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
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common among those with autism, and in many cases, they relate to overly restricted eating habits. This is understandable as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are commonly associated with gastrointestinal problems and sensory issues with food textures and smells. It is also possible that the underlying biology of autism may cause deficiencies in the digestion of certain foods, which could affect vitamin intake. For example, a recent study documented that some children with autism and gastrointestinal disturbances have impaired carbohydrate digestion.
Normal growth and good health depend on the body absorbing and metabolizing the vitamins and minerals that are part of a well-rounded diet. In addition, studies have identified several examples of nutrient deficiencies affecting thinking and behavior – for example, the ability to focus or stay alert in school. Also, nutrient deficiencies such as those involving omega 3 fatty acids may worsen behavioral symptoms such as irritability and hyperactivity. As such, it’s entirely possible that taking supplements may improve such symptoms in some individuals with ASD – especially if the individual has clinical or laboratory evidence of low levels of crucial vitamins, minerals or other nutrients.
In recent years, researchers have looked deeper into how well particular vitamins, minerals and nutritional supplements lessen the severity or intensity of core autism symptoms – namely communication difficulties, social challenges and repetitive behavior. The results of these clinical studies have been mixed.
One recent large study examined the effect of an over-the-counter supplement called Syndion on 141 children and adults with autism, as compared to the effects of a placebo pill. The researchers reported that the product effectively raised levels of vitamins and minerals in the blood. They also showed that it produced no significant side effects during the 12-week study. The study did not demonstrate meaningful improvements in autism symptoms according to three out of the four assessment tools used. It did, however, show modest but statistically significant improvements on a fourth measure (the Parental Global Impressions-Revised questionnaire) in terms of hyperactivity, tantrums and receptive language.
When interpreting the meaningfulness of these results, readers may take note that the two lead authors were also the developers of the commercial product being tested.
Despite the limitations of this study, it raises important questions as to whether vitamins may be helpful in addressing the core symptoms of autism. It is important to continue supporting research that will provide parents and individuals with clear answers about the value of vitamins, minerals and other nutritional supplements in ASD. Autism Speaks is currently funding several projects to this end, including a new study investigating the possible role of carnitine deficiency in some individuals with ASD. (Carnitine is a nutrient used by cells to process fats and produce energy. It is abundant in red meat and dairy products, but some individuals appear to have difficulties absorbing and/or metabolizing it.)
If you are worried that you or your child may have a nutritional deficiency, supplements may be a good option to consider. It is important that you consult with your doctor about brands and dosages. Supplements vary in quality and potency, and some may have harmfully excessive levels of certain vitamins, minerals or other ingredients.
Please join us next month (March 1st) and every first Thursday at 3 pm Eastern. Look for the “Live Chat” tab in the left column of our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/autismspeaks
|2:57||Hi Everyone! This is Dr. Dawson. We will be getting started in just a minute or so. We are glad you are here.|
|2:59||Hi – this is Dr. Horrigan – I’m here , too – thanks for attending today’s ‘office hours’|
|3:02||Advance question from Lisa, teacher of students with ASD: I have heard a few things…completely rumors…about how gluten-free diets affect those with autism. What are the affects, positive or negative, if any. Thanks!|
|3:02||Lisa: This is Dr. Horrigan. Yes, for some youngsters with autism, gluten-free diets can be helpful, but it is a minority rather than a majority that benefit, and it is usually youngsters that have a specific family history of GI problems and difficulties with food sensitivities, including more explicit problems like Celiac sprue related to gluten. It is worth having a discussion with the child’s physician about the potential utility of elimination diets (like gluten-free) if the youngster has persistent gastrointestinal problems and the family is motivated to shift (oftentimes the whole household, to assure the child’s adherence) to the specialized diet. The participants have to watch out, though, because it is relatively easy to become deficient in some essential vitamins and minerals if a rigorous elimination diet is pursued – so supplementing with essential vitamins and minerals would be important, too.|
|3:05||Hi Tina, There are some good books that offer strategies for teaching children with autism to use the toilet. Here is one suggestion: http://www.amazon.com/Toilet-Training-Individuals-Autism-Developmental/dp/1932565493 . We will be posting a tool kit on toileting on our website soon so keep your eyes out for that. YOu might also want to check with your behavior therapist, if you have one, who can develop a behavioral plan for teaching toileting.|
