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Science Autism

breadwitch

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Jan 26, 2020
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Yeah I'm not a fan of the potent sativas either. I had Sour Diesel before which was very potent but just had me pranged out. Most of the stuff in the UK at least is hybrids now which is good, it used to all be just strong sativa of no specific strain, it was all just called "skunk", then it was "ammy and cheese" which was more of the same really, nowadays there's a choice of strains and I can always tell the difference. A lot more laid back weed going around now, a real positive step for sure.
I stopped buying off regular dealers here a while back because of how anxiety inducing and dysphoric the non stop ammo was
definitely feel like the rise of US imports has made people more aware of how important strains are though, makes a nice change
love the utopia reference btw! <3
 

mr peabody

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How psychedelics helped an autistic woman break out of her shell*

by Alexander Lekhtman | Psychedelic Times | Feb 4, 2020

I first met Sammy when she posted an ad in our freshman college dorm building: ‘Musicians wanted: Forming a funk-pop band!’ it declared. We had our first and only impromptu jam session that fall, then I didn’t see her again until the summer. That June, she wandered into a dreary acoustic show my band played at The Bitter End in downtown Manhattan. Afterwards, we all journeyed back to another room I had just moved into that week, to celebrate with cheap beer and moderate-quality weed.

She firmly refused my then girlfriend’s offer to chip in some cash for her weed: “Nonsense, it’s meant to be shared!” she laughed. From that night on, Sammy became one of my best friends in New York. And slowly over the years, I came to understand how she lived and thrived as an adult with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“It’s hard to describe living with ASD because I’ve never lived without it,” said Sammy to Psychedelic Times. “There’s a lack of cognizance, and a sense of ‘living in my head.’ My earliest memories were very dream-like and divorced from reality. The older I’ve gotten, the more grounded I have become.”

Modern psychedelic research has focused on psychological disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and various forms of depression. But we are slowly learning more about how different psychedelics may affect or help people living with ASD, including psilocybin, MDMA, and cannabis.

Sammy, originally from Los Angeles, CA, was diagnosed with ASD at age three but didn’t learn of it until she was ten. Since moving to New York City for college at age eighteen, she began a long, bizarre, and drug-fueled journey that helped her better understand her mental health and make lifelong friends. But Sammy cautions that like anyone else, people with ASD have to be especially careful with drugs like cannabis or LSD, and understand their complex effects.

Throughout her life, Sammy has also struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder, dissociative tendencies, bipolar disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She describes her ASD as the ‘base layer’ for these other mental health challenges.

Being a woman, taking acting classes at a young age, and performing well in school all gave Sammy an advantage in managing her ASD, she said. But to this day, she still feels there’s something “off” about her. She has also always been highly attuned to sensory input, something which psychedelics intensify.

Psychedelics only became a major part of her life after Sammy moved to New York to study film. “New York itself is like one giant psychedelic trip,” she said. She found in New York a saturated and sophisticated drug-using culture, with even more weed smokers than in her native Los Angeles.

Through her involvement in various communities and spaces—from her college chapter of Students For Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) to sweaty BDSM parties to hippy warehouse raves—Sammy was exposed over the years to cannabis, MDA, LSD, DMT, psilocybin mushrooms, salvia, and MDMA.

She quickly picked up a regular smoking routine, but admits that cannabis still has complex effects for her. “It does make me calmer, but also more detached,” she said. “I’m not in a firestorm, emotionally, but I sometimes feel foggy when I use it.” The effects simply hinge on how much she consumes at a time. She noted that cannabis also helps her be more creative and empathetic, and makes her depression weigh less.

Some people with ASD naturally hallucinate, Sammy explained, and can suffer sleep paralysis. LSD, she found, helped her distinguish between different types of hallucinations and helped make them less uncomfortable, which also helped to calm her nightmares.

“LSD boosts the natural tendency my brain has to create patterns and dreams,” she said. “My acid trip was the first time I could actually control these visuals. It made me feel very child-like.” Of course, as for anyone using psychedelics, she noticed that slight changes in emotion could drastically alter her trip, for better or worse.

Another benefit Sammy found from psychedelics was in managing her dissociative tendencies. Dissociation is common for people with ASD and people that have suffered trauma, Sammy explained. She describes it as a feeling of confusion and emotional duress with no obvious cause.

“Acid makes me feel more grounded because I don’t dissociate,” she said. “I feel hyper-aware. Having ASD, you have a tendency to think in more abstract ways. So my acid trip feels more like home to me.” For comparison, the effect is less predictable with cannabis, which may either be helpful or have no effect on her dissociation.

Sammy has experimented with other substances like MDMA and psilocybin, though with less success. “MDMA made me feel talkative, social, and more confident,” she recounted. “But it didn’t lead to cognizant social revelations like with LSD. I think a lot of what I consumed was also laced, and generally not that great for my health.”

