This Halloween, Americans are expected to spend a near-record amount of $8.8 billion
on costumes and other decorations. While the holiday traditionally
attracts a core of committed fans, many are also peer-pressured to jump
into the festivity’s spending.
professor of applied economics at Cornell University’s SC Johnson
College of Business, is an expert on consumption and studies the
psychological, social and cultural aspects of economic behavior. Heffetz
says that when it comes to celebrations, Halloween has become the
holiday to show off one’s status.
a consumer-economics point-of-view, Halloween is unique in at least two
ways relative to other holidays. First, in addition to home
decorations, which can be reused from year to year (say, like Christmas
decorations), Halloween is much more about the costumes. Reusing
decorations is relatively easy, but reusing costumes is more difficult,
because our children grow fast, and because costumes are often less
durable, and kids destroy them quickly.
“Second, wearables are
among the most socially visible items a family could spend on. This
unsurprising observation is confirmed and quantified in my research on
expenditure visibility. This could make costumes a child’s membership
card into some social circles, and the right costume can be an
opportunity to display one’s status within a group.
“Even if we
gave up on the costumes and stuck to decorations, while a family’s
Christmas tree and many of the related decorations are only visible to
those guests who are invited to visit inside the home, Halloween
decorations are visible to anyone driving down the street.
short, in both decorations and costumes, Halloween is the
expenditure-visibility holiday! For some parents this could be a
not-to-be-missed opportunity for public display. Other parents may feel
that they are reluctantly dragged into this race, or they risk
disappointing their children.”
For interviews contact: Rebecca Valli office: 607-255-6035 cell: 607-793-1025 firstname.lastname@example.org
University has dedicated television and audio studios available for
media interviews supporting full HD, ISDN and web-based platforms.
Papageorgiou explains: “Narcissism is part of the ‘Dark Tetrad’ of
personality that also includes Machiavellianism, Psychopathy and Sadism.
There are two main dimensions to narcissism – grandiose and vulnerable.
Vulnerable narcissists are likely to be more defensive and view the
behaviour of others as hostile whereas grandiose narcissists usually
have an over inflated sense of importance and a preoccupation with
status and power.”
He adds: “Individuals high on the spectrum of
dark traits, such as narcissism, engage in risky behaviour, hold an
unrealistic superior view of themselves, are overconfident, show little
empathy for others, and have little shame or guilt.
this research has questioned is – if narcissism, as an example of the
dark tetrad, is indeed so socially toxic, why does it persist and why is
it on the rise in modern societies?”
The papers include three
independent studies each involving more than 700 adults in total and
highlights some positive sides of narcissism, such as resilience against
symptoms of psychopathology.
A key finding of the research was
that grandiose narcissism can increase mental toughness and this can
help to offset symptoms of depression. It also found that people who
score high on grandiose narcissism have lower levels of perceived stress
and are therefore less likely to view their life as stressful.
research is a fresh approach to the study of personality and
psychopathology, highlighting that there are some positives to be found
in terms of potential societal impact.
Dr Papageorgiou comments:
“The results from all the studies that we conducted show that grandiose
narcissism correlates with very positive components of mental toughness,
such as confidence and goal orientation, protecting against symptoms of
depression and perceived stress.
“This research really helps to
explain variation in symptoms of depression in society – if a person is
more mentally tough they are likely to embrace challenges head on,
rather than viewing them as a hurdle.
Dr Papageorgiou says: “While of course not all dimensions of narcissism are good, certain aspects can lead to positive outcomes.
work promotes diversity and inclusiveness of people and ideas by
advocating that dark traits, such as narcissism, should not be seen as
either good or bad, but as products of evolution and expressions of
human nature that may be beneficial or harmful depending on the context.
move forward may help to reduce the marginalisation of individuals that
score higher than average on the dark traits. It could also facilitate
the development of research-informed suggestions on how best to
cultivate some manifestations of these traits, while discouraging
others, for the collective good.”
New study says we’ll listen to virtual agents except when goings get tough
We may listen to facts from Siri or Alexa, or directions from Google
Maps or Waze, but would we let a virtual agent enabled by artificial
intelligence help mediate conflict among team members? A new study says
not just yet.
Researchers from USC and the University of Denver
created a simulation in which a three-person team was supported by a
virtual agent avatar on screen in a mission that was designed to ensure
failure and elicit conflict. The study was designed to look at virtual
agents as potential mediators to improve team collaboration during
Confess to them? Yes. But in the heat of the moment, will we listen to virtual agents?
some of researchers (Gale Lucas and Jonathan Gratch of the USC Viterbi
School Engineering and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies who
contributed to this study), had previously found that one-on-one human
interactions with a virtual agent therapist yielded more confessions, in
this study “Conflict Mediation in Human-Machine Teaming: Using a
Virtual Agent to Support Mission Planning and Debriefing,” team members
were less likely to engage with a male virtual agent named “Chris” when
Participating members of the team did not
physically accost the device (as we have seen humans attack robots in
viral social media posts), but rather were less engaged and less likely
to listen to the virtual agent’s input once failure ensued and conflict
arose among team members.
