Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Clinic Notes: Technology for Treating Autism

Many parents who bring their children with autism to my clinic ask what they can do at home to help progress their child. Of course, we have then run the ABA programs for compliance that we run in the clinic and other ABA programs for skill building. But many parents want more. After looking at all of the autism products online they ask about their usefulness. We advise many parents to buy lap top computers if their child is high functioning and we point out software that is useful and that we use in our clinic. But they always want more. And the more has arrived in the Apple iPad. As I have mentioned in previous blogs children with autism are fascinated with the iPad. If you type "autism apps" in the search box in the iTunes store you will find a number of useful apps with more coming each day. If readers would like help in choosing apps for their child please let me know.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Clinic Notes: Children with Autism and the iPad

Apple's iPad is causing a lot of excitement in the autism community. Many parents of the children with autism who I see in my clinic have asked me if they should buy one for their child. So I thought I would blog about what I have seen in the app testing we are doing. First of all, I read an online article about a mother who won an iPad in a raffle and handed it to her child with autism. When she came back a few minutes later he had turned it on and was navigating through the different functions without having ever seen one or being instructed in how to use it. I thought this seemed farfetched so I handed my iPad to a child with autism who comes to our clinic. He looked it over and then proceeded to turn it on and navigate through the different functions without having seen it being used or given any instructions. So it is true--many children with autism have an intuitive feel for the iPad. I have even heard a rumor that Steve Jobs invented the iPad for children with autism, which he denies. In next weeks blog I will review some apps and tell readers the best way to use the iPad with a child with autism.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Autism Apps for the iPhone, Ipod Touch, and the iPad

Just about everyone who keeps up with what is going on in the autism world knows by now that children with autism are fascinated with computer technology. Apple's iPad seems to almost hypnotize them. I have handed my iPad to a child with autism and they learn to use it on their own in a few minutes. The iPad seems to work even better than the touch screen computers that we use in our clinic and I didn't think that was possible. The iTunes store has apps that are especially suited to the child with autism and we have been testing them in our clinic. Prolog2go is a communication app that turns the $400 dollar iPad into an $8000 dollar assisted communication device. We are putting our Discrete Trial Training apps (DT) in the store now. Our DTT apps have been tested in our clinic with children with autism and work very well. Go to and check them out.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Autism and the Christmas Holidays

Every December I repost my blog on Autism and the Christmas

The Christmas holidays can be a difficult time for parents of children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders. Of course, any holiday can be somewhat difficult for any child with all of the changes in their routine, especially when they get tired. But Christmas, with all the lights, the music, the relatives, and the crowded malls, is an especially difficult holiday, because children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders are often hypersensitive to visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli.
Children with autism are visual learners, and a month before Christmas you should take pictures of what is going to happen--the lights on the tree, the gifts, the music, the relatives that touch and hug. These pictures should be shown repeatedly each day to your child with autism or other neuropsychological disorders. While he/she is looking at the pictures, tell the child a little story about what's going to happen at Christmas, how to behave, and what your child can do if the stimulation is too much. Include your child in the pictures if possible. A picture of your child going to his or her room to escape the noise and confusion when he/she gets overloaded seems to help, too.
There are no sure-fire techniques to use with a child that will ensure a "Martha Stewart Christmas." But many families who have children with autism or some other neuropsychological disorder have used the visual learning procedure above and the ten tips that follow to have a better Christmas.
1. Try to keep your child in his or her usual routine as much as possible.
2. Sensory over stimulation—the lights, the sounds, the smells, and the relatives touching your child--are the main culprits during the holidays. Eliminating or minimizing these culprits are your best bet.
3. Some families who have children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders wait until Christmas Eve to put up their tree and decorate.
4. Some families let their children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders do all of the decorating. Children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders may line up or stack decorations rather than decorate in the traditional way, but so what.
5. Rather than try to do the Christmas shopping with children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders in a crowded, noisy mall, many families shop by catalog or online and let the child point to or circle the toys he/she wants. Websites, such as www.stars4kidz, offer a variety of toys for children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders. Just type "autism toys" in your search engine.
6. Tactile toys are often a better choice for children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders. Toys that make sounds or involve too much stimulation or are too complex may not cause an aversive reaction in the child. Try ordering some of these autism friendly toys and then let your child select the ones to play with, as they are unwrapped.
7. Talk to relatives before they come over about the best way to behave with children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders.
8. Generally, kids with autism or other neuropsychological disorders do better in the morning than in the late afternoon or evening when they are tired. It may be better to schedule Christmas events at these times.
9. The parents of children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders need to relax themselves. Often the child with autism picks up on the parents’ stress and that is enough to ruin Christmas.
10. And last but not least, realize that you are probably not going to have perfect food, perfect decorations, and perfect gifts. Christmas with children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders may not be traditional, but it can still have real meaning. I wish you and your child the happiest of holidays. Visit us at if you have questions about your child.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Clinic Notes: Handwriting and Autism