She continued, “One of the first times I tripped on mushrooms, I had a very negative experience, and it has colored my feelings about it ever since. After the one particularly bad trip, I always feel like I have a nasty cold when I use them. Last time I did them I watched Logan’s Run with a friend, and while the movie was great and my mood was fine, I physically felt sick.”

Sammy decided that the taste of mushrooms is too earthy for her to enjoy. Unlike with LSD, her experiences with MDMA and psilocybin did not really help her grow and understand her autism.

Sammy’s use of psychedelics has varied over the years and since she graduated from college. She’s not a perfect case study for understanding the cognitive effects of psychedelics on people with autism. But perhaps the most beneficial and instructive aspect of Sammy’s drug use was that it helped her make friends and share experiences with people from all around the country and the world.

Sammy moved back to Los Angeles in 2018, and has taken up the most psychedelic activity of all: story-telling. When she’s not working on social media for a popular television brand, she is singing, performing stand-up comedy, and writing and producing short films.

“I’ve always had stories inside of me, but it’s hard to communicate when you’re autistic,” she said. “Now I’m learning how to collaborate with other people and see my ideas change shape. I’m not focusing on all the ways I could fail—I’m just doing.”

 
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MountainTrails

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I hope to develop an idea, in a series of posts with original content. The topic is related to autism, and to neurodiversity generally -- and I hope it all becomes clear as sections emerge from my fingers into the forum, as I find time and words.


In his autobiographical Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the Nobel Prize winning physicist tells a story he calls “A Different Box of Tools.” It’s a great story. It has jokes and cognitive strategies and is classic Feynman, but one point is particularly relevant to the theme I’m developing.

He had, in high school, been given an advanced math textbook by a teacher looking to engage the bored (and disruptive) student. It included some approaches not usually taught in universities. Feynman of course absorbed the book.

Once he was working professionally, he found an interesting consequence. Most people had trouble solving certain classes of problems, because the approaches they had been taught in school wouldn’t work. But Feynman, with his different approach informed by that different textbook, often solved the problems easily. He developed a reputation in the area, because when people couldn’t solve the problem – too hard! – they would then bring it to him to try, and he would succeed. He had a different toolkit, a different perspective.


1581366897906.png

(visualization of the value of multiple perspectives on a problem)​
 
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MountainTrails

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[Continued from https://www.bluelight.org/xf/threads/autism.878278/post-14744866]


Conceptual frameworks
and abstraction models are two terms I use interchangeably. Selecting a different abstraction model is a powerful way to be able to bring different approaches (techniques) to an analysis.

If you are not sure how multiple models can be applied to one thing, consider the motorcycle example of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The protagonist asserts that a motorcycle is commonly understood in two different ways: a component model and a functional model.

If divided by means of its component assemblies, its most basic division is into a power assembly and a running assembly. The power assembly may be divided into the engine and the power-delivery system. The engine will be taken up first.

The engine consists of a housing containing a power train, a fuel-air system, an ignition system, a feedback system and a lubrication system.

The power train consists of cylinders, pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft and a flywheel.

We can see that this continues down to the level of individual components – a screw, a tire, a valve stem, etc.

To know what the components are for, a division according to functions is necessary:

A motorcycle may be divided into normal running functions and special, operator-controlled functions.

Normal running functions may be divided into functions during the intake cycle, functions during the compression cycle, functions during the power cycle and functions during the exhaust cycle.

And so on. I could go on about which functions occur in their proper sequence during each of the four cycles, then go on to the operator-controlled functions and that would be a very summary description of the underlying form of a motorcycle.

Pirsig summarizes the two approaches as the “what” of components and the “how” of functions.

Another example is seen in the realm of computer networks. The following illustration shows a functional network reference model for an access network (with operational roles included in blue):


21564

Here is a mapping of a physical component model of an enterprise network onto that same functional model:


21565

As it turns out, such an approach may be useful for the mind, and allows some interesting toolkits, or analysis methods, to be applied.
 

MountainTrails

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[Continued from https://www.bluelight.org/xf/threads/autism.878278/post-14746487]


There’s not much disagreement about a component model for the brain. Anatomists separate it into regions: cerebrum, cerebellum, brainstem. Those get subdivided, and other familiar terms appear such as amygdala, cerebral cortex, etc.

It’s not a homogenous gray mass. There are neurons (of various types), glial cells, blood vessels, fluids, …

Neurons connect together in neural pathways. Those connections are made when specific parts of two neurons – axons and dendrites – link together. But they don’t physically intertwine. There’s a small gap, called a synapse, through which the signal is passed by the actions of neurotransmitters (glutamate, GABA, dopamine, serotonin) between neurotransmitter transporters in the axons and receptors in the dendrites.
Generally, a neuron has one axon but many dendrites. Some major neural pathways have names, such as the corpus callosum, a large nerve bundle that connects the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum.

