OR, What Will Autism Be Like in 100 Years?

MileyCyrusI’ll confess: I didn’t come up with either of these titles on my own. They were simply two of the choices I was given by Hubspot’s new Blog Topic Generator Tool, which was unveiled to me (and presumably to many others) in an email last Thursday.  “Give us three nouns,” promised everyone’s favorite inbound marketing platform, “and we’ll give you a week’s worth of blog post titles in a matter of seconds.” (I’m paraphrasing, somewhat.) I gave them “autism,” “personality,” and “parenting.” At the end of this post you’ll find a screenshot of the other options I could have chosen. I’m sure you’ll agree I made the right choice.

Of course, as behooves any marketing guru, Hubspot does offer a fabulous disclaimer: “Our algorithm isn’t perfect,” they write. “After you have your titles, you may want to tweak them to be more relevant to your terms and grammatically correct.” To be honest, I wasn’t all that keen about tweaking (notice I didn’t say “twerking,” although you wouldn’t want to see me do that either).  

Rather, I chose to stick to what I was assigned, finding it very personally compelling. If only I had a snowball’s chance in Florida of coming anywhere close to living up to it, given that these subjects deserve serious treatment. At least, the subject of autism does, so that’s where our attention will be focused.  Forgive me, Hannah Montana fans, but I don’t think there are any connections to be made between the following recent autism studies and Miley Cyrus, although you’re welcome to challenge me in a comment if you feel otherwise. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many Miley Cyrus fans who would appreciate a better understanding of autism, so welcome. Let’s start with these recent research reports:

1. Study Reveals Senses of Sight and Sound Separated in Children with Autism

January 14, 2014—Like watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have trouble integrating simultaneous information from their eyes and their ears, according to a Vanderbilt study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience.

2. Hospital-Diagnosed Maternal Infections Linked to Increased Autism Risk

December 23, 2013—Hospital-diagnosed maternal bacterial infections during pregnancy were associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders in children, according to a Kaiser Permanente study published Dec. 23 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
(Full story . . . )

3. Probiotic Therapy Alleviates Some Autism-like Behaviors in Mice

December 5, 2013—Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is diagnosed when individuals exhibit characteristic behaviors that include repetitive actions, decreased social interactions, and impaired communication. Curiously, many individuals with ASD also suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as abdominal cramps and constipation.
(Full story . . . )

4. Video Could Transform How Schools Serve Teens with Autism

October 17, 2013—Video-based teaching helps teens with autism learn important social skills, and the method eventually could be used widely by schools with limited resources, a Michigan State University researcher says.
(Full story . . . )

5. Study Provides Clues about Imitation or “Empathy Impairments” in Autistic Children

September 30, 2013—Researchers say it’s clear that some cases of autism are hereditary, but have struggled to draw direct links between the condition and particular genes. Now a team at the Johns Hopkins University School of MedicineTel Aviv University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has devised a process for connecting a suspect gene to its function in autism.
(Full story . . . )

6. Researchers Discover a Potential Cause of Autism

CHAPEL HILL, NC; August 28, 2013—Key enzymes are found to have a ‘profound effect’ across dozens of genes linked to autism, the insight could help illuminate environmental factors behind autism spectrum disorder and contribute to a unified theory of how the disorder develops. This represents a significant advance in the hunt for environmental factors behind autism and lends new insights into the disorder’s genetic causes.
(Full story . . . )

7. Autistic Children Can Outgrow Difficulty Understanding Visual Cues and Sounds

BRONX, NY; August 28, 2013—Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have shown that high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children appear to outgrow a critical social communication disability. Younger children with ASD have trouble integrating the auditory and visual cues associated with speech, but the researchers found that the problem clears up in adolescence. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Cerebral Cortex.
(Full story with video . . . )

8. Autistic Kids Who Best Peers at Math Show Different Brain Organization

STANFORD, CA; August 16, 2013—Children with autism and average IQs consistently demonstrated superior math skills compared with nonautistic children in the same IQ range, according to a study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.(Full story . . . )