The study was conducted in a military
academy environment in which 27 scenarios were engineered to test how
the team that included a virtual agent would react to failure and the
ensuring conflict. The virtual agent was not ignored by any means. The
study found that the teams did respond socially to the virtual agent
during the planning of the mission they were assigned (nodding, smiling
and recognizing the virtual agent ‘s input by thanking it) but the
longer the exercise progressed, their engagement with the virtual agent
decreased. The participants did not entirely blame the virtual agent for
“Team cohesion when accomplishing complex tasks
together is a highly complex and important factor,” says lead author,
Kerstin Haring, an assistant professor of computer science at the
University of Denver.
“Our results show that virtual agents and
potentially social robots might be a good conflict mediator in all kinds
of teams. It will be very interesting to find out the interventions and
social responses to ultimately seamlessly integrate virtual agents in
human teams to make them perform better.”
Study co-author, Gale
Lucas, Research Assistant Professor of Computer Science at USC, and a
researcher at the Institute for Creative Technologies, adds that some
feedback from study participants indicates that they perceived virtual
agents to be neutral and unbiased. She would like to continue the work
to see if virtual agents can be applied “to help us make better
decisions” and press “what it takes to have us trust virtual agents.”
this study was conducted in a military academy with particular
structures, the researchers are hoping to develop this project to
improve team processes in all sorts of work environments.
Discovery of a new fossil in China sheds light on when early mammal ancestors first evolved sophisticated thyroid bones that gave them the ability to swallow food like modern-day mammals.
The 165-million-year-old fossil of Microdocodongracilis, a tiny, shrew-like animal, shows the earliest example of modern hyoid bones in mammal evolution The hyoid bones link the back of the mouth, or pharynx, to the openings of the esophagus and the larynx. The hyoids of modern mammals, including humans, are arranged in a “U” shape, similar to the saddle seat of children’s swing, suspended by jointed segments from the skull. It helps us transport and swallow chewed food and liquid – a crucial function on which our livelihood depends.
Mammals as a whole are far more
sophisticated than other living vertebrates in chewing up food and
swallowing itone small lump at a time, instead of gulping down huge
bites or whole prey like an alligator.
“Mammals have become so
diverse today through the evolution of diverse ways to chew their food,
weather it is insects, worms, meat, or plants. But no matter how
differently mammals can chew, they all have to swallow in the same way,”
said Zhe-Xi Luo, PhD, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at
the University of Chicago and the senior author of a new study of the
fossil, published this week in Science.
specialized way for mammals to chew and then swallow is all made
possible by the agile hyoid bones at the back of the throat,” Luo said.
‘A pristine, beautiful fossil’
modern hyoid apparatus is mobile and allows the throat muscles to
control the intricate functions to transport and swallow chewed food or
drink fluids. Other vertebrates also have hyoid bones, but their hyoids
are simple and rod-like, without mobile joints between segments. They
can only swallow food whole or in large chunks.
When and how this unique hyoid structure first appeared in mammals, however, has long been in question among paleontologists. In 2014, Chang-Fu Zhou, PhD, from the Paleontological Museum of Liaoning in China, the lead author of the new study, found a new fossil of Microdocodon preserved with delicate hyoid bones in the famous Jurassic Daohugou site of northeastern China.Soon afterwards, Luo and Thomas Martin from the University of Bonn, Germany, met up with Zhou in China to study the fossil.
“It is a pristine, beautiful fossil. I was amazed by the
exquisite preservation of this tiny fossil at the first sight. We got a
sense that it was unusual, but we were puzzled about what was unusual
about it,”Luo said. “After taking detailed photographs and examining the
fossil under a microscope, it dawned on us that this Jurassic animal
has tiny hyoid bones much like those of modern mammals.”
This new insight gave Luo and his colleagues added context on how to study the new fossil. Microdocodonis
a docodont, from an extinct lineage of near relatives of mammals from
the Mesozoic Era called mammaliaforms. Previously, paleontologists
anticipated that hyoids like this had to be there in all of these early
mammals, but it was difficult to identify the delicate bones. After
finding them in Microdocodon, Luo and his collaborators have since found similar fossilized hyoid structures in other Mesozoic mammals.
we are able for the first time to address how the crucial function for
swallowing evolved among early mammals from the fossil record,” Luo
said. “The tiny hyoids of Microdocodonare a big milestone for interpreting the evolution of mammalian feeding function.”
New insights on mammal evolution as a whole
also worked with postdoctoral scholar Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, PhD, now on
the faculty at Yale University, and April Neander, a scientific artist
and expert on CT visualization of fossils at UChicago, to study casts of
Microdocodonand reconstruct how it lived.
