Autism: Out Of The Shadows -A Glimmer Of Hope

Researchers Work To Unlock The Mystery Of Autism And Determine Why It’s On The Upswing
[By Kathie Durbin, Columbian. Portland.]

It is one of the cruelest tricks fate can play on parents. A baby appears normal at birth, develops on schedule, smiles when he hears his parents’ voices, speaks his first words. Then, without warning, something happens, something terrible and irreversible. He may develop a sudden fever, experience frightening seizures, start hitting and biting for no apparent reason. His speech flies away. He retreats into his own world.

Eventually the diagnosis is made: autism. It is a kind of sentence. There is no cure. Until recently, the only palliatives were acceptance and unconditional love. But now there is a glimmer of hope. As the number of families touched by autism multiplies, scientists are getting funding to conduct research that finally may unravel the mystery of autism and uncover the reasons for its recent dramatic upsurge.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that about 285,000 people in the United States have autism or related disabilities. Other reliable estimates range as high as 550,000. It’s hard to come up with a precise estimate. Though autism was first described in the 1940s, until the 1970s many autistic children were
labeled retarded or emotionally disturbed. For years, society blamed autism on “refrigerator mothers” who withheld love. No one believes that myth anymore.

Still, autism remains an enigma. There is no blood test for autism, no single characteristic behavior, no single known cause. Some researchers believe the condition is caused by abnormal development of the parts of the brain that control emotion and process sensory information. A predisposition to autism is inherited, though no single gene is to blame. Its onset may be triggered by environmental factors.

University of Washington research psychologist Geraldine Dawson heads one of the nation’s leading autism research programs at the UW Center on Human Development and Disability in Seattle. Dawson is directing studies that track brain activity in autistic children in an effort to understand why they can’t relate normally to other people. One study is chartingbrain development in 75 young children over a three-year period.

Elsewhere, new research using computer imaging has discovered abnormalities in the brains of autistic people that may explain why their brains can’t sort out or control the flood of information their senses deliver. The UW is collaborating with other universities on a study of whether the timing of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine could be linked to the heartbreaking regression many parents have witnessed in autistic children who developed normally until their second year.

Dawson is reserving judgment on what is driving the increase in autism. “Clearly a part of the explanation is better diagnosis,” she said, but other factors may be in play. “The increases are occurring with younger children, higher functioning children. You can’t speculate until the epidemiological research is done.” Research gets a boost. Congress, concerned about the sharp rise in autism, approved a record $50 million for new research last year. The UW has applied to become one of five new autism research centers in the nation. The designation would double its federal research budget for autism to $2 million annually and push it to conduct more applied research that might lead to effective treatments for young children.

Autism in older children and adults is beginning to attract attention as well. One UW study is attempting to find out what it is in the brains of people with autism that makes them unable to read others’ facial expressions, body language and voice cues. Felice Orlich, a UW pediatric neuropsychologist, worked with Microsoft to develop a chat room called KidTalk for high-functioning autistic young people. The software simulates social settings like dinner parties and invites participants to describe how they would act in given situations. A psychologist gives them real-time feedback on their performance.

Researchers at the University of California at Davis are studying music specifically the music of Mozart —- and its effect on the ability of people with autism to grasp concepts involving space, time, and mathematics. A laboratory for learning, a key part of the UW program is its Experimental Education Unit, a school that serves 250 toddlers and preschoolers. Sixty percent of the children at any one time are developmentally disabled; 35 have autism.

Teachers here are racing to help shape the behavior and intellectual development of children with autism while their brains are still malleable enough to change. Studies at UW and elsewhere suggest that intensive intervention with children as young as 2 can raise their IQ levels significantly, improve their speech and decrease their need for support services. Teachers work with children individually at play stations. At this age, it’s hard to tell the “normal” children from those with special needs. That’s the idea, says Principal Jennifer Annabel. “We keep our expectations high. We never say that a student can’t do anything.”

A constant stream of parents, educators and researchers passes through the school, which also serves as a laboratory for students working on degrees in special education and speech therapy. Children who don’t speak, or who shy away from social contact, get extra encouragement. For instance, at snack time they are given the most popular snacks to distribute. Teaching of academic skills is left to the elementary schools. “We don’t do reading or math in kindergarten,” Annabel said. “We believe this time should be spent on preparedness and social behaviors.” The EEU program is expensive, but Dawson says it’s highly cost-effective. Early intervention that works could save society up to $3 million over the lifetime of each child with autism, she said. “And the impact on the quality of life for individuals with autism and their families is immeasurable.”

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