Schafer Autism Report

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Sunday, April 29, 2012                                       Vol. 16 No. 14


RESEARCH
Researchers Develop Promising Drug to Treat Autism Behaviors

Smoking during Pregnancy May Increase Autism Risk in Children

Being Left out Puts Youths With Special Needs at Risk for Depression

PCBs May Increase Autism Risk

EDUCATION
Charter School Would Serve Autistic Students

PEOPLE
Dive Teams Search For Missing 7-year-old Fort Gordon Girl

Father Secretly Videotapes Teachers Verbally Abusing His Autistic Son

“Ethan W and Piano Man” Video Goes Viral (Video)

COMMENTARY
A New Autism Theory


RESEARCH
Researchers Develop Promising Drug to Treat Autism Behaviors


      By Jessica Berman voanews.com

Photo: MuYang, J. Crawley, NIMH Mouse pays a social visit to a novel animal.



      Scientists say they have used an experimental compound to reverse two autism-like behaviors in mice.  Experts say there's no guarantee the drug would work to help children with autism, a neural developmental brain disorder marked by communication and social impairments beginning in early childhood. But they say it's a step in the right direction. 
      Researchers with the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and the Pfizer pharmaceutical company tested the drug called GRN-529 in mice that normally display autistic-like activities - in particular, social isolation and repetitive behaviors.  NIMH co-investigator Jill Silverman says that after being injected with the experimental compound, the mice reduced two of their repetitive behaviors - obsessive grooming and jumping - and the normally asocial rodents engaged more with other mice.
      Researchers say the experimental compound dampens the activity of the brain chemical glutamate by modifying one of its chemical receptors. That could target a number of autistic behaviors linked to a defect in connections between brain cells or neurons.
      But they don't know for sure. Silverman says the biochemical mechanism of GRN-529 is not completely understood, though she's not surprised that adjusting the biological activity of glutamate, which helps stimulate neurons throughout the brain, might reverse some of autism's core symptoms.
      "It's crucially involved in every connection in the brain, basically," said Silverman. "So, modulating its effects by acting at one receptor seems to be a very promising target."
      Robert Ring was involved in the GRN-529 study at Pfizer and is now vice president of translational research with Autism Speaks, an non-profit scientific funding and advocacy group.
      Ring says the possibility of a drug that could treat the symptoms of autism, even if it's not a cure, could improve the quality of life for autistic individuals by making behavioral interventions more effective.
      "Individuals living with autism don't just encounter struggles with the core symptoms that have been defined for autism," said Ring. "But they have a whole host of associated psychiatric and neurological syptoms that also reduce the quality of life for them.  And any agent that has the potential to reduce these may bring significant benefit to this population."
      The experimental compound is currently in clinical trials for individuals with a disorder called fragile x syndrome, which is caused by a single mutated gene.  Fragile x is the most commonly inherited form of intellectual impairment, often with autistic symptoms.
      Because the mice are born with the autistism-like tendencies, researchers know that GRN-529 might not work in children with autism.  But then again, it might.
      An article on GRN-529 in mice is published in Science Translational Medicine.





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• • •

Smoking during Pregnancy May Increase Autism Risk in Children

Women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to have children with high-functioning autism, a new study suggests.

       By Christine Hsu
medicaldaily.com

Photo: Los Angeles County Supervisor Smoking in pregnancy increases the risk of having children with high-functioning autism.




