In December 2010, Autism Speaks joined the Albanian Children Foundation and the Albanian Ministry of Health to develop a regional partnership that can advance autism services and research in South-East Europe. At that meeting, members of five ministries of health (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia), the Albanian Children Foundation and Autism Speaks pledged to collaborate with support from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Specifically, the newly formed South-East European Autism Network (SEAN) pledged to:
- Raise public and professional awareness in the region
- Provide information resources for parents and professionals
- Collect public health data on the locations of individuals with autism
- Conduct professional training in the areas of diagnosis, clinical management and early intervention
- Provide evidence-based services for both children and adults
- Support the establishment of a regional committee to meet biannually with the goal of developing guidelines and recommendations on public health and autism
Over the last 12 months, Autism Speaks has been working with our partners in the region to ensure that the network is properly organized, identify national coordinators and grow the SEAN membership. Bulgaria, Kosovo and Montenegro recently signed the pledge; and Greece and Serbia may also soon join.
Last week, I and Andy Shih, Ph.D., Autism Speaks vice president for scientific affairs, attended the first official SEAN network meeting, held in Ljubljana, Slovenia with the support of the Slovenian Ministry of Health and the Institute of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Over 300 people attended this conference for national coordinators, local professionals, researchers and families.
Among the speakers was Antonio Persico, M.D., from Campus Bio-Medico University in Rome, who talked about the importance of multi-disciplinary approaches to help identify persons with autism. Connie Kasari, Ph.D., from University of California Los Angeles, presented on current models of early intervention and evidence for its delivery in schools. Lynn Brennan, Ph.D., an independent Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) consultant, introduced a new video-based parent training ABA program she is developing in collaboration with Deborah Fein, Ph.D., from the University of Connecticut.
The conference was followed by a meeting for the national coordinators, the SEAN secretariat (Albanian Children Foundation) and technical advisors from WHO and Autism Speaks. Andy delivered the welcome alongside representatives from the Slovenian Ministry of Health and the Slovenian Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs.
The national coordinators made short presentations on the state of autism care and research in their country. Though these countries vary greatly in the degree to which they’ve addressed autism, all face common challenges. In many cases, for example, diagnostic services are not available outside of a country’s capital city. Many countries simply lack the resources and manpower to diagnose the increasing number of children with autism who are being referred to their clinics. In addition, all the national coordinators spoke of the need to have more diagnostic, screening and awareness materials translated into their national languages. They also described a general lack of information on how many children are affected by autism within each country and a lack of public health infrastructure to identify undiagnosed children and adults.
In prioritizing SEAN’s first projects, we agreed to design a survey to assess baseline public health data from each country. This will help each country assess what it needs to improve clinical practice and measure future progress.
The network will also work together to translate Autism Speaks tool kits and other awareness materials and to increase national and regional awareness through World Autism Awareness Day and Light It Up Blue.
The network’s training priorities will revolve around diagnosis and early intervention. Autism Speaks will organize a training workshop at the Regional Centre for Autism in Albania later this year. The network also agreed to explore ways to work more closely with the WHO South-East European Health Network.
SEAN members plan to meet again in April 2013 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. At that time, the national coordinators will report on the progress they have made in improving awareness and services for families within the region since these first crucial meetings.
Our efforts in South-East Europe are an important part of our Global Autism Public Health Initiative (GAPH). GAPH embodies Autism Speaks’ commitment to the global mission of improving the lives of all individuals with autism. Our international partners include families, researchers, institutes, advocacy groups and governments in over 30 countries. By working together, our partners contribute significantly and collectively to a greater understanding of autism.
Today’s “Got Questions?” answer comes from clinical psychologist Jeffrey Wood, Ph.D., of the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at the University of California, Los Angeles. The recipient of three Autism Speaks grants, Wood has extensively studied anxiety in elementary school and adolescent children with autism.
Anxiety is common among children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Research suggests that at least 30 percent of children withASDalso have an anxiety disorder such as social phobia, separation anxiety, excessive worry/rumination, obsessive compulsive disorder or a phobia such as extreme fear of spiders or loud noise. Indeed, many of the children involved in our ASD research suffer multiple anxiety disorders.
It’s important to remember that anxiety can range from fluctuating, mild and completely understandable to unremitting, severe and irrational. Most people experience some form of anxiety on a regular basis, and this generally involves some degree of physical discomfort as well as negative mood.
