March, 2013

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JobTIPS Improves Interview Skills for Teens with Autism

By Mark N. Ziats on March 27, 2013


Background: Prior research has shown that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have more difficulty gaining employment than adults with other disabilities. Deficits in social communication skills, which are important in the initial job interview process, are thought to contribute to job-related problems among individuals with high functioning ASD.


What’s new: In a new study published in the 15 March 2013 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of a program designed to teach individuals with high functioning ASD better job interview skills. The program, called JobTIPS, is an internet-accessed platform containing videos, virtual reality practice sessions, and other tools tailored specifically to people with high functioning ASD.


In their study, the authors assessed the effectiveness of JobTIPS among twenty-two subjects with high functioning ASD, aged 16-19, by evaluating their performance in two separate simulated employment interviews per subject. After the first round of interviews, half the subjects undertook the JobTIPS training while the others did not. Using an independent board of performance reviewers, the authors concluded that subjects who completed the JobTIPS program improved their verbal content skills significantly during the second interview.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that online structured coaching can improve skills needed to obtain employment among youth with ASD. A virtual program may allow easier and more cost-effective access to these types of services. The JobTIPS website can be accessed at

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Correlation between Heavy Metals and Autism Tightens

By Stacy W. Kish on March 21, 2013


Background: Scientists have long questioned if toxic levels of heavy metals are a potential cause of autism. Eleveted concentration of heavy metals—like mercury, cadmium, and arsenic—in the body may result from increased exposure, increased absorption by the body, or the inability to excrete the toxic metals.


What’s new: A group of scientists at Arizona State University compared the level of 11 heavy metals in autistic and typical children to assess the link between heavy metals and autism. Researchers determined that autistic subjects in the study had higher levels of lead in the red blood cell samples and higher concentrations of thallium, tungsten, lead, and tin in urine samples. The study reported that greater levels of several heavy metals correlate with increased autism severity.


Why it’s important: While it is tempting to speculate that autism is caused by heavy metal exposure, this study only presents an interesting correlation between heavy metal levels in the body and the severity of autism. The findings from this study suggest that research to explore if heavy metal exposure is a contributing factor in autism is warranted, with the potential benefit of new prevention and therapy strategies.

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Added Genetic Variants Modify Rett Syndrome Severity

By Eric Larsen, Ph.D. on March 14, 2013


Background: Why some individuals who carry similar genetic variants have different disease severity is unclear. For example, many individuals with Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder related to autism spectrum disorder (ASD), carry mutations in the same gene, but exhibit a wide range of symptom severity which ranges from very severe to relatively mild.


What’s new: A recent article in PLoS One reported on two pairs of sisters with Rett syndrome that—despite having the same causative mutation in a gene known as MECP2—showed significant symptom variability.  In each pair, one sister lacked the ability to speak or walk and displayed severe intellectual disability, while the other sister could speak and walk and displayed moderate intellectual disability.  In order to identify additional factors in these patients that may affect disease severity, the researchers analyzed the protein-coding portions of the genome for additional genetic changes.


The girls with the more severe Rett syndrome symptoms preferentially carried potentially harmful genetic variants in genes associated with oxidative stress, muscle impairment, and autism/intellectual disability.  On the other hand, the girls with less severe symptoms showed an enrichment of potentially harmful variants in genes associated with modulation of the immune system.


Why it’s important: The findings of this study suggest that additional genetic variation affecting specific biological processes can modify the severity of disease phenotypes in individuals with the same root genetic causes of disease.  Genes identified as being responsible for modifying the overall disease severity could serve as potential therapeutic targets.

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It’s Brain Awareness Week!

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on March 13, 2013


March 11-17 marks Brain Awareness Week 2013, a worldwide campaign coordinated by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the Society for Neuroscience to promote the progress and benefits of brain research.  Over 900 international events are underway in celebration of this unique week.


Expand your knowledge of the brain by investigating the “Brain Biology” corner of Autism Reading Room!

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Resource List for Cognitive and Motor Issues in Autism

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on March 7, 2013


News Brief: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often exhibit cognitive motor impairment and difficulty with sensory processing. While some therapy programs address motor and cognitive issues separately, several organizations are now attempting to treat cognitive and motor difficulties simultaneously in children with ASD, according to a recent commentary in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. These organizations include, but are not limited to, the following:


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Five Psychiatric Disorders May Share Common Cause

By Eric Larsen, Ph.D. and Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on March 7, 2013


Background: While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is generally thought of as distinct from other neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the actual symptoms of ASD can show remarkable overlap with those of individuals with schizophrenia or ADHD.  Likewise, genetics studies have shown that there is a significant degree of genetic overlap between ASD and other psychiatric disorders, with rare and common genetic variants affecting many of the same genes in individuals with these disorders.


What’s New: A new study published online, February 28, 2013, in The Lancet reports that patients diagnosed with one of five psychiatric disorders, including ASD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and major depressive disorder, share common variations along four spots in their DNA. While two of the locations have unknown functions, the other two are found in genes that code for subunits of ion channels that, when activated, open and allow calcium ions to enter into neurons.  One of these genes, CACNA1C, is responsible for Timothy syndrome, in which as many as 80% of affected individuals are also diagnosed with ASD.


Why it’s Important: The findings of this study suggest that specific common genetic variants, in particular those variants in genes that encode for calcium channel subunits and other brain-expressed genes, can act as shared genetic risk factors for not only ASD, but other psychiatric disorders as well.  These results also help to explain the sometimes-blurred boundaries between ASD and other psychiatric disorders. According to the present study, drugs that affect calcium channel signaling may offer a promising therapy for these disorders, although additional studies are required to test safety and efficacy.

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Females More Protected from Autism than Males

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on March 1, 2013


Background: While roughly one in 88 children has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), male children are about four times more likely than female children to be diagnosed with the disorder. While researchers have suggested aspects of the female sex protect against ASD, limited studies have tested that theory.


What’s New: In the February 19 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online ahead of print, researchers evaluated the hypothesis that gender-specific traits in girls protect them from ASD. This study was designed to measure autistic traits in general population using two large twin cohorts. They found that, when a female twin ranked in or above the 90th percentile for ASD traits, her siblings were more likely to display symptoms of autism than those of males with the same degree of impairment.


Why it’s important: This study provides population-based evidence to support the theory that females are naturally protected from autism, and lends support to the genetic studies reporting that female children who are diagnosed with the disorder likely have more causal factors in their families. By identifying the protective mechanisms, researchers might gain insight into preventing or treating ASD in the future.

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