|3:07||Hi Cara – this is Dr. Horrigan – Intuniv (guanfacine) is becoming more popular. It is formally indicated for the treatment of ADHD, and it is often helpful in combination with stimulant medicines like Ritalin or Adderall. But it can be helpful on its own to soften difficulties with impulsivity and excesive emotional outbursts. It doesn’t work for everyone, though, and it has its own unique side effects, especially if the dose is too ambitious (e.g. sedation/sleepiness/fatigue, headache, and there is even a potential for decreased blood pressure). So it needs to be taken under a doctor’s supervision. Definitive studies in the area of autism have yet to be completed at the time of this writing, but they should be forthcoming.|
|3:08||Dear everyone, Many of you have had questions about the new revisions to the diagnostic criteria for autism. Below is our policy statement on this issue which describes the issues that we all are concerned about and what Autism Speaks is doing to ensure that the revision doesn’t end up excluding people from obtaining the services they need.|
|3:09||Autism Speaks Statement on Revisions to the DSM Definition of Autism Spectrum DisorderAutism Speaks is concerned that planned revisions to the definition of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may restrict diagnoses in ways that may deny vital medical treatments and social services to some people on the autism spectrum. These revisions concern the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), scheduled for publication in spring 2013.We have voiced our concerns and will continue to directly communicate with the DSM-5 committee to ensure that the proposed revision does not discriminate against anyone living with autism. While the committee has stated that its intent is to better capture all who meet current diagnostic criteria, we have concluded that the real-life impact of the revisions has, to date, been insufficiently evaluated.Autism Speaks is committing substantial effort and resources to fund definitive research to ensure that the final definition of ASD meets the following criteria:1. Assures that all those who struggle with autism symptoms receive the treatment, services and benefits they need, without discrimination;2. Affirms that ASD can be a lifelong diagnosis, while allowing for treatment and services to change with an individual’s evolving needs;
3. Supports the importance of early ASD diagnosis and treatment as essential for helping individuals achieve their best possible outcomes and avoids creating barriers.
As the proposed diagnostic criteria are evaluated over the course of 2012, Autism Speaks will be working with leading experts in the field as well as community stakeholders to evaluate the potential impact of the DSM revision on our community and to ensure that all necessary adjustments be made to assure access to vital treatment and social support resources for all those who struggle with the symptoms of autism.
At the same time, we will actively serve as an informational resource and advocate for all members of our community, as they seek to make their needs known and understand how the evolving changes will affect them and their families.
|3:11||Dear Nancy, This is Dr. Dawson. Does your adult daughter have significant problems with social interaction, such as problems with eye contact, difficulties forming friendships, or trouble with conversational skills? Does your daughter have overly focused interests or engage in repetitive behaviors? If so, she may have an autism spectrum disorder. Having a diagnosis may open the door to services that could help. Check the following link to find resources in your area:|
|3:12||Dear Guest at 3:02 – Yes- please just submit your question.|
|3:14||Dear Tina, A child with autism can also have dyslexia, that is, trouble with reading. It is important that you have your son evaluated by a person who has expertise with dyslexia so that you can provide treatment for his reading difficulties along with treatments for his autism.|
|3:16||Dear Linnea – this is Dr. Horrigan – I am assuming that SPD refers to “sensory processing disorder”, is this correct? There is a suite of specialized, hands-on tests that occupational therapists use to diagnose under- or overactivity to sensory stimulation, whether it is touch or heat/cold or sound, etc. I agree with you that it can be difficult to disentangle sensory prcessing problems from free-standing difficulties with anxiety. A lot of times it is important to determine if there is a high risk of anxiety disorders in an individual with autism based on one’s family history of anxiety, in which case, behavioral and medocation treatments (e.g. SSRIs like Zoloft/sertraline) can be really helpful, and you can get more traction from the desensitization techniques used by occupational therapists (e.g. brushing, as one example).|
|3:18||Hi Lori, This is Dr. Dawson. Some parents report that a GFCF diet can help even though specific GI symptoms are not present. If you decide to try a GFCF diet, be sure to have someone who doesn’t know whether or not your child is on the diet keep a record of your child’s behavior (such as your child’s teacher). This way, you can objectively determine if it is helping. Also, check with your pediatrician about monitoring your child’s nutritional intake to make sure he or she is getting the nutrients your child needs.|
|3:21||Dear Sandhya, This is Dr. Dawson. The diagnosis of autism is made on the basis of behavior observations. There are no specific lab tests for autism. Once a child has been determined to have autism, based on behavior, your doctor would want to order specific genetic tests to determine if there is a genetic cause. Other lab tests are sometimes ordered. If you have concerns about your child’s eating, you should talk to your child’s pediatrician. Autism is often associated with difficulties in eating, such as food allergies and food sensitivities.|
|3:24||Dear Guest – this is Dr. Horrigan – that must be very stressful, having such unpredictably as to when your son will/won’t eat. It would be good to know exactly where your son is on the CDC growth charts, and what sort of medical workup has ben done so far. . I think at CHOP they will start off with straightforward things like a flat plate x-ray of your son’s abdomen (it’s painless) and they will obtain a comprehensive dietary history. They will also look at what runs in the family (e.g. things like Celiac sprue, irritable bowel, etc.). If there is specific evidence for a malabsorbtion syndrome, they will do more intensive things. They may also have to look more specifically at endocrine issues which usually means some blood tests (the blood volume they draw isn’t too bad, and they shoudl use topical anethetics or numbing meds) and they may also want to do an MRI (e.g of your son’s head), which is challenging because it can be loud and long and he will have to keep still – often means sedation has to be used.|
|3:25||Dear Enid, This is Dr. Dawson. The Autism Speaks website is full of information and resources, including a list of books on different topics. Look under “What is Autism” and “Family Services” for information. I really like Lynn Koegal’s book – Overcoming Autism.|
|3:27||Dear everyone, I notice that there are many questions about GI problems, constipation, toileting, and eating. On our next webchat (next month), we will have a gasteroenterologist with expertise in autism on this webchat so we can provide more detailed information. Autism is commonly associated with Gi problems and it is important that these be addressed by a gasteroenterologist. These problems can interfere with a child’s ability to learn and behave well.|
|3:30||Dear Guest – this is Dr. Horrigan – I may have missed the first part of the question or the discussion thread about bed-wetting. But what comes to mind is that there are basic behavioral manuevers that can be helpful (e.g. humane versions of fluid restriction before bed, and also humane use of bell and pad/alarm techniques – the latter can be tricky). It is also important to make sure tht he is not constipated as this can cause overflow incontinence even at night. There are some meds that can precipitate enuresis (e.g I am thinking of unpredictable responses to meds given at nightime like risperidone and some of the SSRIs), so you have to make sure that you are not dealing with a medicine side efect. That said, it is possible that other meds like DDAVP pills (0.2 to 0.4 mg) or low-dose imipramine (25 mg or less) can be really helpful if the bed-wetting is really causing a lot of distress.|
|3:31||Dear Jill, This is Dr. Dawson. Sleep problems are very common in children with autism. On February 14th, Autism Speaks will be releasing a new tool kit for families and providers on how to address sleep problems in children with autism. Check back on our website on the 14th. I think you will find it very helpful. We are funding many studies on sleep, including treatment studies.|
|3:35||Dear Joshua, This is Dr. Dawson. It is useful to understand what is the function of the delayed echolalia for your son. Is it a way of communicating his needs and wants? If so, then modeling a simple phase for him to use instead of the echoed response (ideally, that uses part of his response) and having him repeat the appropriate phase before getting what he wants may help. Is it a repetitive behavior? Distraction and involvement in other activities could be useful. Is it a sign of anxiety? Then, addressing the source of anxiety can help. It is true that echolalia does tend to naturally decrease as functional language develops.|
|3:38||Dear Lisa, This is Dr. Dawson. Many children with tubersclerosis also have autism and it is important that both diagnoses are made. This will allow your child to receive specific interventions to address the symptoms of autism (e.g. social impairments) that not all children with TSC have.|
|3:38||Dear Lori – this is Dr. Horrigan – does your son have an IEP or 504 plan that includes the classic accomodations for indivduals with ADHD? I am thinking about the use of a carrel, as needed, and the proactive use of verbal cues as transitions occur in the classroom, as well as electronic desktop cueing devices triggered by the teacher or assistnat. In terms of meds, I know how you feel, in terms of your wariness, although sometimes you can get great benefit from the judiciosus and thoughtful use of stimulants, with the knowledge that each person has unique responses to each of the stimulant formuations/preprations (e.g. it is not just about Adderall or just about Ritalin, there are a whole range of choices), and this is important because soemtimes a youngster with HFA can get a very significant effect/benefit from a low dose of a carefully chosen med|
|3:40||Advance question from Pamela: My question is…is there any link between taking antidepressants while pregnant (2nd & 3rd trimester)(SSRI) and autism in the newborn child?|
|3:41||Hi Pamela. This is Dr. Dawson. We have written previously on this topic, and I refer you to that blog (link below). This is a question you should discuss with your physician because each woman’s situation is different in terms of weighing the risk and benefits.
|3:42||Dear Kathleen, Some children with autism have sensory integration dysfunction but not all do. Children with autism tend to have more significant difficulties in social interaction (e.g. eye contact, forming friendships, interactive play) and also have repetitive behaviors. You should have your son evaluated by a doctor with expertise in autism to better understand his diagnosis. You can check on this link for resources in your area:|
|3:45||Advance question from Andrew: Where can we find career guidance in the autism research field?
