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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?

Autism Speaks and the Movement for Global Mental Health

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Posted by Andy Shih, PhD, Autism Speaks vice president of scientific affairs, and Michael Rosanoff, MPH, associate director of public health research and scientific review

On our return from South Africa, we’d like to share with you–our community–the inspiration we drew from the Second Summit of the Movement for Global Mental Health, of which Autism Speaks is a proud member.

The summit convened in Cape Town on October 17th to continue the work of delivering mental health services to the 90 percent of the world population who have no access to such care. Many of these persons—including tens of millions of children and adults with autism—suffer tremendous social stigma and human rights abuse. To see a photo of a child chained to a tree is heart-breaking, but it galvanizes us to this cause.

The movement’s first summit, hosted in Athens in 2009, highlighted the global crisis in mental health services. During that first meeting, it became clear that the tremendous treatment gap between rich and poor communities was not due to lack of effective therapies. Rather, it stemmed from social, economic and policy barriers to delivering services.

Since then, the Movement for Global Mental Health has grown into an international coalition of 95 institutions and more than 1,700 individuals in over 100 countries—all dedicated to improving access to mental health care and promoting the human rights of people affected by neurodevelopmental disorders or mental illness.

Autism Speaks has taken an active role in this mission with our Global Autism Public Health initiative (GAPH), which has already helped create and support culturally and economically appropriate, sustainable programs for autism awareness, services and research in countries such as Albania, Bangladesh and South Africa.

This year’s Movement for Global Mental Health Summit emphasized the need for both scientific research and action on the ground to determine the best ways to deliver and enhance services in underserved communities. Though the need for such models is particularly dire in low- and middle-income nations, they are also desperately needed in many of our own disadvantaged communities.

Here in North America, we’ve learned the humbling lesson that autism intervention programs that deliver wonderful results in sophisticated, academic settings don’t necessarily work in the hands of overburdened teachers, healthcare professionals and social workers, many of whom lack expertise or professional support in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). As economies continue to stagnate and more families slip into poverty, challenges such as lack of awareness and access to care will only worsen.

This year’s summit also coincided with the publication of The Lancet’s second special issue on global mental health. We take special pride in the commentary “A Renewed Agenda for Global Mental Health,” written by Vikram Patel, one of our funded scientists and a professor of epidemiology and population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (The Lancet offers open access to Prof Patel’s and other articles in this series with free registration.)

Today, we have cause to celebrate the emerging global recognition that “there is no health without mental health.” In moving forward, we and the other members of the Movement for Global Mental Health see tremendous potential in achieving resolution in three major areas:

1)     In striking a balance between global and local priorities in research and service development—with the recognition that each is needed to inform and advance the other

2)      In balancing the need to develop new and more effective treatments with the need to understand and address the social barriers that exist to delivering such care to all who need it

3)     In continuing to pursue cutting edge research to benefit tomorrow’s children without neglecting the needs of the children and adults who are suffering today

For us, these resolutions embody the mission of Autism Speaks science: To improve the lives of all who struggle with ASDs by funding research and developing resources that will accelerate the discovery, development and dissemination of methods for effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

[As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts. In addition to leaving a comment, you can email the science team at gotquestions@autismspeaks.org.]

How common are seizures among people with autism, and what can help?

August 5, 2011 33 comments

Back by popular demand: The “Got Questions?” feature of the Autism Speaks Science blog. Today’s answer comes from… 

Roberto Tuchman, MD, director of the autism program at Miami Children’s Hospital, and a member of the Autism Speaks scientific advisory committee; and

Michael Rosanoff, MPH, Autism Speaks associate director of public health research and scientific review.

Seizures are indeed more common in both children and adults on the autism spectrum. Independently, autism and epilepsy (seizures of unknown cause), each occur in around 1 percent of the general population. But epilepsy rates among those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), range from 20 to 40 percent, with the highest rates among those most severely impaired by autism.  Conversely, about 5 percent of children who develop epilepsy in childhood go on to develop autism.

Autism and epilepsy share many similarities. Both exist on a spectrum—that is, the severity varies widely among those affected. In addition, a number of different abnormal genes are associated with increased risk of developing one or both disorders.

Importantly to families of children affected by both autism and epilepsy, we know that the combination is often associated with overall poor health and premature death.  So development of effective therapies is critically important. This goal begins with increasing our understanding of the shared brain networks, genes, and other biological mechanisms that underlie these two conditions.  Autism Speaks is currently partnering with the International League against Epilepsy and Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy to further this research.

