March - Autism News

Autism as a facet of experience, not a limit

Temple Grandin shares firsthand insights from work, activism

March 27, 2014 | Editor's Pick Audio/Video Popular

Photo by Melanie Rieders

“In special education, there’s too much emphasis placed on the deficit and not enough on the strength,” said the Boston-born Temple Grandin at Askwith Hall

By Chuck Leddy, Harvard Correspondent

Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State, brought her experience with autism, with which she was diagnosed at age 2, and insights from years of activism to a talk at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) Wednesday.

One of those insights: Diagnostic labels have their limits. “In special education, there’s too much emphasis placed on the deficit and not enough on the strength,” said the Boston-born Grandin at Askwith Hall. “I’m seeing a lot of 10-year-olds getting completely hung up on their autism, caught up in a handicapped mentality.”

Much of Grandin’s activism has focused on connecting autistics with education and careers. “I like to think about how the different kinds of minds can work together and complement each other.” Speaking at length about her own “different thinking,” she said, “my thinking is bottom-up,” grounded in specific details.

“When I think about a cathedral, I see a series of specific cathedrals,” not an archetype. “People who think in words tend to ‘over-abstractify’ the world too much and miss the details.”

Grandin brought along two brain scans to illustrate her much larger circuitry for visual thinking compared with the average brain: “Being a visual thinker has really helped me in designing livestock handling facilities. Animals are sensory-based learners,” she said.

(The 2010 HBO movie “Temple Grandin,” with Claire Danes in the title role, showed how Grandin crawled through an existing livestock facility to understand how cattle experienced moving through the chutes, and then integrated her sensory-based insights into her own designs.)

Shifting her focus to the classroom, Grandin offered several suggestions for educating students with autism or unconventional learning styles. “Kids on the spectrum tend to get fixated on the things they like,” she said. “You need to use those fixations to teach kids different subjects.” If a child is fixated on airplanes, Grandin said, the teacher might use planes to illustrate lessons in physics, engineering, history, and more.

Mentors are also important. A particular teacher sparked her interest in science, Grandin said. Educators need to nudge students “slightly out of their comfort zone” to challenge them while providing support.

Autistic children also need responsibilities and tasks — paper-route-type jobs — “to build work skills,” she said. Adults can’t “allow kids to become recluses playing video games by themselves all day.”

Near the end of her talk, Grandin offered a bit of advice to autistic people in the job market: “You need to sell your work, not yourself. Create a portfolio to show your work and carry it around with you.” It was a practical note keeping with her wider message, that those with “different thinking” have much to offer.

By Chuck Leddy | Harvard Gazette



For decades researchers have probed the brains of children with autism looking for clues to the condition. Among the findings, those studies have long noted low levels of the hormone serotonin, an important player in brain development. Now scientists from Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute believe they've uncovered the source of that imbalance.

"In that moment I thought, 'Oh my goodness, maybe Vitamin D is regulating the production of serotonin and that's playing a role in Autism,'" says Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D.

Patrick, a post-doctoral fellow, and professor Bruce Ames compared gene sequences responsible for serotonin and two other key hormones also linked to behavior or brain development. They found all three are regulated by vitamin D.

"And this was the real aha moment," says Patrick. "And that is the vitamin D response element."

Vitamin D is absorbed into the body primarily from sunlight. While there have been several theories in recent years proposing links to autism and other diseases, many researchers have remained skeptical. Still Patrick and Ames believe their results argue for deeper research into optimal levels of the vitamin, particularly during pregnancy and early childhood.

"It's a pill that costs a few pennies. Vitamin D is cheap, and you can take it as a pill, but you should measure yourself," says Professor Ames.

One recent survey found that nearly seven out of 10 people in the U.S. do not meet the suggested recommendations for vitamin D levels in the body.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


1 in 68 US Kids Has Autism Spectrum Disorder


Up to 1.5 percent, or one in 68 U.S. children on average, may have autism, according to new estimates released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This new estimate means that about 30 percent more children may have autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than previously thought. A 2012 report from the CDC estimated that one in 88 children have the condition.

