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Non-verbal Autism Research Highlighted at IMFAR

May 14, 2011 18 comments

By Leanne Chukoskie, Autism Speaks

In 2008, Autism Speaks kick-started research in the area of non-verbal autism through its High-Risk High-Impact initiative. This year at IMFAR, Autism Speaks-funded research was featured in the Invited Educational Symposium titled Characterizing Cognition in Non-verbal Individuals with Autism: Innovation, Assessment and Treatment.

Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Autism Speaks’ Chief Science Officer, chaired the session and set the stage for the audience to appreciate the importance of this particular topic. An estimated 30% of individuals living with autism are functionally non-verbal, yet very little research effort was directed toward helping this group communicate their wants and needs. The inability to communicate leads caregivers and clinicians to the presumption that the cognitive skills in these individuals were low because the tests typically used to assess cognitive skill require verbal or behavioral responses that this group of individuals does not readily produce.

The first speaker was April Benasich, Ph.D. of Rutgers University, who received an Autism Speaks grant for her research. Dr. Benasich presented data on innovative new studies on 3-7 year old non-verbal children with autism. Using tasks that were designed to assess children’s capacity to identify mismatches between sights and sounds. For example, a picture of a frog might be presented with the spoken word “frog” or “cow.”  The latter, obviously incorrect, pairing generates a spark of electrical activity in the brain called a mismatch negativity about 400 ms after the stimulus was presented. This sort of task can also be used to probe contextual understanding in non-verbal children by pairing, for example, the frog with “green” or “pink.”  Even greater complexity can be tested by presenting sentences with errors in syntax. When heard by children who understand language, these syntax errors generate the same kind of brain potential.

Dr. Benasich and her colleagues developed a training protocol to get the children comfortable with the application and wearing of the EEG net as well as exposing them to all of the concepts presented in the experiment. The results revealed some similarities and some differences in the processing of sensory stimuli in the non-verbal children and this is not unexpected as they continue analyzing these data and also new data on older non-verbal children.

However the real power of using EEG techniques for assessing cognitive capacity is that it can tell us for an individual what we cannot get from standardized cognitive tests. Dr. Benasich presented results from individuals, some of whom were picking up the mismatches in the pictures and sounds, or sentence errors and some of whom did not.

This was the launching point for the next presentation from John Connolly, Ph.D., of Mc Master University. Dr. Connolly typically studies individuals who suffered traumatic brain injury and must be assessed to appropriately design rehabilitative therapy. He and his colleagues adapted a standard test for word comprehension called the Peabody Picture Vocabulary test (PPVT) into a tool that can be used by measuring brainwaves – no oral or manual response required. A grant from Autism Speaks allowed him to adapt his methods to work with non-verbal individuals with autism. By learning exactly what these non-responsive adolescents can and cannot understand, one can more appropriately design therapies to help them move to the next stage of learning.

Nicole Gage, Ph.D. of UC Irvine relayed her studies of both speech and sound processing in minimally-verbal children with autism using a different brain measurement tool called magnetoencephalography or MEG. One advantage of MEG for children is that nothing actually touches the child during the measurement. Although they must lie very still, there is no noise and the device resembles a fancy salon hair dryer. Using this technology, Dr. Gage and her colleagues are finding differences in very early in brain processing responses to tones and mature early in human development. These responses occur at the level of the auditory brainstem and may be at least partially responsible for the atypically responses measured to both tone and speech sounds observed by both Dr. Gage and other researchers at the later stages of brain processing in auditory cortex.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Connie Kasari, Ph.D., of UCLA and the organizer of this special session presented her Autism Speaks-funded treatment research specially tailored for non-verbal children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. Dr. Kasari uses structured play-based methods to build a scaffold and provide context for encouraging communication in these children. Her randomized controlled trial design encompasses treatment sites at UCLA, Vanderbilt, and Kennedy Krieger and involves the play based therapy especially designed for these children and also a treatment arm that includes an alternative and augmentative communication device. Dr. Kasari showed data from the group thus far – after three months of the six-month treatment trial. Not only are some individual children making incredible strides toward initiating functional communication, but overall 75% of the children in the study are responding to the therapy. Interestingly, looking back at the detailed assessments taken on the participating children upon their entry into the study no particular features distinguished the responders from the non-responders thus far.

These studies break new ground in reaching those with autism who cannot speak. However, the next steps will almost certainly be the most exciting. As more researchers and clinicians learn about these studies and are able to take advantage of the results presented, we will be better able to understand and assist individuals who are now non-verbal. These sentiments were perhaps captured best in the enthusiastic response the speakers received from the loved ones of those affected.

5|25: Celebrating Five Years of Autism Science Day 20: Later Language Acquisition in Nonverbal Individuals with Autism

February 20, 2010 Leave a comment

In honor of the anniversary of Autism Speaks’ founding on Feb 25, for the next 25 days we will be sharing stories about the many significant scientific advances that have occurred during our first five years together. Our 20th item, Later Language Acquisition in Nonverbal Individuals with Autism, is from Autism Speaks’ Top 10 Autism Research Events of 2009.

A common belief of many parents and clinicians is that, if a child with ASD has not developed communicative speech by 5 years of age, the prognosis for future development of speech is extremely poor. In 2009 scientists challenged this belief by conducting a comprehensive review of the research literature to search for reports of individuals who were reported to have acquired speech at age 5 or older. Remarkably, one-hundred sixty-seven such cases were identified, changing the way in which we view language development in individuals with ASD.Early theories of brain development held that the period before age 5 represents a unique time in development during which language acquisition is possible, a critical period for language. Yet, recent longitudinal neuroimaging research has shown that the brain has a prolonged development, with major changes occurring during adolescence, and we now know that the capacity for neural generation extends even into adulthood. While the field of neuroscience has revised its notions of neuroplasticity and development accordingly, the field of ASD has held onto the notion of an early critical period for language acquisition. This paper published in the Journal of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, however, provides a very different perspective.

The authors identified in the published literature 167 individuals with ASD who used speech for the first time after age 5. Many of these children had been offered language intervention based on either traditional or naturalistic applied behavior analysis during the elementary school years, with the intensity of intervention ranging from 30 minutes/week to 30 hour/week. Others had been taught sign language or provided with Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) training, computer-based training, or speech-language therapy. Children who developed phrase speech were found to have been in treatment longer than those who only achieved single word speech. In virtually all cases, significant time and effort put into treatment was necessary for speech to develop. According to their records, many of these children learned to “use phrases,” “answer simple questions,” “make spontaneous requests,” use “complete sentences,” and “speak in spontaneous, complex sentences.”

Although the age at which speech developed was variable (ranging from 6-12 years), once the child began speaking, subsequent improvement was often quite rapid. This suggests that achieving initial sound production and words can provide an important springboard for the development of subsequent speech. This important paper offers hope for the many children who have not yet developed speech by age 5, dispelling the belief that older individuals with ASD cannot respond well to speech interventions and providing a much more positive prognosis for individuals with ASD.

Did you know?: Autism Speaks’ High Risk High Impact Initiative chose “non-verbal” autism as one of its high priority research areas and has funded several grants in the area, including a novel treatment intervention to develop communication skills in non-verbal children over the age of five (to read more, please click here).  Autism Speaks also partnered with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to assemble a group of experts focusing on language, development, and autism to evaluate the efficacy of treatment interventions that target acquisition of spoken language.  This resulted in a consensus set of recommended measures published in the Journal of Speech-Language-Hearing Research.  These measures define benchmarks for determining a child’s language level and will be used to establish a framework for comparing outcomes across intervention studies.

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