Autism could be caused by herpes Infection

Image result for autism viral articles on twitter

WOMEN with herpes during early pregnancy could double the risk of giving birth to a child diagnosed with autism.

A new study has found a link between an infection in the womb and autism – especially in boys.

Experts have said the link is not caused as a result of direct infection, as these are often deadly. Researchers have suggested it could be triggered by the mother’s immune response to getting an infection  causing neurodevelopmental problems.

It was linked with inflammation in close proximity to the womb when the unborn child is most vulnerable.

Norwegian and US scientists said there was a link between maternal anti-herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2) antibodies and risk for autism spectrum disorder in their child.

Dr Milada Mahic at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, post-doctoral research scientist, said: “We believe the mother’s immune response to HSV-2 could be disrupting foetal central nervous system development, raising risk for autism.”

Genital herpes is a common incurable sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) leading to painful blisters.

It is highly contagious and a long-term condition with the virus remaining the body living in nerve cells.

However the body can build up immunity to the virus.

Herpes simplex virus-2 could be one of any number of infectious agents involved

Dr Ian Lipkin

Until now the NHS said the risk of the virus to the unborn child in early pregnancy was low and women infected or experiencing a flare up are prescribed antiviral medicine.

The study explored the link between maternal infection and risk for autism, focusing on five pathogens – types of bacteria known collectively as ToRCH agents – which the herpes simplex virus.

Blood samples were taken from 412 mothers of children diagnosed with autism and 463 mothers of children without autism enrolled in the Autism Birth Cohort (ABC) Study overseen by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Samples were taken at around week 18 of pregnancy and at birth and analysed for levels of antibodies to each of the bacteria. .

Herpes and autism link: Blood samples were taken from 412 mothers of children diagnosed with autismGETTY

Herpes and autism link: Blood samples were taken from 412 mothers of children diagnosed with autism

They found high levels of antibodies to HSV-2, not any of the other agents, correlated with risk for Autism.

Experts said the link was only found in blood samples taken during early pregnancy.

It found an eighth – 13 per cent of mothers in the study tested positive for anti-HSV-2 antibodies at mid-pregnancy.

Of these, only 12 per cent reported having HSV lesions before pregnancy or during the first trimester.

Herpes and autism: Women who carry the herpes virus are usually prescribed with anti-viral medicationGETTY

Herpes and autism: Women who carry the herpes virus are usually prescribed with anti-viral medicatio


The scientists said the effect of anti-HSV-2 antibodies on risk for autism was only seen in boys not girls.

But they noted the number of girls with autism in the study was small.

Professor Dr Ian Lipkin of the Centre for Infection and Immunity at Colombia University said: “The cause or causes of most cases of autism are unknown.

“But evidence suggests a role for both genetic and environmental factors.

“Our work suggests that inflammation and immune activation may contribute to risk. Herpes simplex virus-2 could be one of any number of infectious agents involved.”

The study was published in mSphere, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.



6-year-old girl defends autistic brother with viral letter

When a 6-year-old girl heard another child calling her autistic brother “weird,” she decided she needed to take action.

Her heartfelt, handwritten note to her student body has inspired a movement across the globe.

Image result for autism sister and brother

Lex Camilleri and her brother, 9-year-old Frank, have always been close. While Lex is the younger of the siblings, she often serves as Frank’s protector, her parents told Today.

“Lex absolutely loves Frank,” Sophie Camilleri, the children’s mother, said. “She’s always by his side … she always looks out for him.”

So when a girl at her school approached her and told her that her big brother was “weird,” she immediately tried to explain to the child that Frank has autism. Her classmate had no idea what that meant, Camilleri told Today.

“The fact is, she has lived and breathed autism for the first six years of her life,” she said. “Ultimately, she was taken aback by the lack of understanding.”

So with a little help from her parents, Lex sat down and wrote a note to present at her next student council meeting.

“My brother has autism and is not weird,” Lex wrote. “I would like it if we could learn about all disabilities in schools so that everybody understands that some people are different, but we should all be treated the same.”

“Im so very proud that Lex has this view and wants to change the way other children view others with disabilities,” she wrote in her caption.

As of Thursday night, the post had been shared more than 36,500 times. Even the National Autistic Society caught wind of Lex’s crusade — praising her for her efforts on its Facebook page and encouraging others to share her note.

“We think there should be much more autism understanding in the classroom which is why (we) are encouraging all schools and nurseries around the country to sign up to our free autism resources,”

With just a few sentences, Lex has touched thousands of people — most of whom are strangers to the 6-year-old.

“Lex, you are miles ahead of the rest and I wish everybody was as forward thinking as you,” wrote one commenter. “My son has Autism and I wish more people (adults as well as children) would ask more questions about it so they can understand the day to day challenges he faces.”

Lex and her family are set to meet with a member of Parliament about implementing disability education in schools across England, Today reported.

Lex’s dad, Jace Camilleri, told Today he couldn’t be more proud of his brave little girl.

“It’s a critical subject,” he said. “So it was fantastic just to see her write it down. It spread like wildfire. We were overwhelmed with pride.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports about 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism is five times more common in boys than among girls.



Parents Tell Their Kids To Avoid Boy With Autism. Then Mom Writes Viral Letter On Facebook

Being a kid is hard. The world is a new place to you, everything is a novel experience and the entire experience of growing up constantly provides new obstacles to overcome. Although growing up comes with its fair share of valuable lessons, it also comes with its drawbacks. While it’s in every mother’s natural instincts to defend her child, this story is an example of one mom going above and beyond.


