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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Gluten’s Impact on Individuals with ASD

Many individuals with autism disorders suffer from gastrointestinal issues, as well as have sensitivities to certain foods. As a result, many individuals with ASD have to follow a very specific diet in order to avoid daily digestive troubles. Furthermore, individuals on the spectrum have seen success in following gluten-free regimes, as gluten has shown to have negatively affect many of those with ASD. This week, the Food and Drug Administration announced that food manufacturers are now required to meet new labeling standards regarding the amount of gluten that is in a product, an incredibly significant step in helping those with autism.

According to new requirements by the FDA, any product containing a gluten-free label must include fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. Representatives from the FDA state that this should lessen the confusion regarding items that are incorrectly labeled “gluten free”. This will be incredibly beneficial to those on the autism spectrum, as well as those with celiac disease, and other individuals with gluten sensitivities.

Gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, and other grains, is treated like a toxin in the bodies of those that are highly sensitive to it. As a result, both minor and severe side effects can result, from bloating, diarrhea, and weight loss, to abdominal pain, extreme fatigue, and other medical issues. It is difficult to pinpoint gluten sensitivities, as they can only be determined after diagnostic testing and an in-depth screening. Although there is no confirmed link between autism and celiac disease, studies confirm that there is a strong connection between autism disorders and the presence of antibodies to gluten. Simply, celiac disease and autism are related in that they both react negatively to the presence of gluten.

Although it can be difficult to follow a gluten-free regime, those on the autism spectrum can now be better assured that their food products are properly labeled, thanks to the FDA’s new regulations. By avoiding or heavily limiting gluten, those on the spectrum can live healthier lives with less digestive troubles. Doctors recommend initiating a diet that is completely free of gluten when an individual first starts showing signs of digestive or other medical troubles, and taking careful note of any improvements. Although some individuals may be able to incorporate gluten back into their diets, medical experts highly recommend maintaining gluten-free diets, to avoid gastrointestinal issues, as well as the negative behavioral reactions that may result from internal distress.

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Study Uses MRI To Examine Insensitivity to Imitation in ASD Patients

Study explores autism and imitation

Autistic Children Don’t See Imitation as Flattery – New Study Reveals Why

The study was led by Norhiro Sadato, professor at Japan’s National Institute for Physiological Sciences (NIPS) and National Institute of Natual Sciences (NINS), who teamed with Hirotaka Kosaka of the University of Fukui and Tpshio Munesue of Kanazawa University. 19 adults with ASD and 22 control subjects underwent functional MRI while having their movements imitated and while imitating the movements of others.  The control group showed brain activity indicating recognition of being imitated, while the ASD group did not.

While this lack of imitation recognition has long been observed socially in people with Autism Spectrum Disorders, this study shows the actual neurological process, which can be used to aid behavioral research, provides new clues to understanding ASD, and may also be useful with diagnosis and behavioral intervention.

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Autistic Children Improve IQ and Social Skills With Reflective Network Therapy

Reflective Network Therapy

The results are in on a 49-year long multi-site study on the effectiveness of Reflective Network Therapy (RNT), and indicate a significant rise of IQ in children with autism spectrum disorders.  Led by Gilbert Kliman, M.D. of The Children’s Psychological Health Center in Santa Rosa and San Francisco, California, the study also maps improvements with social skills, communication, and more positive general behavior.

1700 preschoolers were treated with RNT since 1965, 680 of who were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Third-party researchers conducted IQ tests on 31 autistic children (79 total) twice over the course of their Reflective Network Therapy. The children with autism showed some of the highest gains, with an average increase of 24 IQ points. Comparable research on other forms of therapy for autism and other pervasive developmental delays showed no significant change to IQ.

