A year of autism research in under 30 minutes

What was impactful this year in autism research? This last podcast of 2015 explores the year of the female, highlighting the relatively new exploration into what makes females with ASD different and what they can tell us about everybody with autism and their families.  Some of what is discussed was highlighted in other podcasts, but not all of it.   The summary is organized so that what may initially be interpreted as small, nonsignificant discoveries, are viewed as progress.  Everything from genetics to getting laws passed is included.

Moving the needle towards earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders

This week, the CDC published data that showed that the average age of first developmental evaluation for concerns was lowered by 5 months.  Five months is a lot to a family whose child is suffering and in need of help.  Separately, research out of Houston shows that many families are able to skip the formal evaluation and receive intervention prior to an established diagnosis based on demonstrated need that the child needs services.  This was the good news in autism, and while there is still a lot to be done especially with regards to racial and ethnic differences, public health is moving in the right direction on this issue.  But not all people with autism view their differences as symptoms or a disability.  What can we learn from people who use sign language to communicate to inform us about the way some people with autism communicate?  A special meeting called Conversations in Autism and Sign Language (CASL) brought experts and individuals on the spectrum to discuss.

Managing real life autism situations.

Compared to researchers, community clinicians don’t have time for the same rigorous training on the standard autism diagnostic instrument called the ADOS, so can they still do it as well?  Or does this group not have the resources they need to use it properly?  Also, because psychiatric hospitals don’t see as many people with autism as they used to, a group of child psychiatrists got together and wrote guidelines for what to do if a child with autism showed up at the general inpatient ward.  These are things that face families in the real word, and we thought you should hear about new science around them.

Sisters, sisters, there never were such devoted sisters

A special podcast this week on the Autism Sisters Project, in partnership with Icahn School of Medicine.  I talk about how the idea came about, what ASF is doing to help find out what sisters can contribute to the science of autism, and why sisters are in a unique position to do so.  Please read Lauren Singer’s special letter to the editor to Molecular Autism about being an undiagnosed sister here: http://www.molecularautism.com/content/pdf/s13229-015-0046-8.pdf

A traditional strategy in autism intervention may be hurting not helping.

Two interesting studies this week.  The first from researchers studying a learning strategy called repetition.  As it turns out, it may impair the ability for people with autism to generalize what they learn into new situations, like learning that a golden retriever is a dog and a beagle is also a dog.  Also, researchers in Australia comb the autism literature to determine what the financial costs and benefits of supportive employment are and discover that getting people with autism employed is good for the soul and good for the economy.  That study is open access and can be found here:  http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0139896

Moving away from genes OR environment towards genes AND environment

On Thursday October 1st, Autism Science Foundation, Autism Speaks and the Escher Fund for Autism co-organized an online symposium which examined the possibility that early mutations in cells that pass along genetic information from generation to generation (sperm and egg and cells that make the sperm an egg) has a role in the causes of autism.  This symposium is on the ASF podcast feed, but a quick summary is presented on this week’s podcast.  Jill Escher from the Escher Fund for Autism and Mat Pletcher from Autism Speaks provide their perspective.  Also, a quick rundown on the study that caused so much monkeying around in the press.

The sad realities behind educational services and ASD

Whoops, Donald Trump did it again.  During the Republican debates, comments around vaccines and autism were made that could cause more confusion.  This at a time when the matter should be settled in the minds of the public.  ASF president Alison Singer comments on what people should know.  Also, a new analysis examines the types of services people with developmental delay and ASD receive in the educational system.  Here’s a not-surprising sneak peak:  they are getting less than they deserve and have to go elsewhere despite laws stating otherwise.  Finally, an older drug for depression, called Effexor, may both relieve behavioral problems associated with ASD and lower the doses of anti anxiety drugs and antipsychotic drugs needed to calm irritability and aggression.

Females with autism and the idea of an ‘extreme male’ brain

New studies were published this week highlighting differences, or lack of differences, in males and females with autism.  This podcast explores one of these theories called the ‘Extreme Male Brain’ theory which is actively studied by Simon Baron-Cohen’s lab in the United Kingdom.  While this theory suggests that males and females with autism are more alike than different, another study focused on those individuals with autism who were not diagnosed until later in life.  Were they able to mask their symptoms for autism and slide under the radar and how?  In this group, males and females are more different than alike, which reinforces the ideas that you can’t study people with autism without studying people without autism, and that the differences between males and females may be subtle, based on context, and time of life.

Can people with autism lose their diagnosis?

Researchers have been studying a small group of individuals who were diagnosed with autism, then later no longer met criteria for diagnosis.  Most of these people received early intense behavioral intervention before the age of 3, and what is called “optimal outcome” by researchers is the exception, not the rule.  However, a new study explores where they are no longer showing symptoms, and where they still are.  Also, ASF postdoctoral fellow Aarthi Padmanabhan explains her data on the brain structure of girls and boys with autism.  A sneak peak:  girls are different than boys.

Targeting environmental chemicals in neurodevelopmental disorders

This week a group of experts met to build consensus around the effects of environmental chemicals on the developing brain. Autism was part of this discussion. And a new large-scale study shows that c-sections do not cause autism, it is something else related to c-sections.