1/14/15 - Latest in Autism News

Advanced 3-D facial imaging may aid in early detection of autism

Autism is a spectrum of closely related disorders diagnosed in patients who exhibit a shared core of symptoms, including delays in learning to communicate and interact socially. Early detection of autism in children is the key for treatments to be most effective and produce the best outcomes. Using advanced three-dimensional imaging and statistical analysis techniques, researchers at the University of Missouri have identified facial measurements in children with autism that may lead to a screening tool for young children and provide clues to its genetic causes.

We want to detect the specific facial traits of the face of a child with autism," said Ye Duan, associate professor of computer science in the College of Engineering at MU. "Doing so might help us define the facial structures common to children with autism and potentially enable early screening for the disorder."

Expanding upon previous studies using two-dimensional imaging, Duan, working with Judith Miles, professor emerita of child health-genetics in the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at MU, used a system of cameras to photograph and generate three-dimensional images of children's faces.

The children selected were between 8 and 12 years old. One group of children had been diagnosed with autism by the Thompson Center; the other group consisted of typically developing children. Researchers photographed the faces of children using three-dimensional imaging, which allowed scientists to measure distances along the curvature of the face rather than in a straight line as had been done in previous tests. Duan then ran sophisticated statistical analyses to measure minute differences in the facial measurements of each group.

"It all started from a clinical observation," Miles said. "Over years of treating children, I noticed that a portion of those diagnosed with autism tend to look alike with similar facial characteristics. I thought perhaps there was something more than coincidence at play. The differences were not abnormal, rather they appeared analogous to similarities observed among siblings. Using three-dimensional images and statistical analysis, we created a 'fine-tuned map' of children's faces and compared those measurements to the various symptoms they exhibit. By clustering the groups based on their facial measurements and recording their autism symptoms, we wanted to determine whether subgroups based on facial structure correlate with autism symptoms and severity."

The group's analyses revealed three distinct subgroups of children with autism who had similar measurement patterns in their facial features. These subgroups also shared similarities in the type and severity of their autism symptoms.

Miles said that next steps include inviting other research groups to replicate our findings and to perform DNA analyses to look for specific genes associated with each subgroup. Identifying genes associated with each subtype of autism could potentially lead to the development of more effective treatments and drug therapies, she said.

The team's paper, "Facial structure analysis separates autism spectrum disorders into meaningful clinical subgroups," was funded in part by the Department of Defense's Medical Research and Development Program and was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

University of Missouri-Columbia

1/10 - Latest in Autism News

Can Pets Help Boost Social Skills for Kids With Autism?

The findings are among the first to investigate possible links between pets and social skills in kids with an autism spectrum disorder -- a group of developmental disorders that affect a child's ability to communicate and socialize. 

"Research in the area of pets for children with autism is very new and limited. But it may be that the animals helped to act as a type of communication bridge, giving children with autism something to talk about with others," said study author Gretchen Carlisle, a researcher at the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine and Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. "We know this happens with adults and typically developing children."

She said the study showed a difference in social skills that was significantly greater for children with autism living with any pet.

But, the associations are weak, according to autism expert Dr. Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director of Children's Health Council in Palo Alto, Calif.

"One absolutely cannot assume that dog ownership is going to improve an autistic child's social skills, certainly not from this study," he said.

It's also important to note that while this study found a difference in social skills in children with autism who had pets at home, the study wasn't designed to prove whether or not pet ownership was the actual cause of those differences.

A large body of research, described in the study's background, has found dog owners share close bonds with their pets. Past research also shows that pets can provide typically developing children with emotional support.

Pets have also been shown to help facilitate social interaction. And, pets have been linked to greater empathy and social confidence in typically developing children. Past research in children with autism has focused only on service dogs, therapy dogs, equine-assisted therapy and dolphins, Carlisle said.

Carlisle wanted to see if having a family pet might make a difference in children with autism. To do so, she conducted a telephone survey with 70 parents of children diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorder. The parents answered questions about their child's attachment to their dog and their child's social skills, such as communication, responsibility, assertiveness, empathy, engagement and self-control.

Carlisle also interviewed the children about their attachment to their pets. The children were between the ages of 8 and 18. Each child had an IQ of at least 70, according to the study.

The study found that 57 households owned any pets at all. Among those families, 47 owned dogs and 36 had cats. Other pets included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird and a spider.

The study results showed no significant differences in overall or individual social skills between children who owned dogs and those who didn't. But, owning a dog for longer periods of time was weakly linked to stronger social skills and fewer problem behaviors after accounting for a child's age, the researcher found.

The study could not show whether having a dog influenced children's social skills or whether more socially capable children were more likely to own a dog.

Compared to the 13 children without pets, those who owned any pet -- whether a dog or not -- showed slightly more assertiveness, such as willingness to approach others or respond to others. However, the study only included children whose parents said their children would answer questions on the telephone. No other differences in social skills or problem behaviors existed between the pet-owning and non-pet-owning children, according to the study.

The findings were published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

"Although the author makes a case for possible advantages of having a pet, specifically a dog, for higher functioning children with autism spectrum disorders, parents should look carefully at these results and their own circumstances," Elliott said.

He noted there were no statistically significant findings shown in the study data. The study also didn't consider whether pet ownership could have negative effects, according to Elliott.