       Women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to have children with high-functioning autism, a new study suggests.
      "It has long been known that autism is an umbrella term for a wide range of disorders that impair social and communication skills," lead researcher Professor Amy Kalkbrenner from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health said in a statement released on Thursday.
      Smoking in pregnancy increases the risk of having children with high-functioning autism.
       “What we are seeing is that some disorders on the autism spectrum, more than others, may be influenced by a factor such as whether a mother smokes during pregnancy,” she added.
      Kalkbrenner and her research team analyzed a population-based study that compared smoking data from birth certificates of 633,989 children, born in 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1998 from 11 different states.
      The findings reveal that 13 percent of the mothers of children included in the study had smoked during pregnancy and that 11 percent of the 3,315 children that were identified as having an autism spectrum disorder at age eight, had mothers who had smoked during pregnancy.
      Researchers also found that these children were more likely to have less severe high-functioning autism, like Asperger’s Disorder.
      "The study doesn't say for certain that smoking is a risk factor for autism," Kalkbrenner said. "But it does say that if there is an association, it's between smoking and certain types of autism."
      The study was published on Wednesday online by the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
      Each time a pregnant woman smokes a cigarette, toxic chemicals get into her bloodstream and then into the baby’s source of oxygen and nutrients, which are essential for a baby’s healthy development.
      Smoking while pregnant increases a woman’s chance of having a miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth or having a baby with low birth rate. Babies born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy are also more likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and have a higher risk of being born with birth defects like a cleft palate, and developing asthma and ear infections.
      According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2008 Pregnancy Risk Assessment and Monitoring System, based on data from 29 states, 13 percent of women reported smoking during the last three months of pregnancy.
      The CDC reported last month that about one in 88 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder, the highest estimate to date, making environmental studies like the latest “even more timely,” Kalkbrenner said.
+ Read more.

• • •

Being Left out Puts Youths With Special Needs at Risk for Depression


      ScienceDaily — The challenges that come with battling a chronic medical condition or developmental disability are enough to get a young person down. But being left out, ignored or bullied by their peers is the main reason youths with special health care needs report symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to a study to be presented`123 April 29, at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Boston.
      Being bullied has been shown to increase students' risk for academic and emotional problems. Little research has been done specifically on how being a victim of bullying affects youths with special needs.
      In this study, researchers led by Margaret Ellis McKenna, MD, senior fellow in developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Medical University of South Carolina, investigated the impact of bullying, ostracism and diagnosis of a chronic medical condition on the emotional well-being of youths with special health care needs.
      Participants ages 8-17 years were recruited from a children's hospital during routine visits with their physicians. A total of 109 youths and their parents/guardians completed questionnaires that screen for symptoms of anxiety and depression. Youths also completed a screening tool that assessed whether they had been bullied or excluded by their peers.
      The main categories of youths' diagnoses included attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (39 percent), cystic fibrosis (22 percent), type 1 or 2 diabetes (19 percent), sickle cell disease (11 percent), obesity (11 percent), learning disability (11 percent), autism spectrum disorder (9 percent) and short stature (6 percent). Several children had a combination of these diagnoses.
      Results of the youths' answers on the questionnaires showed that being bullied and/or ostracized were the strongest predictors of increased symptoms of depression or anxiety. When looking at both parent and child reports, ostracism was the strongest indicator of these symptoms.
     "What is notable about these findings is that despite all the many challenges these children face in relation to their chronic medical or developmental diagnosis, being bullied or excluded by their peers were the factors most likely to predict whether or not they reported symptoms of depression," Dr. McKenna said.
     "Professionals need to be particularly alert in screening for the presence of being bullied or ostracized in this already vulnerable group of students," she added.
     In addition, schools should have clear policies to prevent and address bullying and ostracism, Dr. McKenna suggested, as well as programs that promote a culture of inclusion and sense of belonging for all students.

