5/22 - Latest in Autism News

Animals' presence may ease social anxiety in kids with autism 

Animals' presence may ease social anxiety in kids with autism NIH-funded study could have implications for treatment.

When animals are present, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have lower readings on a device that detects anxiety and other forms of social arousal when interacting with their peers.

According to a study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, companion animals -- like dogs, cats or the guinea pigs in the study -- may prove to be a helpful addition to treatment programs designed to help children with ASDs improve their social skills and interactions with other people.

The study, published online in Developmental Psychobiology, was conducted by Marguerite O'Haire, Ph.D., from the Center for the Human-Animal Bond in the College of Veterinary Medicine of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and colleagues in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

"Previous studies suggest that in the presence of companion animals, children with autism spectrum disorders function better socially," said James Griffin, Ph.D., of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "This study provides physiological evidence that the proximity of animals eases the stress that children with autism may experience in social situations."

This study is among several funded under a public-private partnership established in 2008 between NICHD and the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, a division of Mars Inc., to establish a human-animal interaction research program to support studies relevant to child development, health, and the therapeutic use of animals.

"By providing support for these research studies, we hope to generate more definitive answers about how human-animal interaction affects health," he said.

ASDs affect the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. People with these conditions have difficulty communicating and interacting with other people. They also have restricted and repetitive interests and behaviors.

For the current study, Dr. O'Haire and her colleagues measured skin conductance, the ease at which an unnoticeable electric charge passes through a patch of skin, in children with ASDs and in typically developing children. Researchers divided the 114 children, ages 5 to 12 years old, into 38 groups of three. Each group included one child with ASD and two of their typically developing peers.

Each child wore a wrist band fitted with a device that measures skin conductance. When people are feeling excited, fearful, or anxious, the electric charge travels faster through the skin, providing an objective way for researchers to gauge social anxiety and other forms of psychological arousal.

For the first few minutes, the children read a book silently, giving researchers a baseline measure of skin conductance while carrying out a non-stressful, familiar task. Next, each child was asked to read aloud from the book in the presence of the two peers in their group, a task designed to measure their level of apprehension during social situations.

The researchers then brought toys in the room and allowed the children 10 minutes of free play time. These situations may be stressful for children with ASDs, who may have difficulty relating socially to their typically developing peers.

Finally, the researchers brought two guinea pigs into the room and allowed the children to have 10 minutes of supervised play with the animals. The researchers chose guinea pigs because of their small size and docile nature -- much easier to manage in a classroom than larger animals.

The researchers found that, compared to the typically developing children, the children with autism had higher skin conductance levels when reading silently, reading aloud, and in the group toy session. These higher levels are consistent with reports from parents and teachers, and from other studies, that children with ASDs are more likely to be anxious in social situations than typically developing children.

When the session with the guinea pigs began, however, skin conductance levels among the children with ASDs dropped significantly. The researchers speculate that because companion animals offer unqualified acceptance, their presence makes the children feel more secure. Whereas human counterparts inherently pass social judgment, animals are often perceived as sources of unconditional, positive support, the researchers wrote.

For reasons the researchers can not explain, skin conductance levels in the typically developing children rose during the session with the guinea pigs. The researchers believe that these higher readings may indicate excitement at seeing the animals, rather than any nervousness or apprehension.

Dr. O'Haire added that earlier studies have shown that children with ASDs were less likely to withdraw from social situations when companion animals are present. These studies, along with the current findings, indicate that animals might "play a part in interventions seeking to help children with autism develop their social skills," she said. She cautioned, however, that the findings do not mean that parents of children with ASDs should rush to buy an animal for their children. Further research is needed to determine how animals might be used in programs aimed at developing social skills.

"Our study was conducted in a supervised setting, by researchers experienced in working with kids with autism spectrum disorders who understand the needs and requirements of the animals," Dr. O'Haire said. She added that careful supervision was provided during the study, to ensure the welfare of the children as well as the animals.

May 20, 2015, Science Daily

5/11 - Latest in Autism News

Teen with Autism Kicked Off Flight from Plane

An Oregon mom plans to sue after her family, including a daughter with autism, was kicked off a United Airlines flight to Portland for being "disruptive."

The mother of a a teenager with autism who was removed from a United Airlines flight over concerns she might become disruptive has said she is "shocked" by the family's treatment.

Donna Beegle, a public speaker who focuses on poverty, told KATU news her family was traveling home from Disney World on Tuesday when they were escorted off the plane after she challenged a flight attendant's refusal to let her to buy a hot meal for her daughter.

She said her 15-year-old daughter, Juliette, is high functioning but doesn't speak. Beegle knew Juliette was getting hungry, but Juliette wouldn't eat the snacks the family had on hand. Juliette is a picky eater, Beegle said, a common trait of children who have autism.

Beegle thought hot food might appeal to her daughter. She asked a flight attendant if she could buy a hot meal from first class, but the flight attendant denied the request after a 25-minute debate with Beegle.

At that point, Beegle told KATU, she told the attendant, "'You know what? Maybe after she has a meltdown and she's crying and trying to scratch, then you'll help us,'" Beegle said.

