Following are the latest news and information resources for the various autism topics that we cover. We hope you will find the news educational and the links in the resources section useful in helping you to get even more in-depth data.
A study from investigators at MassGeneral Hospital for Children found that African-American or Hispanic children diagnosed with autism were significantly less likely than white children to have received subspecialty care or procedures related to conditions that often accompany autism spectrum disorders. While previous studies have documented that minority children with autism tend to be diagnosed at a later age than white children, this report—published online in Pediatrics—is the first to describe disparities in the use of specialty services in gastroenterology, psychiatry or psychology.
“We think there are probably many reasons for these differences,” said Sarabeth Broder-Fingert, an HMS clinical fellow in pediatrics at the Center for Child and Adolescent Health Research and Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Many autism-related medical symptoms—including gastrointestinal issues like constipation and neuropsychiatric issues such as anxiety or sleep disorders—are not well understood, so doctors may not realize children are having those symptoms.”
The research team reviewed records for more than 3,600 patients ages 2 to 21 with a diagnosis of autism who received care at Mass General or its affiliated health centers from 2000 through 2010. Data on each clinical visit was analyzed, with particular attention to specialty care in gastroenterology, psychiatry and psychology and to procedures including endoscopy, ultrasound, EEG, brain imaging and sleep studies. Among the patients identified, 81 percent were white, 5 percent were African-American and 7 percent, Hispanic.
The analysis revealed that minority children were significantly less likely to have received either subspecialty care or procedures, with some of the most significant differences in gastroenterology services, which were accessed by almost 14 percent of white children but only 9 percent of African-American children and 10 percent of Hispanic children. Minority children were less likely to have received an endoscopy or colonoscopy, and Hispanic children were much less likely to have had sleep studies or other neurological or neuropsychiatric tests.
“We know that many children with autism have gastrointestinal or sleep issues, and if those problems are not being diagnosed or treated, they can lead to additional behavior difficulties that can inhibit development,” said Broder-Fingert, lead author of the report. “Combining the challenges of accessing specialty services for any child with autism, regardless of race or ethnicity, with the recognized difficulties minority communities have accessing medical care in general can lead to these major disparities in the use of services.
“It’s going to be important to see whether these differences in service use lead to differences in medical and behavioral outcomes, and we need to understand more about why this is happening,” she added. “We hope this work can help doctors be aware of these disparities and be sure to look out for patients—especially minority patients—who might need specialty services, and that we can help parents of children with autism be aware that these conditions may occur in their children and ask their doctors for assistance.”
The study was supported by grants from the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation and Autism Speaks.Read article >>
In a study of the co-occurrence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in early school-age children (four to eight years old), researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute found that nearly one-third of children with ASD also have clinically significant ADHD symptoms.
Published in Autism: The International Journal and Practice (Epub ahead of print), the study also found that children with both ASD and ADHD are significantly more impaired on measures of cognitive, social and adaptive functioning compared to children with ASD only.
Distinct from existing research, the current study offers novel insights because most of the children entered the study as infants or toddlers, well before ADHD is typically diagnosed. Previous studies on the co-occurrence of ASD and ADHD are based on patients seeking care from clinics, making them biased towards having more multi-faceted or severe impairments. By recruiting patients as infants or toddlers, the likelihood of bias in the current study is significantly reduced.
"We are increasingly seeing that these two disorders co-occur and a greater understanding of how they relate to each other could ultimately improve outcomes and quality of life for this subset of children," says Dr. Rebecca Landa, senior study author and director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger. "The recent change to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to remove the prohibition of a dual diagnosis of autism and ADHD is an important step forward."
Participants in this prospective, longitudinal child development study included 162 children. Researchers divided the children into ASD and Non-ASD groups. The groups were further categorized by ADHD classification according to parent-reported symptoms of ADHD on the Hyperactivity and Attention Problems subscales of the Behavioral Assessment System for Children-Second Edition, a standard assessment specifically designed to identify the core symptoms of ADHD.
Results revealed that, out of 63 children with ASD in the study, 18 (29%) were rated by their parents as having clinically significant symptoms of ADHD. Importantly, the age range for children in the study (four to eight) represented a younger and narrower sample than has been previously reported in published literature. "We focused on young school-aged children because the earlier we can identify this subset of children, the earlier we can design specialized interventions," says Dr. Landa. "Tailored interventions may improve their outcomes, which tend to be significantly worse than those of peers with autism only."
Researchers also found that early school-age children with co-occurrence of ASD and ADHD were significantly more impaired than children with only ASD on measures of cognitive and social functioning, as well as in the ability to function in everyday situations. They were also more likely to have significant cognitive delays (61 versus 25 percent) and display more severe autism mannerisms, like stereotypic and repetitive behaviors. The study findings suggest that children with the combined presence of ADHD and ASD may need different treatment methods or intensities than those with ASD only in order to achieve better outcomes.
