6/23 - Latest in Autism News

Autism Education Options Changing in Minneapolis Public Schools

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minneapolis Public Schools is changing the way it provides instruction for children with autism.
The district will shift resources so students classified as Level 1 or 2 can get the instruction they need in community schools rather than specialized programs.
“My son has been in the preschool program for three years and he’s really grown tremendously,” said Heidi Klukas.
Klukas has nothing but good things to say about Minneapolis Public schools and its approach to teaching children with autism. Her son, William, thrived under the city wide program.
“We were told in the Fall, ‘Yes, your child can go to a program school. Go tour them, make your selection and you’re done.’ So I did all that when I was supposed to,” Klukas said.
Klukas was shocked when she learned the school she picked out for William wouldn’t accept him. MPS discontinued its program that allowed level 1 or 2 children, like her son William, to use the citywide program.
Instead, William will have to go to a school in his neighborhood. The school Klukas wanted her son to attend is out of her area.
“In order to get in, I would have to live in the neighborhood so I moved,” Klukas said.
MPS Director of Special Education Rochelle Cox says she believes changing where children with autism are taught gives parents more options.
“Now in our district, we have 60-plus teachers who have their autism license,” Cox said. “So we were able to provide that service — that stellar service we were providing in the city wide schools — to students in their neighborhood schools.”
Cox says children with autism that are considered level 3 will continue to be served by the city-wide program, where classrooms are smaller and there is more support. She says changes fall in line with national standards that allow children with autism to move into mainstream classrooms.
“I understand their goals and making the programs available at the neighborhood schools but it seems like it was done quickly at least we weren’t aware as parents,” Klukas said.
Cox says where a child is placed depends on the individual education program parents and teachers develop for the child. If a student is not thriving, changes can be made to send them to the city wide program.

June 22, 2015, CBS Minnesota

6/13 - Latest in Autism News

Superior Visual Ability found Early in Children with Autism

Exceptional visual perception might be an early hallmark of autism, which could help predict a child will be diagnosed with the developmental disability, a new British study suggests.

Infants who more quickly perceived a mismatched symbol on a screen when they were 9 months old were more likely to receive an autism diagnosis by age 2, the researchers found.

"Although atypical perception, such as better visual search and hypersensitivity to sounds, are common in autism, they were rarely considered as a core feature in early development," said study lead author Teodora Gliga of Birkbeck Babylab at the University of London. "Our finding is therefore striking since it strongly suggests atypical perception may be a driving force of later poor social interaction and communication symptoms." 

Most autism research to date has focused on difficulties children have with social interactions, behavior and communication, such as poor eye contact, the authors noted in their study. Focusing on above-average perceptual skills is a new direction to research.

These findings might also help clinicians eventually make diagnoses earlier since most children cannot receive a full clinical assessment until they are 2 or 3 years old, said study co-author Rachael Bedford, a postdoctoral researcher in psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience at King's College London. 

"It is difficult to know whether early impairments, such as communication difficulties, are specific to autism development, or might actually relate to a range of different developmental disorders," Bedford said. "Our finding that infants' superior perceptual abilities relate to autism might offer a more selective target for screening."

This is the first time an enhanced early ability relates to early autism symptoms, she added.

The findings were published June 11 in the journal Cell Press.

It's estimated that one in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder. While there is no cure, early identification and services can improve a child's development, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the experiment, the researchers presented 109 infants with a screen showing a circle of Xs along with either an O, S, V or + sign as part of the circle. Then they used eye-tracking technology to time how quickly the odd letter out drew the infants' attention at 9 months of age.

The infants also underwent standard assessments for autism symptoms at 9 months, 15 months and 2 years. Of the full group, 82 were at high risk for autism because an older sibling had been diagnosed with it. The other 27 children were at low risk.

By the time they turned 2 years old, 20 percent of the at-risk children had been diagnosed with autism, and another 30 percent showed several increased symptoms of autism, the researchers said.

When the researchers compared the children's speed at noticing the letter that did not match the Xs, they found that children who saw it the fastest at 9 months old had more autism symptoms at 15 months and 2 years old.

"People with autism have both difficulties and strengths compared to the rest of us," Gliga said. "We know some of the difficulties can be detected fairly early in life, but this study shows that unusual strengths can also be seen in infants." 

This doesn't mean that every eagle-eyed infant will develop autism. While the study shows an association between a superior visual skill and later autism, it cannot show that children with exceptional visual perception will definitely develop autism, cautioned Dr. Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director of Children's Health Council in Palo Alto, Calif.