The new report also found that more children with autism may have a high IQ than previously thought. Although some children with the condition have severe intellectual challenges, the new report estimates that about 46 percent of children with autism have average or above average intellectual ability (an IQ above 85), compared with the estimate of one-third of children with autism a decade ago.

For the report, researchers reviewed records from the CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. They pulled data from 11 community centers where children with developmental disabilities are educated, diagnosed or treated.

The sample of children used in this report is not nationally representative, and the results may not generalize to the entire United States. However it is the most detailed picture, and the best estimate available, the researchers said. [Psychiatry's New Guide: 6 Things You Should Know]

The results showed a wide range in the number of children diagnosed with ASD based on their location, ranging from one in 175 children in Alabama to one in 45 children in New Jersey.  This difference is partly explained by the way data was gathered, for example, in Alabama, researchers had limited access to children's educational record.

In line with previous studies, the data continue to show that autism is almost five times more common among boys than girls:  one in 42 boys have autism, compared to one in 189 girls. White children are 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism than black or Hispanic children.

It is unclear exactly how much of the rise in diagnoses is due to increased awareness of the disorder, and how much is due to a true increase in prevalence, researchers said. It could be a combination of both, they said.

"Community leaders, health professionals, educators and childcare providers should use these data to ensure children with ASD are identified as early as possible and connected to the services they need," said Coleen Boyle, director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

Researchers found most children were diagnosed after age 4. The condition can be diagnosed as early as age 2, and children can be enrolled in early intervention services, the researchers said.

"Early identification is the most powerful tool we have right now to make a difference in the lives of children with autism," Boyle said.

Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

"The most important thing for parents to do is to act early when there is a concern about a child’s development," said Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, chief of CDC’s Developmental Disabilities Branch. "If you have a concern about how your child plays, learns, speaks, acts, or moves, take action. Don’t wait."

Brain Changes in Autism Likely Start Before Birth
A discovery of distinct patches of altered brain cells in children with autism suggests the condition starts before birth, during the brain development stages in the second and third trimester of pregnancy.  

In a study of postmortem brain tissue, researchers examined donated samples from 11 children with autism and 11 children without the condition ages 2 to16, and used special techniques to detect and visualize specific types of neurons in the brain's outer layer, the cortex.

They found dense patches in the cortex containing irregular shaped neurons residing in the wrong cortical layers. These patches were 5 to 7 millimeters (about 0.2 inches) long, and were found in the frontal and temporal cortexes of 10 of the 11 children with autism, but only one of the 11 unaffected children, according to the study published today (March 26) in the New England Journal of medicine. [10 Fascinating Brain Findings]

"These patches are not like a lesion, or loss of cells. The cells are there, but they haven't become what they were supposed to, in the layer they were supposed to be in," said study researcher Eric Courchesne, a professor of neuroscience in University of California, San Diego and director of the UCSD Autism Center.

"The patches were found in frontal and temporal cortexes, areas that are important for social interaction and language, but not in the occipital cortex that is an area handling visual processing, which is pretty good in autism," Courchesne said.

In the womb

The findings point to a disruption in the development of cortical layers, which happens during the second and third trimester of pregnancy.

The human cortex has six layers and in each layer there are specific type of cells that reside in their designated layers.

These cells have specific genetic names, or signatures. "In a normal brain, a particular gene marker should be expressed that is held out like a sign by a certain type of cell, like pyramidal cells, in a certain layer, like layer 5," Courchesne said.

Using cell's specific genetic markers, researchers can color-code them. The result is a colorful image of a slice of the cortex that resembles a folding rainbow. [See image]

In the study, researchers found small sections where the coloring looked mixed up, showing the right cell-types are not found in their right places.

Moreover, those cells hadn't fully become what they were supposed to be.