Moderate levels of anxiety can actually be a positive, motivating force to increase one’s level of effort and attention when working or socializing. However, research on how children adapt to different settings (academic, athletic, social, etc.) suggests that high levels of anxiety can interfere with academic and social success.
Several types of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have been developed to address anxiety in children with ASD, with promising results from several clinical research centers. Techniques include challenging negative thoughts with logic, role-play and modeling courageous behavior, and hierarchical (step by step) exposure to feared situations.
We and others have developed programs using modified versions of CBT that was originally developed for typically developing youth. These directly address problematic levels of anxiety in children with ASD. Several of these programs incorporate “special interests” to motivate children to engage in treatment activities during weekly sessions. For example, the therapist may use favorite cartoon characters to model coping skills, or intersperse conversations about a child’s special interests throughout the treatment sessions to promote motivation and engagement.
Depending on the program, these treatment sessions usually last 60 to 90 minutes each and extend over a course of 6 to 16 weeks. Most treatment plans also require parent involvement and weekly homework assignments.
Results from our randomized clinical trial, case studies and related reports indicate that most children with ASD who complete such programs experience significant improvements in anxiety as well as some improvement in social communication skills and other daily living skills. 1-9
We and others continue to conduct research on these and related behavioral interventions for relieving anxiety. At present these intensive and scientifically studied treatment programs are available primarily at a small number of autism treatment centers. We hope that further research and dissemination efforts will make them become more accessible to families throughout North America and elsewhere.
1. Wood JJ, Gadow KD. Exploring the nature and function of anxiety in youth with autism spectrum disorders. Clinical Psychology: Research and Practice. (In press)
2. Wood JJ, Drahota A, Sze K, Har K, Chiu A, Langer DA. Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorders: a randomized, controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2009;50(3):224-34.
3. Sze KM, Wood JJ. Enhancing CBT for the treatment of autism spectrum disorders and concurrent anxiety: a case study. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy. 2008;36:403-9.
4. Chalfant AM, Rapee R, Carroll L. Treating anxiety disorders in children with high functioning autism spectrum disorders: a controlled trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2007;37(10):1842-57.
5. Lang R, Regester A, Lauderdale S, Ashbaugh K, Haring S. Treatment of anxiety in autism spectrum disorders using cognitive behaviour therapy: A systematic review. Developmental Neurorehabilitation. 2010;13(1):53-63.
6. Reaven JA, Hepburn SL, Ross RG. Use of the ADOS and ADI-R in children with psychosis: importance of clinical judgment. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2008;13(1):81-94.
7. Scarpa A, Reyes NM. Improving emotion regulation with CBT in young children with high functioning autism spectrum disorders: a pilot study. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy. 2011;39(4):495-500.
8. White SW, Albano AM, Johnson CR, et al. Development of a cognitive-behavioral intervention program to treat anxiety and social deficits in teens with high-functioning autism. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. 2010;13(1):77-90.
9. Sofronoff K, Attwood T, Hinton S. A randomized controlled trial of a CBT intervention for anxiety in children with Asperger syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatiry. 2005;46(11):1152-60.
Read more autism research news and perspective on the science page.
Posted by Elizabeth Shick, DDS, MPH, assistant professor at Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, one of 17 Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) sites across North America.
As a dentist, I can only hope that when I say “open wide,” that’s exactly what the person sitting in my dental chair does. When I see children in my practice, I know I won’t get my wish every time. Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty following directions during routine dental cleanings. Nonetheless, I love working with these kids and their families. So I’ve adapted my practice so that everyone involved with these wonderful patients gets the most out of each visit.
A few years ago, for example, I had a visit I will never forget. The family had not one but two sons with autism. My receptionist greeted the family and after consulting with the parents, we decided it would be best for me to see the six year old first, and then see his eight-year-old brother. He came into my small examination room with his mom and immediately began pacing and staring at the floor as if looking for something he had lost. I asked him to sit in the chair. He didn’t respond or look up. It was clear that the bag of tricks I learned in dental school wasn’t going to get him to cooperate.
To coax him into my examination chair, I asked his mom to hold his hand and help steer him into the chair. She continued to hold his hand during the entire visit. I made sure not to rush through with my typical routine. Instead, I showed him the mirror and toothbrush I was going to use and explained to him, each step of the way, what I was going to do next.
After a while, he began to make eye contact with me. He even smiled. He didn’t do everything I asked, and he struggled through certain parts of the appointment, sometimes trying to sit up or jump off the chair. But we got done what we needed to—a dental cleaning, a thorough dental exam, and a fluoride application. Then his dad came in with his older brother, and we did it all again.