Dr. Landa and her team recognize that this research supports the need for future prospective, longitudinal studies of attention, social, communication and cognitive functioning from the time that the first red flags of ASD are identified. Such research will lead to important insights about the relative timing of onset and stability of disruption to attention mechanisms and barriers to successful functioning in children with co-occurring ASD and ADHD.
In addition to Dr. Landa, the other study author was Patricia Rao, PhD, of Kennedy Krieger Institute.Read article >>
Children with autism showed significant improvement after six months of simple sensory exercises at home using everyday items such as scents, spoons and sponges, according to UC Irvine neurobiologists.
They found that a treatment known as environmental enrichment led to notable gains in male subjects between the ages of 3 and 12. Results appear online in Behavioral Neuroscience.
Study co-authors Cynthia Woo and Michael Leon randomly assigned 28 boys to one of two groups, balanced for age and autism severity. For half a year, all subjects participated in standard autism therapies, but those in one group also had daily sensory enrichment exercises.
Parents of these children were given a kit containing household products to increase environmental stimulation, including essential-oil fragrances such as apple, lavender, lemon and vanilla. The boys smelled four of these scents a day and listened to classical music each evening.
In addition, the parents conducted twice-daily sessions of four to seven exercises with their children involving different combinations of sensory stimuli – touch, temperature, sight and movement among them. Each session took 15 to 30 minutes to complete.
After six months of therapy, 42 percent of the children in the enrichment group showed significant improvement in behaviors commonly affected by autism – such as relating to people, having typical emotional responses and listening – compared with 7 percent in the standard-care group.
They also scored higher in cognitive function, whereas average scores for the boys in the standard-care group decreased. Moreover, 69 percent of parents in the enrichment group reported improvement, compared with 31 percent of parents in the standard-care group.
“Because parents can give their child sensory enrichment using items typically available in their home, this therapy provides a low-cost option for enhancing their child’s progress,” said Woo, an assistant project scientist in neurobiology & behavior.
Exposing children to enriched sensory experiences builds upon previous research in other laboratories in which animals exposed to such environments had a great reduction in the behavioral and cognitive symptoms associated with a wide range of neurological disorders, including those resembling autism.
The researchers noted that most current therapies for autism must be started at a very young age to be successful, while the average age in this study was 6.6.
“We believe that sensory enrichment can be an effective therapy for the treatment of autism, particularly among children past the toddler stage,” said Leon, a professor of neurobiology & behavior affiliated with UC Irvine’s Center for Autism Research & Treatment.
“At the same time, we need to know whether we can optimize the treatment, whether there are subgroups of children for whom it’s more effective, whether the therapy works for older or younger children, and whether it can be effective on its own.”
He and Woo are now conducting a second, larger randomized clinical trial that includes girls.
“We’ve observed case studies in which the sensory enrichment therapy was used without any other therapy, and those children were clearly responsive to it,” Leon added. “We hope this new treatment will benefit children with autism, their parents and society as a whole.”
UC Irvine’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science, the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, Eyal and Yael Aronoff, the Samueli Foundation and the William & Nancy Thompson Family Foundation provided support for the study.
Leon is one of several dozen UC Irvine researchers contributing knowledge to the autism puzzle from distinct areas of study, ranging from gene function to cell biology to brain function and behavior. They are working together under the auspices of the university’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment to discover effective drug therapies for the neurological disorder. The center was established last December with a gift from Bill and Nancy Thompson.Read article >>
In utero exposure to depression medications may increase the risk of autism spectrum disorders in less than 1 percent of cases, researchers in Sweden say.
First author Dheeraj Rai, a clinical lecturer at the Department of Public Health Sciences at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and colleagues at the University of Bristol; Avon and Wiltshire Partnership Mental Health NHS Trust in Bristol, England; and Drexel University School of Public Health on Philadelphia said the study involved 4,429 cases of autism spectrum disorder -- 1,828 with and 2,601 without intellectual disability and 43,277 age and sex matched controls.
The study involved 1,679 cases of autism spectrum disorder and 16,845 controls with data on maternal anti-depressant use.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, said parental depression and other characteristics were recorded in administrative registers before the birth of the child. Maternal anti-depressant use, recorded at the first antenatal interview, was available for children born from 1995 onwards.
A history of maternal -- but not paternal -- depression was associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders in offspring, the study said. In the subsample with available data on drugs, this association was confined to women reporting anti-depressant use during pregnancy irrespective of whether selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or non-selective monoamine reuptake inhibitors were reported, the study said.