There are further subdivision levels of this component model. You can explore it all to your heart’s content in the Human brain entry at Wikipedia.

That’s the brain. What is the component model for the mind? The one I’ll be using starts with the understanding that the brain is the control center for the body’s central nervous system. My component model of the mind consists of the neural pathways in the brain, including the synapses, neurotransmitters, and chemicals that transmit and modulate electric signals along the pathways. Basically, I think of the mind as the biochemically regulated electrical signaling network within the brain.
 

mr peabody

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Oxford University


Researchers develop new tool to help detect hidden signs of autism in adults

by Cardiff University | Medical Xpress | 17 Feb 2020

Researchers have developed a potential new tool to help clinicians detect hidden signs of autism in adults.

Autism is usually diagnosed in childhood but a growing number of adults are being diagnosed with the condition, even in mid-to-late adulthood.

Many adults develop compensatory psychological strategies to hide their symptoms from clinicians, employers and even their own families.

These strategies make the developmental condition much harder to diagnose and "performing" to fit into society can place a huge mental strain on the autistic person.

Eloise Stark, 30, a postgraduate student at Oxford University diagnosed with autism three years ago, said the hardest part of being autistic was trying to "hide it," and likened it to wearing a "mask."

Researchers from Cardiff University, King's College London and the University of Bath have now devised the first potential tool to help detect psychological strategies that disguise signs of autism.

In a new study, published today in Molecular Autism, the researchers outline a checklist of 31 compensatory strategies that doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists could look for or ask their clients about.

They developed the checklist by asking autistic people about their experiences of using psychological strategies in everyday social situations.

Dr. Lucy Livingston, who led the research, said: "This allowed us to come up with a checklist of the most frequently-reported 'social scripts, including things like copying gestures and facial expressions of others, learning when to laugh at a joke without understanding why it is funny and deliberately making eye contact, even when it might be really uncomfortable."

Dr. Livingston, a psychology lecturer from Cardiff University's School of Psychology, who has worked with autistic people who received a first diagnosis in adulthood for many years, said the next step would be to test its clinical efficacy.

"At the moment, professionals know very little about these strategies and what to look for. The new tool, if found to be effective, could help clinicians assessing adults for autism who appear to be non-autistic or 'neurotypical' on the surface, particularly those who are highly intelligent," she said.

"Being aware of these strategies should help clinicians to understand how hard the individual could potentially be working to keep up this appearance.”

"Ultimately, this could mean that autistic people receive a more accurate and timely diagnosis."

"This work has the potential to help spot autism in people like myself, who have gone 'under the radar' up to now,”
Eloise said.

"If I had received my diagnosis earlier, I may have avoided years of inappropriate medical and psychological interventions, and I would also have been able to build the positive autistic identity that I enjoy today much earlier."

Dr. Livingston said it might also help clinicians to identify and support those autistic people with additional mental health difficulties experienced as a consequence of "pretending to be normal."

"It could also be used by adults who think they might be autistic or are seeking a diagnosis to help them understand their own behaviour," she added.

About 700,000 people in the UK are living with autism and it is under-diagnosed in females; three times as many males as females are diagnosed.

Senior author Francesca Happé, who is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at King's College London, said "Our work is one step towards helping to recognise compensating behaviours that autistic people use, often to avoid bullying and negative responses from neurotypical peers."

"We hope it will aid diagnosis and improve understanding of just how hard many autistic people work to fit in to an often hostile world."


Eloise's story

I am learning to be more authentically autistic and authentically Eloise, even if that means that I sometimes stand out.

The most common response when I tell people that I am autistic tends to be something along the lines of 'well you don't come across as autistic.' This is precisely the point, and often the most burdensome part of living as an autistic woman in 2020; I often try to hide it.

I did not receive my diagnosis until the age of 27, following an arduous battle with anxiety and depression that left me eager for answers as to why I had always felt different, but had tried desperately to fit in throughout my life.

This process of fitting in often revolved around a complex set of rules and algorithms that enabled me to compensate for my inherent lack of a social instinct. Socialising is a bit like being among a crowd of people, and all of a sudden you forget how to walk.

Everyone around you is walking around nonchalantly and you have to think through every aspect of how to put the motor sequence together to stay upright and transition from one foot to the other. That's what it is often like to be autistic but trying to fit in. It takes energy, thought, and even though you might appear to walk just like everyone else, it takes a lot more effort to stay upright and appear normal.

