Early Cerebellum Injury Examined as Possible Autism Cause

Researchers at Princeton University are exploring early cerebellum injury as a possible cause of autism. Their theory suggests that an injury to the cerebellum (the part of the brain known to process external and internal  including sensory cues) at a very early stage in life disrupts the brains processing of information and leads to problems in other parts of the brain.

“At some point, you learn that smiling is nice because Mom smiles at you. We have all these associations we make in early life because we don’t arrive knowing that a smile is nice,” explains associate professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Sam Wang. “In autism, something in that process goes wrong and one thing could be that sensory information is not processed correctly in the cerebellum.

The cerebellum has been largely studied in how it relates to motor function and coordination in adults. It has only recently been thought to influence childhood cognition. There have been several studies that found a statistical correlation between early cerebellum injury and the development of autism, but this study is pioneering our understanding of the process.

“What we realized from looking at the literature is that these two problems — autism and cerebellar injury — might be related to each other via the cerebellum’s influence on wider neural development,” Wang said. “We hope to get people and scientists thinking differently about the cerebellum or about autism so that the whole field can move forward.”

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Diagnostic Blood Test For Autism Spectrum Disorder: In the Works

Laboratory services company, SynapDx, is developing a diagnostic blood test for autism. While research indicates that autism is caused by both environmental and genetic factors, research has also uncovered potential biomarkers of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

“Our idea was to create a simple blood test to look at markers in the blood associated with autism, but not with other developmental disorders,” explains CEO Stanley Lapidus. The goal is to facilitate earlier diagnosis and treatment. Many infants show possible signs of autism as early as 18 months, but because all children develop at different rates and many grow out of early developmental delays, diagnosis is usually made around the age of four years.

The company has not yet announced when the blood test will be made available, but it currently is showing 90% sensitivity in detecting autism. The Lexington, MA based laboratory is currently conducting a clinical study of 880 children aged 18 months – five years to determine the accuracy of the blood test and at what age it is most effective.

Early intervention is key in the treatment of ASD, and advances in therapy and education techniques have enabled many children to lose the autism label. A test that enabled parents to intervene at an earlier age would help them give their children an advantage over their disorder.

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Closer to Understanding Savant Syndrome

Approximately 50% of all people with “Savant syndrome,” a rare condition where a person displays remarkable genius in one specific area, have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With most of the other half being related to a brain injury or other acquired condition, it is natural to make the link between autism and savant syndrome.

The movie “Rain Man” brought autistic savants to the mainstream consciousness back in 1988. Since then, so much research has gone into uncovering the possible causes of both autism and savant syndrome. It now seems that rather than a rare symptom of autism, savant syndrome may simply occur along side autism, with the same root causes and similar development.

The current understanding of what happens in the brain of a savant is that when damage occurs in the left brain hemisphere, home to higher-level memory circuits, other parts of the brain step up to compensate and rewire. This rewiring can result in the release of previously dormant capacity for memory. Whether artistic, musical, spatial, or mathematical, the common thread between these amazing savant abilities is uncanny memory in one very specific area.

We’ve reported on several recent studies on the autistic brain that conclude autism can be caused by the same process of rewiring, resulting in increased brain plasticity and synaptic connections.  This may be in response to mutated RNA that could create the need to rewire, resulting in autism, savant syndrome, or both.

Savant syndrome is very rare. Almost every case of congenital (not acquired later in life) savant syndrome occurs in an individual with some form of autism. Whether the autism causes the savant syndrome, or the two occur concurrently remains to be seen, but the amazing abilities of the autistic savant will no doubt continue to captivate and inspire us for generations to come.

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What Robots Can Teach Us About Teaching Autistic Kids

A few years ago, the Nao robot was introduced as a socially assistive humanoid robot who would help people of all ages, “to be less lonely, to do rehabilitative exercises, and to learn social behaviors.” Since then, several studies have been conducted on the different ways these robots can help children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to learn and develop social skills. The latest of such studies is wrapping up at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, focused on teaching autistic children to practice imitation, a social skill that could help build autonomy. Entitled, “Graded Cueing Feedback in Robot-Mediated Imitation Practice for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” the study provided useful insight into how any teacher, human or humanoid, can best approach instructing people on the autism spectrum.