"Whether this association is causal or reflects the risk of autism with severe depression during pregnancy requires further research," the study authors wrote in the study. "However, assuming causality, anti-depressant use during pregnancy is unlikely to have contributed significantly towards the dramatic increase in observed prevalence of autism spectrum disorders as it explained less than 1 percent of cases."Read article >>
Children with autism see simple movement twice as quickly as other children their age, and this hypersensitivity to motion may provide clues to a fundamental cause of the developmental disorder, according to a new study.
Such heightened sensory perception in autism may help explain why some people with the disorder are painfully sensitive to noise and bright lights. It also may be linked to some of the complex social and behavioral deficits associated with autism, says Duje Tadin, one of the lead authors on the study and an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.
"We think of autism as a social disorder because children with this condition often struggle with social interactions, but what we sometimes neglect is that almost everything we know about the world comes from our senses. Abnormalities in how a person sees or hears can have a profound effect on social communication."
Although previous studies have found that people with autism possess enhanced visual abilities with static images, this is the first research to discover a heightened perception of motion, the authors write. The findings were reported in the Journal of Neuroscience on May 8 by Tadin, co-lead author Jennifer Foss-Feig, a postdoctoral fellow at the Child Study Center at Yale University, and colleagues at Vanderbilt University.
In the study, 20 children with autism and 26 typically developing children, ages 8 to 17, looked at brief video clips of moving black and white bars and simply indicated which direction the bars were heading, right or left. Each time a participant made the correct direction choice, the next video clip became slightly shorter and thus a little more difficult. When they made a mistake, the next video became a bit longer and thus easier to see. In this way, the researchers were able to measure how quickly children with autism can perceive motion.
"This dramatically enhanced ability to perceive motion is a hint that the brains of individuals with autism keep responding more and more as intensity increases. Although this could be considered advantageous, in most circumstances if the neural response doesn't stop at the right level it could lead to sensory overload," explains Foss-Feig.
Such hypersensitive perception is the neural signature for a brain that is unable to dampen its response to sensory information, note the authors. This same increase in neural "excitability" is also found in epilepsy, which is strongly linked to autism. In fact, as many as one third of individuals with autism also have epilepsy. Normally, the brain puts the brakes on its responses to sound, taste, touch, and other stimuli when they become too intense.
What's important about this dampening ability is that it's a ubiquitous mechanism controlling how humans perceive the world. "If the processing of our vision, hearing, and other sensory systems is abnormal in some way, it will have a cascading effect on other brain functions," says Carissa Cascio, assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, in whose lab the study was conducted. "You may be able to see better, but at some point the brain really is over responding. A strong response to high intensity stimuli in autism could be one reason for withdrawal."
The research builds on earlier findings that people with autism process visual stimuli differently. For example, previous studies have shown that individuals with autism are better able to perceive basic patterns, are able to see simple line images more quickly, and are more focused on details than individuals without the condition. By contrast, in more complex tasks, like facial recognition, these enhancements become impairments. Likewise, autism is associated with deficits in perceiving motion patterns more complex than the simple moving bars used in this study, such as detecting walking and other biological movements.
Kimberly Schauder, a research assistant at Vanderbilt University, is also an author on the paper. The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.Read article >>
Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have figured out how to measure an infant’s risk of developing autism by looking for abnormalities in his/her placenta at birth, allowing for earlier diagnosis and treatment for the developmental disorder. The findings are reported in the April 25 online issue of Biological Psychiatry.
One out of 50 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but the diagnosis is usually made when these children are 3 to 4 years of age or older. By then the best opportunities for intervention have been lost because the brain is most responsive to treatment in the first year of life.
Senior author Dr. Harvey Kliman, research scientist in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, and research collaborators at the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, have found that abnormal placental folds and abnormal cell growths called trophoblast inclusions are key markers to identify newborns who are at risk for autism.
Kliman and his team examined 117 placentas from infants of at-risk families, those with one or more previous children with autism. These families were participating in a study called Markers of Autism Risk in Babies – Learning Early Signs. Kliman compared these at-risk placentas to 100 control placentas collected by the UC Davis researchers from the same geographic area.
The at-risk placentas had as many as 15 trophoblast inclusions, while none of the control placentas had more than two trophoblast inclusions. Kliman said a placenta with four or more trophoblast inclusions conservatively predicts an infant with a 96.7% probability of being at risk for autism.
Currently, the best early marker of autism risk is family history. Couples with a child with autism are nine times more likely to have another child with autism. Kliman said that when these at-risk families have subsequent children they could employ early intervention strategies to improve outcomes. “Regrettably couples without known genetic susceptibility must rely on identification of early signs or indicators that may not overtly manifest until the child’s second or third year of life,” said Kliman.