• • •

PCBs May Increase Autism Risk

      By Daily Democrat

      New research from UC Davis and Washington State University shows that PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, launch a cellular chain of events that leads to an overabundance of dendrites -- the filament-like projections that conduct electrochemical signals between neurons -- and disrupts normal patterns of neuronal connections in the brain.
      "Dendrite growth and branching during early development is a finely orchestrated process, and the presence of certain PCBs confuses the conductor of that process," said Pamela Lein, a developmental neurobiologist and professor of molecular biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "Impaired neuronal connectivity is a common feature of a number of conditions, including autism spectrum disorders."
      Reported Wednesday in two related studies in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the findings underscore the developing brain's vulnerability to environmental exposures and demonstrate how PCBs could add to autism risk.
      "We don't think PCB exposure causes autism," Lein said, "but it may increase the likelihood of autism in children whose genetic makeup already compromises the processes by which neurons form connections."
      The senior authors of the studies were Lein and Isaac Pessah, chair of molecular biosciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Center for Children's Environmental Health at UC Davis. Both are researchers with the UC Davis MIND Institute, which is dedicated to finding answers to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. The lead author was Gary Wayman of Washington State University's Program in Neuroscience, who first described the molecular pathway that controls the calcium signaling in the brain that guides normal dendrite growth.
      Wayman found that key cellular players, called calcium and calmodulin kinases, are activated by increased calcium levels. Activated calmodulin kinase then turns on the protein known as CREB that regulates genes that produce Wnt2, a potent molecule and the final arbiter of whether and how dendrites grow. Wnt2 directs structural proteins to construct scaffolding that supports dendrite growth and branching.
      "Orderly choreography of the calmodulin kinase-to-Wnt2 pathway translates normal increases in calcium levels into normal levels of dendrite production," said Wayman. "The wiring of billions of neurons is dependent on the health of this cellular process and is crucial to proper development of virtually all complex behaviors, learning, memories and language."

SEE ALSO:
How PCBs Promote Dendrite Growth, May Increase Autism Risk




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• • •

EDUCATION

Charter School Would Serve Autistic Students


Melanie Flaherty is among a group of parents working to establish a charter school for high-functioning autistic children, such as her son Sean. With them is Flaherty's daughter Grace.



      By Matthew Stolle The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

       A group of Rochester parents are working on creating a charter public school that would serve students with high-functioning autism, which would be only the second such school in the state.
      Rochester Beacon Academy would serve slightly fewer than 100 middle and high school students when it opens in fall 2014.
      The effort would reverse a trend toward mainstreaming students with learning disabilities into classrooms with regular students. Beacon supporters see that effort, at least in the upper grades, as not working for their children, especially in an era of declining budgets and growing special education caseloads.
      "We feel like there's an illusion of inclusion, especially for these higher-functioning kids," said Melanie Flaherty, a Rochester mother who is spearheading the drive to start the school. "They are put in a group of neuro-typical children, and they end up standing out pretty severely in some cases. The level of inclusion is not there."
      Flaherty said the effort to open a charter school shouldn't necessarily be interpreted as a blanket criticism of the Rochester public schools. She said her son Sean, who has high-end autism, enjoys going to Gibbs Elementary School so much that he never wants to leave.
      But many parents worry about the middle and high school years, a time when children with autism struggle socially. Many of these students fall through the cracks, because they aren't considered low-functioning enough to qualify for one-on-one paraprofessional support. Yet they have social deficits that can make places "like the lunchroom or playground overwhelming."
      "These kids are either getting bullied or they are just barely holding it together throughout the day that they really don't learn much academically," Flaherty said.
      Six out of every 1,000 students have autism spectrum disorder, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. ASD describes a range of disorders that include social impairments, communication difficulties and repetitive behavior.
      Beacon supporters say their inspiration is Lionsgate Academy, a Crystal, Minn., school begun by parents four years ago and that serves kids with high-functioning autism in grades 7 through 12.
      One major difference between Lionsgate and regular public schools, says Lionsgate executive director Stan Hacker, is the emphasis it places on developing a student's social skills.
      "We try to really help our kids take the skills that they've learned and be able to incorporate them. That makes us fairly unique," he said.
      The school also allows students to continue their education up until age 21, thus allowing for a more gradual transition time from high school to college or the workplace.
      Beacon would be the fourth charter school in Rochester. Beacon organizers are applying for nonprofit status, so they can begin raising the $15,000 needed to put together the school's charter application.