Reflective Network Therapy “harnesses small social networks in the classroom, composed of parents, teachers, in-classroom therapist, and peers,” explains Dr. Kliman, a pioneer of RNT. The focused therapy of one child at a time, in the presence of their peers allows therapists, teachers, and parents to react as a team to behavior and allows classmates to process and mirror their peers’ progress and behavior. “It provides intensive interpersonal exercises within the child’s own preschool class on hundreds of occasions during the course of a school year,” continues Dr. Kliman, “and could save public special education systems, parents, and insurers millions of dollars for every ten children receiving treatment.” Dr. Kliman estimates the cost of RNT to be approximately 1/6th the cost of traditional therapies.

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Current Diagnostic Procedures May Be Failing to Detect Autism in Girls

Current diagnostic procedures may overlook subtle symptoms of ASD in girls.

Medical experts in the field of autism have recently stated that current tests that are used to diagnose individuals with autism are failing to detect the disorder in females. With a huge imbalance in the number of males being diagnosed in comparison to females, certain symptoms may be going undetected with current testing. As a result, these medical experts are calling for some significant changes in the testing procedure.

Dr. Lori Ernsperger, psychologist who specializes in working with females on the autism spectrum, firmly believes that the imbalance between diagnoses of males and females is due to flaws in the current diagnostic questionnaire. In addition, medical experts state that subtle symptoms are often being dismissed by clinicians, or they often go completely undetected.

Daunta Bulhak-Paterson, psychologist, states that many subtleties are overlooked, as professionals are often looking for the obvious signs that a child may have autism. Dr. Bulhak-Paterson states, “I think they’re looking for more severe characteristics in the clinical interview. They’re seeing the girl as being polite, smiling, giving eye contact, and they just dismiss it.” The female stereotype of having a demure, polite persona often prevents clinicians from truly analyzing the female’s behavioral and social abilities and deficits. Furthermore, Dr. Bulhak-Paterson believes there are health professionals who still refuse to acknowledge that autism presents itself differently in women in comparison to men.

Dr. Ernsperger chooses to focus on the challenge of diagnosing girls, as she firmly believes that the current diagnostic questionnaires focus on male characteristics of the disorder. Dr. Ernsperger states, “That doctor is going to have a diagnostic checklist… it may have 20 questions or so, but they’re the sort of questions that lend themselves to male behaviour.” As a result, a questionnaire should be adapted to focus on some female characteristics.

She adds, “Instead of rewriting these testing tools for autism, we should have different scoring levels. A boy would have to score 18/20 where the girl would have to score 16/20 in order to move on to the secondary testing for further diagnosis,” she said.

Many women have failed to be diagnosed with autism until much later in life, and some still go undiagnosed. Many have been able to mask several of their symptoms and find great success in life, but still struggle in other areas, such as forming social relationships. Getting diagnosed is critical, as it enables the individual to get a better understanding of their own emotions and any anxiety they may be facing. Early intervention enables the individual to receive the attention and therapies they may need to live a happy, fulfilling life.

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Building Embracing Classrooms: An Unfulfilled Promise


Clustered desks, children’s talk in small groups while others develop artsy projects or rehearse musical performances, perfectly pictures a normal day in our border town classroom. The highly diverse population only enhances the fusion of ideas and the learning outcome everyday. Amongst that diversity, a student diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), develops social and communication skills while enjoys learning. The chance of an autistic student enrolled under full inclusion in a regular classroom is not uncommon anymore. At one point all of us, so-called mainstream education teachers, will face this same challenge and would forcefully come upon a way to “engage the full participation of (these) exceptional individuals into the regular curricularactivities” (IDEA, 1984). To provide all students with equal opportunities to learn, we need the courage to try a bold, refreshing approach to teaching.  Ideas such as learning through recreation, art, and music are justifiable channels to reach out our autistic students.

Many autism organizations are hesitant to suggest play, music, or art interventions due to the lack of scientific evidence to prove the potential benefits of such methods. In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that from 2008, the number of children diagnosed under the ASD umbrella grew almost 110%. These escalating figures require immediate solutions, and place the regular classroom in pursuit of effective teaching strategies that relieve the pulsing needs of autistic children. We are far from the times that allowed us to wait for science and formal research to solve the puzzle. Autism carries the promise of progress, is treatable, dynamic, and changeable (Herbert, 2008). Moreover, it demands help now, today, so a slight chance of success in the classroom should be enough motivation to promote these interventions.