“I hope that diagnosing the risk of developing autism by examining the placenta at birth will become routine, and that the children who are shown to have increased numbers of trophoblast inclusions will have early interventions and an improved quality of life as a result of this test,” Kliman added.
Other authors on the study include Kaitlin Anderson, Kristin Milano, and Saier Ye of Yale University; and Cheryl Walker, Daniel Tancredi, Isaac Pessah, and Irva Hertz-Picciotto of UC Davis.Read article >>
Children and teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) use screen-based media, such as television and video games, more often than their typically developing peers and are more likely to develop problematic video game habits, a University of Missouri researcher found.
“Many parents and clinicians have noticed that children with ASD are fascinated with technology, and the results of our recent studies certainly support this idea,” said Micah Mazurek, an assistant professor of health psychology and a clinical child psychologist at MU. “We found that children with ASD spent much more time playing video games than typically developing children, and they are much more likely to develop problematic or addictive patterns of video game play.”
Mazurek studied screen-based media use among 202 children and adolescents with ASD and 179 typically developing siblings. Compared to typically developing children, those with ASD spent more time playing video games and less time on social media, such as Facebook. Children with ASD also spent more time watching TV and playing video games than participating in pro-social or physical activities. Conversely, typically developing children spent more time on non-screen activities than on TV or video games.
In another study of 169 boys with ASD, problematic video game use was associated with oppositional behaviors, such as refusing to follow directions or engaging in arguments. Mazurek says carefully controlled research is needed to examine these issues in the future.
“Because these studies were cross-sectional, it is not clear if there is a causal relationship between video game use and problem behaviors,” Mazurek said. “Children with ASD may be attracted to video games because they can be rewarding, visually engaging and do not require face-to-face communication or social interaction. Parents need to be aware that, although video games are especially reinforcing for children with ASD, children with ASD may have problems disengaging from these games.”
Even though Mazurek cautions that too much screen time could be detrimental for children with ASD, she says tapping into what children with ASD enjoy about video games could help researchers and clinicians develop therapies using the technology.
“Using screen-based technologies, communication and social skills could be taught and reinforced right away,” Mazurek said. “However, more research is needed to determine whether the skills children with ASD might learn in virtual reality environments would translate into actual social interactions.”
The study, “Television, Video Game and Social Media Use among Children with ASD and Typically Developing Siblings,” will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. “Video Game Use and Problem Behaviors in Boys with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” was published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Mazurek also authored an article for The Scientist Magazine about the benefits and possible negative consequences of using screen-based technologies in interventions for children with autism.Read article >>
People with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have trouble communicating and interacting with others because they process language, facial expressions and social cues differently. Previously, researchers found that propranolol, a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure, anxiety and panic, could improve the language abilities and social functioning of people with an ASD. Now, University of Missouri investigators say the prescription drug also could help improve the working memory abilities of individuals with autism.
Working memory represents individuals’ ability to hold and manipulate a small amount of information for a short period; it allows people to remember directions, complete puzzles and follow conversations. Neurologist David Beversdorf and research neuropsychologist Shawn Christ found that propranolol improves the working memory performance of people with an ASD.
“Seeing a tiger might signal a fight or flight response. Nowadays, a stressor such as taking an exam could generate the same response, which is not helpful,” said Beversdorf, an associate professor in the Departments of Radiology and Neurology in the MU School of Medicine. “Propranolol works by calming those nervous responses, which is why some people benefit from taking the drug to reduce anxiety.”
Propranolol increased working memory performance in a sample of 14 young adult patients of the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders but had little to no effect on a group of 13 study participants who do not have autism. The researchers do not recommend that doctors prescribe propranolol solely to improve working memory in individuals with an ASD, but patients who already take the prescription drug might benefit.
“People with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who are already being prescribed propranolol for a different reason, such as anxiety, might also see an improvement in working memory,” said Christ, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science.
Future research will incorporate clinical trials to assess further the relationship between cognitive and behavioral functioning and connectivity among various regions of the brain.
The study, “Noradrenergic Moderation of Working Memory Impairments in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. Kimberly Bodner, a psychological sciences doctoral student at MU, and Sanjida Saklayen from the Ohio State University College of Medicine co-authored the study.Read article >>
Neuroscientists from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the University of Toronto have developed an efficient and reliable method of analyzing brain activity to detect autism in children. Their findings appear in the online journal PLOS ONE.
The researchers recorded and analyzed dynamic patterns of brain activity with magnetoencephalography (MEG) to determine the brain’s functional connectivity—that is, its communication from one region to another. MEG measures magnetic fields generated by electrical currents in neurons of the brain.