9. Making the Brain Attend to Faces in Autism

A new study in Biological Psychiatry explores the influence of oxytocin

Philadelphia, PA; August 15, 2013Difficulty in registering and responding to the facial expressions of other people is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Relatedly, functional imaging studies have shown that individuals with ASD display altered brain activations when processing facial images. The hormone oxytocin plays a vital role in the social interactions of both animals and humans. In fact, multiple studies conducted with healthy volunteers have provided evidence for beneficial effects of oxytocin in terms of increased trust, improved emotion recognition, and preference for social stimuli.
(Full story . . . )

10. Elevated Gluten Antibodies Found in Children with Autism: But No Link to Celiac Disease

NEW YORK; June 20, 2013—Researchers have found elevated antibodies to gluten proteins of wheat in children with autism in comparison to those without autism. The results also indicated an association between the elevated antibodies and the presence of gastrointestinal symptoms in the affected children. They did not find any connection, however, between the elevated antibodies and celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder known to be triggered by gluten.
(Full story . . . )

And yes, here’s a screenshot to prove that I did not make this up. (PS: I’ll let you know in my next post whether Hubspot is correct in its assessment that all you have to do is mention a celebrity to get people to read your blog):


Autism Awareness Month isn’t primarily for people on the spectrum and their families—although, of course, they benefit from the discussion too. But more importantly, all this talk about autism is meant to help the rest of us learn to communicate with those who already know about autism from the inside. It’s for you and me.

So, as we near the end of April, I’d like to ask the general, neurotypical (as far as you know) population a couple of questions: Have you learned something new about autism this month? If so, what was it, and do you think it will change the way you relate to those on the spectrum who may be in your extended family, your school, or your community? Before you decide you have nothing to say, please watch the following 10-minute video and click on just one or two of the links below. If you still feel you haven’t learned anything new, I hope you’ll respond anyway—it’s always encouraging to know I’m writing to an especially well-informed audience.

Carly’s story may not be new to you; the ABC segment originally aired in 2008. But when I showed it to my nine-year-old, she immediately thought of a classmate who often wears noise-reducing headphones for autism. I’d like to think it will help her understand his behavior just a little bit better.

Of course, it’s important to remember that there is as much individuality on the spectrum as off. Carly’s experience is her own. But her perspective does offer one window into what autism is like. And it may also raise other questions. Why do children like Carly experience the world the way they do? And what causes autism in the first place?  These questions are harder to answer, but researchers have been tackling them with gusto in very recent years. As promised, here are ten of their recent findings that add to our understanding. I’ll try to give them some context, but Carly may already have done some of that for us. Remember what she said about input overload?

Autism Linked with Excess of Neurons in Prefrontal Cortex

November 8, 2011—This study by researchers at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence shows that brain overgrowth in autism involves an excess number of neurons in areas of the brain associated with social and cognitive development, as well as communication development. Not just a small overgrowth: they found 67 percent more cortical cells—a type of brain cell only made before birth—in children with autism. The findings suggest that the disorder may arise from “prenatal processes gone awry,” says lead researcher Eric Courchesne.

Of course, more brain cells may cause problems because you take in a lot of information you don’t need; but it also may confer some advantages:

People with Autism Possess Greater Ability to Process Information, Study Suggests

March 22, 2012—People with autism have a greater than normal capacity for processing information even from rapid presentations and are better able to detect information defined as ‘critical’, according to a study published today in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Autism Severity May Stem from Fear

November 29, 2012—This BYU study finds that children with the diagnosis struggle with letting go of fear when a threat has passed. And the higher their level of fearfulness, the more severe their classic symptoms of autism, such as repeated movements and resistance to change.

