2/20 - Latest in Autism News

In Breakthrough, Researchers Detect Autism Signs In Infants

New research suggests that it may be possible to predict a child's risk for autism before behavioral symptoms present. (Thinkstock)

For the first time, a new study suggests it’s possible to predict within the first year of life if a child will develop autism.

Researchers say they were able to identify with more than 90 percent accuracy which babies would go on to be diagnosed with the developmental disorder by age 2.

The findings published Wednesday could be a game changer, pointing to the possibility of identifying children on the spectrum at far younger ages and before behavioral symptoms become apparent, researchers said.

“The results of this study are a real breakthrough for early diagnosis of autism,” said Robert T. Schultz who directs the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and worked on the study published in the journal Nature. “While we have known for some time that autism emerges in subtle, gradual ways over the first few years of life, this study offers the first firm evidence before a child’s first birthday predicting whether certain high-risk children are likely to be diagnosed with autism.”

Currently autism can reliably be diagnosed as early as age 2, but most kids aren’t flagged until after age 4, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Research suggests that autism intervention is most successful the earlier it begins, so scientists are eager to find reliable methods of spotting the disorder at younger ages.

The study looked at 106 infants considered to be at high risk for autism because they had an older sibling with the developmental disorder and 42 low-risk infants. Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scans were conducted on each child at 6, 12 and 24 months of age.

In children who ultimately developed autism, growth of the brain’s surface area was significantly more rapid between ages 6 and 12 months as compared to other kids, the study found. What’s more, the overall size of affected children’s brains grew at a faster rate between ages 12 and 24 months.

Among babies at high risk, the brain differences between ages 6 and 12 months alone could predict whether a child would have autism with 80 percent accuracy, researchers said.

However, by considering other factors as well including additional brain measurements and the child’s sex, the researchers used a statistical approach known as machine learning to assess with near perfect accuracy who would develop autism.

“If we are able to replicate these results in further studies, these findings promise to change how we approach infant and toddler screening for autism, making it possible to identify infants who will later develop autism before the behavioral symptoms of autism become apparent,” Schultz said.

The findings could point to opportunities for new treatments and the potential to intervene before brain differences progress substantially, researchers said.

“We haven’t had a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop,” said the study’s senior author, Joseph Piven of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. “Now we have very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible.”

by Michelle Diament | February 15, 2017

2/13 - Latest in Autism News

Brain stem volume linked to aggression in autism

New research from BYU's autism experts is providing clues into the link between aggression and autism -- clues the team hopes will eventually lead to more effective intervention.

In the study, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, researchers report an inverse correlation between aggression and brain stem volume in children with autism: the smaller the brain stem, the greater the likelihood of aggression.

The finding, though preliminary, is significant in part because "the brain stem is really involved in autonomic activities -- breathing, heart rate, staying awake -- so this is evidence that there's something core and basic, this connection between aggression and autism," said coauthor and BYU clinical psychology Ph.D. student Kevin Stephenson.

For the project, the team examined MRI images from two groups of children with autism: one that exhibited problematic levels of aggression and one that didn't. Study coauthor Terisa Gabrielsen, a BYU assistant professor of school psychology, said identifying the brain stem as having at least a partial involvement in aggression helps lay a foundation for better treatment. "If we know what part of the brain is different and what function that part of the brain controls, that can give us some clues into what we can do in the way of intervention," she said.

Coauthor and BYU psychology professor Mikle South added, "Once the body arousal in a child is too much -- the heart is beating, the hands are clenched and the body is sweating -- it's too late. Some of these kids, if the brain isn't working as efficiently, they may pass that point of no return sooner. So with behavioral interventions, we try to find out what the trigger is and intervene early before that arousal becomes too much."

BYU's Autism Connect team originated three years ago in BYU's David O. McKay School of Education, though it now includes researchers from other colleges on campus and collaborators beyond BYU. This paper, spearheaded by BYU psychology assistant professor Rebecca Lundwall, had 11 authors from BYU, one from the University of Utah and one from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The group used data collected from a University of Utah autism study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Studying aggression is Autism Connect's "overarching agenda," said Gabrielsen, "because it impacts families' quality of life so significantly. If we look long-term at things that affect the family the most, aggression is one of the most disruptive."