The mom in question is Nicole Duggan, an Irish woman with a three-year-old son with special needs named Riley. More specifically, Duggan’s son is on the autism spectrum and needs just a little extra care and attention. Riley is non-verbal and is easily set off by intense emotional stimuli. Although many kids may be accepting of Riley’s differences, Duggan noticed some hesitancy among the parents in her son’s class. As any thoughtful mom would, Duggan wrote an open letter to all the parents in the class:


My little boy is just like your child, he loves to dance, he loves to be cuddled, he cries when he falls, and he adores Mickey Mouse. He is however “wired differently.”

The small things we take for granted every day are the hardest things for him to cope with. Different lights, sounds, smells or even the look of something can cause an overload that is too hard for an adult to deal with, let alone my little boy.

To the people that stare at him because he hums, join in with his little singsong, because in his eyes he is singing the best song in the world.

To the mothers that pull their children away from him, you are creating the bullies of the future. Children don’t notice the differences; they just want to play, let them.

To the lady that called him bold in the supermarket, try to look at things from his perspective. An overload of colors and sounds. People whizzing past you. You too would cry your eyes out if you could not tell anyone how you are feeling when it all gets too much.

To the friends that have disappeared, I hope this never knocks on your front door. I would not change my small man for the world and if you cannot understand him and how he works, then you do not deserve to be in his life in the first place.

Children with needs are the bravest, most courageous and most amazing little people in this world. They are fighting battles nobody knows and I guarantee not one adult would make it through half of the obstacles they do. Just because there is not a physical difference does not mean they are simply bold.

So this year I ask you to think before you judge, live a day in my small man’s shoes and you will understand how much of a superhero he really is.


Above all, Duggan’s story is a reminder that we all view the world differently. All of our experiences are unique and deserve respect. To foster a more welcoming world, we should make pains to be more awake to the struggles of others, especially those who can’t communicate as fluently as we can. While it may be difficult to stretch our patience, it always results in a greater understanding and appreciation of the world around us.

In this case, Duggan’s note is a reminder of a mother’s undying love which we could all use a reminder of. Click below for the full story and remember to slow down and appreciate the wealth of the world we all live in.

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What experts know—and don’t know—about autism and its causes

The prevalence of autism is on the rise, but its causes remain unclear—though there is no evidence to support a link between vaccines and autism

White puzzle pieces with on piece removed to reveal blue underneath

This much we know for certain about autism: it is being diagnosed with more frequency now than ever before.

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children in 2012—the most recent year for which data is available—was identified as being on the autism spectrum. That’s up from one in 88 in 2008 and one in 150 in 2002.

Whether that trend is the result of the medical community looking more closely or becoming better at detecting autism, or whether its a sign of something akin to an epidemic, is altogether unclear. In fact, very little about the developmental disorder or its underlying causes is straightforward.

M. Daniele Fallin

Image caption:M. Daniele Fallin

With so many unanswered questions related to an issue that impacts millions, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2013 launched the Wendy Klag Center for Autism & Developmental Disabilities in an effort to build a community of investigators and students to take a closer look at autism.

The Hub recently reached out to M. Daniele Fallin, the center’s director and chair of the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health, for insight on what we know—and what we don’t know—about autism spectrum disorder.

What is autism, and how is it diagnosed?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social and language communication, as well as repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. Children and adults with autism spectrum disorder have a wide range of abilities. Some people cannot speak at all and many have delayed or limited verbal communication. Some are greatly impaired in their cognitive thinking while others are extremely gifted.

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD—the diagnosis described in the DSM-5—is usually made by a specialist based on observations in multiple situations and interviews with family members or others close to the person.

Do vaccines cause autism?

No, vaccines do not cause autism. Many studies have examined this question and none have shown any evidence for linking autism and vaccines, including the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, vaccines with a mercury-based preservative (thimerosal), or simultaneous receipt of multiple vaccines.


M. Daniele Fallin
Director, Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities

This overwhelming evidence has been examined and summarized by multiple professional boards and organizations, including the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. All of have unequivocally discredited any link. The research and energy spent on discrediting anti-vaccination rhetoric takes attention and resources away from what is most important: Figuring out what does cause autism and doing something to prevent it or treat the associated impairments.

A number of years ago, there was a study in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield that asserted a link between vaccines and autism. Is that study accurate?

No, The Lancet officially retracted the 1998 paper in 2010. Most of the co-authors of his paper had already removed their names from the work. An investigation concluded that Dr. Wakefield intentionally manipulated data to support a connection between MMR vaccines and autism. His medical license, which was issued in Britain, was revoked based on evidence of deliberately falsifying data.

What factors have scientists determined do contribute to autism?

This is such an important question, and we are working hard at finding answers. In recent years, we have made great progress toward understanding the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to autism. We know that children of older parents have an increased autism risk and that boys are four-to-five times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than girls. We also know that genes play a role, and we’re starting to learn more about biological pathways involved in autism based on clues from rare genetic anomalies found in some individuals with autism.

Environmental factors likely play a role in autism risk as well. Decades ago, children whose pregnant mothers took the drug thalidomide for nausea or valproic acid for seizures were reported to have autistic symptoms. Fortunately, these are no longer in use for pregnancy, but these findings informed our understanding that autism risk may begin as early as in the womb.

We are learning even more about environmental risk factors, primarily exposures occurring during fetal growth. For example, there has been strong evidence implicating exposure to air pollution during pregnancy, as well as exposure to pesticides during pregnancy. Many other chemicals are being investigated by multiple groups around the world to see if they play a role in the development of autism.