At present the treatment of epilepsy in children with autism is based on the same principles as treatment of epilepsy in any child. Should parents suspect that their child is suffering seizures, the first step is to work with a pediatric neurologist to obtain a brain study called an electroencephalogram (EEG), which can determine if these events are indeed seizures. Treatment usually involves an antiepileptic drugs, which the treating physician chooses based on the type of seizure and the associated EEG patterns—to both maximize effectiveness and minimize side effects.  By themselves, anti-epileptic drugs fail to resolve seizures in around a third of patients. Such difficult-to-control cases sometimes respond to a so-called ketogenic diet (high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate) and/or brain surgery.

Autism Speaks has more information on autism and epilepsy here. Got another question for our scientists and clinicians? Please post it in the comment section.

Inspired: Vision of a Nation, Declaration of a Region, Inspiration for Us All

Post and photos by Michael Rosanoff, MPH, associate director public health research & scientific review

Through the Global Autism Public Health Initiative, our aim is to empower local communities to seek out and protect the human rights and public health of their fellow citizens with autism. This includes cultivating more compassionate societies by enhancing autism awareness, building autism health services to improve access to early diagnosis and intervention, and improving scientific understanding of the prevalence and causes of autism around the world. None of this can be accomplished without collaboration, and every part of this mission can yield benefits to communities beyond those where the efforts are taking place.

In an extraordinary demonstration of collaboration, government representatives from eleven South Asian countries participated in the Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia and unanimously adopted the “Dhaka Declaration” to the United Nations.

While the Dhaka Declaration provides a roadmap for cooperative autism activities in South Asia, its implications reach far beyond the region. Whether it is written in English or Bangla, whether you are reading it here in the US or abroad, the language is universal and the message is clear–together we can change the future for all who struggle with autism and developmental disabilities.

Below are selected excerpts from the Dhaka Declaration, accompanied by some of the images I captured while visiting schools, hospitals, and centers for individuals with autism and developmental disabilities in Dhaka City and its rural outskirts. It is my hope that the following will shed new light and offer a clearer perspective on why the global work that Autism Speaks supports is critically important, not only to autism communities in Bangladesh and South Asia, but to the global autism community as a whole. It is my hope that these words and these images touch you as they touched me.

Inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant international human rights instruments …

Reiterating the provisions of Constitutions of our respective countries safeguarding against discrimination and social exclusion of people on grounds of any disability or condition…


Concerned that, despite increasing evidence documenting the effectiveness of early interventions in improving the overall functioning of the child and long-term outcomes, children and families in need often have poor access to services and do not receive adequate treatment and care …


Deeply concerned at the prevalence and high rate of autism in all societies and regions and its consequent developmental challenges to long-term health care, education and training as well as its tremendous impact on communities and societies…


Recalling that children with developmental disorders and their families often face major challenges associated with stigma, isolation and discrimination as well as a lack of access to health care and education facilities…

Recalling further that even the basic human rights of children and adults with developmental disorders are often abused, in many cases in flagrant violation of existing UN declarations and treaties…

Inspired further by a vision that all individuals with autism and developmental disorders ought to receive adequate and equal opportunities to enjoy health, achieve their optimal developmental potential and quality of life, and participate in society…

(We) Adopt this Declaration with the objective of promoting stronger and coordinated actions in the region and globally towards the improvement of access and quality of health care services for individuals with autism and developmental disorders.

We invite you to read the full Dhaka Declaration and the news announcement by Michael, Andy, and Dana here.

A Message from Geri on Bangladesh

July 29, 2011 5 comments

Dear all,

I thought you might enjoy seeing a few highlights from Andy Shih and Michael Rosanoff’s recent efforts in Bangladesh. This is a country where resources are very low, and there is a great need to protect the rights and improve the treatment of people with autism.  Yet despite few resources, this country is stepping up to improve services for all people with autism in their country.  Saima Wazed Hossain from Bangladesh remarked at a recent United Nations meeting that, if Bangladesh can tackle the challenges of autism, any country can.  Indeed, it was Bangladesh that co-sponsored the UN conference that brought together leaders from many countries, the WHO, and key White House staff to focus on the needs of people with autism.

Andy and Michael, with the help of several experts from the US, are providing technical assistance and helping galvanize the Bangladesh government and other leaders to improve the lives of people with ASD.  What is noteworthy is that this effort requires very little in terms of money from Autism Speaks but can have a transformational effect on an entire country.

All best,
Geri Dawson, Chief Science Officer

Autism Conference Ends with High Hopes

The landmark autism conference ended in the city yesterday as its chief architect, Saima Wazed Hossain, hoped that the two-day meet would generate new hopes among the families in and outside the country. Read more …

Call for quality healthcare for persons with autism

An international conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Development Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia adopted the “7-point Dhaka Declaration,” with a call for promoting stronger coordinated actions in the region and globally. Read more …

Autism Meeting Ends with ‘Great Response’

The two-day international conference on autism concluded on Tuesday with pledges from the World Health Organization to support Bangladesh in autism care. Read more …

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