During dental school, few students practice treating patients with ASD. For this reason, many dentists may feel uncomfortable when caring for patients with autism, and it can be difficult for families to find a dentist who understands their child’s needs.
I have been fortunate to work with some wonderful autism specialists here at Children’s Hospital Colorado. With support from Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN), we created Treating Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Tool Kit for Dental Professionals. It is designed to help dental professionals like myself understand autism and work with parents to help make office visits successful. I often use the recommendations in the tool kit in my own practice.
With autism on the rise, it’s becoming more and more important that dental providers—including dental hygienists, dental assistants and even front desk staff—have the most current information about autism and know how to interact with families affected by it. It is our sincere wish that more dentists will be empowered by our tool kit to welcome these children into their practice and help make their visits a positive experience. We hope you will share the new Dentist Tool Kit with your dental care providers. You can download for free, here. Also see Autism Speaks Dental Tool Kit for families, here.
Today’s “Got Questions?” response comes from two clinicians in Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN). Neurologist and sleep specialist Sangeeta Chakravorty, M.D., is director of the pediatric sleep program at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh; and psychologist and sleep educator Terry Katz, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-founder of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
First, know that you are not alone! Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep through the night. So Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN) clinicians have been studying how to help them sleep better. One result of this research is the Sleep Strategies for Children with Autism: A Parent’s Guide, made possible by the ATN’s participation in the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P). Starting next week (Feb. 21), this tool kit will become available for free download from the ATN’s Tools You Can Use webpage.
Here are some of the tips that we and our patients’ parents have found most helpful:
1. First, ask your child’s doctor to screen for any medical issues that may be interfering with sleep.
2. Prepare your child’s bedroom for sleep: Is the temperature comfortable? Does your child like the sheets, blankets and pajamas? A dark bedroom promotes sleep, but your child may need a night light for comfort. If unavoidable noises present a problem, ear plugs or a white noise machine may help. Keep the bed just for sleeping, not for playtime or time outs. And try to keep the environment consistent: e.g. If you use a night light, leave it on all night.
3. Maintain good daytime sleep habits: Have your child wake up around the same time each morning. Try eliminating daytime naps. Help your child get plenty of exercise and sunlight, but avoid vigorous physical activity within three hours of bedtime. Likewise avoid caffeinated food or drink (chocolate, cola, etc.) in the evening.
4. Prepare for bed: Keep bed time consistent, choosing a time when your child will be tired but not overtired. Develop a calm and consistent bedtime routine. Keep the lights low.
5. Consider using a visual schedule to help your child learn and track the bedtime routine.
6. Teach your child to fall asleep without any help from you. If your child is used to sleeping next to you, substitute pillows or blankets. If you can, leave the room. If this is too difficult, stay in the room without touching—for instance in a chair facing away from your child. Over a week or so, slowly move your chair toward the open door—until you’re sitting outside.
7. Teach your child to stay in bed. Set limits about how many times your child is allowed to get out of bed. Use visual reminders such as one or two bathroom and drink cards per night. Put a sign on the inside of the bedroom door to remind your child to go back to bed. If your child does get out of bed, stay calm and put him or her back to bed with as little talking as possible.
8. Reward your child for sleeping through the night, and remind your child of your expectations. Consider drawing a contract of expectations and rewards. Small rewards are best.
Helping Teens Sleep
Like young children, teens need adequate exercise and sunlight and consistent waking and bed times. However, adolescence brings hormonal changes that can delay the onset of sleepiness until late at night. Unfortunately, many middle and high schools start early! Find out if a later class schedule is an option. In any case, work with your teen to set a good bedtime. And teens who drive need to know NEVER to drive when sleepy.
Helpful steps include having your teen finish homework and turn off computer and TV at least 30 minutes before bed. Keep lights low. A light snack before bed can help growing teens sleep through the night. Finally, it’s probably a good idea to remove electronic devices, including TVs, from the bedroom.
Have more sleep questions? Join us for a live webchat with neurologist and autism sleep expert Dr. Beth Ann Malow, M.D., of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, on Feb. 21, from 1 to 2 pm Eastern. Join via the Live Chat tab on left side of our Facebook page.
Got more questions? Please send us an email at GotQuestions@autismspeaks.org.
