Helping Your Child Understand Autism

autism_awarenessribbon-smallApril is National Autism Awareness Month. Chances are your child knows someone – a classmate, a friend’s sibling, etc. – who has autism spectrum disorders. Hopefully by helping your child understand what autism is, you will help to alleviate any fears and answer any questions he may have. And, perhaps, help him show more patience and kindness to a peer who has autism or another related disorder.

What Does Autism Mean?

People usually call it autism (say: aw-tih-zum), but the official name is autism spectrum disorders. Why? Because doctors include autism in a group of problems that kids can have, including Asperger syndrome and others. These problems happen when the brain develops differently and has trouble with an important job: making sense of the world.

Kids with autism often can’t make connections that other kids make easily. For example, when people smile, you know they feel happy or friendly; when people look mad, you can tell by their face or their voice. But many kids who have autism spectrum disorders have trouble understanding what emotions look like and what another person is thinking. They might act in a way that seems unusual, and it can be hard to understand why they’re doing it.

A kid with an autism spectrum disorder might:

  • have trouble learning the meaning of words
  • do the same thing over and over, like saying the same word
  • move his or her arms or body in a certain way
  •  have trouble adjusting to changes (like trying new foods, having a substitute teacher, or having toys moved from their usual places)

Imagine trying to understand what your teacher is saying if you didn’t know what her words really mean. It is even more frustrating if a kid can’t come up with the right words to express his or her own thoughts, or tell a parent what he or she needs or wants. Sometimes this can make a kid very upset and frustrated. You can be a friend to a kid with autism by showing a little kindness and patience. If you have any questions, speak to your parents or your teacher.

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CHOC Using Stem Cells To Study Impact Of Autism

Last year, CHOC Children’s Research Institute received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Grant to generate, investigate, and store neural stem cells derived from skin cells, donated by children with autism. The program is designed to provide an important new tool for studying the impact of autism on the developing brain.

Check out what Philip H. Schwartz, Ph.D., principal investigator on the NIH grant and founding director, National Human Neural Stem Cell Resource at CHOC, has to say about this exciting research:

Q: How unique is this study, and what do we hope to learn from it?
A:  By using easily obtainable skin cells, we can now generate patient-specific brain cells in the laboratory. This allows us to study what is going wrong in the brain of a patient with a genetic disease such as autism without ever having to touch their brain, a huge leap forward if there ever was one!

Only a very few laboratories are doing this and, in fact, the National Institutes of Health is convening a special meeting of scientists, including me, this October to discuss the best ways to move this new and exciting research forward.

Q: What are neural stem cells and how are they obtained?
A:  Neural stem cells are immature brain cells that can divide many, many times and can mature into all the types of brain cells that make up our brains; all the brain cells that make up our entire brain are derived from neural stem cells. We can obtain these cells from the brain itself during surgery or after death or we can derive these cells, using modern technology, from skin rather than the brain.

Q: How will this study benefit patients and families?
A:  Because we can now make brain cells from skin, we can now study brain cells from many patients simultaneously. This will allow us to directly probe what is wrong with these cells and, as a result, come up with new ways to diagnose and treat these very prevalent brain diseases.

Importantly, autism seems to be a class of diseases rather than a single disease and because we can now make patient-specific brain cells from the patient’s own skin, we may be able to tailor therapy to the patient.

Autism Event Offers Latest Information for OC Families

Did you know that autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability that affects 1 in 150 births. The condition is caused by a neurological disorder that affects brain function – impacting the normal development of the brain that controls social interaction and communication skills. CHOC and UCI Medical Center are leaders in the diagnosis and management of autism through a collaborative, state-funded program known as “For OC Kids.” The program allows experts from both CHOC and UCI Medical Center to take an innovative and multidisciplinary approach to children with autism, offering patients access to the latest alternatives.  

CHOC and UCI, joined by the Grandparent Autism Network, are combining forces to bring an autism event “Today’s Autism Research”  Tomorrow’s Promising Outcomes” to Orange County on Saturday, January 31st, from 9 a.m. to noon, at the Mariner’s Church in Irvine.  The event will feature the latest research information and some of the top autism experts. 

For more information or to register, visit www.choc.org.