Studies Provide New Insights into ASD Treatment

Studying brain scans from preterm babies and full-term babies, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have zeroed in on differences in the activity of brain networks. In particular, the researchers associate neurological and psychiatric problems that premature babies may have with weakened connections in brain networks linked to attention, communication and the processing of emotions.

One of every nine infants in the United States is born early and, thus with increased risk of developmental difficulties including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This finding may explain why babies born prematurely face an increased risk of ASD. The hope is to help doctors and scientists target abnormalities in the brains of preterm babies and, potentially, improve individualized therapies and educational programs.



The second thought-provoking discovery is from Nature Neuroscience Journal. A new study published in Nature Neuroscience shows that training individuals with ASD to acquire new information by repeating stimulation actually harms their ability to apply that learned knowledge to a new context. “There have been few systematic investigations into the fundamental mechanisms by which information is acquired by ASD individuals— and into the potential reasons for their restricted, atypical learning,” said Marlene Behrman, the Cowan Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University and a faculty member in the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC). “This study begins to scratch the surface of the phenomenon.”

The traditional education techniques designed for ASD individuals focus on repetition and drills. This finding, by an international research team, challenges the popular educational approaches. “Our conclusion is that breaks in repetition allow the visual system some time to rest and allow autistic individuals to learn efficiently and to then generalize,” said New York University’s David Heeger. “Repeated stimulation leads to sensory adaptation which interferes with learning and makes learning specific to the adapted conditions. Without adaptation, learning is more efficient and can be generalized.”

The research team believes that the findings have important implications for improving education model for individuals with autism. “Individuals with autism need to be taught in ways that support or promote generalization rather than in ways that reinforce over specificity,” said Nancy Minshew, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh and in the joint CMU-Pitt CNBC.


Another great news comes from a theatre program designed for ASD individuals. According to a Vanderbilt study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Children with autism who participated in a 10-week, 40-hour, theatre-based program showed significant differences in social competence compared to a group of children with autism who did not participate.

“We measured many aspects of social ability and found significant treatment effects on social cognition, social interaction and social communication in youth with autism,” said Corbett, Ph.D., an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and investigator with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Theatre-based programs provide an engaging and inherently interactive learning environment for children with ASD, allowing them to practice and perform vital socializing skills. The researchers hope that this creative learning platform may set the stage for lasting changes in how children with ASD perceive and interact with the social world.


Story Sources: Washington University School of MedicineCarnegie Mellon UniversityVanderbilt University Medical Center 

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