I want to share my perspective on an important new research finding released today. The study is headed up by Joe Piven, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I am a co-author. The study followed the early brain development of 92 infant siblings, 28 of whom went on to develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Infants were imaged using MRI at 6, 12 and 24 months. Those who later developed ASD showed abnormal development of white matter fiber tracts by 6 months. White matter is the part of the brain cell, or neuron, that connects one part of the brain to another. (See our related news item here.)
This finding tells us that, very early and before the emergence of behavioral symptoms, the neural networks that connect different brain regions are not developing normally in infant siblings who go on to develop autism. Previous studies of both children and adults have repeatedly shown that autism involves abnormal connectivity between different brain regions. In fact, my colleagues at the University of Washington and I did one of the first studies to show this.
Now we are seeing that these changes are evident by 6 months of age. Future research is needed to help us understand what is causing these early brain changes.
Why is this finding important? First, it helps us understand why people with autism have trouble with complex behaviors such as social interactions. Even simple social behaviors involve coordination of many brain systems. For instance, when something catches a baby’s interest, the normal response is a combination of gestures, babbling and eye contact. This requires several brain regions to communicate efficiently with one another.
Even more important, these results offer promise of using imaging results or other “biomarkers” to flag risk of ASD before symptoms become evident. In other conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, such early biomarkers are being used to identify those at risk and allow treatment to start before symptoms appear – to maximize benefits.
We can imagine the day when noninvasive brain imaging is available for babies at high risk for autism (such as infant siblings of affected children). When the imaging reveals tell-tale abnormalities, these babies can receive medical or behavioral treatments that stimulate normal brain development. For example, a recent study by Marcel Just demonstrates that certain reading interventions for children with reading disabilities produce positive changes in the children’s brain white matter, or neural connectivity.
So, it’s reasonable to consider that some of the changes we are seeing in 6-month-old infants might likewise be improved through early intervention. Just’s study suggests that such “rewiring” may possible even later in life with interventions that support the connectivity between different brain regions.
Parents who are concerned that their baby might be at risk for autism may be wondering whether they should ask their doctor to order an MRI. The results published today are too preliminary for that. We are not recommending MRI screening for autism at this point. The best way to screen for autism at this time is to look for early behavioral signs (see Learn the Signs) and use screening tools such as the M-CHAT.
The research published today was funded in part by Autism Speaks and would not be possible without our community’s passionate and continuing support. Thank you.
In 2003, I moved to California from my native Hawaii. I’d just graduated from college, and I immediately accepted a job with Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) with one goal in mind: Start building my career in research!
I didn’t know that this job would become so much more.
Autism quickly became my passion. As I learned more about the complexities of autism, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of affected families. My interactions with AGRE parents and grandparents have been amazing. They have remarkable stories about their children and how each is wonderfully unique.
At the same time, I find it a great challenge to address some of their greatest concerns. I understand their urgent need for answers. But as someone trained in science, I also know that real answers sometimes take years to deliver. I remind our parents to never give up hope.
One of my most memorable interactions occurred at a Defeat Autism Now (DAN) conference several years ago. Autism Speaks had just started to become a prominent player within the autism community, and there was still apprehension about us. Unfortunately, I was not well equipped to answer some of the challenging political questions people asked me that day! I felt like a moving target and was left confused because I had thought we were all working towards the same goal: helping people with autism!
Just as I was packing up for the day, a man came over to the Autism Speaks table to talk with me. “I’ve been meaning to come over here all day,” he said. “I just want to thank you for being here. It means so much to us that you’re here to support us. Thank you.” To this day, whenever I feel lost in the politics and paperwork, I remember that moment and am reminded by why I’m here at AGRE.
Ultimately, I think the future of autism research lies in collaboration with scientists and families around the world. So it is very exciting to see AGRE’s mission begin to expand outside of North America. We know that autism is a global issue, and I think diversity is the glue that autism research needs to put all the pieces together.
In closing I want to thank all our supporters – those who Walk, those who participate in research, and everyone who cares about our mission to improve the lives of all who struggle with autism. Thank you so much. I love being part of this community.
Recently, someone posed a question that made me think hard about the immediate relevance of our research to those affected by autism. I had been explaining Autism Speaks’ new focus on developing medicines that, one day, will target autism’s core symptoms in ways that reduce disabilities and improve learning abilities. Someone commented that this would likely take years to accomplish. I had to agree. His follow-up question: So, how does research help families today?
For the answer, I found myself thinking about how the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation faced this same question decades ago. Like Autism Speaks, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation was grappling with a disorder in its medical infancy. Cystic fibrosis was defined as a medical condition in 1938. The Foundation followed in 1955. At that time, the median age of survival for those affected by the disorder was just ten years.
