Parents are people too

Sometimes parents get a bad rap for not having autism themselves, or not being in touch with the challenges of autistic adults.  This week’s ASF Podcast highlights two new studies on the role parents play in science, research and understanding racial disparities.  A group in the United Kingdom released the results of a survey across Europe which examined parent perceptions on early autism research (think infants and toddlers) and how researchers could better help families at this stage.  Another study from researchers in Georgia and Connecticut revealed how important parents (and clinicians) can be in reducing the disparity in diagnosis between black and white children in the US.  Finally, a call to unite over a common challenge: employment.  If you have not done so already, please make your voice heard as a parent, autistic adult, employer or service provider on a survey gauging the needs of the entire autism community around employment.  http://www.lernerlab.com/employmentsurvey.html 

 

Here are the references used in this podcast:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4230972/ 

https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/docs/as_science_planning_survey_final_pdf_0.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29126359

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29100475

 

From Early Detection to Early Intervention

This month, two new important research findings were published from scientists that study the very earliest signs and symptoms of autism.  First, Dr. Suzanne Macari at Yale showed that a type of temperament in toddlers was associated with autism at about 3 years of age.  This may be used in the future to develop specialized interventions very very early on.  Meanwhile, Dr. Jessica Brian’s group in Canada used the very early signs of autism – social orienting – to develop a new intervention called the Social ABC’s which they piloted last year.  Last week, a randomized clinical trial of this intervention showed improvements in social smiling, reactions to parents, and social orienting, suggesting it is a feasible and valid intervention option.  There is now a list of these interventions that have been rigorously tested.  This demonstrates that the early detection of features of autism, like temperament, can be turned into interventions to improve the outcome of toddlers with ASD.

Hip hip hooray for toddler interventions for autism

As always, good news and bad news in autism this week.  First the good news:  an intervention given between 9-14 months of age in children with a high probability of having an autism diagnosis improved autism symptoms at 3 years of age.  Now the bad:  mothers who experience severe childhood abuse are more likely to have a child with an autism diagnosis.  Why?  A new study explains it might have a lot to do with autism traits in the parents.  We would love to hear your thoughts on the results, please provide them in the comment section.

A new clue to autism found in fluid in the brain

Last week, another Baby Siblings Research Consortium Project (BSRC) published an intriguing finding which also has the bonus of being a replication.  Mark Shen, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found higher levels of extra axial fluid in the brains of infants who went on to later be diagnosed with autism, and even higher levels in those with severe autism symptoms.  Extra-axial fluid is also called cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that holds the brain steady in your head.  Other functions of extra-axial fluid and what this means on how it may contribute to autism risk are described in the podcast.  He not only explains the findings, but conveys what families should know about them and how they can help with early identification of ASD.

The infant brain on early behavioral intervention

The brain is developing even after birth.  So interventions that are given very early have the best chance of remolding and rewiring a brain with autism to prevent autism related disabilities.  This week, a group from the University of London, Duke University and University of Washington measured brain activity during tasks that required social attention following 2 months of very very very early intervention.  They found that the way the brain responded to social stimuli was more like those without an autism diagnosis.  This study shows a biological marker of brain function is altered after behavioral interventions that are intended to do just that – change the way the brain functions.

When can you see autism in the brain?

This week the Infant Brain Imaging Study, or IBIS, published it’s 2nd study on the emergence of changes in the brains of individuals with autism.  While red flags for autism can be seen early, a diagnosis of autism is not typically made until after 24 months of age. Using a baby sibling research design, scientists showed increases in the size of certain areas of the brain between 6-12 months.  This opens up opportunities for even earlier diagnosis of ASD in the future.   Also, a group at Stanford shows the emergence and disappearance of co-morbid symptoms in autism, such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and ADHD, which are dependent on sex and age.  Together, these studies show that autism begins very very early and symptoms and behavioral and biological features change over time.

Betsy DeVos, autism screening and testosterone – in that order

This week two studies which examined infants and younger children that will significantly advance understanding of causes and services for people with autism were published.  After a commentary about the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, the study that used a practical methodology to improve autism screening in pediatrics clinic from researchers at Duke University was presented.  After that, some early results from the EARLI study  which examined pregnancies in families where an older sibling was diagnosed was presented.  In this study, Bo Park and her colleagues at Drexel University, Johns Hopkins University, University of California at Davis and Kaiser Permanente show that testosterone levels in pregnancy aren’t related to later autism symptoms unless the older sibling affected is a girl.  These findings can illustrate why girls are less likely to be diagnosed with autism compared to boys.  The study is open access and can be downloaded here, thanks to the journal Molecular Autism:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5282802/pdf/13229_2017_Article_118.pdf

 

13229_2017_118_Fig3_HTML

Why is it so hard to look them in the eye?

There is an ongoing debate about why people with autism avoid eye contact.  There is data to support both, but as this behavior emerges very early, it’s important to look at data from preverbal children to understand the origins of changes in eye contact.  Many scientists also feel that avoiding eye contact snowballs over the lifespan and deprives people with autism from developing social skills.  Infants don’t even know why they avoid eye contact so at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, researchers are using eye tracking technology to answer this question.  The findings have clear implications for early intervention strategies.

A scary halloween story about the media misrepresenting science

How long do you have to study an intervention to see if it works?  Many scientists agree that it isn’t just about what happens in the short run, but if those interventions can be sustained for long periods of time.  In the case of very early interventions, it is now clear that treatment for about a year can change the trajectory of symptoms so those improvements are sustained, maintained or lead to even further improvements for 6 years after the initial intervention has stopped.  This important finding was hidden by the BBC getting the headline wrong and hiding the true value of the research at the end of the story.  This week’s podcast outlines the contribution of parent-implemented intervention and research studying autism even before symptoms emerge in improving trajectories rather than just immediate outcomes.  Happy Halloween!