"It is far too early to tell whether this methodology will lead to earlier diagnosis of children at risk for development of autism," said Elliott, who was not part of the research. "The sample size is too small and too narrow to permit generalizations about the utility of the technique, and much more information is needed for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder."

That additional information reduces the chance that someone with autism is missed or that someone without autism is incorrectly diagnosed with it. At the same time, he added, this method is simple and noninvasive, making it valuable if the findings hold up in future studies and in the real world. 

"This discovery potentially allows us to design future therapies around these infants' strengths in order to enhance the later quality of life for individuals with the condition," Gliga said.

The study was funded by Britain's Medical Research Council.

June 11, 2015 - By Tara Haelle, HealthDay Reporter

5/29 - Latest in Autism News

Millcreek Township Agency Helps Adults, Teens with Autism

Dan Pietrasiewicz seemed lost.

The Erie man was in his early 20s, living in his father's basement. He played video games all night, slept most of the day, and had trouble finding a job or making friends.

Doctors had diagnosed him at different times with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder, but Pietrasiewicz said the medications they prescribed didn't help him.

"I spent six years in the basement, not doing much," said Pietrasiewicz, who is now 29. "I didn't have friends, no girlfriend and no job."

Pietrasiewicz was frustrated. He searched online to discover what really was bothering him, and he discovered in 2008 that he probably had Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism spectrum disorder.

That self-diagnosis led to an equally important discovery. He found Kaleidascope, a Millcreek Township agency that provides counseling and other services for adults and children with autism.

He contacted the agency and made an appointment to see its founder and clinical director, Janet Pawlowski.

"When I met Dan, he was very depressed," said Pawlowski, who helped Pietrasiewicz confirm he had autism. "He had no sense of day or night, and his parents were frustrated with him."

Pietrasiewicz had gone to the right place. Kaleidascope, 4934 Peach St., is one of the few places in northwestern Pennsylvania that treats adults with autism.

Pawlowski, a licensed psychologist, helped create Kaleidascope in 2005. She had discovered there were few local resources for adults with autism because the state usually covers autism services only until a patient turns 21.

"It's not like autism goes away at that point," Pawlowski said.

But Pietrasiewicz was fortunate. Pawlowski helped him apply to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for an adult autism waiver, which pays for long-term services and support for adults with autism.

Pietrasiewicz is one of only 600 Pennsylvanians with autism who has been granted a waiver. It covers his treatment costs.

In addition to regular therapy sessions with Pawlowski, he also was assigned a community inclusion worker. This person helps Pietrasiewicz with tasks of everyday living like shopping at a grocery store.

"He makes sure I don't go over a set amount of money or go over a set amount of time," said Pietrasiewicz, who no longer takes any medications for ADHD or bipolar disorder.

The improvement Pawlowski has seen over the past seven years has astounded her.

Pietrasiewicz enrolled at Mercyhurst University, and with the help of the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst program, graduated earlier this month with a degree in computer studies. He said he has recently received a job offer from a U.S. Department of Defense contractor.

"I have a beautiful girlfriend and a lot of friends," Pietrasiewicz said with a big smile. "I'm also moving into an apartment."

Casey Ireson, like Pietrasiewicz, also has plans for his future, thanks to Kaleidascope. The 17-year-old Fairview Township boy has been meeting with Pawlowski and attending youth group sessions at Kaleidascope since shortly after he was diagnosed with autism at age 6.

He is expected to graduate Fairview High School on June 4 and plans to attend Gannon University in August to study environmental engineering.

Ireson credited Kaleidascope with helping him learn the social skills he needed to enjoy being a teenager and succeed at school.

"I wouldn't have made the friends I have -- and had such a good time -- without learning those social skills," Ireson said.

Pawlowski helped him plan ways to cope with various social situations he came across in school, such as instances of bullying.

She also found ways to help Ireson deal with his sensitivity to loud sounds and uncomfortable textures.

"I even went to prom this year," Ireson said. "The game plan was that if it got too loud, I would call Mom and she would pick me up. I made it 40 minutes."

Ireson and Pietrasiewicz both feel good about their futures, and they credit Pawlowski and the staff at Kaleidascope for their success.

Pietrasiewicz doesn't know if he will take the job offer he has received, but he is thrilled to have received it.

"When I first came here, I was just looking to get some skills to make friends," Pietrasiewicz said.

May 27, 2015, Erie Times-News,  David Bruce


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