Many children with autism have fine motor problems and are receiving services from Occupational Therapists (OT's). Buttoning, tying shoes, coloring, puzzles, and stacking blocks can all be issues. A recent study (Schafer Report, November 24, 2010) found that handwriting problems persist into the adolescent years. I think this reinforces what I have been telling parents for years. Do not discontinue OT even if the Ot tells you that your child with autism has met all of the goals unless handwriting is easy for the child. Letters should not only be well formed but completed in a timely manner. I have seen children with autism make bad grades simply because they cannot write fast enough to finish assignments and tests.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Clinic Notes: Desensitizing a Child with Autism to Swallow Pills

About half of the children who come to The Children's Treatment Center are on medication. Many children with autism have issues with swallowing pills so parents have to hide the pills in food or find the medication in liquid form if available. Usually, this is only a short term fix. I use a desensitization procedure similar to a procedure covered in a recent Lovaas Institute Newsletter which works well. Begin by having the child swallow all of the liquid in a spoon in one swallow. Start with just a small amount of liquid and gradually increase the amount until the chills can easily swallow the entire spoon full. Do this with a variety of different liquids. Next add a small amount of juice powder to the liquid and gradually increase the amount by decreasing the amount of liquid. Follow this with a spoon of the child's favorite juice as a reinforcer. Small ice chips can then be placed on the spoon for the child to swallow and gradually increased in size. The transition can then be easily made to small pills.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Clinic Notes: Biomed and Autism

Many parents tell me that raising a child with autism is just more than they can do. Keeping up with all of the ABA programs they are supposed to run in the home, speech therapy, OT, meds, it's just too much. Well, as a clinician I have to agree. Keeping clinical progress notes is often just too much for me too. There's a new app for the iPad called Biomed, which tracks patient care. A patient profile is created--name, birth date, diadnosis, etc. Next a treatment history is entered and quantified if possible. Once all of the information is entered updates are added. Biomed then summarizes everything and you can review all of the information that you have entered on a topic--say ABA-with a tap. We have started using this app at the Children's Treatment Center and we will report in a future blog how it goes.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Clinic Notes: Bad Autism "News"

Last night, after working all day with children with autism in my clinic, I was scanning the autism news, looking for something to blog about. I found the usual scientific studies on genetics, brain function, therapies -- all of great interest, and countless stories about all of the good things that were being done to help children with autism. But what really caught my attention was what a bad day it had been for some children with autism. A substitute teacher was accused of biting a child with autism, a babysitter poured scalding water on a child with autism because of a toileting accident, a student was charged for bullying a child with autism, and a school in Scotland built a cage for a child with autism to "play" in at recess. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and Robots

Children with autism have problems understanding where to look. They often do not make eye contact and often do not look where others are looking. ABA programs for establishing eye contact are usually the first thing we do in the clinic and these programs work well. But getting a child to look where others are looking can be more difficult. A recent study by psychologist Andrew Meltzoff and his associates at the University of Washington let 18 month-old infants play with toys. Then a screen hiding a robot was removed. Half of the children observed an adult talking to the robot and play a game with it while half sat the adult not pay attention to the robot. Then the adult left the room, the robot beeped, and turned its head toward a toy. The children in the group that had seen the adult interact with the robot were four times more likely to look at the toy the robot was looking at. The children in this study were normally developing, but perhaps in the studies that are developing "robot therapies" for children with autism observing a little human-robot interaction could be important.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and Lying

It is widely accepted that children with autism do not have insight into the thoughts and feelings of other people. But in a recent study it was found that children with autism are just as likely as control children to tell a white lie in order to not hurt other people's feelings. In the study children were told they were going to get a wonderful gift. They were then given a bar of soap. When the researcher asked if they like the gift they said yes and did not say they were disappointed.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Clinic Notes: Illegal Immigrants and Autism

I have noticed an increase in the number of Hispanic children in my clinic lately. I don't know if their parents are documented or illegal immigrants or not. And I don't care. They do work at jobs that provide no health insurance so they all pay cash. Usually, just one parent is present. After the evaluation, regardless of he outcome, they want a letter addressed to "whom it may concern" describing the diagnosis and the need for the absent to join them. As I understand it autism and other childhood developmental disorders is classified a as a "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" and could be a factor in avoiding deportation. On the other hand, I also hear of Hispanic parents who are afraid to seek treatment for their children who they suspect have autism because they fear deportation. I really don't know how to advise these parents.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Clinic Notes: Seriously now, Girls with Autism and ADHD

Often when women complain about symptoms, which could indicate heart diseases, the physician does not take them as seriously as they would a male. Fewer test are run and fewer medications are prescribed. Now a recent study finds the same is true when girls in Sweden seek help with symptoms indicating ADHD or autism. The parents of were concerned about the behavior of the girls early in life, but had not been given a diagnosis. When they were older and re-examined because their symptoms persisted nearly half were diagnosed with autism or ADHD. Socioeconomic status was ruled out as a factor.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Clinic Notes: Yawning and Autism