• • •

PEOPLE

Dive Teams Search For Missing 7-year-old Fort Gordon Girl


      By Archith Seshadri, WJBF-TV, Atlanta, Georgia

      The Augusta Richmond Dive squad is still searching for a missing 7-year-old girl at Fort Gordon. The dive team is looking for the Hannah Ross, who investigators say went missing near her home, Saturday evening.
      The Ross family moved into Fort Gordon from California just last week.
      A PIO for Fort Gordon says Ross has no shoes on, and was last seen wearing a purple shirt and white shorts.
      Investigators at Fort Gordon police, the Columbia County Sheriff's office, the Richmond County Sheriff's office, as well as hundreds of volunteers spent Saturday night looking for a missing 7-year-old girl.
      K-9 units also assisted with the search.
      Investigators are looking for 7-year-old Hannah Ross, behind the Lakeview housing area on Fort Gordon.
      Several hundred volunteers, mostly soldiers, combed the area and searched into the night.
      A helicopter crew also assisted with search efforts.
      Ross suffers from autism and was last seen behind her home on Fort Gordon at approximately 6:45 p.m. Saturday evening and is believed to have wondered off.
      Ross also likes to go to the water when she is upset, and may have wandered off.
      Hannah is 4 foot 8 inches tall, 80 pounds.
      Anyone with any information on Hannah's whereabouts, please contact Fort Gordon authorities at 706-791-9747.

• • •

Father Secretly Videotapes Teachers Verbally Abusing His Autistic Son

By Amee Ellsworth allvoices.com



Father Secretly Videotapes Teachers Verbally Abusing His Autistic Son

   Stuart Chaifetz, the father of an autistic child began receiving reports from the school that his child was being violent in school. Akian, a ten year old autistic child, attends school in Horace Mann Elementary School in Cherry Hill, N.J. The father cooperated with the school trying to determine the source of the child’s violent outbursts.
      A behaviorist was brought in to assess his son’s behavior and did not witness any violent outbursts. Then Mr. Chaifetz was told by a student that went to school with his son that Akian cried all of the time in school. This prompted this distraught father to take extraordinary steps to try to determine the cause of his son’s violence and tears.
      "The morning of February 17, I put a wire on my son, and I sent him to school," Chaifetz says in a video he created to showcase the audio clips. "What I heard on that audio was so disgusting, vile, and just an absolute disrespect and bullying of my son, that happened not by other children, but by his teacher, and the aides -- the people who were supposed to protect him. They were literally making my son's life a living hell."
      After Akian cried, the teacher said, "Oh, Akian, you are a bastard."
      "The six and a half hours of audio I had proved that my son wasn't hitting the teacher because there was something wrong with him -- he was lashing out because he was being mocked, mistreated and humiliated," Chaifetz wrote on his website.
      Chaifetz has called for a public apology to his son for what he has been put through. “This is to reclaim my son’s dignity. You have failed in every way in your responsibilities. The price is a public apology to my son."
      Yahoo reports: “On Tuesday, officials at the Horace Mann School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, directed calls from Yahoo! Shine to the Cherry Hill School District's offices; a call to a spokesperson there was not immediately returned. Cherry Hill Public School District spokesperson Susan Bastnagel told the Collingswood Patch on Tuesday only that the incident is "an internal personnel matter that the district took seriously and handled appropriately." Chaifetz disagrees, and has started a Facebook page and launched a petition at Change.org calling for the teacher's dismissal. He's already gathered nearly 18,500 signatures. "No one who treats children like that, who calls them vicious names, who humiliates them, who batters them verbally, deserves to be a teacher," Chaifetz says in the video.
     
• • •

“Ethan W and Piano Man” Video Goes Viral (Video)

