Wednesday, December 19th, 2012
Parents whose children have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or other autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are feeling unsettled as news outlets have bandied about reports that the Newtown, Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, may have had an Asperger’s diagnosis, leading some to assume a link between the syndrome and violent behavior. Aspergers’s, however, is not associated with violence, as from The New York Times reports:
Individuals with autism spectrum disorders, who are often bullied in school and in the workplace, frequently do suffer from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. A divorce mediator who met with the parents of Adam Lanza, the gunman, during their divorce told The Associated Press that the couple had said that their son’s condition had been diagnosed as Asperger syndrome.
But experts say there is no evidence that they are more likely than any other group to commit violent crimes.
“Aggression in autism spectrum disorders is almost never directed to people outside the family or immediate caregivers, is almost never planned, and almost never involves weapons,” said Dr. Catherine Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at NewYork-Presbyterian hospital. “Each of these aspects of the current case is more common in other populations than autism.”
Dr. Lord said that in an unpublished review of data tracking several hundred adults with autism over at least the past five years, she and fellow researchers had found no use of weapons. Among more than 1,000 older children and adolescents in that study, only 2 percent were reported by parents to have used an implement aggressively toward a nonfamily member — fewer than in a control group. That finding was repeated in another set of data that she analyzed over the weekend at the request of The New York Times.
But some of the Twitter messages, electronic postings and media reports in the aftermath of the massacre that has horrified the nation have not reflected that characterization of autism.
“Try curing the real disease, Autism, not the N.R.A.,” wrote one individual on Twitter on Sunday night in response to calls for tighter gun control laws.
“Something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety,” said one psychologist on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.”
In a widely circulated defense of the empathic powers of her 11-year-old son, who has an Asperger diagnosis, Emily Willingham, a science blogger, wrote that “he can’t bear to watch people crack tree nuts, like pecans, because being something of a tree nut himself, he feels pain on behalf of the nuts.”
On the DailyKos, a blogger who identified himself as having Asperger syndrome worried that the actions of Mr. Lanza, 20, who killed 20 young children and 7 adults, including his mother, and was described by a classmate as having a “very flat affect,” might be how “people with this disability are defined in the popular imagination.”
His own flat affect, he explained, does not mean that he has no feelings: “Our emotions don’t naturally show on our faces,” he wrote. “This is perhaps the most frustrating part of the Asperger experience, because people think you’re not feeling when you may be feeling even more strongly than they are.”
Image: Serious boy, via Shutterstock
Monday, December 10th, 2012
A new blood test is being examined to see whether it can detect genetic markers that can identify autism spectrum disorders (ASD). If successful, the test would greatly improve doctors’ ability to diagnose the disorders–and begin interventions–earlier. More from CNN.com:
“In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston describe a new experimental test to detect the developmental disorder, based on the differences in gene expression between kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and those without the condition.
The blood-based test appears to predict autism relatively accurately, at least among boys, and has already been licensed to a company, SynapDx, for commercial development. In an e-mail statement to TIME, a spokeswoman for SynapDx said the company plans to start clinical trials of the new test in early 2013.
The new blood test for autism is intriguing, researchers say, because it seems to be at least as effective as any other genetic test for autism that doctors currently use. Scientists believe that autism has some genetic basis, based on genes that have been associated with the disorder, and the fact that the condition seems to run in families.
“A week does not go by where you don’t hear about a genetic mutation that has been linked to autism in at least a few families,” says Isaac Kohane, a pediatric endocrinologist and computer scientist at Children’s Hospital Boston, and the senior study author on the new article in PLOS ONE. Kohane is a scientific adviser for SynapDx, but says he does not own any stock in the company.
But autism is a complex condition, he says, with many possible genetic determinants. And the precise genetic mechanism, or more likely mechanisms, are still poorly understood.”