I’m a 24 year old patient advocate. After spending 3 months on a Nation Outdoor Leader School trip in India, on which I watched a classmate pass away, I have a renewed sense of responsibility to my community. How can I help? I want to start getting my undergraduate degree this semester, despite the deadlines having been passed for applications (I just got home from India). I want to know where I should start, what types of paths are open to me, and other ways that I can help.
|3:46||Dear Andrew. This is Dr. Dawson. There are many ways to get involved! You can volunteer at a local program for children with disabilities, become an advocate (see Autism Votes LINK), join a walk for Autism Speaks (LINK), or get involved with other college students (Autism Speaks U LINK). You can find the local groups who are providing early autism intervention services and train to be a therapist. There are many career options including becoming a clinician (physician, psychologist, occupational therapy, speech-language therapist), a teacher, a scientist, or lawyer, to name a few. It truly takes a village to support people with autism and other disabilities. I’m glad you are eager to help.HERE ARE THE LINKS:
Autism Speaks U:http://events.autismspeaks.org/site/c.nuLTJ6MPKrH/b.4385867/k.BF59/Home.htm
|3:48||Dear Melissa, Children with Asperger syndrome are often helped by behavioral interventions that focus on social skills training. There are also interventions (Cognitive behavioral therapy) that can help with anxiety which is common among children with Asperger syndrome. Anger/emotion-regulation is often a challenge. Again, there are behavioral strategies that can be used to teach your son to better manage and appropriately express his feelings. Clinical psychologists are typically well-trained in these therapeutic methods. You should check in your area for a clinical psychologist who works with children and/or chidlren with Asperger syndrome and also check out the resources in your area on this link:|
|3:49||Hey everyone: When we posted the link to the resource “library” earlier, we meant THIS link to the resource “Guide.” Here it is again: http://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/resource-guide|
|3:52||Dear Trish – this is Dr. Horrigan. I know it is very very tough to have a child that awakens frequently duirng the middle of the night. It will get better, I promise you, although it may take time. Behavioral contributions are always important to look at. One thing to think about is whether there are unitended reinforcers (rewards) that are occurring on a behavioral level that might be reinforcing her middle-of-the-night awakening (inlcudes letting her get in bed with you after she awakens). I am sure you have already thought about this. The other issue is whether she is accustomed to only a very specific set of cues (e.g. a CD with lullabies playing as a backdrop), associated with being able to fall asleep initially, that can be readjusted. In terms of meds, melatonin only helps with sleep onset, not continuity of sleep (staying asleep) and it shouldn’t be given during the middle of the night (e.g. after midnight) – it can make things worse the next night if it is given that way, because it can distrub the individual’s circadian rhythm. I would have a consultation with a sleep specialist, if you can do that, and this will allow you to discuss other medication possibilites that may be more effective with middle-of-the-night awakenings such as off-label miniscule doses of trazodone or mirtazepine or doxepin, although these meds for a 3 y.o. require a sleep specilist to be involved. You also could get some good behavioral tips from a sleep specilaist that are tailored to your daughter’s unique sleep habits. By the way, on February 14th, we will put up on our web site a “tool kit” on sleep hygiene that I think will be very helpful to parents.|
|3:54||Hello Guest at 3:12. This is Dr. Dawson. Is it not common for a child with autism to engage in self-stimulatory behavior when he is nervous, upset, excited, frustrated, or even just wishes to communicate something. It would be helpful to try to understand what is the function of the visual stims. You can do some detective work by recording when it happens and then making a guess what the function is. If your child is trying to communicate something (e.g. This is exciting! or I don’t like this) then you can model for your child the appropriate behavior. If the function of the behavior is to calm himself, then using other ways of calming your child may help. The fact that your child stims when asked to do a task suggest that he might be telling you that the task is either something he doesn’t like or alternatively something he is excited about. If he doesn’t seem to like the task, consider ways of changing the task to make it more appealing (easier, broken into smaller parts).|
|4:00||Dear Stephanie – this is Dr. Horrigan – I think they probabaly meant “slowing” rather than “sluggishess”, with regard to the wave length frequency of the most common waves seen on your daughter’s EEG. It is not a very specific finding, frankly. It would depend on whether the slowing is localized to a specific part of her brain, or if it is generalized (all over), to know if it is a patten that is clinically meaningful and amenable to treatment (e.g. medicines, like anti-seizure meds). . Slowing is associated nonspecifically with developmental and intellectual disabilites, and may (or may not) be associated with a future risk of seizures. Seizures are diagnosed clinically, by the way (e.g. by observing them directly in the affected individual). Enriching your daughter’s daily life with diffenet types of sensory stimulation (presuming she can tolerate this) and behavioral therapies (e.g. ABA) can also be associated with the lessening of EEG slowing, and rehabilitation, in general .|
|4:01||Dear Lori, As your son gets older, he may be developing a stronger sense of what he like and doesn’t like and now has the ability to express himself. So, that may be part of what you are seeing. You mentioned, however, that he is also showing some symptoms of anxiety and it makes me wonder whether your son’t increase in rigidity might be a part of an anxiety disorder. Autism is often associated with anxiety symptoms. I would encourage you to have him evaluated by a child psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. There are specific interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, that can help. In addition, medications are often helpful.|
|4:03||Advance question from Krista
My 14 yo son has a diagnosis of Asperger’s. Last year he had his brain mapped with an EEG, and subsequently did 16 weeks of neurofeedback therapy. My son has done many, many therapies over the years, and neurofeedback was the first (other than speech articulation) that seemed to make any difference. His interest in engaging with others and his ability to socialize successfully increased. His executive function skills improved. Family members and others, including his music therapist, noticed as well–even his guitar playing improved noticeably. What does the research say about neurofeedback in ASD individuals? Is this an area of research you are funding?