"The effects are not especially robust and could just as easily be a result of more socially competent children with autism spectrum disorders being attracted to dogs as a relatively safe, low-demand but high-yield form of social contact," Elliot noted.

Pets are less complex and demanding than people, Elliott added. Some children with autism may be able to better exercise social skills with the right kind of pet, but the evidence does not yet show that this behavior extends to interactions with people.

Both Elliott and Carlisle said it's essential for parents to consider their ability to care for any pet before getting one.

"Thinking about the time demands of the pet, the child's sensory issues and family lifestyle when choosing a pet are important to increasing the likelihood for the successful integration of that new pet into the family," Carlisle said. "For example, a child sensitive to loud noises may respond better to a quiet pet."

But Elliott said parents should not mistakenly believe that the potentially positive addition of a pet to a household will be the answer to a child's social difficulties.

"The idea that animals -- dogs, horses, dolphins, to name a few -- can uniquely 'get through' to children with autism is not new," Elliott said. "It certainly seems to be a source of pleasure for some children with autism -- and for many without autism also -- but it is not a cure for an underlying disorder."

MONDAY, Jan. 5, 2015, By Tara Haelle, HealthDay News

12/27 - Latest in Autism News

Different Gene Mutations May Determine Severity, Type of Autism

 Different types of gene mutations may play a role in the severity and type of autism, new research suggests.

The findings could lead to improved diagnosis and treatments for the disorder, the researchers added.

No two people with autism have the exact type and severity of behaviors, according to background information from the study. Investigators analyzed hundreds of autism patients and nearly 1,000 genes to determine how gene mutations influence autism symptoms.

They found that more damaging genetic mutations usually result in more severe autism symptoms, that autism patients with little or no verbal skills often have mutations in genes that are more active in the brain, and that those with less severe autism symptoms were less likely to have mutations that completely shut down genes.

The researchers also found that gene mutations play a role in gender differences in autism. While autism is far more common in males, females with autism are more likely to have severe symptoms.

The genes that are mutated in females with autism have greater activity in the brain than those that are mutated in males with autism, according to the study published Dec. 22 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"If we can understand how different mutations lead to different features of [autism], we may be able to use patients' genetic profiles to develop accurate diagnostic and prognostic tools, and perhaps personalize treatment," senior study author Dennis Vitkup, an associate professor of systems biology and biomedical informatics at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, said in a university news release.

-- Dec. 22, 2014 (HealthDay News), Preidt

12/3 - Latest in Autism News

May Institute Supports Civilian and Military Families in Need of Autism Services

Beneficiary of the U.S. Government's 2014 Combined Federal Campaign

May Institute is proud to announce that, for the fifth consecutive year, it is among the selected beneficiaries of the U.S. Government's Combined Federal Campaign (CFC). The CFC is the world's largest annual workplace charity campaign, raising millions of dollars each year for nonprofit organizations that provide health and human service benefits in countries around the world.

May Institute is a national nonprofit network of educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral health services for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other special needs.

Donations made through the 2014 CFC campaign will provide specialized care and support services to children and adults with ASD, brain injury, and other special needs. Past campaigns have supported programs throughout the country, including those serving children with ASD in military families.

"A shortage of qualified providers and the lack of professional resources near installations mean that fewer than 10 percent of military children with ASD are receiving critical treatment and care," says Lauren C. Solotar, Ph.D., ABPP, President and Chief Executive Officer of May Institute. "Through the generosity of our CFC donors we have been able to significantly strengthen our ability to provide vital services to these military dependents and their families."

Laura, a military parent in the Washington, D.C., area, knows firsthand how difficult it can be to find answers and the right resources for a child with autism. (Read Laura's story.) After 12 years of knowing something was not quite right, progress was finally made with two important discoveries.

One doctor raised the possibility that Laura's son may have an ASD, and suggested an evaluation. Shortly thereafter, while researching the topic of autism, Laura's hopes soared when she stumbled on an organization in the CFC catalogue that not only could provide a definitive diagnosis, but also specialized in autism services for military families.

"After walking through the doors of May Institute and within moments of describing our situation to the staff, I felt I had found people who not only understood my son and what we were going through, but who could truly help us," said Laura. "We consider May Institute our 'new family' because they saved ours."

To be named a beneficiary of the CFC, May Institute underwent rigorous review to demonstrate that it meets the highest standards of public accountability, and program and cost effectiveness. These standards are required by the U.S. government for inclusion in the CFC, and fewer than 50,000 charities (or five percent) of the millions of charities operating in the U.S. meet these standards.

The Independent Charities of America has also awarded May Institute with the highest honor – the Seal of Excellence. This award is given to less than 2,000 charities (or four percent) of the 50,000 charities in the CFC.

The CFC campaign season runs through December 15, 2014. May Institute's DBA is "Autism Treatment, Research and Training for Military and Civilian Families." Its CFC number is 11228.

View a video about May Institute's services.

About May Institute

May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with nearly 60 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury, mental illness, and behavioral health needs. The organization provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral healthcare services to individuals, as well as training and consultation services to professionals, organizations, and public school systems. At more than 160 service locations across the country, highly trained staff work to create new and more effective ways to meet the special needs of individuals and families across the lifespan.

The Institute also provides autism-related services to military dependents and their families, and serves all branches of the military — Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard — at installations across the country.

For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit www.mayinstitute.org.

RANDOLPH, Mass., Dec. 1, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/