Some things are easy to hide—I learnt implicitly from an early age that you are expected to make eye contact with people. As I grew older, I created algorithms to help scaffold my social behaviour, such as looking away for two seconds at a time for every four sentences of a conversation. I know that if someone makes a joke, I am expected to laugh whether I find it funny or not.

I recently learnt how to code and it struck me that my social brain works a bit like the code itself—input, rule, output. Observe others, see what they do, however odd it seems, and act as they do.

I am learning, however, to be more authentically autistic and authentically Eloise, even if that means that I sometimes stand out. Growing up in a neurotypical world can be hard and I spent much of my teens and twenties trying to fit in and compensate for my autistic quirks, but as I hit my 30th year, it dawned on me that it doesn't really matter whether I do "fit in" and actually, as long as I am flourishing in my own individual way, I can drop the compensation, camouflaging and my 'mask," and that is okay.


Eloise, 30, from Oxfordshire, is currently studying for a DPhil in psychiatry at Oxford University.

Checklist

Using the checklist, the researchers summed up compensatory strategies in 117 adults (58 with autism, 59 without autism) to create numerical compensation scores. They found that participants with an autism diagnosis or those self-reporting higher autistic traits (for example difficulties in reading other people's minds) had higher compensation scores.

Individuals would score 1 (presence of strategy) or 0 (absence of strategy) on each item on the checklist:

- Predict, plan out and rehearse conversations before they happen, out loud or in your head
- Mimic phrases, gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice picked up from other people and/or TV/film/book characters
- Rely on props (e.g., dog, children, interesting object) to structure and guide conversation
- Make appropriate eye contact, even if it is not useful for communication and/or is aversive OR avoid eye contact but give the impression of social interest (e.g., look at bridge of nose, stand at a 90° angle to interaction partner).

The checklist could offer a first step for clinicians to help measure compensatory strategies during autism assessments. It could also help improve awareness of more invisible features of autism to GPs, who are the first port of call for individuals seeking a diagnosis.

The study used a sample that was predominantly comprised of intellectually-able females so the researchers said further work would be needed to establish whether the findings were true of the wider autistic population.

 
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mr peabody

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Predicting autism risk may begin with a drop of blood

UCSD | Neuroscience News | 13 Feb 2020

Study will analyze dried blood spots from newborns for over 1,000 different chemicals and molecules. The presence of some of the molecules may predict autism risk years before symptoms appear, allowing for early treatment and possible prevention.

Within days of birth, a few drops of blood are collected from every newborn in California–and across the United States — which are then stored on filter paper and screened for dozens of genetic and congenital disorders, such as phenylketonuria (PKU), an inherited metabolic disorder that can result in intellectual disability, seizures, heart and behavioral problems.

Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine have launched a Phase II research study to look for signs of another similarly devastating disorder, one that typically does not appear in seemingly healthy children until years later: autism spectrum disorder or ASD.

The UC San Diego Newborn Screening-Autism Risk Study is designed to determine whether the dried and stored blood drops of children later diagnosed with ASD contain within them the tell-tale presence and combinations of biological molecules and environmental chemicals that might predict the risk of a future ASD diagnosis.

We know from the history of certain genetic diseases, such as PKU, that if children can be identified before the first symptoms have appeared, then the disease can be prevented, even though the children have the DNA mutations,” said Principal Investigator Robert Naviaux, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, pediatrics and pathology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “I believe that over half of autism cases may be preventable if only we had a way to identify the children at risk before the first symptoms appear.”

Naviaux said the new study is important for two reasons: the dramatic rise in diagnosed cases of ASD and increasing evidence that early intervention in children at risk of ASD can significantly improve outcomes.

The prevalence of ASD has risen from 20 in 100,000 births in the 1970s to 1,700 in 100,000 in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — an 84-times increase. Approximately one in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies indicate autism diagnoses are increasing at the rate of 10 to 17 percent per year.

Changes in diagnostic criteria and reporting practices account for 60 percent of the rise, at most, according to previously published research. “This means that even by the most conservative estimates, the prevalence of ASD has increased at least 34 times,” said Naviaux. The overarching question for Naviaux and others is why? Is it genetics? The environment?

Our genes have not changed significantly in the past 50 years,” said Naviaux. “Single gene mutations play a causal role in approximately 10 percent of ASD cases. The vast majority of ASD cases are idiopathic or of unknown cause, most likely the result of a combination of genes, environmental factors or something yet to be identified.”

More than 1,000 genes can contribute to the risk and resistance a child has to ASD, but more than 95 percent of these genes are common variations also present in asymptomatic parents and children who don’t have ASD,” Naviaux said. “A clue to how the genetics of ASD is misinterpreted is the fact that many of the genes that contribute to ASD are the same genes that contribute to other disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar depression. In most cases, DNA only sets what is possible, not what is destined.”

