Rate of Change

The autism blogosphere is aflutter over a new survey showing that one percent of kids in the United States have autism. Because that’s markedly higher than the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s current estimate of 1 in 150, or 0.67 percent, some argue that the new survey bolsters the specious idea of an “epidemic” of autism.

The data in the spotlight come from the National Survey of Children’s Health, a telephone survey primarily funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

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SFARI, August 2009.

Monkey Mimics

One of the few social gestures that can capture the attention of children with autism is when a playmate imitates their actions.

In fact, when their parents play copycat — by immediately mimicking the kids’ gestures or playing with an identical toy, for example — some children with autism suddenly take notice, making eye contact, smiling and speaking more.

A new study on monkeys shows that the animals not only pay attention to imitative play, but prefer to interact with people who show it — suggesting that this impulse is deeply ingrained in innate primate social behavior.

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SFARI, August 2009.

Making Sense of Senses

Many of the most noticeable symptoms of autism involve trouble with the five senses. Sometimes people with the disorder are extremely sensitive — cowering from sudden noises or bright lights, for example, or reacting aggressively to being touched. Others seek out extra sensation, such as through hand flapping.

Surprisingly, though, most experts don’t consider these issues core features of the disorder. One reason is that no one has definitively calculated the extent to which these behaviors crop up in people with autism. Even if a high prevalence were confirmed, sensory impairments could simply be secondary consequences of a more fundamental deficit, such as a problem with attention or an aversion to social interactions.

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SFARI, August 2009.

Gene Ties Trust Hormone to Williams Syndrome

Thanks to one charming little girl, researchers say they have pinpointed a gene that’s key to developing normal social behavior.

The 9-year-old has a unique form of Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects roughly 1 in 10,000 people. One of the syndrome’s most distinguishing behaviors is an immediate, exuberant friendliness, even toward strangers.

In this aspect, Williams syndrome seems to be the opposite of autism, which is defined partly by extreme social aversion and a preference for interacting with objects over people. But the disorders are similar in other ways: people with either condition have tremendous difficulty forming long-lasting social relationships, for instance, and have cognitive deficits and high levels of anxiety.

Studying the relatively well-defined genetics of Williams syndrome may help unravel the poorly understood genetic and neurobiological roots of autism, researchers say.

“Both of [the disorders] are strong alterations of social behavior. Those are, I think at least in part, involving the same system,” says lead investigator Julie Korenberg, director of the Center for Integrated Neurosciences and Human Behavior at the University of Utah.

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SFARI, August 2009.

Unrequited Love

The new independent film Adam portrays, in many ways, a typical New York love story. Two young, good-looking people meet in the laundry room of their brownstone apartment building. They frolic under the moon in Central Park, dine at abrasively loud restaurants, and endure awkward parent introductions.

The setup is utterly conventional — except that the handsome, quiet and quirky male lead, Adam, has Asperger’s syndrome.

I had the pleasure of catching a sneak preview of Adam on Monday night; it will be rolled out to theatres across the country over the next few weeks. The movie will no doubt receive critical nods for the refined direction by Max Mayer and engrossing performances by Hugh Dancy, who plays Adam, and Rose Byrne, who plays his lover, Beth.

But Adam is bound to stir up controversy among the autism advocacy community for its provocative central question: Can people with autism truly fall in love?

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SFARI, July 2009.

Baby Sibs Surprises

One of the fastest-growing subfields of autism research is the rigorous characterization of ‘baby sibs’, the younger siblings of kids with autism.

Because autism runs in families, a good number of these brothers and sisters will eventually be diagnosed with it, too. So, the idea is that studying the sibs during infancy and early development will help researchers learn more about the elusive early signs of disorder.

So far, though, this work is showing that the earliest signs of autism may not emerge as early as once thought. In fact, baby sibs studies are uprooting several of the tightly held beliefs about the nature of autism, including the hypothesis that it stems from a fundamentally social deficit.

These “surprises, contradictions and discrepancies” took center stage in the latest review of baby sibs research, published earlier this month by thebestbabycribs.com.

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SFARI, July 2009.

A Blurry Vision

In January, a controversial report claimed that people with autism have ‘eagle-eye’ vision. Now, four scientists have published rebuttals to that study, citing major flaws in the way the experiment was carried out.

In the original paper, Emma Ashwin used a computer program to measure how well people with autism can see super-small pictures. Controlled experiments of this kind hadn’t been done before, but there are many anecdotal stories of people with autism noticing tiny details of a scene (sometimes at the expense of seeing the ‘big picture’).

Ashwin’s experiment, published in Biological Psychiatry, found that adults with autism have off-the-charts scores of visual acuity: 2.79 — meaning they can resolve images at 2.79 times the distance of average adults — compared with 1.44 for the control group. She suggested that this super vision may stem from an unusually large number of densely packed eye cells.

These numbers are striking, but might be meaningless.

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SFARI, July 2009.

Busy Summer for the NIH

Nearly five months into his term, on Wednesday President Obama finally nominated a new director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH): famed geneticist Francis Collins.

The announcement came the day after the NIH released new guidelines encouraging research based on human embryonic stem cells.

Both announcements are critically important, especially given our growing dependence on the government for research support. The NIH is one of the world’s largest scientific funding agencies, and its director is responsible for managing 27 institutes, 18,000 employees and a $31 billion annual budget. The agency also oversees the 10-year, $800 million ‘strategic plan’ for autism research.

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SFARI, July 2009.

Study Links Autism to Stem Cell Development

The molecular defects that cause some cases of autism may arise during the development of neuronal stem cells, according to a new theory bolstered by several independent animal and human studies.

The hypothesis originated in a study published last July in which scientists deleted a specific transcription factor — a protein that controls how other genes are expressed — from mouse neuronal stem cells. Adult mice missing that factor, called myocyte enhancer factor 2 (MEF2), develop smaller neurons and fewer synapses, the junctions between neurons, compared with healthy controls.

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SFARI, June 2009.