective transition plans for people with autism and their families.



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Autistic Children Face Higher Risk of Obesity

 New research published in the July-August issue of the Journal of Academic Pediatrics shows that children as young as two years old are significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than typical children. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children compared patient data of 2,075 children with autism, 901 with Asperger’s and 3,696 control non-ASD children. Height, weight, age, and sex were used to determine body mass index (BMI) and classify children as underweight, normal weight, overweight, and obese. Researchers calculated and compared the odds of overweight and obesity in the different groups, and then evaluated demographic and clinical characteristics associated with overweight and obesity in children with autism.

The results of the study indicated a staggering 23% of the children with autism and 25% of the children with Asperger’s were categorized as obese, compared to 6% of the control group, while a further 15% of the autistic children, 11% with Asperger’s, and 11% typical children were statistically overweight. This implies that autistic children may be up to three times more likely to develop obesity, a dangerous condition that puts them at further risk for other dangerous health conditions.

Deeper analysis of the data demonstrated that among study subjects on the autism spectrum, those with co-occurring sleep disorders, were older, and/or on public insurance were the most likely to be obese or overweight.

This study did not evaluate the activity levels of the children, their diets, or any genetic factors, but are in keeping with findings of a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year, which concluded that adolescents with autism are at the greatest risk for obesity. In order to draw any conclusions as to the cause of these drastically increased odds for developing obesity, further research will have to be done to study these factors along with social issues and the common practice of using food as a reward and incentive for good behavior. In the meantime, healthy diets and regular physical activity still provide all children with the best defense against overweight and obesity.

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Autistic Individuals are Running Successful Small Businesses

Matt Cottle

Despite the obstacles that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have faced in entering the workforce, many have found great success, thanks to companies and programs that focus on their strengths and abilities. Furthermore, some individuals on the spectrum have been able to focus on their strengths and passions by working for themselves. These men and women were able to find happiness, and a way to make a living, all by starting their own businesses.

Matt Cottle, a man on the autism spectrum, faced harsh criticism when he first tried to participate in a job that he was interested in. A man that was once scoffed at when he asked to work in a supermarket bakery now owns the Stuttering King Bakery. As an entrepreneur and owner, he fills orders for businesses, cafes, and groups that need catering. Cottle was able to follow his passion thanks to the Southwest Autism Research and Research Center (SAARC), who connected him with a pastry chef for mentoring. Within a short amount of time, Cottle discussed with his parents his desire to start his own baking business.

Cottle faced various difficulties before he was able to find his calling. He needed his parents to explain to employers that their son was autistic, although he was capable of tackling certain jobs. However, these companies were typically impatient or unwilling to work with him, and he therefore grew frustrated by his failed attempts at employment. Once Cottle was finally given an opportunity, he and his mother began attending entrepreneurship classes offered by Seed Spot, and organization that helps socially responsible businesses. Cottle states, “I hope I can set up shop and hopefully start  interning and mentoring other people with autism.”

Another individual who has found success through his own small business is Vinnie Ireland. Despite having limited language abilities, Vinnie owns a landscaping company, which he calls Weed Whacking Weasel, in North Carolina. Vinnie has family members to assist with the marketing and billing, but Vinnie fulfills and enjoys the landscaping tasks. Like any business owner, autistic business owners can be extremely successful, as they are dedicated to their company and are passionate about what they do.

Temple Grandin, well-known autism advocate, states, “Many autistic people can run businesses if they’re given the chance to discover something they like and develop skills around their interests.” She continues, “If you get them exposed to something, they can get a career.” The number of individuals with autism who are graduating high school and looking to join the workforce is growing at a rapid rate, making it essential for businesses to see the value that these individuals can bring to their company. Opportunities will enable these individuals to see what they are great at doing, and empower them to work and live at their very best. One of the biggest missions of ICare4Autism is to implement Global Autism Workforce Initiatives, which will lead to easier transitions into the workplace for those on the spectrum.

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