Most of us yawn during the day. The exact reason is not known, but boredom or a lack of sleep, are likely causes. Some studies have found that a yawn causes a sudden intake of oxygen, increases heart rate, and ventilates the lungs resulting in increased alertness. While the data on why we yawn is not clear it is clear that yawning is contagious. When one person yawns others around him or her are more likely to yawn. But there is one exception. Children with autism do not yawn contagiously. This makes sense to me and other clinicians who work daily with children with autism. Usually, imitation is not common in children with autism, especially those who are low functioning. The fact that children with autism do not yawn when others yawn tells me that yawning contagiously is a learned response.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Clinic Notes: Eye Tracking and Autism

Clinically, I think a lack of eye contact or infrequent and un-sustained eye contact is a good indicator of autism in young children. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine tracked eye movements in toddlers and found that those with autism spent significantly more time looking at geometric patterns than social pictures. The children who spent more than 69% of their time looking at the geometric patterns could be diagnosed with autism. Some of these infants were as young as 14 months. This could turn out to be a useful diagnostic tool.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Clinic Notes: Special Education and Autism

Unfortunately, many children with autism are in a Special Education classroom along with children with other diagnoses. Many Special Ed teachers tell me that they don't have time or don't know what to do with the children with autism. This problem can be even more difficult when you have children with autism who are at different places on the spectrum and teachers who are not trained in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for managing behavior and ABA procedures such as Discrete Trial Training (DTT) for teaching skills. In our clinic everyone is well trained in these procedures and this is out primary focus with many of our children. But with some of our children who have trouble focusing there is a variety of software available from companies like Super Duper Inc. for children with autism. Children with autism function best in their visual modality and the animation in the software holds their attention. So Special Ed teachers need to find several computers, old computers will do fine, add a touch screen and some software, (neither are expensive) and they can quickly be in the business of educating children with autism.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Clinic Notes: Too Much Noise in the Brains of Children with Autism

Anyone who is around a child with autism for very long will notice problems in focusing on the relevant aspects of the environment. A recent study by Jeffrey Hutsler, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno provides some answers to why this is so. He examined postmortem tissue samples and found that children with autism have a 20% higher density of synaptic connections in the outer layer of the brain's cortex. The outer layer of the cortex is the last to develop and the connections are formed as the child interacts with the environment. Apparently, the excessive synaptic connections create "noise" making it more difficult for the proper connections to occur. Early interventions with the behavior therapies can help form the appropriate connections between neurons and thereby improve behavior.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Clinic Notes: Plastics, Testosterone, and Autism

A recent study has found that the chemical BPA, found in plastics, including some baby bottles, and cash register receipts raises testosterone levels in men. This is interesting because Simon Baron Cohen of Cambridge University found that high testosterone levels in the amniotic fluid of the womb was related to later autistic behaviors in children. Furthermore, autism is 4-5 times more common in males than females suggesting that high levels of testosterone over masculinities the male brain. Of course, our exposure to plastics has increased over the last several decades so this could be an important etiological variable in the increased number of children with autism.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Clinic Notes: Environmental Causes of Autism

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I used to enjoy quail hunting. Flushing a covey that your dogs have pointed and having fried quail for breakfast was a real treat in the South where I live. But those days are gone. In Texas, where I'm from there are still quail, but the difference seems to be that in Texas there is ranch land and in the area of the South where I live it's farmland. Farmland means chemicals-pesticides-herbicides-fertilizer-etc. There are studies that show the closer you live to an agricultural field the higher the incidence of autism. I think there is a good chance that whatever killed the quail is also getting into our children either pre or post-natal. Humans are larger than quail so the unknown chemical culprits are not in high enough concentration to be fatal, but in high enough concentration to mess with the wiring of the brain. I was glad to see that more research into the environmental causes of autism was suggested to the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC). Autism has a genetic component, but the concordance rate is low and other etiological factors have to be investigated. There is already some evidence to suggest that ADHD is related to environmental chemicals so the hypothesis seems reasonable.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Clinic Notes: Is the Autism Epidemic for Real? Redux

The argument regarding the autism epidemic goes on. One side saying we are in the midst of an autism epidemic with 1 in 110 children being born ending up with an autism diagnosis. The other side saying changes in the diagnostic criteria for autism which resulted in a drop in the number of children diagnosed with mental retardation and learning disabilities explains the increase. A recent study by Peter Bearman at Columbia University in New York sheds some light on the controversy. He and his colleagues identified three variables, which account for much of the increase in the number of cases of autism. Diagnostic changes, parents being more aware of autism, and older parents. However, when they quantified these 3 variables to see what percentage of the increase they accounted for they found that these 3 variables only accounted for half of the increase in the number of autism cases. So it sounds like both sides are right--half right anyway.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and SSRI's