In the study, two groups of high-functioning children with ASD played an imitation game with the robot. The robot commanded the children to strike a pose or action, and when successful the robot’s eyes would flash green and say, “Good job.” When the children in the control group failed to imitate the robot correctly, he repeated the command without variation. In the non-control group, when a child failed to imitate correctly, the robot repeated the command, but added visual cues as well as more descriptive instructions.

The study showed that children who received the graded cueing feedback (varied instructions), showed improved or maintained performance, while the children in the control group simply stayed the same. The results suggest that the varied feedback was less frustrating and more effective than repeating the same instruction over and over.

“The idea is to eventually give every child a personalized robot dedicated to providing motivation and praise and nudges toward more integration,” says Maja Mataric, USC Viterbi Vice Dean for Research and leader of the study. That may still be a while off, but the next time you find yourself repeating the same instruction over and over to your child, think of that robot and try a more varied approach. Combine visual and verbal cues and follow up with more detailed instruction.

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Head Size Debunked As Autism Predictor

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatryfinally put to rest the notion that infants with large heads are at greater risk for developing autism.

This large scale study compared data on 442 children considered at high risk for developing autism because they had older siblings with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) diagnoses with 253 children with no known family history of autism. The children’s growth, particularly head growth, was tracked between the ages of six months and three years.

At the age of three, the 442 children with a family history of autism were evaluated for diagnosis. 77 of these children were diagnosed with autism and 32 with developmental delay. There were no differences, however, in the rate of head growth or height between the children who were diagnosed with autism and those who were not.

The study concluded that, “There are no significant differences in the overall model comparing head growth between (high-risk) infants (regardless of outcome) and (low-risk) controls in the first three years of life,” and that ultimately, “head growth was largely uninformative as an ASD risk marker.” The researchers point out though, that the possible role of accelerated brain growth was not considered in this study.

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Hi-Tech Makes it Happen For Autistics and Families

Technology exists to make our lives easier. For autistic people and their families, technology offers a wealth of tools, support, and career opportunities that weren’t available even a decade ago.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often respond positively to computers and tablets, and so the use of interactive technology in classrooms has become more and more common.  There are apps that aid communication, allowing people classified as non-verbal to express themselves with words for the first time. There are apps that help develop motor skills, sensory skills, and present educational information in a format that autistic children are more receptive to than a teacher talking at the front of the class. There are apps to help reduce stress, monitor therapies and progress, and to diagnose autism.  There are even apps in development to translate emotions for people with autism.

Technology has also made great strides towards keeping our autistic children safe. It is now feasible for schools to have surveillance cameras and door alarms. If a child with ASD does manage to leave school or home unnoticed, tracking devices are available to ensure they are located as quickly as possible. Through social media and the internet, it is faster and easier than ever to get the word out and mobilize the community in support of a lost child or new legislation.

Social media has changed the way we communicate as a culture, and offers support networks and social outlets for parents and autistic people. It may not be possible for the mother of an autistic child to meet up with her peers for some supportive adult time, but now she can reach out from her phone and instantly get input, support, or just a little social interaction. Social media also makes it easier for some autistic people to engage people, make friends, and share their thoughts without the anxieties and difficulties posed by in-person communication. It allows people with autism to connect with each other and share support, but it also allows autistic people to engage with everybody else on a more equal playing field.

Finally, with the increasing pervasiveness of technology comes exponential growth in the field that offers the most conducive work environments and employment opportunities for people with ASD. Many people on the autism spectrum are better suited to work in software and technology careers because of their heightened abilities to recognize patterns, sort through hundreds of pages of code for one syntax error, focus on repetitive tasks. It also helps that social skills are often less of a priority job requirement in technology fields. More and more computer companies are adapting employment programs for people with autism and several software companies give preference to hiring people with autism.

Life with autism is full of challenges for children, adults, and their families. Autism is hard and probably always will be. Through the magic of technology, however, it is definitely easier for people with autism to learn, develop, communicate, build relationships, and even have successful careers than ever before.

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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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