Diagnosing Autism Early with Brain Imaging

Autism is normally diagnosed in children around the age of 3 years old or later..  If a diagnosis could be made earlier it is possible to start treatment earlier and improve social and motor skills in children with autism.  In a recent study performed by The University of North Carolina’s Institute for Developmental Disabilities, brain scans known as Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI for short) were used to improve diagnosis of children with autism.  The study consisted of brain imaging of 92 children who were at high risk for autism based on family history.  The brain scans occurred when the children were 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years old. Research showed that 12 out of the 15 long-range connections studied in the brain developed differently for children who had ASD than those who did not. These long-range connections are important for communication between disparate brain regions.

The major advantage to detecting autism earlier using  noninvasive brain scans is that clinical symptoms do not begin to present until between the ages of 2-5, but with these brain scans autism could possibly be detected as early as 6 months old!.  With DTI, seen below, it is relatively simple to see the areas that are abnormal. In this picture of a 6 month old with autism, the yellow and red areas represent the neuron pathways that developed differently compared to typically developing children.  Everyone knows how important early intervention is. With the development and further research into these brain scans early intervention can become the norm for children with ASD.  Instead of waiting for physical symptoms to present themselves these scans can revolutionize the way we diagnose Autism at a very early age. Hopefully as research rapidly progresses these scans will become available for everyone and will be a regular part of a doctor’s visit, helping to detect a wide range of potential neurological complications.

For the initial article and photo: http://singularityhub.com/2012/02/23/brain-scans-detect-autism-in-six-month-olds/

1.         Wolff JJ. Differences in White Matter Fiber Tract Development Present From 6 to 24 Months in Infants With Autism [Internet]. American Journal of Psychiatry 2012 Feb;[cited 2012 Feb 24] Available from: http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=668180&RelatedWidgetArticles=true


Autism and Exergaming

In our last article we discussed how reading awesome fiction stories has the ability to help improve theory of mind and other social skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This week, to every child’s excitement, we are going to convince you that playing videogames can be beneficial, too! Exergaming, exercising while playing a videogame, has changed gaming into a healthy pastime!  Games such as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), Wii Sports, and games for Xbox Kinect are just a few examples of videogames that can provide exercise while distracting the gamer into working harder than they normally would. Dr. Cay Anderson-Hanley’s research demonstrates that exergaming can help decrease repetitive behaviors and improve memory!  Dr. Anderson-Hanley used two types of exergaming systems: DDR and cybercycling. DDR, a dancing game, and cybercycling, a stationary bike-controlled videogame system , both showed a decrease in repetitive behaviors for a short time as well as improved memory of a list of numbers. Speaking from experience, DDR is an awesome game. You stand on a mat with four arrows and watch the screen for instructions as to what arrow to stomp on. The children in this study played the game for 20 minutes, which is definitely a nice workout and showed great improvement in executive function.

Not only do exergames promote physical movement rather than just hand and arm movements like traditional games, they can even help improve social skills and “community integration!” Anderson-Hanley’s study demonstrated that exergames are a feasible option to use with children and adults with ASD.  These games can be used in the home or even at school as intervention techniques. It was suggested that these exergames can be used before educational tasks to improve attention and decrease repetitive behaviors while learning.

While many of us believe that gaming is not so great for our minds this study shows that video games that promote exercising can be extremely beneficial to cognitive function.  So if it is a rainy day and you are looking for something to do, pull out the videogames and have some fun!

Looking for a list of good exergames? Check out these websites!






1.         Autism and exergaming: effects on repetitive behaviors and cognition [Internet]. [date unknown];[cited 2012 Jan 20] Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3218790/?tool=pubmed

Research Study of Facial Phenotypes with Boys with ASDs

As I began my internship with The Autism Research Foundation, I made a goal to find out new and exciting research to write this blog about.  One interesting study that jumped out at me was the research done with facial 3D scans. In a study led by Dr. Kristina Aldridge, an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, the facial phenotypes of pre-pubertal boys with ASD were analyzed using the 3dMD cranial scan system.

Aldridge’s study tested whether or not children with ASD have distinct facial features and whether or not these features can be used to distinguish subgroups of individuals with ASD.  Researchers are hard at work to find ways to further subdivide the ASD population, in order to improve clinicians’ ability to predict the outcome of certain interventions.  Aldridge found that there were facial phenotype differences in children with ASD, and some of the patients could be grouped into a phenotypic subgroup. Once a subgroup is established, researchers are able to identify genetic patterns and other physiological similarities within the group.  A new field of medicine, molecular medicine, is beginning to utilize this information to provide more personalized therapy by finding groups of patients that respond particularly well to a specific medication.  Another important facet of studying phenotypic subgroups of autism is that eventually, prenatal images could be analyzed to assist physicians in identifying individuals at risk for developing an ASD so that early intervention options can be considered.