"We expected that we would see the cell-types, but in the wrong location," Courchesne said, which would have been a migration effect, meaning cells haven't reached their right destination.

"But we saw a failure of normal gene expression of both cell-types and their layers," he said.

Previous research on human fetus has shown that cortical layers develop and become distinct from each other between 19 and 30 weeks of pregnancy. Severe disruption in this stage of development can result in cephalic disorders in which the brain, sometimes visibly, looks different.

"There's a lot of different public opinions about what might start off autism, a lot of them have to do with something happening during infancy or early childhood. But this is strong biological evidence, that it started in the womb."

Tip of the iceberg

Researchers had previously found that children with autism had 67 percent more brain cells, which also points to the second trimester in pregnancy, when brain cells are generated, Courchesne said.

Two genetic studies have previously reported several gene candidates that are likely to be involved in autism, and are linked to cell development in the frontal and temporal cortical layers.

"Those predictions have a lot of similarities to our actual finding from brain tissue," Courchesne said.

It's not clear what may have affected the normal development of cortical layers, but it's likely a combination of genetic factors and the conditions inside the womb.

"We don't know for sure. It could be that the mom was exposed to viruses, bacteria, toxins, or stress. Those are possibilities that could interact with genetics," Courchesne said.

"In a way this findings is a window back in time. We speculate that something disrupted the normal formation of cortical layers in those patches," Courchesne said, "This may be the tip of the iceberg, to see just how the autistic cortex might be affected at early ages."


Autism-sufferer Martin’s window to the world through song

MARTIN FINN always goes to Benidorm on his holidays, always in June, and via the same route to the airport. He stays in the same hotel

Martin’s life is rigid routine. He is autistic. He cannot speak full sentences.

When his parents, John and Norma, bring him on holidays, they push Martin in a wheelchair, otherwise he would walk on his toes.

Martin is 22. So, here they are in Benidorm, listening to the professional singer. She has a routine, too, and as the days pass, songs from her set repeat.

Martin is listening; processing what we label ‘beat’ and ‘rhythm’. He signals that he wants to perform and he is given the microphone. The music starts and Martin sings. His voice breaks free from his body. It’s full, melodic, clear.

He is no longer rocking, but fixed by the music. Martin doesn’t have a command of the English language, but he is singing songs he first heard a couple of days ago, in Spanish. He’s hitting the same notes, keeping the same timing, mimicking the Spanish lady.

Today, John Finn, from Clare, is inside Atherton train station, waiting for the train from Wigan Walpole. He smiles. “Sure didn’t you travel a bit of a journey to come and see us,” he says.

Atherton has been home to John since the 1970s. “Came for a wedding, never went back,” he says of arriving here from his home town of Lisdoonvarna. Every weekend, the Finns’ car pulls up outside locals clubs and dance halls and their son, Martin, performs to a standard that leaves people in disbelief.

“When you rate his disability against his ability, the margin of difference is so great,” says John. “Well, he’s one in a million, really. We don’t know how he does it, to be honest with you, but the music has meaning for him.

“You know, if Martin was in the car here, now, and we pulled in, I couldn’t turn off the radio. Not if there was a song on, not until it was over. He has that much respect for the singer and the music — and he wouldn’t understand why you would turn off a song in the middle. He could go into a panic.”

Their housing estate in Atherton is a sweep of red-brick houses, one and two stories, packed neatly together. Norma greets John at the door. “How was your journey?” she asks.

“Come on through and meet Martin,” says John. Chart music is beating out from the living room. The flatscreen is a shift-changing montage of dancing bodies backed by an upbeat melody. Martin is sat on the couch, legs crossed, eyes fixed on the television, his upper body rocking rhythmically back and forth.

On the floor, rows of CDs are stacked domino-like: CDs by Seamus Moore, Daniel O’Donnell, Robbie Williams…the soundtrack to Martin’s world.