Are there any ways to prevent autism?

Because we do not fully understand specific causes of autism, we do not currently know how to prevent it. But there is hope that insights from genetics work and environmental studies will create opportunities to prevent autism or to minimize deficits among those who have autism, through interventions that help individuals maximize their potential.

Is ASD something that happens during infancy or childhood? Or does it happen earlier?

The best scientific evidence right now suggests that ASD may begin as early as in the womb. Findings in brain pathology and imaging, gene expression, and prenatal exposure risk factors all point to in utero development as the critical period. Further, infant research in the first year of life shows behavioral and brain growth differences suggesting that ASD starts very early.

What do I do if I think my child might have ASD?

If you suspect your child has ASD, the best approach is to bring up your concerns with your pediatrician, who can guide you through further assessments if needed and refer you to the appropriate specialists and resources. Additionally, check with your local school district about early childhood developmental evaluations and services. Early-life interventions have been shown make a substantial difference in maximizing a child’s long-term potential.



Dear Autism Mom Do You know How Incredibly Awesome You Are?

This letter of hope, encouragement is to all the Autism Moms out there. I see your struggles. I see your worries. From one Autism Mom to another, here's my Dear Autism Mom Letter!

This letter of hope and encouragement is to all the Autism Moms out there. I see your struggles. I understand your worries. From one Autism Mom to another, here’s my Dear Autism Mom Letter.

Dear Autism Mom,
Let’s face it; life has thrown you a few loops and curves over the past few years (or months, or days). You’ve had a tough road. Some days are up and some days are down. Having a child on the spectrum is not something other moms understand completely. Sometimes you feel like a complete failure, and other times you feel like you can conquer the world (like when you walk out of the IEP meeting after getting everything on your must-have list!).

This letter of hope and encouragement is to all the Autism Moms out there. I see your struggles. I see your worries. From one Autism Mom to another, here's my Dear Autism Mom Letter.

I’m here to remind you and me of a few things:

You are Awesome

The mere fact that you are reading this means you are an awesome mother. Even in those quiet moments, in the times when all through the house, not a mouse is stirring, you are reading and researching about Autism and ways to help your child.  Do you know how incredibly awesome you are?


Every Child has a Purpose

You may never know the exact purpose of your child, or the way in which your child impacts this world, but with you as a mother, your child is going to rock this world! Whether it’s that one outburst in the store that changes the mind of a judgmental parent or brings awareness to your city, there’s a purpose. You never know the trust and love your child can bring a complete stranger, it just may save their life. With your child’s deep analytical skills and one mind focus, they may be what our world needs for a cure for cancer, advanced technology, or tools to improve our planet.  The world keeps spinning and, although, you may not see it, your child has a purpose.

It Gets Easier { I think…}

It may not seem like it will ever get easier, but it does. If you look back a few years or even a few months, you can see the positive changes your child has made. Maybe it’s your child’s ability to communicate from no words to two words. That’s an improvement worth congratulating! Maybe it’s a behavior plan finally working at school; congratulate yourself because you helped your child reach this goal. When I think how far we have come with the Twins, it brings tears to my eyes. I remember listening to all of the things we were told they wouldn’t be able to do. I laid in bed many nights wondering if my boys would ever talk, would they utter the words, “I love you, Mom?”

This letter of hope and encouragement is to all the Autism Moms out there. I see your struggles. I see your worries. From one Autism Mom to another, here's my Dear Autism Mom Letter.

You are a Constant

You are your child’s strength, their biggest love, and the one person they can trust no matter what. You, Autism Mom, are loved beyond knowledge. With you, your child is flourishing, learning, changing, adapting, and making improvements. You are your child’s constant, and if all else fails, you are their rock. Never forget how much you mean to them.

You are Strong

Raising children, in general, can be difficult, but having a child on the spectrum requires even more strength. The more that gets thrown your way, the more you keep going, reading, learning, and teaching. I remember telling my Mom, “I can’t do this. Maybe you should take them; I can’t raise them. I don’t know what to do!” She gave me this look as if she wanted to slap me back to reality and remind me that I could do all things with just a little prayer. You have strength beyond most others. Whatever is set out to conquer you makes you stronger!

Forget perfect, Forget normal

I don’t know what or who defines normal in our world, but toss those two words out of the window. There is no perfect Mom, and there is no normal life. Those are both myths made up by someone who wanted to be perfect and normal but realized they could never achieve those things because they don’t exist. Again, trust me on this. I have tried to find a normal life and be the perfect Mom. Here’s what happened; I failed miserably. I was stressed out in attempting to make my family, my boys with Autism normal. I put pressure on them by trying to make them fit into what society thought of them. One day the light bulb popped up, and I quickly realized I was causing a lot of this stress and pressure. Your child was not born to fit in; they were born to stand out.

You are Helping Others

Until you go through it yourself, you never really know how many mothers are going through this same thing. Every obstacle you go through is one more piece of advice you have to help others on this journey. The more you read, the more you talk, and the more you tell your story, the more inspiration you have to give to other moms. Trust me on this!We all need each other to lean on and support. Remember that each challenge is one more gift you get to help other mothers overcome every obstacle in their way. The moment you feel like giving up, remember you are one step closer to the next goal, the next breakthrough. Autism Mom, you don’t know the light and affect you are having on your child, your family, the school, and others around you.
Autism Mom, you are special, you are strong, you are helping, and YOU ARE AWESOME! Never forget that. You are going to make it, and it’s going to be ALRIGHT. The more tough decisions you make and the more you go through, the stronger you become. Love yourself because you are doing the best you can do!