A class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI's) are commonly used to treat autism in children as young as two. SSRI's are better known as antidepressants by their trade names--Prozac, Zoloft, Celexia, etc. Serotonin is a neural transmitter in the brain involved in a variety of functions and some studies have implicated low serotonin levels in the brains of children with autism. Serotonin is measured peripherally in the blood or urine and no one has proved that peripheral measures of serotonin correspond to serotonin levels in the brain. A recent study concludes that there is not clear evidence that the SSRI's help children with autism. And I believe that when you look at the group statistics that is true. In our clinic many of the children with autism are prescribed SSRI's at some point. In some children I see no improvement. But in others, usually the younger children with poor muscle tone I see significant improvement so I think a trial is warranted.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and Lupron

Autism is 4-5 times more common in males than females. This observation led Simon Baron-Cohen to suggest that autism is caused by an extreme “male brain” which is in turn is caused by exposure to high levels of testosterone in utero. Research has shown that both males and females exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb develop behaviors characteristic of autism. In my opinion, this is the best theory of autism that we have to date. In thinking about studies to test this theory I thought of a study that would test this theory, but was potentially harmful and could not be done. Then, this week to my surprise I read that if was being done--sort of anyway. Lupron is cancer drug, which blocks the body from making testosterone. Taking advantage of desperate parents, a group of doctors in South Florida are giving the drug to children with autism. But this is not a test of the extreme male brain theory. This is an attempt to remove mercury from the body, which is "believed" by some to be the cause of autism. There's no evidence that the Lupron removes mercury or that mercury is excessive in children with autism. Futhermore, there are significant health risk in giving Lupron treatments, which cost around $5000 a month, to children.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and Feeding Problems

A recent large-scale study published online in Pediatrics reports that children with autism are "slow feeders" at 6 months and at 15 months are finicky eaters compared to normally developing children. However, these feeding problems do not appear to affect growth or energy levels. The authors suggest that feeding problems may be early diagnostic signs of autism so clinicians should ask about feeding problems. I think this is a good idea, but maybe the finicky eating has nothing to do with food. In my clinic I often note that children with autism are finicky eaters at all ages. But I think this could be because children with autism are just as likely to reject food on the basis of texture as taste and I also know that children with autism do not like change and characteristically follow rigid routines. I've seen cases where a rigid diet would be followed for years and I don't think it had anything to do with food, but simply routine. I know of one adult with autism who had eaten the same exact lunch, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for 20 years and on the few occasions when some other food was given to him he had tantrums. He would eat the other foods that were offered to him just not at lunch.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clinic Notes: Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy and Autism

On my website and in my clinic I recommend that parents of children with autism seek help from multiple professionals such as Speech Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, sometimes Physical Therapists, and Pediatric Neurologists in addition to the psychological services that I provide. And many parents follow my advice. Now I hear that some mothers of children with autism, so far none who come to my clinic, have been accused of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP). In MSBP mothers seek excessive medical care, sometimes for a disease they have caused or fabricated, and the multiple treatments may threaten or actually harm the child. Mothers accused of MSBP often have their children taken away from them by the court and now there is at least one case in court where a mother of a child with autism is being accused of MSBP and is in danger of having her child taken away from her. I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Clinic Notes: Making Sense of Autism Research

As a clinician, who also does research into the etiology (causes) of autism, I am often overwhelmed by the explosion of research findings. Which findings are useful in diagnosis? Which findings are useful in revising treatment options? Which findings are useful in designing future studies? It is simply too much--too much data in too many places with no organization. I was thrilled to read about the National Institute of Health's (NIH) new autism database. The National Database for Autism Research (NDAR) that will have research findings in one place that can be accessed by clinicians and researchers. As I read further though I was less thrilled. The database will only contain data from NIH sponsored research and will not be operational until 2012. Oh well, one small step . . .

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Clinic Notes: Asperger's and God

In last week's blog I discussed a teenager with Asperger's who had murdered a classmate after years of rejection by his peers. Now a big switch to a study that examined how Asperger's folks see purpose in their lives. People without Asperger's who believe in God saw His purpose behind many events in their lives. Similiarly, in terms of thinking, a group of atheists stated that things just happen there is no Devine intervention. This study supports the idea that children and adults on the Spectrum lack a "theory of mind" an ability to see or hypothesize what others are thinking.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Clinic Notes: Asperger's and Murder

Children with Asperger's have problems socially. Often they are isolated and friendless and cannot understand why. Theoretically, children with Asperger's lack a theory of mind. In other words they cannot hypothesize what others are thinking and therefore cannot adjust their behavior in social situations. Recently, a child with Asperger's who had been rejected all of his life commited murder. Children with Asperger's have obsessions and this child committed murder because of his obsession with Stephen Ling novels--one of which said that the 19th would be a day of doom. So on the 19th he took a kitchen knife to school and stabbed another student to death in the restroom. The jury did not buy his insanity defense. I see a number of Asperger's children in my clinic each week and have yet to see any that are violent. Interestingly, in the new DSM revision, which is the bible of psychiatry and psychology, Asperger's will be deleted and children with Asperger's will be diagnosed with high functioning Autism. In my next blog I will discuss Asperger's and belief in God.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Clinic Notes: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and the Immune System