South recounted a conversation with the mother of a child he recently diagnosed: to cope with stress, the child often pulled her mother's hair, "so I just have a lot less hair than I used to," she told him. Aggression, South noted, "makes the family dynamic very difficult, the school dynamic very difficult. It's just a particularly difficult type of autism."

In addition to a number of other studies planned or in process, the team is interested in exploring further how the brain stem is connected functionally to other areas of the brain, "because usually the brain doesn't work from just one area; it's a network of areas that all work together," Stephenson said. "So if one area is disrupted, it's likely that other areas are disrupted as well."

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2/9/17 - Science Daily, Materials provided by Brigham Young UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.


2/7 - Latest in Autism News

Workplace Disability Discrimination Claims Set New Record

Charges of disability-related job discrimination hit a record high for the second year in a row, the EEOC said. (Thinkstock)

Federal officials say they are receiving an increasing number of complaints of disability-based job discrimination.

For the second year in a row, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said charges of job bias related to disability hit an all-time high, reaching 28,073 for the 2016 fiscal year.

The new record comes as the EEOC said it recorded an overall uptick in charges across all 10 types of workplace discrimination that the agency investigates.

Of the disability-related charges, the EEOC said 5,680 were resolved in favor of the person who brought the complaint. The agency collected $131 million in monetary benefits for individuals harmed.

The EEOC has tracked disability-related workplace discrimination since 1992. In addition, the agency also monitors employment discrimination complaints related to race, color, sex, age, religion, retaliation, pay equity, genetic information and national origin.

Overall, the EEOC received 91,503 charges of job-based discrimination in 2016. Nearly a third of complaints cited disability.

Disability Scoop, by Shaun Heasley | February 6, 2017


1/30 - Latest in Autism News

Condo-Like Housing Model Offers Independence With Supports

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Anna Bulger and her family took a great leap of faith in 2010, when she moved into her new home on E Street in the city’s now trendy Knightville neighborhood.

Bulger was 22 years old at the time and had long dreamed of living in an apartment with friends. Chances of that happening were slim, however, without her parents taking extraordinary steps. Bulger has autism, and suitable government-funded residential programs are scarce in Maine.

Six years later, Bulger and her eight housemates at 20 E St. have proven that their experiment in housing for adults with moderate disabilities is a success.

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So successful that a second condo-like rooming house with support staff — again modeled after a cluster of privately developed projects in the Boston area — is on track to be built next door at 14 E St. with strong community support.

“They’re good neighbors,” said City Councilor Sue Henderson, who lives across the street. “I think the second house is going to be another great asset to the neighborhood.”

Bulger’s three-story home is a former Grange hall built in 1894 that was purchased by her parents and the families of other residents. It was developed and is managed by Specialized Housing Inc., a for-profit company based in Brookline, Mass., that oversees 11 similar properties in that state. The home on E Street in South Portland is the company’s only one in Maine.

It’s basically a boarding house that’s set up like a condominium, where each family owns a large bedroom and a share of common space, including a spacious modern kitchen and dining area, and a living room where the housemates hold movie nights. There’s also a laundry room and several bathrooms, each shared by a couple of residents.

Two small apartments on the third floor house two live-in staff members who provide nighttime and emergency coverage in exchange for free rent. A house manager who is a clinical professional oversees house operations on weekdays, including nightly meal preparation, and works under the supervision of a part-time clinical director. Relief staff members cover weekends.

It’s also run like a condominium, with family members acting as association and trust members. Each owner pays individual property taxes and, in most cases, residents are tenants and family members are landlords, so they can write off condo expenses on their annual taxes. Each unit can be sold if a resident leaves for any reason.

