Signs, Myths of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism_baby_smallerAutism Spectrum Disorder remains a mysterious but prevalent disorder that now is believed to affect one in 88 children and one in 54 boys in the United States. It’s also the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the country.

There is no medical detection or cure for autism. However, learning as much as possible about the condition helps families understand and better assist their child with autism, says Dr. Joseph H. Donnelly, a CHOC neurologist and the medical director of The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

“The most obvious signs of autism emerge between 12 and 18 months of age,” says Dr. Donnelly.

Here are some signs that may indicate your child is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months of age or older
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

Parents of children showing these symptoms should ask their pediatrician for an immediate evaluation, advises Dr. Donnelly.

It’s a myth that children with autism lack strengths, says Dr. Donnelly. In fact, people with autism can have significant strengths and sometimes perform better, or are more capable, in certain areas than typical children.

“Never assume a child cannot do something. Try everything and discover a child’s strengths, weaknesses and learning style.” he says. “Children with autism can have learning disabilities like a typical child and this needs to be addressed the same way as with any child.”

Here are some other common myths about autism:

  • All children with autism don’t speak.
  • Children with autism all have an intellectual disability.
  • Autism is an emotional disorder.
  • People with autism don’t exhibit emotions.
  • People with autism can’t lead a meaningful life.

Common medical problems associated with autism include seizures, gastrointestinal problems, allergies and sleep difficulties, Dr. Donnelly says. Autism is often associated with varied behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

“Treatment is available.  Seek help from your pediatrician or someone with expertise in autism,” advises Dr. Donnelly.

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Six Tips for an Autism Transition Plan That Works

By Amy-Jane Griffiths, Ph.D., Nteen_autism_transition_planCSP, BCBA-D, Director of Chapman University’s Families and Schools Together (F.A.S.T) at The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders

The transition from high school to adulthood can be the most exciting and challenging time for students. And for teens with autism, the transition to adulthood can be especially difficult. Planning ahead is especially important and can make the process smoother and more enjoyable.

Here are six tips on how to make this a useful and productive process:

1.      Build a strong team.

  • Invite the student to identify people in their lives that they would like to support them through this transition period.
  • Find people in your community of friends, family and professionals who hold different but complementary skills.

2.      Create a vision using the student’s strengths and interests.

  • Many successful adults with disabilities find happiness and great success by viewing their differences as unusual and distinct abilities.
  • Help the youth identify their strengths and work with him/her to create a vision for their future.
  • Set high expectations that are clear, positive and person-centered.

3.      Ensure goals provide opportunities for contribution, are action-based and focused on the present.

  • Start with the skills and goals that impact safety (e.g. getting around the community, safely interacting with strangers, identifying whom to turn to for help, etc.)
  • Develop short-term measurable goals that lead to the long-term vision. Think S.M.A.R.T: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-limited.
  • As a team, provide opportunities for the young person to participate in meaningful, interesting and challenging activities that allow him/her to utilize his strengths.

4.      Start teaching the necessary skills now.

  • Remember, after we set these goals, the skills involved must be taught.
  • The best time to learn and practice transition-related skills is during adolescence and young adulthood, when there is still a circle of support or a “safety net” for when challenges occur. Start the skill building now.

5.      Let your voice be heard.

  • Each person on the team has a unique and valuable perspective and should take an active role in developing a plan.

 6.      Plan for challenges and stay focused.

  • This process is not easy. The more you can plan for mishaps, the more likely you will be able to move beyond them and get back on track.
  • Communicate with your team when you feel things are not working or need to be adjusted.
  • Know that it is possible!

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5 Things Parents Should Do After Their Child’s Autism Diagnosis

By Maureen Dillon, clinical social worker at The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders

When parents come to The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, they often feel overwhelmed when we tell them their child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In the days and weeks following a diagnosis, families experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, frustration, loneliness and confusion, to name a few.Family_son_smallerThese feelings can be intensified by the long list of things we recommend they do. As a clinical social worker, I talk with many families that are just starting to learn about autism and all the programs and services in the community that families need to access to get their child the help they need.  

Here are some suggestions for parents that have a child recently diagnosed with autism:

  • It’s common to feel a wide range of feelings, and it’s important to get support from caring family members and friends.
  • Sometimes couples find their partner seems to have a very different response, and this can be frustrating. People cope, grieve and adapt in different ways, so remember to be sensitive to each other’s differences and work together on some common goals for your child.
  • Start to read and learn more about autism. Autism Speaks has some great resources.
  • Write down your questions, and bring them to your child’s doctor, therapist, teacher or other helping professional.
  • Connect with other parents through classes and support groups, or at your child’s school.

At The Center, we offer many classes about autism, as well as a support group for families where we provide information and guidance. For example, we offer the Autism Education Series, a six-week class designed for families who have a child recently diagnosed with autism. The class is open to the whole community and is held three times a year. We have grandparents, aunts, uncles, significant others and friends attending along with parents so that the whole family can learn and support the child and parents.

Our support group meets monthly, and provides an opportunity for parents to connect with each other and talk about successes and challenges. It’s a chance to get advice from each other and teach each other. Learn more about these services.

