August, 2016

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Simple iPad Game May Help Identify Children with ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on August 30, 2016


Background: More than 70 years ago, Dr. Leo Kanner described the abnormal social behaviors and movements of children with autism. Since then, many researchers have focused on the social features of the disorder. But motor control is important for many aspects of social and cognitive function. Now, several lines of evidence have shown that motor problems are present from a very young age in children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).


What’s new: For the first time, researchers showed that hand movements on an iPad differ in children with ASD. In the study, researchers collected movement data as 37 children with ASD and 45 typically developing children played two simple iPad games. The researchers wrote a computer program that could learn from the movement data to predict if a child had ASD. Using the program, the researchers predicted ASD with up to 93% accuracy. In particular, they found that children with autism had greater contact force—how hard you press something with your finger—and larger movements with faster speed.


Why it’s important: To date, researchers can’t predict autism with high accuracy without expensive behavior monitoring. While the current study is only proof-of-concept, the results suggest that focusing on motor differences may allow researchers to identify early signs of ASD. A simple iPad game is an attractive option for screening or supplementing ASD diagnosis.

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Executive Functioning Linked to Autism Risk, Study Finds

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 25, 2016


Background: Executive functioning refers to mental processes, such as planning, reasoning, and problem-solving. A key executive function is working memory, the attention to and monitoring of an ongoing task. While existing research has suggested a link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and deficits in executive functioning, the relationship has not been extensively studied.


What’s New: A recent study explored the relationship between executive functioning, specifically working memory, and motor skills in infants and toddlers at high and low risk for ASD. Using established motor skill assessments alongside a toy finding task, the researchers compared overall motor skills and executive functioning among a total of 262 children—first at 12 months, and then at 24 months. Children were assessed for ASD at the later time point, with 19 of the 186 high-risk children receiving a diagnosis. As a group, children at high risk of developing ASD (established by having a sibling with the disorder) showed less improvement in executive function than their low-risk peers over time. Those deficits were associated with poorer motor skills related to the suppression of actions.


The journal Frontiers in Psychology published the study on July 5, 2016.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that executive functioning and motor skills are affected in all children at high risk for ASD—even those who do not ultimately develop the disorder. Because the researchers looked at children before ASD diagnosis, the study provides the earliest look at executive function in children at high risk for autism.

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Motor Deficits with ASD Linked to Right Side of Brain

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD on August 10, 2016


Background: At least 80% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have motor problems, according to recent estimates. Typical problems include delayed motor skills and trouble with coordination, such as kicking a ball or grasping small objects. In some cases, motor problems are apparent before other ASD symptoms.


What’s new: A new brain imaging study looked at motor control in the left and right sides of the brain in 8 to12 year old children with ASD. Researchers visualized brain activity, during a finger-tapping task, of 44 children with high-functioning autism and 80 typical, control children. Normally, regions in the left side of the brain specialize in language and motor functions. Previous work found that these regions are right-side dominant for language processing in children with ASD. Similarly, in this study researchers found brain regions that were right-side dominant for motor control too.


Why it’s important: This is the first study to look at left- and right-brain activity related to motor functions in children with ASD. The finding that some motor control is shifted to the right side of the brain in ASD is important given the potential for brain imaging to provide markers for early diagnosis.


This work was published on July 14, 2016, in the journal Molecular Autism.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at School Eases Anxiety

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on August 2, 2016
2016_08_02_school CBT


Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by differences in communication and social behavior. Other symptoms, including anxiety, frequently accompany ASD. Researchers have estimated that as many as 40 percent of children with ASD had also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.[1] How best to treat anxiety with ASD is an area of ongoing research.


What’s New: A new study explores the effectiveness of a school-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on adolescents with both ASD and anxiety. Researchers assigned 35 children between the ages of 11 and 14 either to a waitlist group (control) or to receive weekly therapy sessions of 90 min each for six weeks. The treatment included Exploring Feelings, a workbook-based program analyzing the range of human emotions through CBT. They found that the 18 participants who received the intervention showed improvement in anxiety symptoms - as reported by parents, teachers and through self-evaluations - as well as marginal improvements in social responsiveness at school.


Why it’s important: This study suggests that CBT delivered at school can be beneficial in easing the anxiety that children with ASD face when attending mainstream schools. This is important because some studies show that less anxiety at school leads to improved outcomes for children with ASD.


[1] Anna Merrill. Anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Accessed July 31, 2016.

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