The new Phase II study will focus on exposure and possible roles of chemicals and compounds (detected in blood) and how they might interact with genes. Researchers will use a blood test developed in Naviaux’s lab to analyze the presence of more than 600 metabolites –typically small molecules produced by metabolism, the life-sustaining chemical reactions in all organisms. Metabolites from amino acids and antioxidants to vitamins and lipids serve diverse, crucial functions, including as fuel, signal carriers, structure providers, defenders and regulators among them.

Earlier research by Naviaux and others has found that persons with ASD appear to have a shared “metabolic signature.” That is, their biological chemistry is comparable, though their genetics are unique.

Testing will also look at more than 400 environmental chemicals in each dried blood drop. Exposure to these chemicals, such as commonly used pesticides, flame retardants, air pollutants, lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, has been linked to several neuro-developmental disorders, including ASD.


At birth, blood samples are taken from newborns and used to screen for genetic diseases.
New research will help determine whether these drops can also help predict autism risk.


Naviaux and colleagues believe that the majority of ASD symptoms are the result of a treatable metabolic syndrome triggered by persistence activation of the cell danger response (CDR), a natural and universal cellular reaction to injury or stress. Chronic CDR, they suggest, results in disrupted and incomplete healing at the metabolic and cellular levels. In ASD, the consequence may be dysfunctional neural circuits and internal systems, producing autism’s well-documented symptoms and behaviors.

Metabolism is the real-time result of our genes interacting with the environment,” said Naviaux. “Environmental chemical or biotoxin exposures –the ‘exposome’ — at critical developmental windows can produce delayed effects that become apparent only after months or years. By measuring metabolism and the exposome, it may be possible to identify children at risk for developing autism before the first behavioral symptoms appear.”

The study seeks 400 participants between the ages of three and 10 years old, meeting these requirements:

- Born in California
- Have a confirmed diagnosis of ASD from a licensed clinician or be a healthy child not taking any prescription medications (200 participants from each group)
- Born after a normal term pregnancy of 37 to 42 weeks
- Have not had a medical issue that required readmission to the hospital in the first month of life

The study requires parents of participating children to answer questionnaires covering pregnancy, labor and delivery, the child’s health history and that of the family. Consented analyses will be conducted of dried blood drops recorded as part of California’s Newborn Screening program, which began in 1966 and now screens for 80 different genetic and congenital disorders. Blood spots have been saved and stored by the California Department of Public Health since 1982. No new blood tests or behavioral testing will be required for the Phase II study.

Naviaux said he hopes to screen and enroll the full complement of participants by June 2020. Analyses of the identified and retrieved blood spots is expected to be complete by June 2021.

We then hope to expand the testing program to states like New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington by enlisting collaborators in each of those states who will be able to apply the new methods we have developed.”

Each new state has slightly different policies and regulations regarding the collection and storage of dried blood spots from universal newborn screening programs, so this medium-scale expansion study will teach us what will be needed to launch a national study.”

For more information on the study or to apply for enrollment, see the study web site.

 
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MountainTrails

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https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/intelligence-behavior-shape-adulthood-for-people-with-autism/
(and the study paper referenced in the article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31957035)

Intelligence, behavior shape adulthood for people with autism

Just two factors assessed in childhood predict how well people with autism will function as adults, according to a new study: intelligence quotient (IQ) and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity.

The ability to predict adult outcomes could enable clinicians to offer autistic children targeted treatments early in life and improve their chances of a better life — to a point.

“Having strong cognitive ability doesn’t promise you a good outcome,” says lead investigator Catherine Lord, distinguished professor of psychiatry and education at the University of California, Los Angeles. However, for people with a low IQ, she says, “the chances of being independent are very, very slim.”

Lord and her colleagues compiled data on 123 people with autism. The team first assessed the participants during childhood, many before the age of 3, and assessed them again when they were 22 to 27 years old.

“It’s an important study because there aren’t many that have followed up [on] people over this length of time,” says Patricia Howlin, professor emeritus of clinical child psychology at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the work.

The researchers evaluated the participants on a wide range of factors, including the severity of their autism traits, IQ and the presence of behavioral problems. They also analyzed them in adulthood on their quality of life, such as whether they lived independently, held a job and had friends.

The participants fell into four groups based on their quality of life as adults. Those in the most successful group often lived independently, had a job and maintained multiple friendships. The least successful group typically achieved none of these things. The two middle groups achieved some but not others, and often only to a limited extent.

Predictable outcomes:

The people with the highest quality of life had relatively high IQs and few behavioral problems; those with low IQs and severe behavioral problems struggled the most. Those who had either a low IQ or significant behavioral problems, but not both, fell between the two extremes.

“If you have a lot of mental health problems, even if your IQ is high, your chances of being independent are dramatically reduced,” Lord says. “On the other hand, people that may not have as much cognitive ability but are functioning fairly well in terms of mental health can do better than you might think.”