The leadership of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation knew they were grappling with a complex disorder that would take years to fully understand. So they developed parallel research efforts. One focused on the immediate development of improved diagnosis and treatments that could ease symptoms. The other focused on basic science with the goal of ultimately revolutionizing treatment with therapies that target the disorder’s root causes.
Their short-term efforts included support for a network of clinical care and research centers, a patient registry and studies that focused on improving treatment of chronic symptoms and associated medical conditions. Within a relatively short time, diagnostic methods improved and physicians began adopting new gold-standard practices, including new methods for fighting lung infections and improving lung function – all made possible through research that the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation helped support. The median age of survival jumped from 10 years to 37 years!
Meanwhile, long-term research efforts focused on understanding the causes and biology of cystic fibrosis. In 1989, scientists made major breakthroughs in genetic understanding. This, in turn, led to tremendous insights into the disorder’s underlying biology. Then, just last week, the FDA approved the first drug to treat the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis, rather than its symptoms. One doctor described how his patient was able to “shovel snow for the first time.” Not coincidentally, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation had contributed millions of dollars to the development of this drug (Kalydeco). Its early funding had been essential to convince drug companies to make the larger financial investment needed to bring any successful drug to market. In the process, the foundation negotiated a deal to earn drug royalties, which will now be reinvested in further research advancements. Just as exciting, other “disease-modifying” cystic fibrosis drugs are moving through the research pipeline.
This is the same strategy that Autism Speaks is taking with investments in both research that improves quality of life in the short term and longer-term research that promises to transform how autism is treated.
Here are just a few examples of funded research projects with the potential to improve quality of life in the near future:
- Identification of preventable environmental risk factors for autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Validation of questionnaires that pediatricians can use to screen babies for ASD and, so, offer earlier intervention that will improve outcomes
- Biomarkers (e.g. immune alterations) that could identify infants at risk for ASD
- Development of effective early interventions for babies before the full syndrome develops
- Support of technological inventions to enhance communication in nonverbal persons
- Development of physician guidelines for assessment and treatment of medical conditions associated with ASD
- Development of more effective treatments for associated conditions, including sleep disturbances, GI disorders, seizures and anxiety
- Development of interventions to improve employment success and relationship skills in adults
- Development of cognitive rehabilitation interventions for adults
Even as we support the development of these improved services, we are also investing in research that can identify the most effective ways to broadly implement new gold-standard practices to produce positive changes in community healthcare, education and support services for all persons who struggle with autism. This type of “dissemination research” also tells us how to best target limited resources.
Meanwhile, our long-term investments are advancing the understanding of autism’s underlying biology and the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to its development. These investments are exploring the role of the immune system, brain signaling pathways and the GI system, among other topics. Over the last five years, tremendous progress in these areas has advanced research to the point where we are now collaborating with industry to develop novel drugs with the potential to ease severe and disabling core symptoms – in adults as well as children. Fortunately, the tools we have available today will make drug discovery and development much faster than before.
Connecting the dots
At Autism Speaks, the research we fund interconnects with all parts of our mission, including awareness, advocacy and family services. Our awareness campaign, for example, is shaped by research that has revealed great disparities in access to services by communities such as ethnic-minority and low-income families.
Our advocacy of insurance reform, in turn, critically depends on research that demonstrates how early intervention improves outcomes. Research also plays a critical role in bolstering our advocacy for adolescents and adults. For example, a recent study demonstrated that adults with ASD face greater challenges in employment and social participation than do adults with other common disabilities. More importantly, this same study suggests that providing transition services immediately after high school is the most cost effective way to improve outcomes. We can use this information to advocate for improved services during the transition from high school to adulthood. Other currently funded studies promise to help us advance insurance reform to assure coverage of other interventions with proven benefits for school-age children and adults.
Similarly, Autism Speaks is funding research aimed at determining the real-world effects of proposed changes in the diagnostic criteria for autism. Will these new criteria exclude people previously diagnosed with ASD? Will they affect access to vital services? These answers will be crucial to our ability to advocate for any necessary changes in the proposed criteria.
While we see our research improving lives now, we remain committed to our long-term goals of revolutionizing treatment of ASD. I know in my heart that someday we will be making the kind of breathtaking announcement that we heard from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation last week. The day is coming. In the meantime, we will ensure that our scientific mission remains relevant to our families today.
Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks