5/1 - Latest in Autism News

Autism therapy bill stalls in Senate

Legislation that would require health insurers to cover an intensive autism therapy has stalled in the state Senate after passing the House of Representatives unanimously.

The House on April 20 voted 100-0 to mandate coverage of applied behavioral analysis therapy, also called ABA therapy. However, the bill was not assigned to a Senate committee until a week later and the committee chairman said it will be another week before the bill has a public hearing.

Parents, such as Catey Hall of Birmingham, said they fear time will run out in the session.

Children can require 20 or more hours of therapy each week, but parents say it can be "life-changing."

Sen. Trip Pittman, who heads the budget committee that will hear the bill, said there are questions about state costs.

May1, 2017,  The Associated Press

4/24- Latest in Autism News

New Jersey has the highest rate of autism of any state in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control — but advocates say that’s in part because we screen for it more.

“One in 41 8-year-olds have autism here in New Jersey,” said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director or Autism New Jersey. Autism affects a person’s ability to socialize with other people, and it gives people a restricted range of behaviors, interests and activities.

Buchanan said there are a number of reasons why New Jersey’s autism rates are so high.

On Wednesday, April 26, at 7 p.m. New Jersey 101.5 will present a special autism town hall.

Experts will be available to answer your questions and update you with the latest information on this disorder. Follow NJ 101.5 on Facebook and watch it live.

“They can pretty easily be explained by the way the research is done and the reports that the researchers had access to,” she said. “Here in New Jersey we have access to both educational and health records, so if you expand the pool of kids that you’re screening, you’re going to find more kids.”

But there’s another reason.

“The definition of the spectrum has been expanded since those earlier prevalent studies, so now individuals with more mild social disabilities are included in that definition,” she said.

Buchanan pointed out autism is four times more common in boys than in girls.

“Sometimes it’s under-diagnosed in girls because the symptoms may manifest differently or present differently,” she said.

Signs of autism

Buchanan explained most young children can share they’re experiences socially, paying attention to the people and experiences at the same time, “so if you’re playing outside in the backyard and a loud helicopter goes overhead they’ll point to it, maybe enjoy it. They’re not just looking at that helicopter, they’re making it a social experience.

“Sometimes we don’t see that with children with autism.”

She said other signs a child could be autistic include “not imitating other people, not engaging in pretend play, and not having that reciprocity in conversation.”

“Typically young kids are very engaged. They’re looking at your face, they’re making eye contact, they’re smiling, they’re playing peek-a-boo, they’re doing all sorts of things to get your attention, and children with autism sometimes don’t do that.”

Courtesy Autism NJ

What causes autism?

“There’s a very strong scientific consensus that it is genetic, not necessarily hereditary, because there can be spontaneous changes in genetic material,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said the research into environmental factors is just at the beginning stages, “but so far there’s been no smoking gun identified.”

She also noted in most cases, children do not grow out of their autism.

“Sometimes there is some spontaneous improvement, but for the most part, if you have autism you have it for your entire life,” he said.

She said out not everything you hear and read about autism is true — “both theories about the cause and what are effective interventions. A quick Google search will yield many different hits, some of which are credible, some of which are not.”

Buchanan stressed the supposed link between vaccines and autism is not credible at all. In fact, it has been proven to be completely and thoroughly false.

“Autism can be very stressful on a family and it can be very stressful on a marriage, but the good news here is that many individuals, parents and siblings are strengthened because of the disability and they have more resilience, and their marriage will last a very long time.”

4/24/17, New Jersey 101.5, by David Matthau


4/17 - Latest in Autism News

Airports creating spaces for people on the autism spectrum

Quiet rooms for children on the autism spectrum are popping up at airports. 

Shannon Airport, which serves the southwestern region of Ireland, opened a “sensory room” for children and adults with neurodevelopmental challenges, including autism, on March 29. The room is located off the airport’s departure lounge. It’s designed to be a soothing place, with features like a wavy wall and color-changing lights. The official opening of the room came ahead of World Autism Day on April 2. 

On this side of the Atlantic, there are quiet rooms at airports in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and in Atlanta. 

Delta opened a multisensory room at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in April 2016 in partnership with The Arc, an autism advocacy group. The room, located in a quiet space on F Concourse, contains a mini-ball pit, bubbling water sculpture, a tactile activity panel and other calming features. 

The quiet room at the Myrtle Beach airport also opened in April 2016. It came about after a local mom, Becky Large, approached airport administrators about providing “some sort of support for families.” 

“We came up with a quiet room at baggage claim, which has worked out wonderfully,” said Large, who runs a group called Champion Autism Network and has two children, one of whom has Asperger’s. A caregiver can stay with a child in the room while someone else “retrieves bags and rental cars. There are cubbies and seating and a glass door so the child can be cordoned off and can’t run away. It gives them a place to decompress.” 