Children with OCD are sometimes misdiagnosed with autism. Children with autism do perseverate, line up toys, and like to have their environment a certain way. They also do not like change, will do better on a strict schedule, and often engage in repetitious, self-stimulatory behavior. But usually they have the other symptoms that are not seen in the child with OCD. Low serotonin levels are implicated in both disorders and often both are treated with medications that increase serotonin levels although the improvement, if any, is usually small. A recent study in mice links OCD to problems in the immune system. It was already known that PANDAS, an abbreviation for Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections, causes OCD in a subset of children and worsens tics in children with Tourette's Syndrome. Children with autism often have more infections than normally developing children and this has led to the hypothesis that autism could be an immune disorder. At this point the evidence for this hypothesis in not compelling, but wouldn't it be interesting if autism turns out to be an immunity problem.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Clinic Notes: Sex Differences in Etiological Predictors of Autism

Recently, we presented the results of some of our research at The American Psychological Society meeting in Boston. In several studies we have noted that the causes of autism are different for males and females. It is established that males are 4 to 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism so differences in predictors is not surprising. In our survey of 1806 biological mother of children diagnosed with autism and normally developing children we found that being an older mothers, birth complications, living 20 miles from power lines, and eating fish during the first trimester predicted autism in both males and females. Not having meat aversions predicted autism in males but not females. Mothers smoking during pregnancy was a predictor of autism in females but not males. Baron-Cohen suggests that autism is an evolutionary exaggeration of the male brain

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and Seizures

Approximately 25-30 percent of children with autism have seizures. And often the medications that are used to control the seizures have side effects that make behavior treatments, such as ABA, more difficult. Speech therapy and occupational therapy can also be adversely affected by seizure medications. At a recent Autism One/Generation Rescue Conference, a seizure survey asked parents of children with autism who also had seizures to evaluate traditional and non-traditional seizure treatments which had been tried on their children. For traditional anti-seizure drug treatment valproic acid, Levetiracetam, Lamotrigine and Ethosuximide were the most effective at controlling seizures and the least detrimental on cognition, language and behavior. For the non-traditional tanti-seizure treatments, the survey found that the ketogenic diet, the Atkins diet and gluten-free/casein-free diet were the most effective in controlling seizures and also were also helpful in treating, language and/or behavior.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Clinic Notes: Acting and Autism

One of the most challenging areas for clinicians who work with children with autism is teaching them to notice social cues in others and modify their behavior accordingly. Most children learn these cues as they interact in daycare and other social encounters. But the child with autism seems not to notice. I've watched many children with autism trying to have a "conversation" with normally developing children and fail to notice the obvious cues of disinterest and boredom. Simon Baron-Cohen notes that social interactions are brief and the window of learning small. He and his associates have developed a series of DVD's with actors in different social interactions. The children with autism can replay these DVD's and learn the "rules" for how to act in certain situations.
I recall reading somewhere that this is what Temple Grandin learned to do. If someone came into her office she had memorized the line, "Would you like a cup of coffee?" She could not understand why she should do this, but had memorized her line in the play of life. Perhaps as Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts, Perhaps for the child with autism this is more literal than poetic.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Clinic Notes: Bullies and Asperger's

I always worry about the Asperger's kids that I see who are mainstreamed. In the early grades other children are kind to them, but is middle school and high school the bulling starts, especially in schools where there is poor supervision. A recent article on a program in Toronto caught my attention. The program takes a novel approach, deprogramming bullies by Teaching Kindness 101. The school was concerned after the suicide of a15 year old in Massachusetts that was caused by bullying. After reviewing all of the anti-bullying the school found that the programs that worked the best taught positive behaviors such as kindness and empathy. The program starts in the early grades and includes bringing a mother and baby into the classroom to help children understand empathy and the perspective of others. If the baby cries the teacher helps the children understand the reason and what could be done to help the baby. Google Roots of Empathy (ROE) for more information and see if you can get an anti-bullying program started in your school.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Clinic Notes: Parents' Age and Autism

A recent study in the journal Autism Research looked at parents' age in over 5 million births in California. Previous studies have found that the risk of having a child with autism increases with the age of the father. And in the new study the effect of the father's age was strong even when the mother was young. If the father was over 40 and the mother under thirty there was a 59% greater likelihood of autism. More mothers over 40 gave birth during the study period, but the increase in mothers over 40 could not account for all of the increase in autism. In my clinic I do notice lots of older parents with autism. I don't think I have ever seen teenage parents with a child with autism and I have not seen any stats on very young parents and autism.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Clinic Notes: School and Autism