Portrait of a cheerful girl and boy hugging fun in outdoor

Things Autism Siblings Know to Be True…And What Parents Can Do to Help

If a member of your family is on the autism spectrum, it will affect you in some way, regardless of what your role is. We often talk about how parents are affected, what they can do to help their child, and how to alleviate some of their own stress. That’s because parents are probably the ones most affected by their children’s autism (other than the ASD children themselves, obviously). However, in focusing so hard on the parents, we often leave one important group out of the picture: neurotypical siblings.

While our pool of research on them is fairly limited, there are some things we do know and have noticed about this group. And we want to shine a light on them—celebrate the awesome things, acknowledge the difficulties they may face, and highlight ways that parents can mitigate some of the difficulties.

So to all the neurotypical siblings of people with autism, this one is for you.

Hispanic brothers hugging with football


If you’re the neurotypical sibling of a person with autism, you probably have a ton of cool aspects to your personality, behavior, and overall disposition.

For instance, autism siblings tend to be fantastic kids. Having a family member on the spectrum isn’t always easy, and it can often be very stressful for the entire household. But for many autism siblings, this stress doesn’t affect them in the same way it affects kids in other situations; kids in other situations may engage in risky behaviors or cause trouble. But autism siblings are often the exact opposite of that! They tend to be dedicated and caring, and many of them grow up to obtain careers dedicated toward helping people, like nursing or therapy.

Stephanie Morales, a thirteen-year-old with a brother and a cousin on the spectrum, is one of these individuals—she wants to be an O.T. or speech therapist when she grows up. “[Being an autism sibling and cousin] has opened my eyes to seeing that they really need people that understand them and their needs,” she says.

Going along with that, autism siblings are often incredibly self-sacrificing—sometimes to the point where they neglect their own wellbeing. And many of them expect absolutely nothing for the help they give. This is probably because they’re used to pitching in and helping their parents handle challenging situations, whether that means working directly with their brother or sister, or completing other tasks while their parents devote their attention to the other child. That’s really cool. Just remember to stay balanced, autism siblings; you can’t do everything, and you need to take some time for yourself every once in a while!

Perhaps some of the coolest aspects about many autism siblings, however, is their passion, loyalty, and devotion toward their brother or sister. If anyone bullies or messes with their brother or sister? Well, they’d better watch out because their siblings are NOT standing for it! One autism sister, Marissa, can personally vouch for that. In an NPR article, she recalls how she went after a bully who had thrown a rock at her brother, Andrew. “I smacked him across the face and he was cornered, and my face I’m sure was beet-red, and I was like, ‘Just do it again and I’ll punch you right in your mouth,’” she explained. “I was mad because no one can beat up my brother except me.”

Little siblings

Needless to say, autism siblings are very protective—not only toward their sibling, but also toward others who are a little different. They tend to be more cognizant of differences in other people, and therefore more compassionate. Many autism siblings are also passionate anti-bullying advocates—people the world desperately needs.



Mom Rents A Movie To Relax, But When She Opens DVD Case, She Finds A Stranger’s Note About Money

After an exhausting week of work, household duties, and family activities, most of us are ready to relax when the weekend rolls around.

That’s normally when we reach for a great movie, a bowl of popcorn, and maybe even a glass of wine.

While many people have stopped renting movies and prefer to just watch television shows and films on digital streaming services, these options often don’t have the newest releases. Although you can rent movies online through platforms like Amazon and iTunes, many people don’t have televisions that support these sites.

That is why services like Redbox still exist, as they’re a fast way to get a movie while running errands. Redbox machines are usually located in convenient places, and they always offer the newest movies.


Redbox machine

One mom recently decided to stop by a Redbox to pick up a movie on her way home.

Redbox case

When she got home and opened the DVD case, she noticed that there was something besides the movie inside it.

Redbox case with note and money

It was a note, along with $100 in cash. She was shocked — she never expected to find something like this in a random DVD case.
note in Redbox case
The note said: “Hello! My name is Marcos. Every month I take $100.00 that I’d normally spend on myself and give it away to a stranger. This month I decided to change it up and put it in a Redbox DVD. You are the first giveaway of 2017! I just ask that you put the money to good use. If you don’t need it, give it away. If you need it, keep it. Have a great day! —Marcos.”

After reading this note, I’m thinking about taking a page out of Marcos’ book. Giving money to strangers is an amazing way to show your generosity.

redbox DVD case

If we were all a little more like Marcos, the world would be a better place. Please SHARE this story with people you think would appreciate it!

Dear Teachers of The Little Ones with Special Needs

I don’t know your background.  I don’t know why you chose this profession.  I don’t know where your inner strength comes from or what keeps you going.  I don’t know if you will keep doing this or if you will move on to other jobs.  I don’t know how much of your day you take home with you at night.

This blog is from Mandy Farmer who writes a blog called From The Bowels of Motherhood where she writes about raising her three children, one who has autism, and her military family life

But this is what I do know:

I know you care for our children as if they were your own.  I know you celebrate every single little success they have, because you know just how hard and long they had to work to achieve it.  I know you watch them develop and your hopes for them go far beyond your classroom.