The study has some limitations. Only 21 of the participants are women, and 102 are white. Lord acknowledges the need for larger studies with more diverse representation but says she expects the findings will hold up even in other populations.

Other researchers praised the study’s approach.

“I found the analyses here very convincing,” says Inge-Marie Eigsti, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “They predict really an amazing amount of the variance in adult outcomes.”

Early help:

The study highlights the importance of giving autistic children support and education that is best suited for their individual needs. Everyday ‘adaptive’ skills, such as getting dressed, following rules and knowing when to go to the doctor, are also crucial for independent living, Lord says.

“There’s a big push to focus more on adaptive skills,” she says. “Adaptive skills can be changed, whereas we’re not good at changing IQ.”

Howlin adds that caregivers and teachers should find domains in which each child is comfortable and build on those, rather than repeatedly trying to teach the child a skill for which she has no aptitude.

“Both cognitive and language profiles in people with autism tend to be very uneven,” Howlin says. “If they’re struggling to write with a pencil but are great with a computer, you use the technology.”

It is also crucial to find out what the person with autism wants, Howlin says.

“The focus has been very much on more normative ideas of what’s a good outcome, whether it’s being in a relationship, having a job [or] living independently,” she says. “These aren’t necessarily the criteria that may be most appropriate for people with autism.”

An outwardly ‘normal’ life may have hidden disadvantages, such as high stress levels, she notes.

Eigsti and her colleagues are tackling this aspect in the Autism Long Term Outcomes Study, asking young adults on the spectrum about their priorities.

So far, Eigsti says, what they want is not much different than what any neurotypical person might want.

“They want relationships, they want to have a friend or a close friend or two, and very often they want a romantic relationship,” Eigsti says. “And they want to have meaningful work.”
 

MountainTrails

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https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/viewpoint/why-autism-research-needs-more-input-from-autistic-people/

Why autism research needs more input from autistic people
by Elle Loughran, 11 February 2020

I am a student and researcher studying evolutionary genetics, and I am autistic. I often come across papers on autism research, but unfortunately, reading them is rarely a positive experience.

Too much autism research fails to acknowledge autistics as people who can read and make valuable contributions to the field. Instead, it casts them as little more than passive study participants or recipients of treatment. This shortsightedness damages research and scientists’ ability to help autistic people.

Reading autism research as an autistic person can feel like being treated as an alien. For example, consider a 2019 paper that stated: “This finding reinforces other work which shows that autistic people can have, maintain, and value close romantic relationships and friendships.” Imagine how bizarre it would be to read that about yourself.

I do not mean to pick on that paper in particular, but on a research culture in which anyone would think that sort of statement needs to be made.

This sort of culture results in seeing top researchers throw around blatantly wrong and offensive ideas about my community. For an old but powerful example, British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen endorsed a quote that suggested autistic individuals experience people at dinner parties as “noisy skin bags” that are “draped over chairs.” In my view, the appropriate response to that is, “No, that is absolutely not how we experience anything. What the hell?” Of course, that would not be an appropriate academic reply.

I understand that even seemingly obvious things need to be examined and tested in science, but if someone were to suggest that the moon is made of cheese, I doubt researchers would insist on disproving it with a study. Yet somehow autistic people must be so strange and unknowable to researchers that they cannot dismiss equally implausible characterizations of us.

In fact, many autistic people are available to answer questions about how we see things. Many of us speak up and share our stories proactively. It can seem to us as if scientists are not listening.

Then there are papers that suggest society would rather fewer people like me existed — and not because they care about my suffering. Or those that survey the prospects of preventing autism, pointing out that these are “high priorities for researchers, parents, advocates, clinicians, and educators.” Why is there is no mention of autistic people on that list?

Integration barriers:

The opportunities for someone like me to correct the culture in autism research are limited.

Often when I see these things in the course of my work, I just sigh and ignore them. If I’m discussing a paper with my scientific peers, I do not want to bring up issues with the paper’s treatment of autism and be seen as an ideologue, research subject or object of pity rather than as a respected colleague.

Other people’s responses can also thwart meaningful exchange. Last summer, I ‘came out’ as autistic while in conversation with an autism researcher and several of her colleagues. The people in the group responded with something along the lines of, “Oh, well, you’re not like other autistic people, so those points do not apply to them.”

If a person’s ability to converse with you makes you assume she is not like ‘real autistics,’ then your idea of autism is automatically going to be ‘people who can’t talk to me.’ You will have a flawed understanding of autism and may not be able to see autistic people as potential colleagues. This risks researchers perceiving autistic people purely as research subjects who do not talk back, have opinions or contribute to the process.

