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Launching ‘Move the Needle’ – A conference to advance early detection and intervention

March 5, 2012 3 comments

Posted by Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D.

I want to share with you the excitement I felt at this week’s strategic planning meeting for our new Move the Needle Initiative. Autism Speaks brought together experts in the field of early detection and intervention for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with representatives of federal agencies such as the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to create a national plan for lowering the age of diagnosis for ASD and improve access to high-quality early intervention services for all children with autism.

While researchers have made great progress in developing screening and diagnostic tools, the average age of diagnosis remains stubbornly close to 5 years, even higher among some ethnic minorities. Even after their children are diagnosed, many families lack access to the best early intervention therapies.

Our meeting was a great opportunity for exchanging ideas between disciplines. We heard from family members, pediatricians, policy makers, clinicians and researchers who are evaluating the best ways to put effective strategies and tools into pediatrician offices and the broader community. Representatives from all part of Autism Speaks attended to help us identify ways to harness our powers together to “Move the Needle.”

Experts from outside of autism, including one from the field of breast cancer, shared their knowledge of effective ways to improve early detection and access to services. On the first day of the meeting, we heard about the latest findings on screening, diagnosis, early interventions, access to services in underserved communities and innovative technologies that have the potential to improve access among underserved children and their families.

On day two, we split into working groups to develop solutions to the barriers that have interfered with the delivery of earlier diagnosis and treatment in our communities. This included taking the first steps toward creating a new agenda for collaboration between public and private organizations. We brainstormed ideas on how this could be done as soon as possible by building on the tremendous progress of recent years.

Though I have only begun to pull together our thoughts and ideas, I want to share a few important issues that floated to the top of the conversation:

  • Family empowerment was a common theme. Studies clearly show that greater engagement and empowerment on the part of families decreases parental stress and increases satisfaction with services. Likewise, we know that children who have the best outcomes tend to be those whose parents are actively engaged in treatment. We discussed several strategies to  empower families.
  • We explored a concept we call task shifting, to help address service shortages in many communities. We recognize that, through training, we can tap professionals such as nurses, “birth-to-three” service providers and community volunteers to provide services such as screening and family follow up. This approach can provide families with more professionally delivered services than, say, the typical pediatrician can offer.
  • We agreed that we must harness the potential of technology. Smart phones, iPads and video conferencing are all ready to be developed as tools for improving access to services – especially important for underserved populations such as children in rural areas.
  • Recognizing that pediatricians play a central role in autism screening, we discussed many ideas for enhancing pediatrician awareness and skills, including their ability to connect families with the services they need.  

These are just a few ideas that came out of this inspiring meeting. It provided a great start to realizing our long-term vision of creating a national agenda through private-public partnerships that focus our investments in research and services in ways that will lower the age of diagnosis and improve access to quality early interventions for all children.

Your feedback means the world to us. Please leave a comment and send us an email to ScienceChat@autismspeaks.org.

I know exercise is important. But with all our autism-related therapies, there’s no energy left. Advice appreciated.

March 2, 2012 12 comments

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer comes from Michael Rosanoff, M.P.H., Autism Speaks associate director for public health research and scientific review.

As challenging as it may be for anyone to develop and maintain a physically active lifestyle, the challenges can be amplified for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We are constantly reminded how important it is to teach our kids to make healthy life decisions. But sometimes it can feel like an impossible task when they have other special needs and obstacles.

So it may be no surprise to learn that nearly a third of children with ASD are medically obese. The problem appears to increase with age, with obesity affecting over a third of young adults on the spectrum.

Inadequate physical activity is among the primary reasons for these high rates of obesity. But let’s be honest, getting active can be particularly challenging when a child or adult is also struggling with autism-related issues in areas such as self-control, motivation or physical coordination. And the sights, sounds and tactile aspects of team sports can feel overwhelming for someone with sensory integration issues.

But there’s great payoff in finding physical recreation activities that do work for an individual on the autism spectrum.

Did you know that exercise can decrease the frequency of negative, self-stimulating and self-injurious behaviors? This may be because the highly structured routines and repetitive motions involved in, say, running or swimming can distract from negative self-stimulating and repetitive behaviors. Physical activity can also promote self-esteem and improve mood and attention. For those who can participate in team sports, this type of structured activity can foster social interactions.

This isn’t to say that physical activity can or should replace proven behavioral interventions for ASD. Rather it can enhance their benefits.

For more information on recreational programs and activity tips for children and teens on the autism spectrum, see the physical fitness page in the Health & Wellness section of our website. To learn more about the importance of exercise for individuals with ASD, please see our special science report, “Sports, Exercise, and the Benefits of Physical Activity for Individuals with Autism.” And please use the comment section to share your experiences. What works and what doesn’t for you, your child or other loved one?

‘The Doctors Are In’ Live Chat

February 29, 2012 1 comment

Please join us Thursday at 3 pm ET/noon PT for this month’s “The Doctors Are In” live webchat. Our featured guest will be pediatric dentist José Polido, D.D.S., head of dentistry at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, one of our Autism Treatment Network centers.

Dr. Polido was instrumental in developing the newly released ATN tool kit for dental professionals. He welcomes your questions about dental issues including dental hygiene and visits to the dentist.

The live webchat will be hosted by Autism Speaks Head of Medical Research Joe Horrigan, M.D.

We hope you’ll join us!

What: “The Doctors Are In” webchat, with Drs. Horrigan and Polido
When: March 1 at 3 pm Eastern; 2 pm Central; 1 pm Mountain; noon Pacific
Where: Join via the Live Chat tab on left side of the Autism Speaks Facebook page

Collaborating in South-East Europe

February 28, 2012 2 comments

Posted by Simon Wallace, Ph.D. Autism Speaks director of scientific development for Europe.

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.

Local organizer Marta Macedoni, M.D., Ph.D. and international technical advisor Connie Kasari, Ph.D., from UCLA at the first official meeting of the South-East European Autism Network in Slovenia.

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.

Autism Journal Offers New Podcast on Gender Differences

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

ImageThe international journal Autism released a new podcast in its Autism Matters series. Sven Bölte, Ph.D., director of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders, discusses his research on gender differences in cognitive function among high-functioning persons with autism spectrum disorder. Autism Matters podcasts are hosted by University of London psychologist Laura Crane, Ph.D.

The series is designed for a broad audience and aims to showcase the latest research published in the journal with an emphasis on real-world relevance.

My son has sleep problems. What can help?

February 17, 2012 55 comments

 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.

New Findings Hold Promise for Revolutionary Pre-Symptom Screening

February 17, 2012 5 comments

 Posted by Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D.

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.

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