I know you hear the same news stories I do.  I know you cringe when you hear of a teacher who hurt a nonverbal child.  I know your heart aches that you have to work so hard to earn parents’ trust and you wish they knew that for every one abusive teacher of special needs children there are a hundred more that would do anything and everything to protect our children.  And because you are that teacher who would do anything to protect these kids, you have no problem earning our children’s trust and earning our trust.

I know you have hard days.  I know you juggle the needs of many children at once and have to work constantly to maintain the peace in the classroom.  I know you stay up late working on things for the next day and stay at work late to make sure your classroom is “just so” for tomorrow.  I know you have to work harder than your fellow teachers who teach typical children to think ahead for the day and to try to see and prevent potential triggers and obstacles that might make our children’s days that much harder.  I know the hard days have been physical, but you press on, you don’t lose your cool and you hope tomorrow will be better.

I know you probably have days when you wonder if all of your patience and heart and perseverance are noticed.  I know you might have days when you want to throw in the towel and move on to something easier.

I hope you know that I see your passion for these children.  I see the excitement in your eyes when mine does something new or overcomes something that once would have set him back.  I see how hard you work to ensure he has successful days.  I see you on the hard days and I know when he comes home upset, you may have endured a day of screaming and crying.  And I know you did everything in your power to calm him.


Know that you have given me a break when I needed it the most.  Know that you have given peace of mind about one aspect of our day to a parent who has to worry about so many other things.  Know that your love and acceptance of my child is a welcome change from the rejection and isolation we so often face.  Know that every success our children will go on to have is the result of a foundation you helped lay.  Know that every struggle and every accomplishment in your classroom are stepping stones to a future they couldn’t have had without you.

I know you wonder if you make a difference.  Know that you do.

A Special Needs Mom



Talking sense: What sensory processing disorder says about autism

Some children are highly sensitive to sound, sight or touch, whereas others seem almost numb. Exploring the differences may offer insights into autism.

Jack Craven has superpowers. When his mother, Lori, misplaces an item in the house, she asks the 12-year-old to “look in your head,” through the rich catalog of visual information he seems to assemble without effort. Jack always finds the lost object. His astonishing memory for faces enables him to pick out someone he’s seen only once or twice before from a sea of strangers in a crowded school gymnasium. His sharp hearing makes him an excellent vocal mimic. Request that he sing a Beatles tune and he’ll ask if you want it sung in the style of Lennon or McCartney.

But great powers, as any superhero narrative goes, come with great challenges. He endures, rather than enjoys, the arcade birthday parties popular among tween boys in suburban Atlanta where he lives. They’re just too noisy, too busy, too overstimulating. Jack’s hearing is so sensitive that he can’t always eat at the table with his family, because the sound and sight of them chewing might make him throw up. As an infant, he never slept for more than four hours at a stretch, and had to be held upright the whole time, his stomach pressed against his mother’s chest and her palm pressed atop his head.

Jack has sensory processing disorder (SPD), a condition that includes people who are overly sensitive to what they feel and see and hear, but also those who are undersensitive, and still others who have trouble integrating information from multiple senses at once. SPD is not an official diagnosis. It isn’t included in the newest edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5). Still, it is widely used as a catch-all by clinicians, and some studies suggest that it may affect  between 5 and 15 percent of school-age children. Children with the clinical label SPD also have a lot in common with children diagnosed with autism, up to 90 percent of whom also have sensory difficulties.

Jack doesn’t have autism, but Ari Young, who lives a few hundred miles away in North Carolina, has both SPD and autism. And Ari, too, has certain impressive abilities, thanks to his super-sensitive senses. His acute visual memory allows him to recite articles from Wikipedia nearly verbatim — although, unless the article is on a history- or science-related topic he’s particularly interested in, he may be able to recall the information only in the order in which he learned it. Ari’s mother, Heather McDanel, says his sensory peculiarities and his autism are all bound up together. With many of his idiosyncrasies, “I don’t know if that’s the autism or if that’s sensory, or a combination of the two,” she says.

Like Jack, Ari also had sleep-related quirks as an infant: He could drift off only while rocking in a baby swing to a recording of birds chirping, and his bleary parents had to restart it every 15 minutes throughout the night. A speech therapist first mentioned SPD when Ari was not yet 2 years old; the autism diagnosis came later, when he was 2 and a half.

Even today, at age 9, Ari tends to hum to himself either when it’s too quiet or to drown out noise. He attends third grade in a mainstream classroom, but his sensitivities sometimes make school a struggle. A few months ago, when an unexpected announcement that class would be dismissed early caused his fellow students to erupt into happy chaos, the hubbub sent Ari running, sobbing with confusion and surprise, to the front office.

Sensory problems can not only disrupt a child’s ability to learn in school and form friendships, but upend the lives of whole families. “These are really challenging kinds of problems for children, whether they’re diagnosed with something or not,” says Grace Baranek, professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And for families, it can be difficult to get help.

Yet SPD also offers an opportunity: Studying people who have sensory problems with or without an autism diagnosis could help these children and provide insight into the relationship between sensory problems and the core social and communication problems seen in autism. It’s easy to imagine that a young child who hardly registers the sights and sounds of the surrounding world may not tune in to her father’s games of peekaboo, and may miss out on these formative moments of communication. Meanwhile, a child for whom those sights and sounds are unusually intense may be too overwhelmed to focus on his mother’s attempts to catch his attention and never learn some of the subtleties of the social world.

In the past several years, the advent of more precise, objective ways to measure sensory responses and behavior, coupled with imaging techniques that pinpoint how the brain processes sensations, are providing a window into how this process goes awry — and perhaps, ultimately, how to get it back on track.