Roberto Fernández Galán, an assistant professor of neurosciences at Case Western Reserve and an electrophysiologist seasoned in theoretical physics, led the research team that detected autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with 94 percent accuracy. The new analytic method offers an efficient, quantitative way of confirming a clinical diagnosis of autism.
“We asked the question, ‘Can you distinguish an autistic brain from a non-autistic brain simply by looking at the patterns of neural activity?’ and indeed, you can,” Galán said. “This discovery opens the door to quantitative tools that complement the existing diagnostic tools for autism based on behavioral tests.”
In a study of 19 children—nine with ASD—141 sensors tracked the activity of each child’s cortex. The sensors recorded how different regions interacted with each other while at rest, and compared the brain’s interactions of the control group to those with ASD. Researchers found significantly stronger connections between rear and frontal areas of the brain in the ASD group; there was an asymmetrical flow of information to the frontal region, but not vice versa.
The new insight into the directionality of the connections may help identify anatomical abnormalities in ASD brains. Most current measures of functional connectivity do not indicate the interactions’ directionality.
“It is not just who is connected to whom, but rather who is driving whom,” Galán said.
Their approach also allows them to measure background noise, or the spontaneous input driving the brain’s activity while at rest. A spatial map of these inputs demonstrated there was more complexity and structure in the control group than the ASD group, which had less variety and intricacy. This feature offered better discrimination between the two groups, providing an even stronger measure of criteria than functional connectivity alone, with 94 percent accuracy.
Case Western Reserve’s Office of Technology Transfer has filed a provisional patent application for the analysis’s algorithm, which investigates the brain’s activity at rest. Galán and colleagues hope to collaborate with others in the autism field with emphasis on translational and clinical research. Galán’s collaborators and co-authors of this study are University of Toronto’s associate researcher Luis García Domínguez and professor José Luis Pérez Velázquez.Read article >>
Men who have children when they are older are more likely to have grandchildren with autism, according to a study which shows for the first time that risk factors for autism may build up over generations.
Men who had a daughter when they were 50 or older were 1.79 times more likely to have a grandchild with autism than men between 20 and 24, and with sons the likelihood was 1.67 times.Avi Reichenberg of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, who co-led the study, said the work showed for the first time "that your father's and grandfather's lifestyle choices can affect you."
"This doesn't mean that you shouldn't have children if your father was old when he had you, because whilst the risk is increased, it is still small," he said.
Autism disorders, caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, can range from severe mental retardation with a profound inability to communicate, to relatively mild symptoms combined with some high levels of function such as those seen in people with Asperger's syndrome.
Among core features of the disorders are poor communication skills and difficulties with social engagement. In the United States, an estimated 1 in 88 children have autism, while in Europe the rate is thought to be about in 100.
Research published in August last year showing that a father's age when a baby is conceived is the single largest factor in the risk of passing on new gene mutations may help explain why childhood autism rates are rising.
The study published on Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association used Swedish national registers and analyzed data from 5,936 people with autism and 30,923 healthy controls born in Sweden since 1932.
The researchers from Britain, Sweden and Australia factored in each person's maternal and paternal grandfathers' age of reproduction and details of any psychiatric diagnosis.
"We know from previous studies that older paternal age is a risk factor for autism," said Emma Frans from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who co-led the research with Reichenberg.
"This study goes beyond that and suggests that older grand-paternal age is also a risk factor for autism, suggesting that risk factors for autism can build up through generations," she said.
The researchers said that while the mechanism behind the link to older fathers and grandfathers is not clear, it may be explained by mutations occurring in sperm cells over time.
While most genetic mutations do not result in a child developing autism, the researchers said their findings suggest some 'silent' mutations pass on through healthy children and may influence the risk of future generations developing autism.
They also said genetic risk could accumulate over generations, or could interact with other risk factors, until it reaches a particular threshold and prompts autism in a child.Read article >>
Mimicking the behavior of mum and dad has long been considered a vital way in which children learn about the world around them.
Now psychologists at The University of Nottingham have shown that copying unnecessary behavior is more likely to be a social phenomenon than part of the practical process of acquiring new skills.
In their study, published today in the journal Current Biology, the scientists found that autistic children, who have profound difficulty in engaging in social situations, were less likely to copy unnecessary behavior when learning a new task.
The research could offer a new approach to examining social development in children and adults with disorders on the autistic spectrum.
Dr Antonia Hamilton, who led the research in the University’s School of Psychology, said: “Our study showed that typically developing children copy everything an adult does, even when they know that some of the actions are ‘silly’.
“In contrast, the children with autism only copied the useful actions – in a way, they are getting the job done more efficiently than the typical children.
“These results show us that copying unnecessary actions is a social phenomenon, it is not just about learning how to use objects.”
The scientists tested 31 children on the autistic spectrum and 30 typically developing children with the same level of language skills and a further 30 typically developing children who were matched by age.
In the study, children were asked to watch carefully as an adult showed them how to retrieve a toy from a box or to build a simple object. Critically, the demonstration included two vital actions such as unclipping and removing the lid and one superfluous action such as tapping the top of the box twice.
The child was then asked to get or make the toy as fast as they could — without mentioning the need to copy all of the actions of the adult exactly as they had seen them.
Over 97% of the children were able to complete the tasks of fetching or making the toy. Typical children also copied 43-57% of the unnecessary actions, while the autistic children copied only 22%.
After doing the actions, the children were asked to watch the demonstration again, and judge if each action was ‘sensible’ or ‘silly’. All children could do this task, but typical children found it easier. This means that typical children copied the unnecessary actions even though they know the actions are silly.
These results show a found a striking difference between autistic and typical children in both whether they copied the unnecessary actions and how they discriminated between the rationality of each action.
The scientists argue that typical children copy everything an adult does because they are more eager to please and to ‘fit in’.
The children with autism showed significantly less over imitation but this was not linked to weak motor skills as all the unnecessary actions were simple and familiar and less complex than others in the sequence.
It was also not driven by superior reasoning skills because the autistic children performed worse on the task to accurately judge the rationality of each task.
Dr Hamilton added: “In our task, children are asked to make or get the toy, and all are able to do so. Children with autism do not spontaneously copy unnecessary actions, and this can best be explained by reduced social motivation. The autistic children are not interested in being like other people or in conforming to social norms.”
Previous studies have examined social interactivity in autism with eye-tracking tasks and used brain-imaging to study social skills in high functioning adults on the autistic spectrum. However, simple tasks for measuring this social incentive in children did not previously exist.
This simple copying test could be used to assess the social motivation of both children and adults with autism.Read article >>
Children with autism have increased levels of genetic change in regions of the genome prone to DNA rearrangements, so called "hotspots," according to a research discovery to be published in the print edition of the journal Human Molecular Genetics. The research indicates that these genetic changes come in the form of an excess of duplicated DNA segments in hotspot regions and may affect the chances that a child will develop autism -- a behavioral disorder that affects about 1 of every 88 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Earlier work had identified, in children with autism, a greater frequency of rare DNA deletions or duplications, known as DNA copy number changes. These rare and harmful events are found in approximately 5 to 10 percent of cases, raising the question as to what other genetic changes might contribute to the disorders known as autism spectrum disorders.
The new research shows that children with autism have -- in addition to these rare events -- an excess of duplicated DNA including more common variants not exclusively found in children with autism, but are found at elevated levels compared to typically developing children. The research collaboration includes groups led at Penn State by Scott Selleck; at the University of California Davis/MIND Institute by Isaac Pessah, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Flora Tassone, and Robin Hansen; and at the University of Washington by Evan Eichler.
The investigators also found that the balance of DNA duplications and deletions in children with autism was different from that found in more severe developmental disorders, such as intellectual disability or multiple congenital anomalies, where the levels of both deletions and duplications are increased compared to controls, and are even higher than in children with autism.
They also found that children who had more difficulty with daily living skills also had the greatest level of copy number change throughout their genome. "These measures of adaptive behavior provide an indication of the severity of the impairment in the children with autism. These behaviors were significantly correlated with the amount of DNA copy number change," Selleck said, emphasizing that the research revealed "clear and graded effects of the genetic change."
"These results beg the question as to the origin of this genetic change," Selleck said. "The increased levels of both rare and common variants suggests the possibility that these individuals are predisposed to genetic alteration."
A vigorous debate is ongoing in the research community about the degree of genetic versus environmental contributions to autism. Selleck said the finding of an overall increase in genetic change in children with autism heightens the need to search for the basis of this variation. "We know that environmental factors can affect the stability of the genome, but we don't know if the DNA copy number change we detect in these children is a result of environmental exposures, nutrition, medical factors, lifestyle, genetic susceptibility, or combinations of many elements together," Selleck said. "The elevated levels of common variants is telling us something. It suggests that pure selection of randomly generated variants may not be the whole story."
The Penn State team includes Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Associate Professor Marylyn Ritchie and Assistant Professor Santhosh Girirajan. "The relationship between the level of copy number change and the degree of neurodevelopmental disability is something we have noted previously for large, rare variants" says Girirajan, "but this work extends those observations to common copy number variants, suggesting the level of copy number change in children with autism is larger than we had appreciated." Girirajan, the first author of the study, coordinated the effort between the Penn State and University of Washington researchers.
The research collaboration began with studies supported by the Minnesota Medical Foundation and the Martin Lenz Harrison Endowed Chair in Pediatrics when Selleck was Director of the Autism Initiative at the University of Minnesota. When Selleck arrived at Penn State in 2009, he began a new phase of the analysis with replication studies of early findings conducted with the help and expertise of Evan Eichler and colleagues at the University of Washington using the clinical data and DNA collected by Isaac Pessah, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Flora Tassone, and Robin Hansen at the University of California Davis/MIND Institute group, which directs a large population-based case-control study of autism called CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment). In this multiyear study, clinical history, environmental, nutritional, family, and medical data are collected from the families of children with autism and other developmental disorders, as well as from randomly selected control children from the general population. The research took advantage of the CHARGE study, supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"The CHARGE study is a true population-based case-control cohort for the study of autism, the only one of its kind that I am aware of" says Selleck, and allows for comparisons between the children with autism and controls matched for geographical location and time of birth. The research team plans to continue its collaboration to further characterize the more common genetic variants found to be associated with autism and to explore the relationship between genome variation and environmental exposures.
The research collaboration received financial support from Autism Speaks/Cure Autism Now, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, the University of Minnesota Harrison Autism Initiative Fund, Penn State University, the Minnesota Medical Foundation, the MIND Institute, and the Jane Botsford Johnson Foundation.Read article >>
“Aiden, look!” piped NAO, a two-foot tall humanoid robot, as it pointed to a flat-panel display on a far wall. As the cartoon dog Scooby Doo flashed on the screen, Aiden, a young boy with an unruly thatch of straw-colored hair, looked in the direction the robot was pointing.
Aiden, who is three and a half years old, has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). NAO (pronounced “now”) is the diminutive “front man” for an elaborate system of cameras, sensors and computers designed specifically to help children like Aiden learn how to coordinate their attention with other people and objects in their environment. This basic social skill is called joint attention. Typically developing children learn it naturally. Children with autism, however, have difficulty mastering it and that inability can compound into a variety of learning difficulties as they age.
An interdisciplinary team of mechanical engineers and autism experts at Vanderbilt University have developed the system and used it to demonstrate that robotic systems may be powerful tools for enhancing the basic social learning skills of children with ASD. Writing in the March issue of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, the researchers report that children with ASD paid more attention to the robot and followed its instructions almost as well as they did those of a human therapist in standard exercises used to develop joint attention skill.
The finding indicates that robots could play a crucial role in responding to the “public health emergency” that has been created by the rapid growth in the number of children being diagnosed with ASD. Today, one in 88 children (one in 54 boys) are being diagnosed with ASD. That is a 78 percent increase in just four years. The trend has major implications for the nation’s healthcare budget because estimates of the lifetime cost of treating ASD patients ranges from four to six times greater than for patients without autism.
“This is the first real world test of whether intelligent adaptive systems can make an impact on autism,” said team member Zachary Warren, who directs the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) at Vanderbilt’s Kennedy Center.
The initial impetus for the project came from Vanderbilt Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Computer Engineering Nilanjan Sarkar. His original research involved the development of systems to improve the man-machine interface. He did so by outfitting computer/robot users with biosensors and analyzing variations in various readings like blood pressure and skin response to evaluate their emotional state. The information was used to program computers and robots to respond accordingly.
Six years ago, when visiting his cousin in India, Sarkar learned that his cousin’s son had been diagnosed with ASD. “After I learned something about autism, it occurred to me that my research could be valuable for treating ASD,” he said.
At the time, several experiments had been conducted that suggested young children in general, and young children with ASD in particular, found robots especially appealing. “We knew that this gave us an advantage, but we had to figure out how to leverage it to improve the children’s social skills,” Sarkar said.
“You can’t just drop a robot down in front of a child and expect it to work,” added Warren. ”You must develop a sophisticated adaptive structure around the robot before it will work.”
To develop this structure, which they named ARIA (Adaptive Robot-Mediated Intervention Architecture), Sarkar and Warren assembled a team that consists of Esubalew Bekele, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer engineering, Uttama Lahiri, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who is currently an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, Amy Swanson, a project manager at TRIAD, and Julie Crittendon, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
The team decided that a robotic system had the greatest potential working with young children. “Research has shown that early intervention, individualized to the learner’s needs, is currently the most effective approach for helping children with autism develop the foundational social communication skills they need to become productive adults,” Crittendon said.
