ChildsWork News, March 23, 2012: Focus on Autism

Good morning CW Readers! Today I want to focus on three key articles from different positions in the autism community. With the rates of autism diagnosis increasing each year and the new definition of autism in the DSM-5, there is even more of a push in the medical and educational community to learn more about the causes, diagnosis and treatment of this disorder.

The first two articles this morning look from a medical perspective at autism. The first, from Northumbria University, suggests that when autistic children – who are encouraged to make eye contact – look away from you it may suggest that they need to think. The next article similarly looks into the sensory stimuli (sound, touch, sight, etc.) taken in by humans and extends that to the difficulties experienced by children on the Autism spectrum.

The final piece comes from a favorite blogger of mine, Gavin Bollard. As a married father living with Asperger’s, Bollard’s perspectives on the challenges and triumphs that people living on the autism spectrum experience is genuinely inspiring and unique. In today’s post he reminds parents (and teachers) that these “invisible special needs” are not barriers to these children’s success. As we all head into the pace of the weekend, let Bollard’s reminder serve us as we play with our children and plan next week’s lessons. His final line, “Concentrate on what [your children] need in the present – not what they might lack in the future” is a reminder to us all to savor the present and look positively to towards tomorrow.

Autism – Don’t Look Now, I’m Trying to Think

From Northumbira University and Science Daily

Children with autism look away from faces when thinking, especially about challenging material, according to new research from Northumbria University.

Although generally encouraged to maintain eye contact as a means of enhancing their social skills, researchers found autistic children follow the same patterns as other children when processing complex information or difficult tasks. Typically developing children and adults look away when asked difficult questions and gaze aversion has been proven in the past to improve the accuracy of responses.

Prof Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Life Sciences at Northumbria University, will present her findings in next month’s Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

In the first study of its kind, researchers asked 20 children with autism — characterised by reduced sociability — and 18 with William’s Syndrome — associated with hypersociability — to carry out mental arithmetic tests. Both groups engaged in gaze aversion while thinking and increased their gaze aversion as question difficulty increased.

Prof Doherty-Sneddon said: “Previous research found that children and adults tend to avert their gaze when thinking something through and this principle can now be applied to children with autism too.

“Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with autism, this research demonstrates that gaze aversion, at a certain point within an interaction, is functional in helping them to concentrate on difficult tasks.”

When trying to retrieve information from memory or work out complex problem-solving, looking at someone’s face can actually interfere with the processing of task relevant information. This is, in part, because faces are such rich sources of information that capture our attention.

She added: “This research will have a major impact in terms of the way teachers interact with these children. When teachers or parents ask a child a difficult question and they look away, our advice would be to wait to allow them to process the information and focus on finding a suitable response.”

A Model Established to Study How the Brain Processes Multisensory Information, A Process that Goes Awry in Autism Spectrum Disorders

From Medical News Today

The next time you set a trap for that rat running around in your basement, here’s something to consider: you are going up against an opponent whose ability to assess the situation and make decisions is statistically just as good as yours.

A Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) study that compared the ability of humans and rodents to make perceptual decisions based on combining different modes of sensory stimuli – visual and auditory cues, for instance – has found that just like humans, rodents also combine multisensory information and exploit it in a “statistically optimal” way – or the most efficient and unbiased way possible.

“Statistically optimal combination of multiple sensory stimuli has been well documented in humans, but many have been skeptical about this behavior occurring in other species,” explains Assistant Professor Anne Churchland, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who led the new study. “Our work is the first demonstration of its occurrence in rodents.” The study appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.

This discovery is exciting, according to Churchland, because it suggests that the same evolutionarily conserved neural circuits underlie this behavior in both humans and rodents. “By observing this behavior in rodents, we have a chance to explore its neural basis – something that is not feasible to do in people,” Churchland says.

Such investigations, she hopes, will explain why patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) integrate sensory information in an atypical and less-than-optimal way, relative to healthy people. “We can use our rat model to ‘look under the hood’ to understand how the brain is combining multisensory information and be in a better position to develop treatments for these disorders in people.”

Churchland and her team tested multisensory integration in humans and rats by designing a task that gauged how the subjects made decisions when presented with visual and auditory stimuli – separately and in tandem. “We threw in a couple of additional features that made the task challenging enough to simulate a real-life situation,” Churchland adds.

Her team also designed the task keeping in mind the caveat that our brains process visual information much slower than auditory information. “Our task included stimuli that were much more dynamic and temporal (time-varying) compared to other studies that have tested multisensory integration, which we regard an important advance in the field,” explains Churchland.

Her team now reports that both humans and rats made more accurate decisions when presented with combined multisensory information and that this decision-making was close to being statistically optimal – a mathematical prediction of how well each subject could possibly perform in the task.

The researchers have also found evidence that offers fresh insight into how the brain deals with the challenge of having a visual processing system that’s slower that the auditory processing system. “Even though visual and auditory stimuli don’t come in exactly at the same time, we think that the brain keeps events in sequence by processing each sensory cue in parallel, fusing the two signals at a later stage and then making a judgment about the fused signal,” elaborates Churchland.

Her team next plans to investigate how the two streams of information are being combined and how the brain combines sensory experience with memory. “Now that we have a good animal model in which to investigate these questions, the world – or the brain – is our oyster,” she says.

Resisting the Urge to Rewrite Your Child’s Future

By Gavin Bollard writing for Special-ism

Life can be tough for children with special needs.  As parents we often grieve for losses which were never an option. For example, an athletics-focused parent of a wheelchair-bound child may grieve the loss of an Olympic opportunity.

There are a few ways to look at this. First of all, it’s a little selfish for a parent to expect their child to fulfill their dreams. Children are there for their own sake, not to give their parents a second shot at goals they may have missed.  While I’m sure that these plans aren’t intended to cause harm, it’s very clear that they do.

Secondly, it’s unfair to put expectations on a child at such an early age – and especially unfair to do this when the child is in the womb. I know parents who mercilessly put their children through music or swimming practice with the intention of creating a maestro or champion. It’s rarely successful and often the pressure of having to perform when their friends are out having fun pushes these children away from their parent’s pet subjects – and ultimately away from their parents.

Thirdly, why are we writing off the child’s future with the idea that they will never achieve a specific goal? Surely the para-olympics have taught us that even the most physically disabled people are capable of amazing feats.

Of course, it’s easy to point out these things when looking at physical disabilities. We can clearly see the impact that science is having on this area in terms of supports such as wheelchairs, prosthetics and even corrective surgery.

It’s much harder to understand how parents discriminate against their own children by writing off parts of their future when the child has invisible special needs.

I see this all of the time in the autism community. Parents decide that their child will never get married or will never be able to live independently. They worry about the long term future of their children and become depressed and uninspiring parents whose mental state does nothing for their kids.

Even worse, their vision of the future may become a self-fulfilling prophecy because they take all of the appropriate action to ensure that their children never stand a chance. A parent who decides that their child with autism won’t become a swimming champion may withdraw them from valuable and potentially life-saving swimming lessons.

In some cases, the depression even sparks a murderous rampage which terminates the life of a child because of a lack of imagination and acceptance on the part of the parent.  I’m sure we’ve all read of stories like that in the newspapers.  They all start with the smaller emotions of disappointment and resentment.

AD Midd

About AD Midd

AD is a college writing teacher whose work experience includes everything from coordinating YMCA after-school programs for at-risk youth to tutoring developmental writing students to general classroom instruction. In addition to writing professionally, AD currently teaches a range of adult community college students in both online and physical classroom settings. At home, she keeps in shape by running after her two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @ADMidd and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ADMidd1)

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