“It’s all routine,” says John. “You try and link everything into the music. Martin wouldn’t understand why he would have to have a shower, for example. It doesn’t make sense to him. But we have to tell him that he is singing at such-and-such a place tonight and that is why he has to have a shower. That’s the only way it works.”

Martin’s ability is uncanny. “If Martin likes a song and he has listened to it a few times, he can sing on top of the artist. His timing is so perfect, not just for every verse, but for every word. If Martin listens to a CD and the singer breaks from a song to speak to the audience, Martin will have that in there as well. People will be looking at each other, wondering ‘where did that bit come from’. But, to him, it is part of the whole performance.

“We have done studio stuff, where we have been in and out in half an hour. If Martin delivers a song, then it’s as good the first time as it is ever going to be, because he will do it the exact same way every time, ever after.”

For years, John and Norma wondered if Martin could read. He would sit staring at CD sleeves. Then, on a return journey to Ireland, Martin became agitated in the back of the car. He was pointing at signage and they deduced, from the location, that it must be connected to a recording studio — a name buried on the back page of one of those CD sleeves on the floor at home in Atherton. “We never knew he was taking it all in, because he is non-verbal. But all that time he was.

“Now, when we go back to Ireland, if Martin spots something, he’ll point and signal and we’ll call into the studio. You know, for Martin it’s a very complicated world, but there is sense in the music.”

It’s complicated for all the family. John is 64 and Norma is 67. He has a sister, Marie, who is 46. “We just can’t afford to get ill,” says John. “Martin would have to go into care. He wouldn’t understand why one of us is missing. It’s frightening. We have had to wind back the clocks ourselves. Martin is a young man now, so when it comes to nine o’clock on a Saturday, he wants out. Every Saturday and Sunday is a must for us. Parents half our age would struggle. But the authorities are not linking in with us. For any future to be planned, you have to put it to them that you are failing at home, but saying that could lead to a knock at the house and someone telling you they have come to take him away from you.

“They wouldn’t have the right experience to handle Martin and would end up having to sedate him.

“If he could produce a CD, or something, that the music would help him when we are not around. He is headlining gigs here, he has starred on BBC3’s Autistic Superstars.”

From the living room, the sound of Martin’s voice lifts — a thread of words sung in the style of James Blunt.

‘You’re beautiful….’ raises from the room.

John looks.

“You know, if someone told me they have a son or daughter at home with autism that can go from an extreme of disability to ability, I’d say to myself: ‘I’d like to meet that guy. Cos that’s a special kind of person’,” John says.

By Robert Mulhern | Irish Examiner

Search for Autistic Child Enters Week 3

Law enforcement officials and citizens continue to search for a 3-year-old autistic child who was abducted March 6 in Okaloosa County.

Emmanuel Menz was taken from the Burger King at 3210 South Ferdon Blvd., in Crestview, a news release from the Crestview Police Department said. Emmanuel was taken by his parents, Karl R. Menz and Virginia M. Lynch, during a state supervised visit. 

Menz and Lynch do not have custodial rights to the child.

Investigators believe the family may be traveling in a rented U-Haul van. The van has an Arizona Tag of AE86502 and is marked with an identifying number of BE5700R that should be clearly displayed on all sides of the vehicle. 

Menz and Lynch are known to frequent campgrounds, and are likely stopping to obtain provisions in grocery stores, truck stops, convenience stores, pharmacies and fast food restaurants, the release said. 

Emmanuel has autistic characteristics and requires medication for severe asthma, according to Crestview police. Emmanuel prefers to play in Burger King Play areas, as a method of comfort for his condition.

Concerned citizens have started a Facebook page,, and so far the page has garnered more than 3,400 likes.

Anyone who believes they had contact with the suspects is asked to dial 911 immediately, contact your local law enforcement agency or contact the Crestview Police Department at 682-2055. 

