Tuesday, October 9th, 2012
Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often have to contend with a frightening and difficult aspect of the disorders–wandering or “elopement,” in which children stray from safe spaces to pursue objects of interest, often at risk to their physical safety. From The New York Times:
The behavior, called wandering or elopement, has led to numerous deaths in autistic children by drowning and in traffic accidents. Now a new study of more than 1,200 families with autistic children suggests wandering is alarmingly common. Nearly half of parents with an autistic child age 4 or older said their children had tried to leave a safe place at least once, the study reported. One in four said their children had disappeared long enough to cause concern. Many parents said their wandering children had narrowly escaped traffic accidents or had been in danger of drowning.
Those at greatest risk of wandering off were autistic children with severe intellectual deficits and those who do not respond to their names. The research was published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
“I knew this was a problem, but I didn’t know just how significant a problem it was until I really began to look into it,” said Dr. Paul A. Law, senior author of the study and director of the Interactive Autism Network, a registry that is a project of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. “This is probably one of the leading causes of death and morbidity for kids with autism.”
Advocates for families affected by autism say the findings underscore the need to raise public awareness and alter policy. While Amber alerts are used to mobilize the public when a child is believed to have been abducted, for instance, generally they are not used when a disabled child goes missing, said Alison Singer, president and a founder of the Autism Science Foundation, one of the organizations that supported the study.
Image: Child crossing street, via Shutterstock
Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012
Proposed changes to the way autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are diagnosed have been on the minds of parents who worry that the new language, distinguishing, for example, between autism and Asperger syndrome, will lead to fewer services for a large number of kids. A new report, however, has found that the impact is likely to far far less than feared. From The New York Times:
Earlier research had estimated that 45 percent or more of children currently on the “autism spectrum” would not qualify under a new definition now being refined by psychiatric researchers — a finding that generated widespread anxiety among parents who rely on state-financed services for their children. The new report, posted online Tuesday by The American Journal of Psychiatry, concluded that the number who would be excluded is closer to 10 percent.
The finding may soothe the anxieties of some parents, but will not likely settle the debate over the effect of the new diagnosis.
All sides agree that the proposed criteria are narrower and will likely result in fewer diagnoses of autism, but until doctors begin using the new definition widely, the predictions of its effect are just that: predictions.
The debate has simmered over the past year as an expert panel appointed by the American Psychiatric Association has updated its proposals for the association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, scheduled to take effect in May 2013. The manual is the field’s standard reference, and several recent studies suggested that the amended autism definition was far narrower than intended.
“What I would say to families worried about the new criteria is that they’re more open-ended than the old ones,” said Catherine Lord, the senior researcher on the study. “So it’s very important to find a clinician who understands them, and who is not rushed when making a diagnosis.”
Image: Boy with teacher, via Shutterstock
Friday, July 27th, 2012
In a survey of the field of research on autism spectrum disorders (ASD), biologist Emily Willingham has concluded that rising rates of autism among children may be a question of new diagnostic techniques rather than an actual rise in the number of cases of ASD. For example, children who would have received a diagnosis of an intellectual disability in 1990 would today likely be diagnosed with ASD. From Boston.com:
That kind of change is called “diagnostic substitution,” Willingham explains, and it accounts for a lot of the rise in autism diagnoses. And there’s a lot of other, corroborating evidence, too. If autism were on the rise, you’d expect there to be more autistic children that autistic adults. Adults, though, don’t tend to be screened for autism — and when you do screen them, you find that the prevalence of autism is about the same among adults as it is among kids (1%). That suggests that autism isn’t on the rise. And that prevalence is the same all over the world, despite the fact that that the environmental factors which often take the blame for the rise in autism are unevenly distributed.
Image: Toddler on a swing, via Shutterstock.
Wednesday, June 27th, 2012
Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital have discovered that electroencephalography (EEG), a non-invasive test that measures brain activity, may be able to distinguish children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) as early at age 2. Time.com reports:
The researchers measured EEG patterns in 430 children with autism and 554 control subjects ages 2 to 12. Those with autism had activity patterns that consistently showed reduced connectivity between brain regions, especially in areas associated with language on the left side of the brain.
“The brain works like a series of computers and they have to hook to one another through nerves in the brain in order to connect and function together,” says study author Dr. Frank H. Duffy of the department of psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital. “We can estimate from EEGs how well regions connect to one another. If there is high coherence between different regions of the brain, this indicates the brain is well connected.”
The researchers eliminated children with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, focusing instead on those with ”classic” autism symptoms who had been referred for EEG by neurologists, psychiatrists or developmental pediatricians to rule out seizure disorders. “We studied the typical autistic child who is seeing a behavioral specialist. These children are hard to study and it is usually difficult to get EEG recordings from them,” says Duffy.
To get an EEG reading, children must wear a cap of electrodes that record electrical signals signifying brain activity. The research team used certain techniques to allow clean readings from the participants, such as letting the children take breaks and adjusting for behaviors like body and eye movement and muscle activity that can throw off recordings.
Tuesday, June 12th, 2012
A failed freezer at McLean Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard University, has resulted in severe damage to one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples. The debacle, according to The Boston Globe, could set back autism research by decades:
An official at the renowned brain bank in Belmont discovered that the freezer had shut down in late May, without triggering two alarms. Inside, they found 150 thawed brains that had turned dark from decay; about a third of them were part of a collection of autism brains.
“This was a priceless collection,’’ said Dr. Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where the brains were housed. “You can’t express its value in dollar amounts,’’ said Benes, who is leading one of two internal investigations into the freezer failure.
The damage to these brains could slow autism research by a decade as the collection is restored, said Carlos Pardo, a neuropathologist and associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University.
The collection, owned by the advocacy and research organization Autism Speaks, “yields very, very important information that allows us to have a better understanding of what autism is, as well as the contribution of environmental and immune factors,’’ said Pardo, whose 2004 study of brains stored in the bank was the first to find that autism involves the immune system. “The benefit has been great.’’
Image: Lab equipment, via Shutterstock.