|4:03||Krista: This is Dr. Horrigan. It’s really great that your son is doing so much better, and if neurofeedback played an important role in getting him there, then I think that is wonderful. There are some small studies that have reported positive results with neurofeedback in individuals with autism, with success rates ranging from 1 in 4 to 4 out of 5. But it is not clear to me if publication bias is playing a role (e.g. only the positive studies get written up and published). My experience has been closer to the 1 in 4 success rate, and success seems to be very dependent upon the expertise and charisma of the trainer, the commitment of the family, and the level of disability of the individual with autism (lesser levels of disability seem to be associated with greater probability of improvement with multiple rounds of neurofeedback). It is also expensive, and it can be very tough to get insurance to pay for it, so that is a pragmatic consideration. If a family wants to pursue neurofeedback for their loved one, I would recommend working with the neurofeedback therapist to articulate a very clear idea of what success needs to look like, even after the first 5 sessions, so that they can get out early, before having to spend too much money, if the ultimate likelihood of success looks like it is going to be limited. One important upside of neurofeedback, when it does work, is that the rates of sustained improvement are quite good and success can be sustained with periodic ‘booster’ sessions|
|4:06||Dear Shelly – this is Dr. Horrigan – there is decent evidence that a subset of kids (with or without autism) are senstiive to artifical food colors and dyes. Some red, yellow and blue dyes are especially likely to have this type of association in susceptible individuals. Oftentimes, after incidents like the one that you described (the vomiting), the only way to get close to a definive answer for your child is to scrupulously eliminate that potentially offensive color (e.g. that red dye, in this instance) and then see if things settle down for your son. I know it is a hassle because red food dye/color is failry ubiquitous, all over the place in foods that we all eat, but it is worth trying to get it out of your son’s diet to the extent that you can, to test out your theory. You could be right.|
|4:08||Advance question from Jolanta:
Hello. My son who is 6 years old is autistic. We live in the United Kingdom. We are considering having another child, but afraid of a possibility that a new child would develop autism. What are the chances? I’m 39 so I need to decide soon. Thank you.
|4:09||Hi, Jolanta. This is Dr. Dawson. In the past year, there was a new study that was published that examined the risk for autism spectrum disorder in younger siblings. Although each individual family’s situation is unique, at a population level, the overall risk of a sibling of a child with autism developing the disorder is about 19%. We have summarized the new information on risk rates and had a webchat specifically devoted to that topic. I hope you find this information useful.