Benefits of homeownership

Each resident pays a monthly assessment of about $2,100 to cover building maintenance, management, staffing and household expenses, including utilities and food. Most use a combination of Social Security benefits, Section 8 housing vouchers, income from part-time jobs and, if possible, family funds. Many families set up trusts overseen by siblings to ensure residents can live there in perpetuity.

The first house was purchased and financed by the families through local banks, mostly because bigger banks aren’t familiar with this type of housing, said Mary Chris Semrow, Bulger’s mom, who now works for Specialized Housing Inc. Semrow said that in her search for housing alternatives for her daughter, she found Specialized Housing’s model to be unique in the nation.

“The benefit of homeownership is, we’re all in this together,” Semrow said. “We can’t allow this to be a true rental situation because we can’t have that kind of turnover. Stability is key for this to be successful.”

Semrow, 62, said this type of specialized housing is geared toward residents who have limited alternatives to living at home with family members, especially those with aging parents who want to ensure their children have secure housing for a lifetime.

The need for this type of housing is fueled by a lack of state and federal funding for residential programs and support services, Semrow said, noting that her daughter has been on a waiting list for support services for 10 years and it now has nearly 1,400 names on it.

Essential housing option

Because Semrow became something of an expert in helping to develop the house at 20 E St., she’s working with families who want to develop the second house at 14 E St. Four families have committed to buying into the project, another family is being reviewed and five others are going through the assessment process.

Three of the families already have purchased the house at 14 E St., Semrow said. It will be renovated into two apartments for staff and an addition will be constructed for 10 residents. Like the first house, it will contain bedrooms and shared common spaces, including a workout room.

The purchase price for each unit of the new project is expected to be between $175,000 and $200,000, Semrow said. She and other representatives of Specialized Housing readily admit this type of housing isn’t affordable for low-income families, but it fills a need for families who have some means and face limited housing alternatives.

“This type of housing is essential for some families,” said Peter Roth, a developer with Specialized Housing whose son lives in one of the Boston-area houses. “The environment is designed to feel like a large, single-family home. They each have a bedroom but they share common spaces and a meal every day. It offers independence to people who need some support in a family-like setting.”

Each resident is screened by professional clinicians to determine whether he or she would be a good fit for this type of shared housing. Residents of 20 E St. are 28 to 62 years old and have a variety of developmental and intellectual disabilities but are considered high-functioning. Many have part-time jobs or volunteer in the community, and most attend day programs for adults with disabilities.

Friends and family

Living on E Street puts Anna Bulger and her housemates in the thick of things, in a walkable, vibrant neighborhood with public transportation, which gives them the independence to pretty much come and go as they please. Community events are held regularly at Mill Creek Park, including concerts, art shows and a weekly farmers market.

Devin Leonard, 28, is a gold-medal-winning Special Olympian who goes snowboarding a couple times each week in the winter with activity groups. James Ostrow, 36, worked at Tim Hortons for several years before it closed recently, so he’s looking for a job. He also enjoys reading the Portland Press Herald every day and spending time with his girlfriend, who lives in Westbrook.

Dylan Cook, 41, has been a part-time prep cook at 158 Picket Street Cafe for five years and plays guitar in a band with other adults with disabilities. He also helps out in the kitchen, cooking a weekly meal for his housemates in addition to the regular chores they all share.

“I like living with people with similar problems and having support,” Cook said. “I like living near Mill Creek (a commercial area next to Knightville) because you can walk anywhere you want to go. I also like cooking here. I make recipes I find on the internet or on the Food Network.”

Bulger keeps an equally active schedule. She walks to the nearby public library each week to borrow books that she devours. She strolls to the supermarket, hair salon, pharmacy and other stores in Mill Creek and Knightville. She also works part time as a stockroom helper, a job she’s held for eight years, and she reads to residents of a local nursing home.

What’s her favorite thing about living on E Street? Bulger doesn’t hesitate to answer during a tour of her periwinkle-blue bedroom with flowing white drapes. She notes the distant view of Portland Harbor from one of her windows.

“It’s better to live with friends than to live alone,” she said.

by Kelley Bouchard, Portland Press Herald/TNS | January 30, 2017