For those of us with no science background, here is a simpler way to look at facial and neural development: After a human egg cell is fertilized, it begins to divide into many cells that eventually begin to form three layers (ectoderm, mesoderm, endoderm) of the embryo. Interestingly, the skin and brain develop from the same layer of cells, the ectoderm.  Dr. Aldridge’s group found that a majority of the differences in facial structure of their ASD group were confined to the frontonasal prominence, which forms from the ectoderm in early development.

She points out that the facial phenotypes and phenotypes of the brain are controlled by the same genes and develop at the same time. Therefore, computer analysis of facial phenotypes can be used to detect potential neurological phenotypes!

Another study conducted that correlates with Dr. Aldridge’s research is the Face-brain Asymmetry in Autism Spectrum Disorders. This study, using 3D images, demonstrates that the facial asymmetry found in boys with ASD is also present in the facial phenotypes of unaffected mothers. Unaffected Fathers and siblings of both sexes were tested but no statistical asymmetry was found. The largest area of asymmetry of the skull in boys with ASD is the supraorbital and periorbital regions anterior to the frontal cerebral pole. This area is located right around the frontonasal prominence Dr. Aldridge address in her research.  Unaffected mothers show asymmetry supraorbitally and orbital asymmetry vertically. This suggests that there is correlation between maternal genes and the facial phenotypes of boys with ASD. The research also suggests that genetic factors, possibly from maternal genes, do influence the facial asymmetry of boys with ASD[1]

With the ability to pinpoint the genes that cause different facial phenotypes scientists are coming closer to identifying specific genes and signaling molecules associated with autism. Dr. Aldridge’s research is a way for the community to understand that autism begins well before birth, and that earlier intervention will soon be a possibility.

— Taylor Platt

For more info on Dr. Aldridge’s research head to http://vitals.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/10/20/8418826-autistic-children-have-distinct-facial-features-study-suggests


For Dr. Aldridge’s research paper head to http://www.molecularautism.com/content/2/1/15/abstract


Hammond P, Forster-Gibson C, Chudley AE, Allanson JE, Hutton TJ, Farrell SA, McKenzie J, Holden JJA, Lewis MES. Face-brain asymmetry in autism spectrum disorders. Mol. Psychiatry 2008 Jun;13(6):614-623.[cited 2011 Nov 4 ]

Theory of Mind in Autism

A few months ago our staff attended The Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC. While there, a speaker named Diana Tamir presented her research on theory of mind in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Tamir says, “theory of mind — the capacity to infer others’ mental states — is crucial for the development of social communication.” She showed that when reading fiction, people can experience what others are feeling beyond their own emotional state. Research done by Atsushi Senju supported her idea, demonstrating that the lack of theory of mind in children with ASDs may “relate to impairment in social interaction and communication found in ASD.” [1]

So what does this mean?

Individuals who may not have strong theory of mind (capacity to understand or predict another’s emotions or actions) may be more apt to have an autism diagnosis.

Tamir points out that reading fiction has been shown to increase a child’s theory of mind because it can draw out emotions from the reader through characters and events. Picking up a great book is an indirect way to stimulate social interaction: it can help develop larger imaginations and, over time, teach individuals how to predict social cues without immersing them in what could be an uncomfortable face-to-face situation.

Tamir’s research focused on two things: the extent to which vivid physical scenes are pictured while reading, and the mental content of the reader.  Her results showed that the participants who read the most fiction demonstrated the most enhanced theory of mind. So, if reading can stimulate emotions and help improve the ability to understand another’s perspective, this is a great tool for children and adults with ASD to improve their social perception.

Just watching a narrative on television or at the movies won’t cut it: videos allow the audience to focus their attention on whatever he or she likes, but books require the audience to focus on precisely what the author is trying to convey.

Luckily for parents and educators, books are available on intermediate tools like iPads and Kindles. We don’t have to pry our kids from the stimulating TV screen; we can transition them to another media app. (Did you catch my last blog post on apps?)

While there isn’t a ton of completed research out there about reading and theory of mind, we can say this: it is important to read for any child, more than many may have ever  thought before.

We will keep you updated on Tamir’s fascinating reading research as it develops. In the meantime, start turning some pages!

Not sure what books to pick up? Here are a few great links to other blogs and websites that describe books their children enjoyed reading and were a fun and exciting read.

Happy reading!