Autistic people are treasure troves of information on their own lives. By including more autistic voices in research, we as scientists could improve our ability to gather knowledge about the condition.

Given the flaws in prevailing theories of autistic psychology, I believe we should encourage more qualitative, open-ended research that seeks input from autistic people and establishes a firmer basis for future studies. We could also seek their help in prioritizing treatment targets. Likewise, if biomedical researchers are going to get funding for studying autism, they must make more of an effort to engage with the autistic community and their wishes.

Things are getting better, and many researchers are doing good work. But listening to autistic people could help them make faster progress. Autistic people are not aliens with whom scientists cannot communicate. We are right here. We are reading what you have to say, and that communication can go both ways.
 

mr peabody

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The robots aim to help children with autism in ways humans can’t.


Robot toys could help detect early signs of autism*

USC | Medical Xpress | 18 Feb 2020

Lauren Klein, a computer science Ph.D. candidate in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has long been interested in tackling healthcare problems. Her latest approach: robot toys.

"I strongly believe that human-robot interaction is a research topic that is promising for the future of healthcare," said Klein, a member of the USC Interaction Lab.

Last fall, Klein's research team won an award in the "CS for Social Good" white paper competition sponsored by the Computing Community Consortium and Schmidt Futures. Their paper, "A Computational Approach to Earlier Detection and Intervention for Infants with Developmental Disabilities," received a $7,500 grant to support future research.

That team includes her Ph.D. advisor, Maja Matarić; Chan Soon-Shiong Chair, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, Neuroscience and Pediatrics, and Interim Vice President of Research at USC; Beth Smith, an assistant research professor in the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy; and Fei Sha, associate professor of computer science and biological sciences and Zohrab Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering.

Together, they are researching ways that robots could make a difference in the lives of children with developmental disorders. Their work aims to help earlier diagnose children with conditions ranging from learning disabilities to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Earlier diagnoses, experts say, allow for earlier interventions and better outcomes.

In their paper, Klein, Matarić, Smith and Sha propose using a robot toy to interact with an infant to encourage certain behaviors. These behaviors are known as exploratory motor movements—important infant behaviors such as reaching, touching, grasping and kicking that help them learn to control their bodies and interact with their surroundings. Exploratory movements are believed to be important for healthy cognitive, motor and social development.

"Based on this, we can look for infants who make decreased exploratory movements and design and evaluate interactions that could increase these movements," Klein said. "These interactions are aimed toward children at risk for developmental disabilities, though we anticipate it may be supportive for typically developing infants as well due to the importance of early exploratory motor movements."

The team's past research placed an infant in a chair across from a humanoid Nao robot, which interacted with infants by responding to movement. Whenever the infant kicked their leg, the Nao robot would also kick one of its legs. Twelve infants between the ages of 6 and 8 months participated in this first study, which has been published in a paper titled "Socially Assistive Infant-Robot Interaction: Using Robots to Encourage Infant Leg-Motion."

The study observed that once babies made the connection between their own movement and the movement of the robot, they increased their kicking. Babies at risk for developmental disorders, such as ADHD or ASD, may perform differently in this paradigm. They may demonstrate difficulty learning the connection between their movement and the robot response, supporting its use in early detection. Alternatively, they might respond very well to the robot, supporting its use as an early intervention tool.


Children with ASD engage more readily with robots rather than humans, because robots
are simple and predictable.

"Our preliminary study gave us a lot of insight, which helped to inform the research proposed in the white paper,"
Klein said.

Klein and her team's white paper outlined how they plan to build upon their current work with the Nao robots and pursue future research, one possible avenue being by exploring the use of Sphero robots in encouraging infant motor movement.

In past studies, the team used the Nao robot platform as an effective socially assistive robot to both provide contingent rewards and allow researchers to evaluate whether infants would imitate the robot, but they had some limitations that Klein's team hope Sphero robots can address. Nao robots cost thousands of dollars, while Sphero robots are much more affordable, at about $150 per robot. Additionally, Nao robots can only move in certain directions, which limits the range of motion that can be encouraged, while Sphero robots can safely roll around the baby, encouraging a wider range of motion while simultaneously engaging the infant's attention more effectively.

Their paper outlines their plan to record interactions between the infant and the robot on video, use software to characterize the movements of the infant's limbs and head, and sort these movements to classify if the infant is at risk for a developmental disability.

Their white paper also proposes analyzing infant-caregiver interaction during play, as social interactions between parent and caregiver are essential to child development. This work is currently ongoing.

"We are analyzing videos of infant-mother interaction with infants at various ages to create computational models of these interactions, and potentially use these models to help characterize infant development and responsiveness in infant-mother communication," Klein said.

"The ultimate goal of our research would be to create an approach for affordable, in-home interventions utilizing socially assistive robots that use play to improve healthy development in young children," Klein said.