As stated in the Texas Autism Resource Guide for Effective Teaching (TARGET), music intervention is a viable strategy because it encourages communication, behavior, and social skills, while accommodates the individual needs of the autistic student. Likewise, recreational strategies such as structured and team play favor social skills in  a collaborative rich environment, and art forms enhance the possibilities for our autistic visual learners. All these approaches are essentially constructive, and convey the strongly pursued answers for teachers that, just like in that border town classroom, know that inclusion goes beyond the classroom to a place where our autistic students won’t need to be different to be accepted and embraced.

Submitted by:

Lilia L. Martinez

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Blood-Oxytocin Levels and its Relation to Autism Disorders

Despite recent reports saying otherwise, a new study states that children with autism actually have normal levels of oxytocin in their blood system.  Oxytocin, a hormone that affects social functioning, was found to be of similar levels among both children with autism, and children without.

For years, many suspected that low levels of oxytocin were a contributing factor in autism development. However, research in the past has only seen mixed results in trying to establish this link. In this new study, the largest-ever to test the connection, the range of blood oxytocin levels was in the same range as that of two comparison groups (which consisted of children with autistic siblings, and children without autistic siblings).

Dr. Karen Parker, along with her colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine, found that higher oxytocin levels were linked to better social functioning in all three of the groups. Although all children with autism have some type of social deficit, the study found that deficits were worst in those with the lowest blood oxytocin. In the comparison groups, the social skills also fell in a range that correlated to oxytocin levels.  Dr. Parker states, “Oxytocin appears to be a universal regulator of social functioning in humans.” She continues, “That encompasses both typically developing children as well as those with severe social deficits we see in children with autism”.

Dr. Antonio Hardan, senior author of the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, states, “It didn’t matter if you were a typically developing child, a sibling or an individual with autism: your social ability was related to a certain extent to your oxytocin levels, which is very different from what people have speculated.”  In addition to examining blood oxytocin levels, they examined small variations in gene coding for the oxytocin receptors. These receptor variants are correlated to higher levels of social ability. “Oxytocin is a vulnerability factor that has to be accounted for, but it’s not the only thing leading to the development of autism”, Dr. Hardan adds.

Dr. Eric Hollander, Chairman of the ICare4Autism Advisory Council, Director at the Spectrum Neuroscience and Treatment Institute, and Director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, has focused much of his research on the impact of oxytocin, stating, “I think that this is an important area for future development to understand the underlying root cause of ASDs and develop treatments to help manage symptoms.” According to Dr. Hollander’s research, oxytocin stimulates receptors in the regions of the brains that involve social memory and social affiliation, like the amygdala and the thalamus. Further tests on mice and humans using oxytocin and vasopressin show that gene variations may affect response of these hormones on social memory and social cognition.

According to Dr. Hollander, the effects of oxytocin include improved social cognition, and the improvements can be preserved for a two-week period on a single dose. Furthermore, the findings from the recent study by Stanford show that oxytocin may prove useful in treating a subset of children with autism. The study suggests that some children with autism, such as the ones that have low levels of oxytocin, or those with oxytocin receptor gene variants associated with poor social functioning, can potentially benefit from oxytocin-like drugs.

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Many Colleges are Seeing a Rise in Enrollment for Autistic Students

Increasing numbers of autistic teens and adults are pursuing higher education, so it is essential for universities to implement programs that accommodate their specific needs.

According to the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, there has been a significant increase in the number of young adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) attending college. The number may even be larger than one would expect, as many students may choose not to reveal they have a disorder. Jane Brown Thierfeld, Ed. D., co-director of College Autism Spectrum, which is dedicated to assisting students with ASD, states, “For every student receiving special services, there are 1-2 on that same campus who have not identified themselves to anyone.” With enrollment reaching large numbers, many colleges are creating programs that help autistic individuals transition into the college setting, as well as prepare them for future employment.