Forgotten history:

Sensory differences were part of the first descriptions of autism, but were ignored for many years. Leo Kanner’s 1943 paper first introducing the concept of autism opens with an account of one boy’s precocious singing skills, remarkable memory for faces, and aversion to ordinary childhood pleasures such as riding a tricycle or sliding down a slide. Kanner and other researchers also noticed that many children with autism were hypersensitive to loud noises or seemed indifferent to pain.

But in the early decades, research on these aspects of autism was mostly descriptive and speculative. Few researchers were gathering empirical evidence about how children with the condition experienced the world. By the 1980s, interest in this area had fizzled.

Meanwhile, outside the context of autism research, an occupational therapist and neuroscientist named A. Jean Ayres was developing the theory that processing and integrating basic sensory information underlies many daily living skills. “It’s hard to imagine now, but people didn’t understand that when a child was having some difficulty moving their hands to button their coat, or to do some kind of school activity, that this could be related to brain function,” says Roseann Schaaf, professor of occupational therapy and neuroscience at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the early 1970s, Ayres first described ‘sensory integration dysfunction,’ in reference to these difficulties with everyday activities. As researchers learned more about the brain mechanisms involved, the term ‘processing’ replaced ‘integration’ and the condition became known as SPD. Ayres developed tests for identifying these troubles, such as asking a person to identify which finger has been touched without looking. She also created sensory integration therapy, which involves activities that engage multiple senses simultaneously, such as finding objects hidden in sand or a bin of beans, or sitting on a swing while batting at a suspended ball.

Ayres’ work became enormously influential among occupational therapists — healthcare professionals who help people with everyday life skills. These days, occupational therapists are primed to consider sensory explanations for a child’s difficulties with, say, handwriting or teeth-brushing. And many occupational therapists still use Ayres’ therapy or something similar to help with these problems.

By the early 2000s, autism researchers began to rediscover sensory processing, thanks to new tools in brain imaging and psychophysics, the precise measurement of the brain’s electrical responses to stimuli. There has also been a growing appreciation that sensory difficulties are a big part of what makes autism so difficult to cope with. Today, they’re such a widely recognized aspect of autism that they are included in the diagnostic criteria for the condition.

Still, many child psychiatrists do not see SPD as a distinct diagnostic label. They say the symptoms are too diverse and there’s too much uncertainty about what SPD is and how to distinguish it from other conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anxiety. “We know that sensory issues are important in a variety of kids with a variety of different diagnostic labels,” says Carissa Cascio, assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Those who have sensory problems without any of the other conditions are rare, she says.

But some parents say this doesn’t jibe with their experience, and that their children’s problems are fundamentally perceptual in nature. Linda, the mother of a child with SPD, recalls that her daughter had always been very particular, almost obsessive, about what clothes she would wear. But these quirks morphed into a full-blown terror of going to school once she entered first grade; she worried about having to go to an assembly, or having to use the bathroom with its loud, unpredictably flushing toilets. (Linda asked that we withhold her last name to protect her daughter’s privacy.) A pediatrician gave an anxiety screening questionnaire to see if Linda’s daughter might qualify for that diagnosis, but initially the label just didn’t seem to fit, Linda says. “She’s not afraid of bears or afraid of dying,” Linda told the pediatrician. “She’s afraid of socks; she’s afraid of hats.”

In fact, a 2012 twin study found that just over half of children with sensory sensitivities do not qualify for diagnoses such as anxiety, depression or ADHD (the study did not consider autism).

Meanwhile, the million-dollar question remains: What’s the difference between children who have autism and the perceptual processing problems that usually accompany it, and those who have the problems alone? Why does Ari have an accepted condition — autism — that includes being easily overwhelmed by noise, whereas Jack has similar struggles but no such diagnosis? Looking carefully at the differences between children like them may help answer these questions. “An approach like that is incredibly useful because it can give us a compare-and-contrast view of what’s specific to autism and what’s more general to sensory differences in a broader sense,” Cascio says.

How it feels:

The controversy over SPD has created a conundrum in pursuing that research, however. “It’s very hard to get funding for research on something that doesn’t exist,” says Lucy Miller, an occupational therapist and founder of the SPD Foundation, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. And, of course, it’s difficult to establish whether SPD should be considered a stand-alone condition without studying people who have it. “These are kids that aren’t necessarily being referred to studies because they don’t have a disorder” as defined by diagnostic manuals, says Elysa Marco, director of the Sensory Neurodevelopment and Autism Program at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s sort of a round robin.” Her group is running a crowdfunding campaign to support their SPD research.

A handful of researchers have been able to investigate SPD as a separate entity, and their findings are advancing the argument that it deserves its own diagnosis. Some children who don’t fit any recognized condition nonetheless have atypical sensory systems, these studies find. Researchers in one study used electrodes placed on the skin to show that children who have this informal clinical label react more strongly to everyday stimuli, such as the sound of a siren or the stroke of a feather across the face, than do either controls or children with ADHD. Another study showed that the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and breathing, is less active in people with sensory processing problems than it is in controls.

The most compelling evidence that SPD has a distinct neurological basis comes from a 2013 study that found that boys with SPD have atypical white matter (long nerve fibers) connecting regions related to sensory processing. “They have real, measurable brain connectivity differences,” says Marco, who worked on the study. A follow-up study published earlier this year adds to the picture: Brain connections are altered in girls with SPD as well, and the more severe a child’s difficulties with processing sound, the more pronounced his or her white-matter alterations.