Added Smith: "The potential to have a positive impact during infancy and to lay the foundations for a positive developmental trajectory are very exciting to us," Smith said. "We very much appreciate that the award will help us to move its development forward."

 
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MountainTrails

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https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/striatum-the-brains-reward-hub-may-drive-core-autism-traits/

Striatum, the brain’s reward hub, may drive core autism traits

Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors are hallmarks of autism. They can take many forms: Some autistic people flap their arms or rock back and forth; others ritualistically line up objects or insist on a rigid daily schedule.

Several studies have suggested that repetitive behaviors originate in the striatum, a cluster of neurons in the center of the brain that helps initiate and execute movements. In support of this idea, people who have a damaged striatum show autism traits, including repetitive, inflexible behaviors and various movement problems.

In the past two decades, however, scientists’ understanding of the striatum has expanded, yielding tantalizing hints that the region is involved in the characteristic social difficulties seen in autistic people.

“The common, long-canonical view was that the striatum either excited or inhibited movement,” says Ann Graybiel, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But [it] might also be dealing with mood, motivation, approaching good or avoiding bad, reward-based learning — all kinds of things like that.” Autistic people often have problems with mood, motivation or the reward system, all of which may make them uninterested in interactions with others.

The region also appears to be key for learning to make eye contact and discerning which sensory information warrants attention. This new view comes from studies that have traced the striatum’s connections to other parts of the brain, including areas that process sensory information, thoughts, feelings and emotions. And mutations in many genes linked to autism impair the striatum’s structure and function. Studies in animals shore up the evidence: Disrupting neurons in a mouse striatum, for instance, triggers both repetitive behaviors and social problems.

“The more we know, the more we realize it’s much more complicated than the field originally thought,” says David Sulzer, professor of neurobiology at Columbia University.

Striatal pathways:

The striatum is part of the basal ganglia — clusters of neurons deep in the center of the brain. The basal ganglia receives signals from the cerebral cortex, which controls cognition and social behavior.

The striatum in particular processes signals from the cortex about desired goals and prompts other neurons in the basal ganglia to initiate actions to achieve those goals. Separately, it also alerts the thalamus — a brain region that processes sensory information and communicates with the cerebral cortex — forming a loop that controls how a person starts and stops an action. The thalamus also sends signals directly to the striatum, in addition to the cortex, so the entire circuit is composed of multiple interconnected loops.

The striatum was first implicated in autism in 1978, when doctors reported widespread “disturbances of motility” in autistic children. These disturbances include rhythmic and tic-like gestures, unusual posture and gait, and ‘striatal toes’ — an unusual upward extension of the big toes. Many of these problems bear a striking resemblance to those seen in people and lab animals with a damaged striatum.

Brain imaging studies, too, support the link between autism and the striatum. For instance, some parts of the striatum are enlarged in people with the condition. The striatum typically shrinks as a child matures, but one report suggests it keeps growing in autistic children and young adults. The enlargement tracks with the severity of repetitive behaviors in children with the condition.

Autistic people also show unusually low activity in the striatum when they complete tasks that offer a social reward. And their striata have unusually weak connections with brain regions involved in processing reward. Difficulties with processing social reward may explain why some people with autism seem to have little interest in social interactions.

Genetic studies of autism implicate the striatum, too. Many of the genes mutated in people with autism are highly expressed in the striatum. And mice with mutations in these genes show alterations in the striatum that resemble those seen in autistic people.

For instance, mice with a mutation in SHANK3, a top autism gene that is highly expressed in the striatum, groom themselves obsessively and have social difficulties. A portion of the striatum is enlarged in these mice and weakly connected to the cerebral cortex, and the neurons show impaired excitatory signaling.

Wiring the brain:

Other autism genes may be needed for proper wiring of the striatum. FOXP1, which helps turn other genes on and off, is highly expressed in the striatum. Mice missing a copy of this gene make fewer ultrasonic calls than usual after being separated from their mothers. And some of their striatal neurons fire more easily than usual.

“We think that FOXP1 is really important for setting up the developmental programs that build the striatum,” says lead investigator Genevieve Konopka, associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. She and her colleagues are now studying a different set of mice, which lack FOXP1 in only their striatal neurons. The team’s unpublished results suggest the gene is critical for the striatum to develop properly.

Sulzer’s team is focusing on another gene called mTOR — which is unusually active in some children with autism — and its role in the developing striatum. Hyperactive mTOR leads to an excess of neuronal connections in the cerebral cortex; Sulzer’s team is exploring whether similar changes occur in the striatum.

A better understanding of the striatum’s development may help solve a vexing problem facing researchers who study this brain area: Its structure is “very complicated,” Sulzer says. “Autism is a developmental [condition], so people should be looking at development.”
 
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