      By Jessica Sinclair longislandpress.com 

      Everyone knows Billy Joel’s hit song “Piano Man” and most can sing along to it. Some can play the song on the piano too. But few can put on a performance like 6-year-old Ethan did recently.
      A video of Ethan playing the hit Billy Joel song went viral this past week and is proving to be quite the hit, making headlines and being viewed by thousands of Internet users. Since being posted Wednesday, over 79,000 people have watched it.
       “Ethan, a six year old on the autism spectrum plays a Billy Joel favorite,” reads the YouTube video’s description.
      The video shows Ethan, wearing a blue Spiderman t-shirt, taking on one of Joel’s greatest hits.
      According to reports, Ethan, who was diagnosed with Autism, clearly has no problem communicating through the piano.
      After playing for a few moments, he looks over to an older man sitting next to him and playing the guitar. “Sing it now” he says, to which the man begins singing Joel’s famous lyrics. But Ethan wasn’t going to let him go it solo.
      Ethan later joins in and starts singing “He says son can you play me a memory, I’m not really sure how it goes,” and then goes back to playing the piano.
      “Piano Man” was Joel’s first major hit and was first released November 1973 on the Piano Man album. It tells the story of a piano singer and others in the lounge. Joel has said that the characters depicted in the song were based on real people. It’s since been released on other records including his greatest hits collections, such as The Essential Billy Joel.
      The song choice is proving to be quite popular as it’s become one of his most popular YouTube videos. The video joins a bunch of other performances by Ethan. His YouTube page includes performances of Coldplay’s “Clocks” and Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed."
+ Watch:


• • •

COMMENTARY

A New Autism Theory

Early exposure to toxins may help explain the increasing percentage of kids diagnosed with autism

      By Eleanor J. Bader, Alternet


  A new autism theory (Credit: Alex Mit via Shutterstock)

      If horror is your genre, environmental writer Brita Belli’s “The Autism Puzzle,” is the book for you. Her terrifying look at the chemicals we eat, drink and breathe is guaranteed to make your hair stand on end.
      AlterNetWe should thank her for it.
      Statistics released earlier this spring by the Centers for Disease Control revealed that one in 88 U.S.-born toddlers has an autism spectral disorder — from the less severe Asperger’s syndrome to the so-called classical form of the ailment. Worse, it’s not just a North American phenomenon; Belli also reports a 57 percent spike in Asia and Europe.
      The question is why. Perhaps, some posit, medical professionals have simply become better diagnosticians, and people previously labeled eccentric or developmentally disabled were in fact, autistic. Or, perhaps there’s a genetic culprit since ASD typically runs in families. Belli gives credence to both theories, but ultimately concludes that there is more to the puzzle. “If the rise in autism numbers were only due to improved diagnosis and awareness of autism among the medical community — or if the roots of the epidemic were primarily genetic — professionals would have seen an increase in adult or adolescent patients who had not been diagnosed or who had been misdiagnosed in the past,” she writes.
      But they haven’t. This realization piqued Belli’s curiosity, and her investigation into the relationship between environmental poisons and human health is riveting. “The idea that a toxin can cause autism is neither controversial nor speculative,” she begins. In fact, thalidomide, a medication used in the 1960s to control morning sickness in pregnant women, was tied to autism almost 20 years ago. Likewise valproic acid, used to treat bipolar disorder; misoprostol, an ulcer drug; and chlorpyrifos, an insecticide.
      And that’s just the tip of the chemical iceberg. “Many other chemicals distributed far and wide across the natural world by power plant smokestacks, leaking waste sites, improper storage facilities and outdated manufacturing processes have been proven to cause injury to developing brains,” Belli continues. More specifically, mercury, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls — also known as PCBs — along with the chemicals used to make insulation, flame retardants, electronic equipment and plastic pose known health risks to fetal life and newborns.
      Belli cites recent studies by the Environmental Working Group that discovered an average of 200 pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of infants. Among them: pesticides, perfluorinated compounds, antibiotics and polybrominated diphenyl ethers.
      Belli is particularly interested in “autism clusters,” geographic areas with higher-than-average rates of the disorder. One such place is Brick Township, N.J., where 63 million gallons of septic waste were dumped into a nearby landfill between 1969 and 1979. By the time the community learned that heavy metals and volatile organic compounds had leaked from storage containers, it was too late — soil and groundwater had already become contaminated by bromoform, chloroform and chloroethylene.
+ Read more.

Note: The opinions expressed in COMMENTARY are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Schafer Autism Report.




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