Here are the two links:
|4:11||Advance question from Desray: Hi my son is 5 an half yrs old. He’s stll in nappies and I’m finding it very hard to get him out of them. The problem I’m havin is that,he nows how to wee in the toilet but he does not want to put underpants or shorts on after his visit to the loo. I’m realy having a hard time dealing with this disorder. He’s my only child and I’m scared for him. I would also like to no if Risperdal or Ritalin is ok for Autistic kids to take. Sometimes Jose has some serious meltdowns sometimes and I feel like I need to give him something. Plse help. I’m from South Africa where we don’t have much assistance. Thank u for all that yull do. God Bless.|
|4:12||Dear Desray, This is Dr. Dawson. It is terrific that your son is now able to wee in the toilet. That is half the battle! I suggest that you create a series of pictures (these can be photos, drawings, or clippings from magazines) that illustrates the series of steps involved in going to the loo. This would include not only weeing in the toilet, but also pulling up his pants, washing his hands, and so on.Below is a link that describes how to develop these visual supports. You should begin by giving him a reward (this can be a physical reward, praise, food, whatever he likes) after he wees in the toilet. Then, slowly add each new behavior over time, encouraging him to carry out the next step and then rewarding him. Over time, you can start to withdraw the amount of help you provide and rewards for each step as he becomes more capable of doing it on his own. Keep in mind that pulling on his underwear and shorts requires many skills – motor skills and thinking skills – so you may need to provide both the pictures and physical help for a while.Regarding your son’s meltdowns, you should start by keeping a record of when he has those meltdowns and see if you can figure out why. Is it because he is tired? Is there a specific activity or environment that is upsetting? Is he trying to ask for something but doesn’t know how? Use this information to make adjustments in his environment and routine to try to avoid the things that are upsetting. If he is frustrated because he is trying to request something, prompt him to use a more appropriate way of expressing his needs (he could point to a picture, touch what he wants, or say a simple word) and then immediately reward him for using the more appropriate behavior. Talk to your son’s teachers to see if they have suggestions too.Autism Speaks will soon be publishing a new tool kits for handling challenging behaviors – so keep looking on our website for that. We also have a tool kit that can help you decide whether you should consider medication (LINK below). It is best to see if behavioral strategies are effective before turning to medications.HERE ARE THE LINKS:
Visual supports tool kit:http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/resources-programs/autism-treatment-network/tools-you-can-use/visual-supports
Medication decision tool kit:http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/resources-programs/autism-treatment-network/tools-you-can-use/medication-guide
|4:14||Dear Mary – this is Dr. Horrigan – it sounds like your son is feeling a lot better and i am very grateful for that. In terms of what he is taking, the only thing that came to mind immediately is to make sure that he is not too overboard on the B6 (e.g. I usually go up to 100 mg, max). I would need to know the exact compostion of the Super B to give you a more sophisticated comment about other potential yellow/red lights. The Monster drinks are probably ‘benficial’ for your son due to their load of caffeine and sugar. I would rather he try coffee, if he really feels that needs that extra benefit provided by cafeine. Just being practical here…|
|4:15||Advance question from Mel:
Hi, I never done this before but I was wanting to ask a question. I have a 12 year old son with autism and a 4 year old daughter who I think has autism. We’ve had her tested and she shows a lot of autistic traits. I was told that because she can respond when they say hi, how are you, that she isn’t autistic at all. Is it possible that they misdiagnosed her? Should I try to find somewhere else to take her? Thank you.
|4:15||Dear Mel, This is Dr. Dawson. I’m glad you asked your question. If you feel that your daughter may have autism and the doctor you saw missed it, you should seek another opinion. Siblings of children with autism sometimes have difficulties in areas related to autism, such as social and language skills, without meeting full criteria for autism. Even if your daughter is found not to meet criteria for autism, she should receive help in the areas she has difficulty in, whether that is language, learning, or social behavior.|
|4:17||Advance question from BA Travis:
I am looking to see if there has been any research or if any of the Drs. would be able to tell me about links to high exposure to pharmaceuticals and ASD.
The background is while I was pregnant I was working in a pharmeceutical facility that manufactured over the counter cold and pain medications. I was exposed daily to high volumes of raw powdered chemicals. I asked to be transfered but was denied. We were required to ware dust masks when pouring the powdered materials but that was it. I had a healthy baby after over 20 hrs of labor but by 2.5 he was diagnosed with being high functioning Autistic. At 5 he is on par educationally for his age but tests at around 30 months for speech and has trouble with focusing on the task at hand. Before I left the company over a year ago an environmental quality manager was brought in to do air testing and before long all personel working in the same areas as I was were being required to ware tyvek suits with battery operated air respirators.
The thought has been in the back of my mind but not being able to find anything online on a link but after the drastic change in the way the employees now have to handle the product has brought that thought to the forefront.