London Heathrow opened a quiet room in 2013 as part of a family lounge in Terminal 3. Though it’s mainly for children, it’s not necessarily for those with autism. It’s open to any family that would like to use it. 

Some airports and airlines also offer families with travelers on the spectrum opportunities to become familiar with airport experiences that may be stressful. Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania, for example, offers a “Wings for All” program that allows children with autism and sensory processing disorder to experience a run-through of what it’s like getting on a plane, getting ticketed and getting seated so that they’ll know what to expect when it’s time for a real trip. A similar program took place at Myrtle Beach earlier this year, and Shannon launched a customer care program last year, providing special caps and wristbands for travelers with autism and other special needs so staff can identify them and interact appropriately. 

“Going through security even for those without autism can be challenging,” said Michael Schiferl of Chicago, whose daughter is on the spectrum, but it’s even more challenging for kids who are easily overwhelmed by beeping machines, taking off shoes and crowds. He said TSA workers have been “very helpful” when told of his daughter’s special needs. 

Large also had her hometown, Surfside Beach, which is near Myrtle Beach, declared an “autism-friendly destination” last year, after restaurants, hotels, parks and other venues participated in training on how to interact with children with autism. For example, she said, they may “become overstimulated by light, sounds, smells, crowds,” so a restaurant might seat their family in a “low-traffic area away from the kitchen.” 

Large said a bigger goal is to increase understanding at all levels for special-needs children who may exhibit unusual or awkward behavior. 

“Many times when we leave the house with our kids, people look at you like you’re a horrible parent,” she said. “It results in a lot of judgment. Many people stay home. Our mission is to have them come out and play with us.” 

By Beth J. Harpaz, Associated Press: APRIL 17, 2017, MIDNIGHT

4/10 -Latest in Autism News

Scientists seek early signs of autism

Biomarkers could aid diagnosis and lead to strategies for treatment

EXPANDING BRAIN  High-risk babies — younger siblings of a child with autism — who will be diagnosed with autism themselves had more rapid growth in parts of their brains than low-risk babies who will not later get an autism diagnosis. Darker colors indicate a bigger difference in growth rate. 

Soon after systems biologist Juergen Hahn published a paper describing a way to predict whether a child has autism from a blood sample, the notes from parents began arriving. “I have a bunch of parents writing me now who want to test their kids,” says Hahn, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. “I can’t do that.”

That’s because despite their promise, his group’s results, reported March 16 in PLOS Computational Biology, are preliminary — nowhere close to a debut in a clinical setting. The test will need to be confirmed and repeated in different children before it can be used to help diagnose autism. Still, the work of Hahn and colleagues, along with other recent papers, illustrates how the hunt for a concrete biological signature of autism, a biomarker, is gaining speed.

Currently, pediatricians, child psychologists and therapists rely on behavioral observations and questionnaires, measures with limitations. Barring genetic tests for a handful of rare mutations, there are no blood draws, brain scans or other biological tests that can reveal whether a child has — or will get — autism.

Objective tests would be incredibly useful, helping provide an early diagnosis that could lead to therapy in the first year of life, when the brain is the most malleable. A reliable biomarker might also help distinguish various types of autism, divisions that could reveal who would benefit from certain therapies. And some biomarkers may reveal a deeper understanding of how the brain normally develops.

Scientists are simultaneously sanguine and realistic about the prospect of uncovering solid autism biomarkers. “We have great tools that we’ve never had before,” says psychiatrist Joseph Piven of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. Scientists can assess genes quickly and cheaply, gather sophisticated information about the shape and behavior of the brain, and rely on large organized research collaborations aimed at understanding autism. “That said, I’ve done this long enough to know that people make all kinds of claims: ‘In the next five years or the next 10 years, we’re going to do this,’” Piven says. The reality, he says, is more challenging.

Blood test

After a newly devised mathematical analysis assigned a score based on the level of metabolites in the blood, samples from people with autism (blue) were clearly distinguishable from samples from people without autism (red). 

Hahn agrees. “I think it will take quite a bit longer” to find clinically useful biomarkers, he says. “It’s not what parents want to hear. The thing is, this is a very difficult medical disease with many different manifestations.”

Researchers have turned up differences in the brain between people with and without autism, including size and growth patterns, connections between areas and brain cell behavior. But the variability in autism symptoms — and causes — has prompted scientists to look beyond the brain in the search for biomarkers.