These studies also show some intriguing parallels between children with autism and those with sensory difficulties but no formal diagnosis. For example, children with autism show dampened parasympathetic nervous system activity similar to that seen in children who’ve been described as having SPD. And children with autism, just like those with SPD, have abnormalities in white-matter pathways involved in processing sensations.

“It’s a possibility that these groups started out very similarly and there’s some sort of protective factor that keeps people with sensory processing differences from becoming kids with autism,” Cascio says. But so far, that’s just speculation.

There are also differences between sensory problems in autism, SPD and other conditions, and these are only beginning to be mapped out. Children with autism have disruptions in brain connectivity along social and emotional pathways, whereas those pathways are intact in children with SPD alone. Children with SPD tend to have more problems with touch than do those with autism, whereas children with autism struggle more with sound processing. This may explain why language and communication problems are characteristic of autism.

Whether a child is oversensitive or undersensitive may also play some role in what diagnosis she winds up with. Dampened responses to a new sight, sound or touch are more common in autism than they are in children with SPD or other conditions, whereas a sensory system that is dialed all the way up is seen across autism, ADHD and anxiety alike. As toddlers, children with autism also tend to have more profound sensory abnormalities than do those with developmental delays.

The notion that sensory problems underlie autism symptoms makes sense, but has yet to be tested, says Sophie Molholm, associate professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “I wouldn’t even want to say that the sensory processing issues are causal,” she says. “We don’t know that at all. We just know that these are symptoms that we frequently see in these disorders.”

It could also be that how perceptual problems relate to autism depends on the child. “I think this is part of the conundrum of autism,” Marco says. “Are kids simply not showing [social] awareness and interest … because they are so sensitive that they have shut it out completely? Or are they really, truly at their base just not interested?”

“These are really challenging kinds of problems for children, whether they’re diagnosed with something or not.” Grace Baranek

Sense and sensitivity:

These questions matter because children who are chronically flooded with sensations, or are distant from the world around them, need help — whether they have autism or not.

Many of the day-to-day struggles of people with autism have to do with perceptions gone haywire, such as being overcome by sounds, or feeling a revulsion toward certain foods. This home truth may often go unnoticed and unaddressed by clinicians, but it has a powerful impact on family life.

Some parents of children with autism are big fans of sensory integration and similar therapies. They say the interventions help soothe the most disruptive problems of everyday life. Jennifer, the mother of a teenage boy with autism and fragile X syndrome, a related condition, says the occupational therapy her son began around age 3 was transformative. He was nonverbal at the time, and thanks to this therapy, she finally understood that her son’s senses were wired in a way to make some things soothing and others bothersome to him. “We realized that’s why he likes his hands rubbed so much, and his arms squeezed,” says Jennifer. (She asked that her last name be withheld to protect her son’s privacy.) It helped her grasp why her son demanded tight pajamas, and would only wear one particular pair of shoes. “It started making sense to us,” she says — and made it easier for her to meet his needs.

Until a few years ago, the evidence supporting sensory integration therapy for children with autism or other conditions was relatively thin.  And some practices of therapies that focus on sensation, such as working with playdough, hanging upside-down, or brushing a child’s skin to desensitize him to touch, can seem unscientific or even downright bizarre. The approach is also difficult to study because it tends to be ad-hoc. Clinicians “come up with treatment plans that are highly individualized, and that’s another challenge for really rigorous scientific study,” says Cascio. “It becomes really difficult figuring out what the relevant outcomes are, how are you going to measure them, how you measure improvement.” And in the past, the field was generally more focused on therapeutic practice than on creating standardized interventions.

Some families of children who lack an official diagnostic label struggle to get any help at all. “There are a lot of people who suffer from this kind of difficulty, and they’re not able to access services or get the kinds of accommodations they need in schools, or early intervention, without the diagnostic label,” says Baranek.

Lori Craven is homeschooling her son Jack because she says it was too difficult to get the public school system to accommodate him. Because Jack doesn’t have hearing loss, he wasn’t eligible for an assistive technology that amplifies his teacher’s voice to help him focus. Because he doesn’t have vision impairments, the school balked at providing enlarged, simple-looking versions of worksheets, or even allowing Lori to prepare them. “I just realized I was spending so much time fighting the school — I was trying to do it for them, and it was too much to ask,” Lori says.

Savvy parents of children with SPD often seek out an additional diagnosis such as anxiety or ADHD — or embrace one when it is offered. Linda says that in the end, it was her daughter’s anxiety label that helped the family arrange an individualized education plan for her daughter. The anxiety diagnosis “seemed to be the language that the school understood best,” she says.

This fancy footwork around labels and diagnoses may become a thing of the past as researchers pursue the ultimate goal: figuring out which treatments for sensory problems are effective. They hypothesize that the right treatments will work whether a child has autism, anxiety, ADHD or no diagnosis at all, as long as the underlying problem, such as being too sensitive to touch, is the same. “You’re trying to establish what the commonalities are,” Baranek says. “And looking to see if those interventions actually help in similar ways despite the different diagnoses.”

That means tailoring the treatment to the child rather than to the diagnosis. “I think [occupational] therapists do this on the fly,” says Alison Lane, associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of Newcastle in Australia. “But we don’t have a systematic way of saying, ‘This child with this particular pattern of behavior and sensory features will respond best to this type of approach.’”

Lane and others have begun defining sensory subtypes within the autism spectrum, in an effort to more systematically match symptoms to treatment. She plans to use this framework to guide therapy in a pilot study later this year.