Many parents who have children with autism have problems deciding on what to do about school. Most public schools put children with autism in special ed classes along with children with a variety of other diagnoses. Usually, the education and behavioral management is not adequate in these special ed classes for the child with autism. The school may say that they offer ABA, which usually means that they have sent a special ed teacher to a one day ABA workshop. If parents home school the child with autism the child may fare better because sensory issues are often less and the parent can target their child's educational needs. The downside of home schooling is the lack of socialization. A recent study in Australia found that children with autism who went to weekly play groups developed social skills. A lack of exposure to play groups delayed social development on the other hand. I think some parents, depending on their child's special needs, should consider home schooling in the early years along with weekly playgroups. Home school curricula that meets state requirements are easily available and if the parent can get some ABA training then this may be a better option for many children with autism.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Autism and Ipads

Autism is a communication disorder. Some children with autism are completely non-verbal, some have articulation problems and are difficult to understand, while others have problems with pronouns, tense, or sentence structure. Some children with autism learn to communicate by pointing and/or tantruming when the do not get what they want. Many of the behavioral problems seen in children with autism are due to the frustration over not being able to communicate. Sign language and Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) have been used in the extensively to try and establish communication in children with autism. Recently, electronic communication systems where a child presses a button with a picture on it and a computer generates a voice which "speaks" for the child has been the treatment of choice. These systems work very well, they are easy for the child to use, and the frustration over not being able to communicate disappears along with the behavioral problems. Unfortunately, these communication devices cost around $8000. The Apple Iphone can be converted into a mini electronic communication device with a download from the Istore and I understand that the new IPad has a similar app. The Ipad will be much more affordable but will not have as many options or be as indestructible as the $8000 device. Since language acquisition by age 5 is a good predictor of how children will do the cheaper IPad is something to consider.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Clinic Notes: The Onset of Autism

Everyone knows by now that the earlier ABA is started for children with autism the better. The problem is there are no biological markers so inferences have to be made from behavior. The categorization of autism into infantile, where the disorder is supposedly present at birth, and regressive, where development is normal until between 2 and 3 has fallen out of favor. According to one study that looked at homemade videos signs of autism were present in children latter diagnosed with regressive autism. As a clinician, I was never satisfied with this study. I think there are cases of regressive autism where signs were missed but I still think most parents are right when they tell me everything was normal until 21/2 years or so. A new study from the Kennedy Krieger Institute finds this "lost" distinctions may be vital as far as prognosis. When children with early onset of symptoms (infantile) were compared to children with later onset (regressive) it was found that children with regressive were more severely impaired and need more services. Of course, the earlier the ABA the better for the early onset children, but apparently no biological or behavioral markers for the children with regressive autism.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and Driving

For most teenagers driver's ed and getting a driver's license is a rite of passage that they can't wait for. However, many kids with high functioning autism and Asperger's find the thought of driving stressful. I have had a number of kids on the spectrum in my clinic that simply had no interest in driving. Others found driver's ed very stressful. Some had no problem learning the necessary skills for driving, but once driver's ed was over they had no interest in taking the test to get their license. Sydney University in Australia has begun a specialized driving program for kids with Asperger's. They also report high anxiety levels because of the coordination of sensory and motor systems that driving involves. So far there are no reports on the success of their program. I am interested because in the kids that we are able to mainstream a lack of public transportation in the rural area where I practice is going to mean driving to a job.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Clinic Notes: World Autism Awareness Day

World Autism Awareness Day is being celebrated April 2. The Secretary of the United Nations is calling for a "Community of Voices to Promote Greater Awareness." For those of us who work everyday with children with autism and for parents of children with autism it is hard to believe that there is a need for more awareness since it occupies our time 24-7. But there is. Many people just don't understand the battle that is being waged over funding, research, and treatment. I do think there is some good news. Parents of children with autism and professionals who work with children with autism are becoming more aware of what works and what does not work. Of course, there are still intense arguments about causes of autism--especially over vaccinations. But most caregivers are settling into mainstream treatments like ABA, speech, occupational therapy, and when necessary medication. More and more parents who come to our clinic are already acquainted with ABA and other mainstream treatments and have decided that ABA should be the treatment for their child. Funding for ABA and finding qualified experienced ABA professionals is now the challenge, as it is for other mainstream treatments. And the waiting line for diagnosis is still too long.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Clinic Notes: The New Heath Care Bill and ABA

As everyone knows by now, the Health-Care Reform Bill has passed both Houses and been signed into law by President Obama. The Autism Society issued a statement saying "that Congress took a step in the right direction, . . but we have much more work to do to ensure that families affected by autism have access to appropriate services . . ." The new bill requires coverage for ABA therapy, which many insurance companies were denying saying that ABA was experimental. Good news so far. Now we will see how it's implemented. Thirteen states have filed lawsuits contesting the passage of the bill. We will have to wait a while to see how the ABA coverage is implemented and the actual coverage required. TennCare will pay for ABA in the state where I live and practice. The problem is the the reimbursement rate is $18 dollars an hour. With my overhead I cannot afford to take TennCare patients. Hopefully, the new law will be better.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Clinic Notes: Medication and ABA Redux