Weirton sensory room a hit with those with autism

Updated: Monday, March 24 2014, 06:38 PM EDT
WEIRTON, W.Va. – As the number of diagnoses continue to climb, chances are you or a loved one is impacted by autism.
Also on the rise is awareness.
Patty and Rich Soplinski are the owners of Krazy Bout Sports in Weirton but they recently took on another project.
After a push from others in the community, they created a special sensory room for kids and adults with autism, and they are looking to build more. It’s a multi-use sensory room that features, among other things, a trampoline, a swing, and colorful mats.
“By having a sensory room and having different stations set up that allow them to work on the different senses and to integrate them together properly, it can have such a great effect on day-to-day interaction,” said Nichole Northcraft, who son was diagnosed with autism.  “(It can positively impact) their development, their speech.”
For Northcraft’s son Israel, a room like this can be a safe haven.
It's comfortable and calming.
Richard Soplinski says he and his wife are working hard to expand to open up another room.
“The second room we want to open up with four stations in it is a quiet room,” he said. “And that's something we are trying to raise money for to purchase all the objects and things that need to go into that room to make it successful.”
He said they still have to raise another $8,000-to-$10,000 before that work can begin.
For Northcraft, it's heartwarming to see the community come together.
“To have people that are willing to give up their time, energy and talents to help our children it's really amazing to see that everyone is pulling together their resources to bring awareness,” she said.
It does cost $12 per hour to rent the room. But with the help of donations, the Soplinskis hope to offer it free of charge in the future.
If you know someone who you think could benefit from the room or would like to make a donation, call (304) 914-3428.
Channel 9 - News



Video, Facebook help net robber who stole iPad from autistic boy 


    Police say it was a brazen act, but video footage helped them make an arrest after a robber snatched an iPad away from a 10-year-old autistic boy who was using the device to pass the time while waiting for pizza.

    D'von Berry's mother told Fox 9 News the iPad her son uses with his speech therapy has been a godsend, even if his favorite thing to use it for is a game of Minecraft.

    "I turned around and the next thing you know, my son was jetting out the door, so I had to run after him," Kim Berry recalled.

    Berry explained that the crook made his move while the boy was waiting for his mother to order their dinner.

    "I was ordering the pizza and, just that quick, they snatched the iPad and they took off," she said.

    Montrel Tyson, a 21-year-old from Minneapolis with no permanent address, is now charged with robbery -- and police were able to track him down using security video that captured the word "believe" on his hat.

    "Ultimately finding a Facebook photo which identifies him wearing the same hat that evening," Cmdr. Brian Peters, of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, said.

    Even though it was just a case of petty theft, investigators were motivated to find a thief so brazen they would steal from a child.

    "You can just feel the expression of loss of the 10-year-old when he runs out of the store after his iPad into the dark of night," Det. Chuck Valleau said.

    Police say Tyson sold the iPad for $80, but investigators were able to link him to the crime using the digital fingerprints he left behind.

    Investigators say it was a crime of opportunity, and cell phones are often swiped by crooks who grab and go, often specifically targeting those who may not be paying attention to their surroundings.

    Police were unable to return the stolen property, but the Berry's eventually bought a new iPad for D'von -- and they're relieved an arrest was made.

    By Shelby Capacio and Bill Keller |

    By ,

    Published: March 21 | Updated: Saturday, March 22, 8:52 PM 

    When Bernie DeLeo’s drama students at West Springfield High School won a state title last spring with a one-act play about autism, DeLeo was honored and thrilled for his students. But it left him with a nagging feeling.

    That play — Ariadne Blayde’s “The Other Room” — is about a high school boy and the voices battling inside his head. It is poignant and moving, DeLeo said, but it leaves audiences with the impression that to have autism is tragic. As the parent of someone with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, DeLeo thought something was missing from the play.