Image: Blood test tubes, via Shutterstock
Monday, December 3rd, 2012
In a move that is sure to elicit strong opinions in parents of autistic children, the American Psychiatric Association has approved proposed changes to the new edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) that will eliminate an independent diagnosis of “Asperger’s Disorder” and include Asperger’s kids within the diagnostic label of “autism spectrum disorder.” The Associated Press has more:
“One of the most hotly argued changes was how to define the various ranges of autism. Some advocates opposed the idea of dropping the specific diagnosis for Asperger’s disorder. People with that disorder often have high intelligence and vast knowledge on narrow subjects but lack social skills. Some who have the condition embrace their quirkiness and vow to continue to use the label.
And some Asperger’s families opposed any change, fearing their kids would lose a diagnosis and no longer be eligible for special services.
But the revision will not affect their education services, experts say.
The new manual adds the term “autism spectrum disorder,” which already is used by many experts in the field. Asperger’s disorder will be dropped and incorporated under that umbrella diagnosis. The new category will include kids with severe autism, who often don’t talk or interact, as well as those with milder forms.”
The Asperger’s changes are not the only ones that will appear in the new edition of the DSM, which will be published in May. Another major change is the addition of the diagnosis of DMDD, or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, which will be given to children who have severe and recurrent temper tantrums.
The new edition is the 5th for the DSM. The last edition was published in 1994.
Image: Girl with psychiatrist, via Shutterstock
Tuesday, November 13th, 2012
A new study in the journal Pediatrics has found that women who had the flu or prolonged fever during pregnancy were twice as likely to have an autistic child than those who did not.
The researchers involved in the study wrote: “We found almost a twofold increased risk of infantile autism in the child after self-reported infection with influenza virus during pregnancy,” which suggests that the mother’s immune response may affect a child’s developing brain. However, women who reported other infections during pregnancy, such as a cold or UTI, were not any more likely to have a child with autism. Health officials said the finding reinforces their recommendations that pregnant women should get flu shots, which will protect the mother and baby for the first six months after birth.
Additionally, researchers found that women who had a fever lasting a week or longer—either caused by the flu or unrelated to the flu—were three times as likely to give birth to a child with autism, which supports findings from a recent study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
“It is important to bear in mind that when you look at the absolute numbers, we see that around 99 percent of women reporting to have had influenza or fever during pregnancy, do not have children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder),” researcher Dr. Hjördis Ósk Atladóttir of the University of Aarhus in Denmark told NBC. “We want to reassure women. In this study, most women who experienced flu or prolonged fever or who were taking antibiotics did not have children with an autism spectrum disorder,” asserted Boyle.
Image: Sick pregnant woman via Shutterstock
Friday, November 2nd, 2012
As autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses among children increase in number and get made earlier in the child’s life, therapies that begin at a young age are under study to see whether they can improve the long-term development of the child, and even change their brain chemistry. New research, according to CNN.com, suggests such therapies may do just that:
Now researchers have been able to show that a particular type of behavioral therapy called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) not only improves autism symptoms, but actually normalizes brain activity and improves social behavior.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that starts to become very apparent around age 3. The main signs and symptoms of autism involve communication, social interactions and repetitive behaviors. According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children currently is diagnosed with autism, including one in 54 boys.
“Early intervention alters the trajectory of the brain and social development in children with autism,” says Geraldine Dawson, the lead study author who developed the ESDM therapy along with study co-author Sally Rogers.
Dawson was a researcher at the University of Washington when she helped devise ESDM; she’s now the chief science officer for the advocacy and research group Autism Speaks and a professor at the University of North Carolina. Rogers is a professor and researcher at the University of California Davis MIND Institute.
ESDM therapy uses teaching methods from ABA ,or applied behavioral analysis, the traditional one-on-one interaction between a child and the therapist.
But rather than sitting at a desk next to the child — where a teacher or therapist breaks down complex tasks into small components and gives tangible reinforcements — children receiving ESDM are sitting on the floor, playing with their therapist or parents.It can be done just about anywhere, and Dawson says the play-based method of engaging a child helps him or her develop a social relationship.
Image: Child and adult playing, via Shutterstock