My last blog on medication and ABA prompted several insightful comments that I would like to address. First of all I am not pro med. Medication should only be used as a last resort after more conservative behavior therapies have been implemented. And this is what I tell parents who bring their children to my clinic. Furthermore, medications may facilitate other therapies but they will not "cure" or manage the behavior problems by themselves. Medication trials should only be initiated when the potential benefits of the medication clearly outweigh the potential side effects of the medications. If the medication trials do not show a clear effect in increasing the quality of life for the child then the medication should be discontinued. THIS "BEST PRACTICE" GUIDELINE SHOULD BE FOLLOWED BY EVERY CLINICIAN AND PARENT.
Now potential medications can be evaluated in a multi-child study with as much scientific control and safety guidelines as possible. It is difficult to get approval for these studies because the committees in charge of protecting subjects usually turns them down. Often, when these studies are done they are post hoc where medical records of subjects receiving the medications and a control group are examined. These studies usually show no differences between the control group and the medication group. More commonly medications are "evaluated" off-label in a clinical setting. A child having problems in school is given an ADD drug because the parents and teachers complain that he child will not stay on task. Ideally, a behavior program should be implemented first but that is not always done. And the criteria for success should be clear. Parents and teachers may report that the child on the ADD drug is paying attention better. But an examination of the child's grades often show no improvement. The child is easier to manage but that is not enough.
Clearly, there are many children who are over medicated and/or miss-medicated. But there are also a lot of children who could not function without their medication. Clinicians and the public need to be very careful in distinguishing between the two groups.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Clinic Notes: Medication and ABA

The popular press has carried a number of stories recently about the large number of children in our society being over-medicated with psychoactive drugs like Prozac, Ritalin, or Risperdal. These stories quote the possible multiple side effects of these drugs and the harm that could be done to these innocent children. Uncaring parents that don't have time for their kids and careless doctors prescribing, "dope" is the image that is portrayed. Often the first thing parents tell me when they bring their children to my clinic is, "We don't want medications." So where are the uncaring parents and careless doctors? Well, actually they are hard to find. A child on medication is usually a sign of good parenting. I tell parents we will try to do everything we can behaviorally and then see if medications are necessary. And often, about half the time medications are necessary. About 80-90 percent of the children I see each week are on the Autism Spectrum and about half are on medication. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) seems o be facilitated by medication in many cases.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Clinic Notes: Does Early ABA Rewire the Brain?

In the developing infants brain billions of axons (nerve fibers) that conduct electro/chemical messages follow growth cones through a tangled web of other axons to arrive at their final destination and connect different areas of the brain. Genes that encode the molecules that guide the growth codes somehow go awry and miss the pathway they are supposed to be following. This mis-wiring is likely the cause of autism, Parkinson's disease, and perhaps other disorders. During development, as different areas of the brain are wired up, the infant then displays new behaviors. Around age four, the majority of the connections are made and there is a die of neurons. The wiring process continues throughout life, but at a much much lower rate. Hence the importance of early intervention. I think that early intervention, especially with ABA, rewires the brain and improves the behavior of the child with autism. Studies support the improvement of children with autism following ABA but do not specify the mechanism.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism's Earliest Symptoms and ABA

At the Childrens Treatment Center ( I see 40+ kids a week. Most of these children have autism and are helped by ABA. Naturally, with autism being epidemic, I have been looking for signs of autism in my grandchildren from birth on. Studies have found that if intensive ABA is started early enough the symptoms and the diagnosis of autism may disappear and I want to be ready. Normally developing infants show some signs of autism at times--staring at objects--not responsive to stimuli--avoiding eye contact--etc. The question is when in the infant's development are these signs clinically significant. A recent study from the MIND Institute finds that symptoms like eye contact--smiling and communicative babbling are not present at 6 months, but develop gradually and only become observable during the latter part of the first year of life in infants. Furthermore, these behaviors appear they decline slowly, not suddenly in infants with autism. So watch your infant from 6 to 12 months and be prepared to start ABA if you notice these declines.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Clinic Notes: Children with Developmental Disabilities and God

According to a recent Schafer Report, Bob Marshall, a legislator in Virginia, said in a press conference that disabled children are God's punishment because mom's had prior abortions. The press conference was a group of 20 or so clergy who were opposed to state funding for Planned Parenthood who provides abortions. Well, I see 40 plus kids in my clinic each week and their parents are struggling with the stress of raising a child with special needs and the last thing they need is to hear is that it's God's punishment. I guess I'm going against God for providing ABA and behavior management for these families. It will be interesting to see what fellow Republican Sarah Palin says about this. And by the way Mr. Marshall, none of the moms of disabled children who come to my clinic had an abortion.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Clinic Notes: Mandatory Insurance Coverage for ABA for Autism