A precisely defined procedure for choosing sensory therapies in autism will also help make studies in this area more rigorous, says Schaaf, the Philadelphia-based occupational therapist and neuroscientist who led the development of such an approach. She is using it to test whether sensory therapy or a more standard autism treatment is better at boosting the ability of people with autism to integrate auditory and visual information.

A small pilot study of this approach found that sensory therapy in children with autism improves not only their perceptual difficulties but also their social skills. “That was unexpected,” says Schaaf. “We didn’t hypothesize that at all.” In their follow-up, the researchers are collaborating with Molholm’s team to track the children’s sensory integration abilities through electroencephalography to observe brain activity, as well as monitoring how they are doing in daily life. The study, slated to run for five years and involve 200 children, began enrolling participants in February.

Researchers are also applying neurobiology findings to treatment studies of SPD. Marco is collaborating with the SPD Foundation on a pilot study to scan the brains of children with SPD before and after occupational therapy, in order to determine whether the intervention improves brain connectivity.

In the meantime, Ari Young has come up with his own way of managing his highly attuned brain, on top of the therapies he gets for autism. He often wears headphones at school to block out distracting or distressing noises, but he has noticed that most other kids don’t wear them. “I used to feel like wearing headphones would just kind of pin me out of the rest of the group, make me look like I was not paying attention,” he says. They also make it more difficult for him to hear what his teacher is saying.

So Ari has been conducting a sort of informal sensory therapy, challenging himself to briefly take his headphones off during events such as school assemblies and performances. “Sometimes there are quiet moments at loud concerts, when … I decide to peek open the headphones a little bit,” he says. “And then when the next loud part comes, I snap them back on as fast as I can.”



Robot ‘teacher’ to help children with autism developed by scientists

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Scientists are investigating whether a cartoon-like robot can improve learning and emotional understanding in children with autism.

A team from Imperial College London and their partners in Europe have developed technology that enables an off-the-shelf robot called Zeno to interact in real-time with children who have autism. The researchers, who are currently trialling the technology in Serbia and the UK, believe that robots may provide an alternative approach for teaching children how to understand and convey their emotions.

It is amazing to see our technology bringing Zeno to life for children with autism. They absolutely love the robot.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. It’s estimated that about one in every 100 people in the UK has ASD. More boys are diagnosed with the condition than girls. Specialist teaching and therapy for children with autism focuses on helping them to learn to convey their emotions and understand other people’s emotions. This is done by getting them to understand the conventional ways that people express themselves through a combination of facial expression and gestures.

However, trying to read a combination of facial expressions and gestures can be confusing for the children and means they often prefer to avoid eye contact and contact in general. This has led scientists to wonder whether there are alternative methods for teaching children with autism, which are more aligned with the way they process information and see the world.

Now, the researchers on the four-year DeEnigma project are exploring whether robots can provide a consistent and fun way for children with autism to learn more about emotions. Robots, because of their programming, are precise, displaying the same facial expressions and gestures in every interaction. Researchers believe this consistency may be the key to helping young children with autism to learn the different facial expressions gestures people use to display their emotions. The robot also appeals to the way children with autism prefer things that are predictable.

Professor Maja Pantic, Imperial’s project lead from the Department of Computing, said: “Autism affects people in different ways. However, many struggle with understanding and conveying emotions, often preferring to shut out what they don’t understand. It is important to help them to understand how people convey their emotions so that they don’t find human interactions so confusing and that is why we think our project is so important.”

‘Zeno says’: About the game

The DeEnigma project, which began in 2016, is a collaboration between five European universities including Imperial, plus autism charities and industrial partners.

The researchers have combined a range of audio, visual, facial recognition and artificial intelligence technologies, which they have been developing over the years, into one platform. The platform was then programmed to be able to detect and decipher sound and visual cues from the children they are interacting with.

When the platform is connected to Zeno, it enables it to spontaneously interact in real-time with a child and conduct a simple lesson.

Professor Pantic added: “It is amazing to see our technology bringing Zeno to life for children with autism. They absolutely love the robot. Their faces really light up when they see it. For example, we’ve had feedback from a parent who said their non-verbal child of six spoke for the first time in excited anticipation about his next lesson with Zeno, which is amazing to hear.”

The lesson involves a child playing with the robot in a game called ‘Zeno says’. The first part of the game involves Zeno asking the child to describe what they see in a set of pictures, such as images of people being happy or angry.

The child must explain what the faces in the picture mean and how he or she would display those emotions. Zeno responds by showing the correct expressions to the child and adding useful comments. Lastly, Zeno tells a simple story that involves a friend accidentally stepping on its favourite toy and breaking it. Zeno asks the child to explain how the friend felt in that situation.

The first research of its kind

This interaction between autistic children and a robot, where the robot can ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the child and recognise their expressions, is the first research of its kind, says Professor Pantic. A previous study had programmed a robot to deliver a monologue to children with autism as a method of teaching them about feelings, but the technology did not allow for there to be any spontaneous sensor-based interaction, making it less realistic. The DeEnigma team believe spontaneous interactions may make learning exciting, fun and easier for children with autism.

The ultimate aim of the project is to roll Zeno-like robots out to specialist schools to help teach children with autism. The DeEnigma team also have ethical approval for sharing the data they collect with other research groups in Europe. The team say this should mean faster progress can be made to understand more about the condition in children and how it affects their development.

Professor Pantic adds that sharing information across Europe gives the project a unique edge. She predicts that it will have a long-lasting impact in research on autism.