– Taylor Platt


For Kids: http://www.beagooddad.com/237/good-books-for-children-with-autism/

For Kids:http://www.autismreads.com/2011/01/reading-for-children-with-autism-links.html

For Special Needs: http://www.bookskidslove.com/specialneeds.htm

For Adults and Young Adults: http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6642883.html

Find anything at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/6wczzdh

1.  Senju A. Spontaneous Theory of Mind and Its Absence in Autism Spectrum Disorders [Internet]. The Neuroscientist: A Review Journal Bringing Neurobiology, Neurology and Psychiatry 2011 May;[cited 2011 Dec 2] Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21609942

2.  Mar RA, Oatley K, Djikic M, Mullin J. Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading. Cogn Emot 2011 Aug;25(5):818-833.[cited 2011 Dec 2 ]

3.  D.I Tamir, A.B Bricker, J.P Mitchell. Reading fiction improves reading minds: The role of the default network .Program No. 430.05 2011 Neuroscience Meeting Planner. Washington, DC: Society for Neuroscience, 2011. Online.

Awesome Apps for Autism

Most of us know what an app is. For those who don’t: “app” is short for application software, which helps a device user perform specific tasks. Most smartphones, handheld devices, and computers have apps that allow us to play games, catch up on the news, and connect us to social media.

Recently Hewlett-Packard (HP) hosted a “hackathon” for autism at their campus in Cupertino, California. What is a hackathon? I asked myself the same question.

At the hackathon about 100 HP tech members and autism advocates came together to work towards developing touch screen apps for children with autism.  Working with children who have autism, the team members began to develop apps that would help overcome the challenges individuals on the spectrum face daily. Some of the new apps include speech and verbal learning, communication assistants, and, of course, games.  These new apps — soon to be released on the web for free! — encourage children to develop communication skills, learn according to their interests, and develop social relations with other children by sharing a common interest in technology.

Communication and social skills have the opportunity to improve drastically with these new apps. In a case study about a child with ASD, researchers used FM audio trainers and video inputs to see if social skills and communication skills improved with these devices. After weeks of treatment, the case study showed that the individual had a substantial increase to attention of visual and auditory cues.

With the assistance of the external devices, the child had an increase in communication. [1] Similarly these new apps for smart phones are designed to use visual and auditory cues to assist children in developing communication and behavioral skills.

A study on the new technology of smart phones addresses the old system of communicating, PECS, and compares it to the updated communication systems that are on apps. PECS used laminated cards to teach and improve communication and social skills. PECS is very successful but does have some limitations. Using the laminated cards for PECS can be an overwhelming, paper dependent process. With new technology that allows the cards do be digitized on a touch screen, children, teachers, and parents can have an easier time using the PECS system. The Pix Talk system, similar to the apps created at the hackathon, is designed to use visual and verbal cues to enhance communication and behavioral skills. The Pix talk system creates a personalized and more involved way for children to communicate their needs. Motivation for ASD children to use these new programs also increases with the use of a computer, smart phone, or a touch screen device. Technology is becoming more and more important in providing easy, fun ways for children with ASD to communicate and socialize. [2]

Most children these days know how to play on iPad and use a touch screen. The innovations of the hackathon will drawl on the easy use of a touch screen for ASD children and allow them to download apps that are not only educational and beneficial, but also fun. To check out more of the apps that are to be offered and to suggest any idea you think would make a good app head to http://www.hackingautism.org/hackathon

Starting at a young age, technology is engrained in your life. The advent of the touch screen and these new apps will allow ASD children to learn life skills that will help improve their everyday living.  Everything from social relationships, communication, independence, and visual and auditory learning has the opportunity to improve with these new apps.

One touching story of how these apps can change a child’s life is the story of Jordan, a 10-year-old boy with autism. As a boy who could not communicate verbally, technology changed his life. His heartwarming poem, “Silent No More,” describes his journey from a non-communicative boy to someone who has endless possibilities in the realm of communication technology.

To read his poem — which I highly recommend  — and other stories of success with technology head to http://www.hackingautism.org/stories-of-hope. In the words of HP executive, Phil McKinney, “Today is about making technology that gives people a voice, and the ability to participate”.

What apps do you love? Share in a comment and start the conversation here!

– Taylor Platt


To read more about the “hackathon”: http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_19098013

We’ll be adding links to the apps we believe are helpful to our marketplace at www.theautismresearchfoundation.org/marketplace.php .

Until then head over to http://www.autismepicenter.com/autism-blog/blog5.php to read some more information about the iPad and the new apps that are coming out.

Another great website to check out is http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/communicationdevelopment.htm. This website provides great detailed information about the communication development for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.  It also gives suggestions to parents and caregivers about how to improve communication skills.


De Leo G, Gonzales CH, Battagiri P, Leroy G. A smart-phone application and a companion website for the improvement of the communication skills of children with autism: clinical rationale, technical development and preliminary results. J Med Syst 2011 Aug;35(4):703-711.[cited 2011 Oct 21 ]

Baharav E, Darling R. Case report: Using an auditory trainer with caregiver video modeling to enhance communication and socialization behaviors in autism. J Autism Dev Disord 2008 Apr;38(4):771-775.[cited 2011 Oct 21 ]