The Virginia Senate Passed a bill requiring insurance companies to pay for ABA, the most effective treatment for autism. The lobbyist for the health insurance company fought hard, but lost. Other opponents argued that the mandated coverage would result in higher coverage, perhaps even forcing some employers to drop insurance coverage for their employees. Autism Speaks said that mandated coverage would increase the cost by $10 to $25 per year. Tennessee, the sate where I live and practice, passed the Autism Equity Act several years ago which said that if insurance companies cover other neurological disorders then they must pay for autism. Parents have told me that when they have called the insurance companies to remind them of this they say their home office is not in Tennessee so they do not have to comply with the bill. Also ERISA, or employee funded insurance companies are exempt. If mandatory insurance coverage for ABA becomes law in Virginia I hope families fare better than Tennessee.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and Wakefield

Lancet has formally retracted Dr. Wakefield's paper that purportedly found a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. His "finding" made so much sense. Mercury is toxic to the nervous system and autism is usually diagnosed between the second and third year shortly after the MMR vaccine is given to children. But it was a flawed study and better-done research has found no link. Many parents are still convinced though and yelling cover up by government and the pharmaceutical industry. Recently, it was time for my grandchildren to get their MMR vaccines. I'll admit that I cringed. I know that's it's very difficult for a parent who has a normally developing child to see them regressing after the MMR vaccine. It is not a causal link, but so emotional and hard for parents to put aside. But it is time to move on and look for the real cause of autism.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Clinic Notes: Successful Treatment of Autism Depends on Parental Involvement

Many studies have shown that early diagnosis and intensive therapy is the key to the successful treatment of autism. Multiple therapies including Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech therapy, occupational therapy, and medication are essential. Parents must not only find a way to pay for these services, but get their children to therapy, which is usually weekly. (Unfortunately, money, or the lack of it, determines what services, if any, a child with autism will receive.) Only a small percentage of parents can afford, or find qualified therapists who will see their child more than once a week. Autism is epidemic and money speaks. Lovaas recommends 40 hours of ABA a week, but who can afford that or find a therapist who will give a single child an entire workweek. So the majority of the therapy--ABA, speech, ot, etc falls to the parent. It's a burden--but one that pays off in the long run.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Clinic Notes: Let's Just Bury our Heads in the Ground and Autism Will Go Away

Well here's a cheap and quick way to cure autism--just say it is not a medical disorder or disability but a "socially created disability," whatever that is. Apparently, that's what President Obama's nominee Ari Ne'eman to a national disability council is saying. Mr. Ne'emans, who has very mild Asperger's, is against investing money in anti-cure autism research. Well, that's going to thrill parents who bring their children with autism to my clinic. I glad that Mr. Ne'emans has overcome his disorder and is in a position to be nominated, but I don't think he would be any parent of a child with autism first choice. I doubt that he has seen children with autism banging their heads or biting themselves. Or children with autism who have developmental delays in all areas including language. I don't know how this was socially created. Perhaps the next time a mother brings her child with autism to my clinic complaining that throwing feces is a problem at home and school I will just say, "That's just a socially created disability."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Clinic Notes: Darwin and Autism

Autism is considered to be a genetic disorder by many and numerous researchers are looking for the "autism gene." The concordance rate for autism (the probability for getting autism) is 60% for identical twins, but drops to between 4-8% for fraternal twins and non-twin siblings. In most cases, the number of individuals with a genetic disorder remains constant in within a population unless an individual with the disorder breeds. In the past ten years there has been an explosion in the number of children diagnosed with autism. If autism is a genetic disorder, then why the dramatic increase? Is it evolving in the population? That would not make sense. Natural selection couldn't be operating here and mutations are unlikely with such an explosion of cases. I wonder if epigenetic markers could be a factor. Epigenetic markers sit on genes and tell them to switch on and off. Stress, diet, etc can cause epigenetic marks can switch genes on and off and affect what is passed on the offspring. So if this idea is correct, and I admit this is a long shot, what happened to the parents of the children with autism that perhaps affected the wiring of their brains? Please email me with your hypotheses.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Clinic Notes: Autism and Diet Redux

Okay another study, this one by Dr. Timothy Buie of Harvard Medical School, says that digestive problems are not more common in kids with autism and special diets do not work. Furthermore, there is no evidence of a "leaky gut" as reported by Andrew Wakefield who first suggested the link between autism and the mercury preservative in measles vaccine. The scientific evidence is overwhelming, but the myth persists. Many children who come to my clinic are on a gluten free diet, but I've never seen any improvement and I have seen very few children with autism who have digestive problems other than being finicky eaters. The special diets cause no harm, other than in some cases, depriving the child of therapies like ABA, which require more effort