Juliette eventually got the hot meal and began to calm down, Beegle said. About 30 minutes later, the flight crew announced plans to make an emergency landing in Salt Lake City. Once the plane touched down, police came to escort the Beegle family off.

A spokeswoman for United released a statement claiming the flight crew worked to accommodate the family, but ultimately "made the best decision for the safety and comfort of all of our customers and elected to divert to Salt Lake City after the situation became disruptive."

United spokeswoman Karen May said she could provide no further details about the incident.

Witnesses to the in-flight incident differed in their views on whether the crew was justified in calling the police. In interviews with KOIN 6 news, one witness said the crew overreacted, while another said Juliette's "howling" made other passengers feel unsafe.

United Airlines touts its efforts to accommodate people with autism by offering simulated flights to prepare them for their fight time flying. Beegle doesn't believe that's enough.

"They need training," she told KGW.

-- Kelly House

May 11, 2015 - Orlando Sentinel


4/28 - Latest in Autism News

D.L. Hughley chokes up while sharing sweet story about son with Asperger's 

Parents whose children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum understand that they often have to recalibrate their expectations for their children's accomplishments. Yes, those kids can do wonderful things, but often on their own schedules.

Comedian D.L. Hughley is one such parent. His son Kyle is now 26 and was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was a child. Kyle went on to many life successes and has a college degree — but he can still surprise dad with the strides he's making.

Hughley, who starred in sitcom "The Hughleys," talked about one such accomplishment on "Oprah: Where Are They Now" recently, and couldn't hold back the tears of pride.

"He graduated from college, but everything has to be the same," said Hughley. "He goes to work at the same time. He eats the same thing."

But a few weeks ago, when Dad needed gas for his car, Kyle volunteered to do it. This seemingly small change was actually a big leap for the young man.

When Kyle came back with the receipt for the gas and the car keys, said Hughley, letting the tears flow freely, "I could not stop crying, because he did something he was afraid to do. ... I just didn't believe he could do it. He did it."

It was a major empowerment moment for Kyle and a way for Dad to confirm that his son could be independent in the world regardless of his diagnosis. "I held him and I said, 'You're gonna be all right,'" recalled Hughley. "And I think sometimes I don't know for sure, but he's gonna be fine. He'll be fine."

Hughley later tweeted about the clip, and his fans and friends joined in with support.

4/28, Randee Dawn, TODAY


4/13 - Latest in Autism News

Brain Activity in infants predicts language outcomes in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can produce strikingly different clinical outcomes in young children, with some having strong conversation abilities and others not talking at all. A study published by Cell Press April 9th in Neuron reveals the reason: At the very first signs of possible autism in infants and toddlers, neural activity in language-sensitive brain regions is already similar to normal in those ASD toddlers who eventually go on to develop good language ability but nearly absent in those who later have a poor language outcome.

"Why some toddlers with ASD get better and develop good language and others do not has been a mystery that is of the utmost importance to solve," says senior author Eric Courchesne, co-director of the UC San Diego Autism Center, where the study was designed and conducted. "Discovering the early neural bases for these different developmental trajectories now opens new avenues to finding causes and treatments specific to these two very different subtypes of autism."

The researchers studied 60 ASD and 43 non-ASD infants and toddlers using the natural sleep functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) method developed by the UCSD Autism Center investigators to record brain activity in the participants as they listened to excerpts from children's stories. All toddlers were clinically followed until early childhood to make a final determination of which ones eventually had good versus poor language outcomes.

In ASD, good language outcomes by early childhood were preceded by normal patterns of neural activity in language-sensitive brain regions, including superior temporal cortex, during infant and toddler ages. By contrast, ASD children with poor language outcomes showed very little activity in superior temporal cortex when they were toddlers or infants.

"Our study is important because it's one of the first large-scale studies to identify very early neural precursors that help to differentiate later emerging and clinically relevant heterogeneity in early language development in ASD toddlers," says first author Michael Lombardo of the University of Cyprus.

The researchers also found that, when combined with behavioral tests, these striking early neural differences may help predict later language outcome by early childhood. The prognostic accuracy of the combined neural and behavioral measures was 80%, compared with 68% for each measure alone. "One of the first things parents of a toddler with ASD want to know is what lies ahead for their child," says co-author Karen Pierce, also co-director of the UC San Diego Autism Center. "These findings open insight into the first steps that lead to different clinical and treatment outcomes, and in the future, one can imagine clinical evaluation and treatment planning incorporating multiple accurate behavioral and medical prognostic assessments. That would be a huge practical benefit for families."

Moving forward, the researchers will further investigate the early neural functional substrates that precede and underlie language and social heterogeneity in ASD. They also plan to test the idea that activation, or its absence, in language cortex predicts treatment responsiveness in toddlers with ASD. Moreover, future research on the molecular underpinnings of variable clinical outcomes in individuals with ASD could pave the way for the development of novel pharmacological interventions. "Understanding that there are discrete subgroups of early developing ASD that are distinguished by developmental behavioral trajectories, neural underpinnings, and brain-behavioral relationships, really lays the groundwork for a whole range of really fruitful directions," Lombardo says.

April 9, 2015, Cell PressNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.