    Tibetan Buddhist monks holding ceremonial scarfs stand in a line to welcome their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, fourth left, as he arrives at the Jhonang Takten Phuntsok Choeling monastery in Shimla, India, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Tenzin Choejor)

    “People loved it,” DeLeo said of “The Other Room,” adding that audiences were gasping and crying at the end of the play. “As a director, you love it when that happens. But by the same token, living with a son who is autistic, it left me with the feeling that this is not 100 percent accurate. My experience is that it can be rather funny to have a child with autism.”

    So DeLeo, who has a master’s degree in playwriting, sat down last summer and wrote his own one-act play about a teen with the increasingly common disorder: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 88 children, and one in 54 boys, has autism. The result was “Nerdicus (My Brother With Autism),” which earned the school a trip back to the Virginia High School League state championships this month. It finished third in the state.

    The play is largely autobiographical, based on DeLeo’s children Charlie, 20, who has Asperger’s, and Sophie, 18. When they were in high school at the same time, Charlie’s behavior, including saluting Sophie in the crowded hallways, often embarrassed his sister.

    DeLeo didn’t tell his family he was working on the play until it was finished. He wasn’t sure how they — particularly Sophie — would react to seeing their lives on stage.

    “I thought she could blow a gasket when she read this. That was my biggest fear,” DeLeo said. “And I thought, ‘if any of my family is upset with this, and this is revealing too much, I will pull the plug on it.’ But they weren’t. My daughter laughed and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is so true.’ She was laughing at certain lines that are kind of like family lore.”

    DeLeo wrote the play mostly from Sophie’s point of view, and the action opens with one of those family-lore moments. When the lights go up, Eddie Miller is at the school bus stop in Roman armor, waving a fake sword while other students stare and snicker. Eddie’s sister, Rachel, played by junior Bonnie McClellan, 16, is mortified and desperately tries to get him to stop.

    “The play is really her story,” DeLeo said. “When you have a sibling with autism, how does that non-disabled child cope, what is it like for them, especially when the disability is so flipping weird? My son knows he’s eccentric, and he revels in it. When they overlapped in high school for two years, that drove my daughter bananas.”

    At the start of the 32-minute play, Rachel is embarrassed by her brother and frustrated with her parents for not understanding what it’s like to have to babysit for her older sibling at school. In addition to his bus stop antics, Eddie tells the boy Rachel has a crush on that she talks about him all the time. He also dreams of asking the hottest girl in school to the prom, to Rachel’s horror.

    By the end of the play, though, Rachel is better able to take her brother’s idiosyncrasies in stride. He graduates from high school and, as Charlie DeLeo did, goes away to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

    The play ends with the two Skyping regularly while Eddie is in college and with Rachel gaining a deeper understanding of what it’s like to have a disability. She sees a girl at the bus stop who, much like Charlie, is talking to herself. Rachel befriends the girl as the lights dim. Similarly, DeLeo said, Sophie, now a senior in high school, came to terms with her brother’s eccentricities and has mentored other students with disabilities.

    “When she sees people treating kids with disabilities as if they can’t do things, she says, ‘No, let them do it,’ ” DeLeo said. “People would try to let Charlie off the hook because of his disability, but she would intervene and say, ‘No, he can do it. People with disabilities are capable human beings.’ It’s a good lesson that came out of them being in high school together.”

    DeLeo cast Austin Morrison, 17, who has Asperger’s, as Eddie. Like Charlie DeLeo, Austin embraces his eccentricities, so the character is relatable for Austin, a senior at West Springfield.

    “Let’s just say we’re both not normal,” he said, noting that he wrote a college essay about being atypical. “I sort of have a philosophy on life: If you’re weird, you’re not normal, and normal is boring. Basically, weird is the new normal.”

    DeLeo said he was nervous about putting Austin at center stage, but the casting has worked. He said Austin is pretty much playing himself on stage (though Austin is quick to point out that he is not obsessed with Greek, Roman and Japanese history), and he’s glad he trusted his instincts and gave Austin the opportunity.

    “That’s kind of the point of the play: If you give students on the spectrum a chance, they can do just as well as other students,” DeLeo said.

    Washington Post