With the number of children on the autism spectrum rising exponentially in the last decade, more colleges are beginning to see the importance of implementing programs that will accommodate autistic teens and adults that want to achieve higher education. Many colleges have established programs that focus on autistic individuals being able to receive the tutoring they need, as well as workshops that focus on social skills, as well as ways to lower anxiety and make the individual more comfortable. On average, these programs cost an additional $3,000 on top of tuition.

One program that has seen great success is the Spectrum Support Program at Rochester Institute of Technology. The program, which attracts about 30 students each year, specializes in job preparation through a 15-week program that incorporates resume building, networking, job interviews, and confidence building. Lurie Ackles, director of the program, states, “Every program looks very different, and families need to know how much time students will spend with program staff.” She continues, “It’s equally important to know what a program is not going to do.” For example, this program focuses on high-functioning adults, so the program may not be a good fit for those who require additional help in many other areas.

Another example of a university providing opportunities for those on the spectrum is the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM). This program consists of a Living Learning Enviornment, which houses 25 students on the spectrum, along with a mentor. The program focuses on social services, such as support groups, and outings to school events.

NovaSoutheasternUniversity in Fort Lauderdale, FL, offers a very individualized plan. Each student will have a tailored plan based on the support they need in the areas they require help in the most. The program will incorporate 10 hours of peer mentoring each week, as well as group meetings, and physical and occupational therapy. The program also involves having each student complete volunteer or paid work experience before they graduate, therefore enabling them to gain experience in resume writing, the interview process, and being able to work as a team.

The development of these programs coincides with ICare4Autism’s Global Autism Workforce Initiatives. Universities and businesses are beginning to realize how essential it is to develop and implement programs that accommodate and empower those with autism. It is one of ICare4Autism’s missions to assist in the transition from school to the workforce, as well as collaborate with these entities to create opportunities for those on the spectrum.

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Imbalances in Brain Equilibrium may be a Contributing Factor to ASD

A recent study has led to further insight into the complex nature of autism disorders. Researchers at HarvardUniversity recently studied autism mouse models to analyze the insular cortex, a “hub” that encompasses sensory, cognitive, and emotional content. Alterations in this cortex often lead to various disorders, including autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Researchers noted that the balance of inhibition and excitation in autistic brains were disturbed, but could be re-adjusted, leading to potential development of targeted therapy, as well as more specific drug developments. In the past, it has been incredibly difficult to develop therapeutic strategies, as autism is diagnosed based on behavioral analysis, making the neurological issues that lead to the disorder’s development, hard to pin.

The team at Harvard focused on mouse models, as they possessed the diagnostic composition of autism disorders, such as repetitive behaviors, as well as deficits in communication and social abilities. Researchers focused on the insular cortex, which showed neural circuit alterations. Nadine Gogolla, leader of the research team, states, “We wanted to know whether we can detect differences in the way the insular cortex processes information in healthy or autism-like mice”. The scientists discovered that the insular cortex of adult autism-model mice resembled the activation patterns observed in very young control mice. Gogolla adds, “It seemed as if the insular cortex of the autism-models did not mature properly after birth”.

According to scientists, in order for the brain to function properly, there needs to be an equilibrium between excitation and inhibition. However, in this study, researchers found the equilibrium to be disturbed. Inhibitory function was strongly reduced in the autistic mouse models. To study this disturbance, researchers gave the drug Diazepam to the mice, which boosts inhibitory transmission in the brain. As the mice were treated over several days with Diazepam, the insular cortex capacity for sensory integration was reestablished.

Each of the autism mouse models showed alterations in their insular cortex, although the alterations were very diverse. The study results exhibit a strong imbalance of equilibrium between excitation and inhibition, giving researchers a great insight into some of the neurological issues underlying autism. Although this research provides a better understanding of some of the neurological factors in autism, therapies still need to be tailored to suit the individual needs of those touched by ASD. Individually designed therapies and drug developments will need to be created after further studies are done.

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