This research highlights the need to help children with autism process their emotions, especially when they are fearful, but it also points to why so many studies have found similarities in the brain between children with autism and children who have been exposed to long-term childhood trauma: both show deficits in social development and some processes related to empathy. It’s important to clarify here that “deficits in the empathy centers” is NOT the same thing as “lacking in empathy.” There are two basic parts to empathy: the ability to feel what others are feeling through emotional contagion—and the ability to understand that other people’s minds are separate from yours. Children diagnosed with autism are thought to have the opposite problem to psychopaths. Psychopaths have theory of mind, but they lack what Bruce Perry calls the “emotional, caring core needed for compassion.”

Children with autism, on the other hand, have the capacity for compassion in spades but they may have significant delays in learning to separate the hurts of others from their own, which would, of course contribute to their sensory overload, and a need to dissociate. This affects their ability to develop the social skills necessary to bond with others.

Remember when autism was thought to have been caused by “refrigerator mothers”? Parents who were thought to be so “cold” that they didn’t bond with their children? Well, it’s true that severe neglect can cause symptoms that look very much like autism. But in autism, it’s the brain’s heightened sensitivity and information overload that interferes. Not a lack of loving parents. Fortunately, neuroplasticity comes to the rescue:

Early Autism Intervention Improves Brain Responses to Social Cues

October 29, 2012—An autism intervention program that emphasizes social interactions and is designed for children as young as 12 months has been found to improve cognitive skills and brain responses to faces, considered a building block for social skills.

Of course, to intervene early enough, we have to be able to detect autism earlier than we have been able to in the past.

Detecting Early Signs of Autism in the Brain

January 26, 2012—In their first year of life, babies who will go on to develop autism already show different brain responses when someone looks at or away from them. Only a first step toward earlier diagnosis, the findings suggest that direct brain measures might help predict autism in infants as young as six months.

Next steps toward earlier diagnoses would be to learn about where autism begins. When do the first changes in the brain begin to show themselves? If you clicked on the first study in this list and played Eric Courchesne’s video, you heard him say that the overgrowth of neurons occurs between the 10th and 20th week of pregnancy. And the epigenetic trigger has to come before the overgrowth, right? The following studies offer additional pieces of the puzzle.

Researchers Identify Epigenetic Signatures of Autism

November 7, 2011—We’ve known for some time that there are a number of genes associated with autism. But we also know from twin studies that having those genes doesn’t necessarily predict autism. This tells researchers that something in the environment has caused a gene to “express,” or activate.  Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are the first to map these “epigenetic” changes in neurons from the brains of individuals with autism.  The question is, can we isolate when these changes are happening? Check out the next study:

Autism and Schizophrenia Genes Only Active in Developing Brains

February 12, 2013—We saw this coming, didn’t we? Genes linked to autism [and schizophrenia], are only switched on during the early stages of brain development, say researchers at the University of Oxford. This study adds to the mounting evidence that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. (Which simply means it originates during early brain development.)

Gene Expression Abnormalities in Autism Identified

March 22, 2012—A study led by Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine has, for the first time, identified in young autism patients genetic mechanisms involved in abnormal early brain development and overgrowth that occurs in the disorder. The findings suggest novel genetic and molecular targets that could lead to discoveries of new prevention strategies and treatment for the disorder.

Epigenetic Changes Shed Light on Biological Mechanism of Autism

April 23-2013Scientists from King’s College London have identified specific patterns of epigenetic changes involved in autism spectrum disorder by studying genetically identical twins who differ in autism traits.  We’ve already talked about the fact that previous twin studies have shown both strong genetic as well as epigenetic components to ASD and Courchesne’s studies tell us the genes in question are involved in brain development which occurs during the second trimester of pregnancy.

There is still a lot left to learn, and it is certain that we won’t turn up any simple causes or solutions. The interplay between genetic and environmental influences is complex. But I’ll leave you with this intriguing study that hints at how huge that complexity might yet prove to be.

Women Abused as Children More Likely to Have Children with Autism

March 20, 2013—Women who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as children are more likely to have a child with autism than women who were not abused, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Those who experienced the most serious abuse had the highest likelihood of having a child with autism—three-and-a-half times more than women who were not abused.

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