|4:17||Dear BA Travis: This is Dr. Horrigan. While you have provided a limited amount of information here, it does sounds suspicious that the company changed its policy to require the use of specialized equipment by workers ostensibly to prevent hazardous exposure to something in the workplace. I would need to know specifically what chemicals that they had you handling, to have a more sophisticated insight into the potential relationship of in utero exposure to those chemicals and neurodevelopmental disorders. This is the type of inquiry that we are very interested in and we have funded and are funding several lines of research to help identify the relevant prenatal risk factors arising from the environment that are associated with autism.|
|4:19||Moderator’s note to BA Travis: You can send more info/reply after the chat to email@example.com.|
|4:20||Advance question from Vanessa:
My 7 year old son has been diagnosed with pdd-nos, anxiety and adhd. Currently he is having a hard time at school connecting with other children. He is obsessed with Hello Kitty and gets picked on by the kids in his class. Recently he is telling people he is a girl or that he wishes he was a girl. He is also introducing himself as his younger brother. I can kind of deal with all this but he seems to be increasingly aggressive lately and hurting himself. I am concerned because I am afraid he will really harm himself or another student. Is there anything I can do to help him? Usually he is pretty easy to work with and calm down but recently he just seems so angry. He is currently on a low dose of Zoloft and Intuniv.
|4:21||Vanessa: This is Dr. Horrigan. The first thing that question that came to my mind is whether there are any easily identifiable factors occurring in your son’s school environment that are causing him to feel so distressed. For example, I am worried that he may be getting bullied, perhaps by multiple classmates. And it may be sneaky bullying, it’s hard to tell. Either way, any type of bullying would be completely unacceptable. Have you had a chance to discuss the issue of triggers for his aberrant behavior with his teacher(s), and/or the Exceptional Children’s coordinator, and have you had a chance to observe him in the school setting yourself, to see what may be associated with his distress? I also wonder if they might be pushing him too hard, with regard to the curriculum. Again, it’s hard for me to say. You need more information from the people at school. In terms of the medications, I am not sure how long your son has been taking Zoloft and Intuniv, but both can cause paradoxical heightening of anxiety as well as paradoxical worsening of irritability (it is more common when first starting Intuniv, in my experience). If you suspect that the medications may be worsening things, then talk to your son’s doctor and discuss a trial off one or both of the medication(s).|
|4:24||Thank you all so much for joining us, and we’re sorry we weren’t able to get to all your questions. Please join us again next month, on March 1st, with your questions. We’re going to invite a gastroenterologist with expertise treating those with autism to address your many GI concerns. Thanks again and be well!Dr. Dawson and Dr. Horrigan|
Guest blog post from Autism Speaks Science Board Member John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s and Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian
According to a press release I received this morning, new research from Cold Spring Harbor Lab might help explain how a gene mutation found in some autistic individuals leads to difficulties in processing auditory cues and paying spatial attention to sound. [Editor’s note: See our related science news story on this Autism Speaks-funded study.]
The study found that when a gene called PTEN is deleted from auditory cortical neurons—the main workhorses of the brain’s sound-processing center—the signals that these neurons receive from local as well as long-distance sources are strengthened beyond normal levels. That’s the first interesting part of the study.
PTEN has been associated with autism in a number of previous studies. In particular, the PTEN variation has been found in autistic people with larger heads, and it’s suspected as a cause of both additional connectivity in the brain and additional brain cell growth.
How many of today’s autism population have a PTEN variation? Do you? No one knows. It’s one of many genes researchers are studying.
What I do know is that I have abnormal sensitivity to sound, as do many autistic people. Many of us are easily overwhelmed by noises that go unremarked by the rest of the population. For some time, I have realized my excess sensitivity is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it gave me powerful insight into music and facilitated my earlier career in rock and roll. On the other hand, it has often put me at a disadvantage as I’m rendered inoperative by what others see as ordinary situations.
It’s interesting to read that PTEN may be a cause of that difference. Understanding the genetic foundation of why that happens doesn’t do me much good, but the next part of the study might:
Researchers found that those can be blocked by rapamycin, a drug currently in use as an immunosuppressant. Rapamycin as an autism therapy has been studied before and found beneficial in some cases. This study is one of the first that sheds light on “why” and speaks to a specific mechanism by which we may be disabled.
Now that I’ve come to know many people on the spectrum, I realize I am one of a fortunate few who have significant sensory sensitivity without being disabled by it. The vast majority of autistic people who write about sensitivity do so in the context of disability. If there were a way to reduce sensory overload, I’m sure a number of folks on the spectrum today would like to hear about it.
One next step might be to see if rapamycin has the same effect in humans, and what other unforeseen effects it may have. Rapamycin has already been tried as a therapy in other contexts relating to autism. A targeted study that looked at the drug’s effect specifically on sensory overload would be very interesting.
It’s possible that this research illustrates a first step on the path to remediating a specific component of disability for many people on the spectrum. Much more testing will be needed to really know if that’s true, but it looks like a promising start.
My biggest concern is that rapamycin may have unforeseen effects elsewhere in the brain, and we won’t be able to understand that until we have conducted a sizeable human trial. We can only do so much by observing and extrapolating from mice.