So the researchers built an “intelligent environment” around NAO, a commercial humanoid robot made in France, whose control architecture was augmented for the purpose. The small robot stands on a table at the front of the room. Flat panel displays are attached to the side walls. The chair where the child sits faces the front of the room and is high enough to put the robot at eye level. The room is equipped with a number of inexpensive web cameras that are aimed at the chair. Their purpose is to track the child’s head movements, so the system can determine where he or she is looking. To aid in this effort, children in the study wore a baseball cap decorated with a strip of LED lights that allowed the computer to infer where they are looking.
NAO has been programmed with a series of verbal prompts, such as “look over here” and “let’s do some more,” and gestures such as looking and pointing at one of the displays, that imitate the prompts and gestures that human therapists use in joint attention training. The protocol begins with a verbal prompt that asks the child to look at an image or video displayed on one of the screens. If the child doesn’t respond, then the therapist provides increasing support by combining a verbal prompt with physical gestures such as turning her head or pointing. When the child looks at the target then the therapist responds with praise, such as telling the child, “good job.”
The setup allowed the researchers to test the relative effectiveness of the robot-based system and human therapists in joint attention training with a dozen 2- to 5-year-old children, six with ASD and a control group of six typically developing children. They alternated short human-led and robot-led training sessions and compared how the children performed.
The test found that the children in both groups spent more time looking at the robot than they spent looking at the human therapist. During the human-led sessions, the children in the control group spent significantly more time watching the therapist than the children with ASD did. In the robot-led sessions, however, both groups spent about the same amount of time looking at the robot.
“The children’s engagement with the robot was excellent,” Crittendon said, “and we saw improvements across the board in both groups.”
One of the key elements of ARIA is its closed loop design. The robot adapts its behavior to each child automatically depending on how he or she is responding. “There is a saying in the field, ‘If you’ve seen one child with ASD, you’ve seen one child with ASD.’ So one size does not fit all. To be useful, the system must be adaptive,” Warren said.
The cost of robotic systems like this will continue to come down in the future so it should easily pay for itself by supplementing human intervention.”In addition, ARIA is not designed to replace human therapists, who are in short supply, but to leverage their efforts. “A therapist does many things that robots can’t do,” said Sarkar. “But a robot-centered system could provide much of the repeated practice that is essential to learning. The cost of robotic systems like this will continue to come down in the future so it should easily pay for itself by supplementing human intervention.”
Warren hopes that robotic systems can act as an “accelerant technology” that actually increases the rate at which children with ASD learn the social skills that they need. Encouraged by the success of this current study, Sarkar and Warren have started developing robot-mediated autism intervention systems that will address other deficits of children with autism such as imitation learning, role playing and sharing.
The research was supported by a Vanderbilt University Innovation and Discovery in Engineering and Science (IDEAS) grant, National Science Foundation award 0967170, National Institutes of Health award 1R01MH091102-01A1 and by the Meredith Anne Thomas Foundation.Read article >>
Children who are later diagnosed with autism have subtle but measurable differences in attention as early as 7 months of age, finds a study published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Researchers found that infants who went on to be diagnosed with autism are slower to shift their gaze from one object to another, compared to peers who did not receive the diagnosis. The scientists also identified specific brain circuits that seem to cause the slower response. The findings point to a problem with “sticky attention”, a phenomenon observed in preschool and older children with autism, but not well studied before in babies at risk for autism.
The study was conducted by the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) Network, which includes researchers at the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“This is a very exciting study, because the impairments in shifting gaze and attention that we found in 7-month-olds may be a fundamental problem in autism,” said Robert T. Schultz, Ph.D. Director of the Center for Autism Research at CHOP and a co-author on the study. “These results are another piece of the puzzle in pinpointing the earliest signs of autism. Understanding how autism begins and unfolds in the first years of life will pave the way for more effective interventions and better long-term outcomes for individuals with autism and their families.”
These findings suggest that 7-month-olds who go on to develop autism show subtle, yet overt, behavioral differences prior to the emergence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They were slower than both high-risk-negative and low-risk infants to orient or shift their gaze to objects that appeared outside their direct gaze (by approximately 50 millisceconds). Results also implicate a specific neural circuit (the splenium of the corpus callosum), which may develop differently in those at risk for ASD compared to typically developing infants, who show more rapid orienting to visual stimuli. The study concluded that atypical visual orienting is an early feature of later emerging ASD and is associated with a deficit in a specific neural circuit in the brain.
The study included 97 infants: 16 high-risk infants later classified with an ASD, 40 high-risk infants not meeting ASD criteria (i.e., high-risk-negative) and 41 low-risk infants. For this study, infants participated in an eye-tracking test and a brain scan at 7 months of age and a clinical assessment at 25 months of age.Read article >>