It’s important that parents of children newly diagnosed with autism know they are not alone. You can connect to a community of other parents who are also trying to make sense of all that is happening with their child and navigate what can be a complex world of programs and therapies. The Center welcomes you to come and join us so we can learn together and support each other.

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Kids and Autism

autismribbonDIAGNOSING AUTISM
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are typically diagnosed in toddlers or young children based on certain behavioral patterns; there is no medical diagnostic test. “There are changes in three areas of behavior that lead to a diagnosis,” Dr. Philip Schwartz, senior scientist at the CHOC Children’s Research Institute in Orange, explains. “One is communication and the others are sociability and repetitive behaviors, where the child does the same thing over and over. These children have trouble communicating. They don’t make that connection. There’s little eye contact or emotional content in their interactions with other people, including their parents.”

UNLOCKING THE MYSTERY
“The causes are generally unknown. We think it has to do with the way the brain cells communicate with each other. There is a strong genetic predisposition to autism although influences during pregnancy cannot be ruled out,” explains Dr. Schwartz. “Scientists are working to find a biological cause so we can have a diagnostic tool that is not just behavioral, like a blood test. With that knowledge, we can also develop new therapies and drugs.” There  is currently no cure for autism but behavioral therapy can help if started early.

AUTISM AND STEM CELLS
“Scientists at CHOC are growing brain cells from skin cells. This lets us analyze in a dish in a laboratory how the brain cells communicate with each other,” says Dr. Schwartz. “We can’t analyze that in a living child. The best way to do this is to make the cells in a dish the laboratory equivalent of a brain,” he says. “This will tell us what parts of the cells’ communications are not working properly. Understanding this will give us targets for therapy.” Dr. Schwartz expects some key findings in the next couple of years.

WHAT ARE STEM CELLS AND WHAT ARE THEY USED FOR IN RESEARCH?
A stem cell is an immature cell that can be made from any part of the body, like the skin, and that scientists can make into a mature cell in a lab. In research, stem cells are being used to study a host of diseases in children and adults, including brain diseases like autism, childhood metabolic diseases, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

FAST FACTS

  • Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) in Girls: 1 in 252
  • Prevalence of ASDs in Boys: 1 in 54

View the full feature on Kids and Autism

Dr. Philip Schwartz
Dr. Philip Schwartz
CHOC Biologist and Stem Cell Research Expert

PHYSICIAN FOCUS:
DR. PHILIP SCHWARTZ

Dr. Schwartz is the director/supervisor and a senior scientist at the National Human  Neural Stem Cell Resource in the Center for Translational Research at the CHOC Children’s Research Institute in Orange. He is also an associate research  biologist at the Developmental Biology Center at UC Irvine’s School of Biological  Sciences, and he is on the adjunct research faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, at California State  University, Fullerton. Nationally recognized for his work in the stem cell  field, Dr. Schwartz’s research focuses on the use of stem cells to understand the  neurobiological causes of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

EDUCATION:
Ph.D. in neuroscience with a minor  in pharmacology
Brain Research Institute, School of Medicine, UCLA
B.S in biology and B.S. in chemistry Seattle University

More about Dr. Philip Schwartz

This article was featured in the Orange County Register on February 11, 2014, and was written by Amy Bentley.

Autism and Stem Cell Research: Past and Future

training course 1Scientists and researchers at the CHOC Children’s Research Institute continue to study Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) in an effort to find the causes and develop effective treatments for these perplexing and mysterious disorders.

In one of  CHOC’s research labs, Dr. Philip Schwartz and his team, including Drs. David Brick and Omar Khalid, use stem cells made from the skin of patients with autism or ASD and turn them into brain cells to better understand the conditions.

“Autism is a brain disease, so to unravel autism, you have to study the brain. While this seems obvious, it is extremely difficult,” says Dr. Schwartz. “The fact that we now can grow a brain cell from a skin cell is a huge advance.”

Their research began in 2009, when the National Institutes of Health awarded Dr. Schwartz a $3 million grant to hunt for autism’s genetic fingerprint. Colleagues at UC Davis provided skin biopsies from 100 carefully screened autistic boys to establish a cell bank at CHOC for research use by Dr. Schwartz and his team as well as other scientists around the world.

“The goal is to come up with therapies for autism that are based on science and also to develop diagnostic tools so we can diagnose autism or ASD in kids easier and earlier,” says Dr. Schwartz. “As we do this, we can start treatment sooner.”

This research allows scientists to have a culture of a live patient’s brain cells for study in the lab without touching the brain of the actual patient. The only other way to obtain brain cells for this purpose would be to wait for a child with autism or ASD to die, and then seek a brain sample.

The technique of growing brain cells from skin-derived stem cells was developed in 2006 by Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese scientist who won a Nobel prize in 2012 for his work with stem cells.

Scientists can study autism patients of different backgrounds to make new discoveries, says Dr. Schwartz. He noted that autism is a spectrum of diseases, not just one, and that different patients will likely react to different drugs or may require several drugs.

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