An interesting aside is that Dr. Zador’s research further supports the emerging idea that excessive brain plasticity is a key component of the brain differences that lead to autism. His research premise is that the PTEN variation causes excess connectivity, and connectivity is a key element of plasticity. I’ve written about that idea in earlier posts.
I read a lot of talk in the autism community that questions why we spend money on genetic research when today’s autistic population needs help now. There is a popular perception that genetic research can only benefit unborn generations, or even worse, be used as a tool for selective abortion.
Dr. Zador’s study shows a clear pathway from a basic genetic study to a possible therapy for autistic people today, if they suffer sensory overload issues. It’s a perfect example of why this kind of work continues to be important and needs to be funded alongside all our other efforts in the autism research arena.
One of the pathways regulated by the PTEN protein involves shutting down an intracellular enzyme called mTORC1, which promotes cell growth, among other things…. While Zador is excited about “this finding that suggests that mTORC1 could be a good therapeutic target for some cases of PTEN-mediated brain disorders,” he is also keen to further pursue his team’s new evidence that cortical hyperconnectivity could be the “final pathway” by which diverse ASD genetic pathways lead to a single ASD phenotype. “Using cortical connectivity as a paradigm for assessing ASD candidate genes could provide insights into the mechanisms of the disorders and perhaps even give us clues to formulate new therapeutic strategies,” he states.
Dr. Zador’s leap from a subtle variation in genetic code to a specific behavioral aberration represents a brilliant leap of intuition and reason, backed up with careful lab work. It’s the kind of result I hope to see when I cast my vote for further genetic studies. This work was originally funded by Autism Speaks and NIH four years ago.
Here’s another really fascinating point to ponder. The PTEN genetic variation has been already associated with certain people with severe autistic disability and people with tubular sclerosis. Now, by associating PTEN with auditory sensitivity, we confront the question: Do people like me have the PTEN difference too? No one knows, because that study has never been done.
I’ll just say one more thing in closing. The discovery that PTEN aberrations can lead to sensory overload, and the pathway by which that happens stands separate from any question about rapamycin as a therapy. Don’t let worries about a particular drug blind you to the significance of the first finding.
Other researchers are looking at alternate ways to affect cortical plasticity in general and even connectivity as described in this study. Rapamycin may end up being a therapeutic answer for some, but it’s equally possible that a better therapy will be developed now that we are beginning to unravel the underlying issues. One day, autistic people who are disabled by auditory overload may be able to “mute” the disability, while retaining enough sensitivity to be exceptional.
That, folks, is what the science is all about.
I’ve been reading news reports that it might be possible to detect autism by watching how much a 1-year-old focuses on a speaker’s mouth. Is this true?
In recent days, you may have read media stories about research showing that typically developing babies tend to switch from eye gazing to lip reading when first learning to talk, but then switch back to focusing primarily on a speaker’s eyes by 12 months. The research report appears online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In reporting their results, developmental psychologist David Lewkowicz and doctoral student Amy Hansen-Tift, of Florida Atlantic University, suggest that this shift in focus may be different for infants who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or are at risk for developing it. Taking this idea a step further, they propose that paying attention to how babies shift their focus during their first year of life might help identify infants at risk for ASD – perhaps before other obvious symptoms emerge. To back their idea, they cite previous research suggesting that 2-year-olds with autism tend to look mostly at the mouths of those speaking to them, while typically developing 2-year-olds focus mostly on eyes.
It’s an intuitively appealing idea. But in truth, past studies have not consistently supported this notion that children with ASD focus less on eyes and more on mouths.
It is true that children with autism tend to pay less attention to social actions such as expressions. However, it’s possible that children with autism, like typical children, show a similar pattern of paying more attention to the mouth when they are learning language.
Given that language delays are common among children with autism, one would predict that this language-acquisition period might be prolonged. In addition one would expect that mouth-versus-eyes gaze patterns would vary among children with ASD depending on each child’s level of language skill.
Fortunately, while we don’t yet know whether eye gaze is a reliable predictor of ASD, research solidly supports the usefulness of other signs for screening toddlers. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children receive autism screening at 18 and 24 months of age. One of the AAP’s recommended screening tools is the Modified Checklist for Toddlers, or M-CHAT, which you can access on our website, here. Please also see our Learn the Signs resource page.
Meanwhile, Autism Speaks continues to fund a wealth of research on early screening and diagnosis because evidence suggests that early intervention improves outcomes. You can explore these and other Autism Speaks studies here. This research – like all the resources Autism Speaks develops and offers – is made possible by our families and supporters. Thank you for your support.
For more research news and perspective, please visit our science page.