“Autism may not be purely a brain disorder,” says neuroscientist Eric Courchesne of the University of California, San Diego. Scientists are looking for important clues to autism in gut microbes, skin cells, the immune system and factors that circulate in the blood.

That was the rationale behind Hahn and colleagues’ experiment, which compared compounds in the blood of 83 children with autism to those of 76 children without the disorder. The researchers focused on a group of molecules implicated in autism. These molecules carry out an intricate series of metabolic reactions called folate-dependent one-carbon metabolism and transsulfuration. Earlier work suggested that these processes are altered in people with autism.

Hahn and colleagues developed a statistical tool that examined the relationships between 24 of these molecules. Instead of looking at the concentration of each individual player, the team wondered if a more global view would help. “Could you find patterns in these that give you a much more predictive pattern than if you look at them one by one?” he asks. The answer, their results showed, was yes.

The statistical tool correctly called 97.6 percent of the children with autism and 96.1 percent of the children without. Just two of 83 children on the autism spectrum were misclassified as being neurotypical, and three of 76 children without autism were misclassified as being autistic. Compared with other methods described in the scientific literature, “the numbers we got out were very, very good,” Hahn says.

Those results are “quite interesting as an example of a blood test,” says neuroscientist Dwight German of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. But as a researcher who also works on blood-based biomarkers of autism, German is familiar with a huge caveat: Blood can be fickle. Medications, age and even time of day can influence factors in the blood, he says. “There’s an awful lot of testing you have to do to show that what you’re measuring is related to the disorder and not what they ate for breakfast,” he says.

If these metabolic differences are present just after birth, the blood test could be an extremely early indicator of autism. But much more work needs to be done to validate the new approach, including tests on children younger than 3, Hahn says.

Other issues need to be resolved, too. When tested on 47 siblings of people with autism, children who presumably share genetics and environment with an autistic sibling but who don’t have the disorder themselves, the statistical tool’s performance worsened a bit. The tool incorrectly classified four of the 47 siblings as having autism.

For tougher distinctions between high-risk kids like these, scientists have had success looking back to the brain. Recently, Piven and colleagues studied babies born to parents who already had an autistic child. These “baby sibs” have about a one in five chance of developing autism themselves, a rate higher than that of a child without an autistic sibling. By studying this high-risk group, Piven and colleagues have found brain features that are associated with even more risk.

Fluid levels

Some babies who go on to receive autism diagnoses may have more cerebrospinal fluid on part of their brain that babies who do not get diagnosed with autism. Babies who have elevated risk of autism due to an older sibling with the disorder and who are later diagnosed themselves (red) have more fluid than high-risk babies who do not get diagnosed with autism (purple) and low-risk babies who do not get diagnosed with autism (blue). 

Researchers had suspected that at some point early in life, brains grow too much in children who will go on to develop autism. Piven and colleagues scanned the brains of 106 babies with older siblings with autism at 6, 12 and 24 months of age. The researchers also included 42 low-risk infants.

At 6 and 12 months of age, the 15 babies who went on to develop autism had more growth in the outer surface of their brains, the cortex, than both the high-risk babies who didn’t develop autism and the low-risk babies, the researchers reported February 16 in Nature. A computer program that analyzed brain growth predicted whether these high-risk infants would go on to develop autism. On a second set of babies, the classification performed well, successfully calling eight out of 10 babies who would go on to develop autism by 24 months of age.

Other work by Piven and colleagues has turned up other brain differences in high-risk babies. Babies who will go on to develop autism have more cerebrospinal fluid on a certain part of the outer layer of their brains than those who don’t develop the disorder. But the results, published online March 6 in Biological Psychiatryfell short of the predictive power of the brain overgrowth results, Piven says.

Both of these brain scan studies apply only to high-risk babies. It’s not known whether similar tests would work on children without siblings with autism. But it’s possible that these types of detailed findings can help distinguish varieties of autism, and those are distinctions that must be made before scientists can make progress, Piven says. “We call [autism] one thing, but it’s many, many different things. And until we are able to grapple with that in a more meaningful way, it’s sort of an intractable problem.”

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Robert Hendren, of the University of California, San Francisco, envisions a time when this collection of individual disorders collectively called autism are all cataloged in detail, thanks to biomarkers. “We’ll call it autism 23 or autism 14, and we’ll say, ‘We know this is the process that’s going on, and this is how we’re going to personalize our treatments for this person.’”

On the way to that goal, a big breakthrough is unlikely, says Piven. It’s not like the discovery of penicillin for bacterial infections. “You give it, and 10 days later, everything is fine. This isn’t going to be like that.” Even so, the breadth and enthusiasm of the field is promising, he says. “This whole idea of looking at early biomarkers is a new way of thinking, and we have enormous capabilities to make this reality.”