The jaw and
middle ear of modern mammals are developed from (or around) the first
pharyngeal arch, structures in a vertebrate embryo that develop into
other recognizable bones and tissues. Meanwhile, the hyoids are
developed separately from the second and the third pharyngeal arches. Microdocodonhas
a primitive middle ear still attached to the jaw like that of other
early mammals like cynodonts, which is unlike the ear of modern mammals.
Yet its hyoids are already like those of modern mammals.
and ear bones are all derivatives of the primordial vertebrate mouth and
gill skeleton, with which our earliest fishlike ancestors fed and
respired,” Bhullar said. “The jointed, mobile hyoid of Microdocodoncoexists
with an archaic middle ear — still attached to the lower jaw.
Therefore, the building of the modern mammal entailed serial repurposing
of a truly ancient system.”
The tiny, shrew-like creature likely
weighed only 5 to 9 grams, with a slender body, and an exceptionally
long tail. The dimensions of its limb bonesmatch up with those of modern
“Its limb bones are as thin as matchsticks, and
yet this tiny Mesozoic mammal still lived an active life in trees,”
The fossil beds that yielded Microdocodonare dated 164 to 166 million years old. Microdocodonco-existed with other docodonts like the semiaquatic Castorocauda, the subterranean Docofossor, the tree-dwellingAgilodocodon, as well as some mammaliaform gliders.
The study, “New Jurassic mammaliaform sheds light on early evolution of mammal-like hyoid bones,” was published in Scienceon
July 19, 2019. The research was supported by the University of Chicago
Division of Biological Sciences (Luo); the Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft (Martin); and the National Natural Science
Foundation and Ministry of Land Resources of China, Shenyang Normal
University, and Shandong University of Science and Technology (Zhou).
Language Skills Can Benefit from Parents’ Early Support, Interactions.
Dr. Meghan Swanson,
assistant professor at The University of Texas at Dallas, is the
corresponding author of the study, published online June 28 in Autism
Research. It is the first to extend research about the relationship
between caregiver speech and infant language development from typically
developing children to those with autism. The findings could inform
guidelines for earlier action in cases of developmental difficulties.
A new language-skills study that included infants later diagnosed with autism suggests that all children can benefit from exposure to more speech from their caregivers.
can diagnose autism at 24 months at the earliest; most people are
diagnosed much later. Early intervention, from birth to age 3, has shown
to be effective at supporting development in various cohorts of
children,” said Swanson, who joined the School of Behavioral and Brain
Sciences in January as the director of the Infant Neurodevelopment &
Language Research Lab, known as the Baby Brain Lab.
there has been a push to identify autism earlier or demonstrate that the
same techniques that help most children develop language skills also
benefit those eventually diagnosed with autism.
The study involved
96 babies, 60 of whom had an older sibling with autism. Swanson said
that this “baby-sibling” research design was necessary.
you study autism in infancy when you can’t diagnose it until the kids
are age 2 at least?” she asked. “The answer relies on the fact that
autism tends to run in families. These younger siblings have about a 20%
chance of being diagnosed eventually with autism.”
Indeed, 14 children from the high-risk subset of 60 were diagnosed with autism at 24 months.
study results directly tied the number of words an infant hears, as
well as the conversational turns he or she takes, to the performance on
the 24-month language evaluation — both for typical children and those
“One conclusion we’ve come to is that parents should
be persistent in talking with their babies even if they aren’t getting
responses,” Swanson said.
Swanson emphasized how important large,
longitudinal studies — tracking the same individuals across an extended
period — like this one are in her field.
“You have to follow the
same children for years to learn anything conclusive about development,”
she said. “You can’t simply shift from a group of 2-year-olds to a
different group of 3-year-olds and so on.”
misunderstanding of parents’ influence in autism has been a gradual
fight against outdated conceptions, Swanson said.
receive an autism diagnosis for a child, some might wonder, ‘What could I
have done differently?’” she said. “There is no scientific backing for
them to think in these terms. But there is a dark history in autism
where parents were wrongly blamed, which reinforced these thoughts. To
do research involving mothers as we have, you must approach that topic
with sensitivity but also firmly reinforce that the logic that parenting
style can cause autism is flawed.”
The children’s interactions
with caregivers were recorded over two days — once at nine months and
again at 15 months — via a LENA (Language Environment Analysis) audio
recorder. The children’s language skills were then assessed at 24
“The LENA software counts conversational turns anytime an
adult vocalizes and the infant responds, or vice versa,” Swanson said.
“The definition is not related to the content of the speech, just that
the conversation partner responds. We believe that responding to infants
when they talk supports infant development, regardless of eventual
The project was undertaken by the Infant Brain
Imaging Study (IBIS) network, a consortium of eight universities in the
United States and Canada funded by the National Institutes of Health as
an Autism Center of Excellence. Before joining UT Dallas, Swanson was a
postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
one of IBIS’ study sites. The other study sites are Children’s Hospital
of Philadelphia, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of
Washington in Seattle and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Dr. Joseph Piven, the IBIS network’s principal
investigator, is the director of the Carolina Institute for
Developmental Disabilities at UNC-Chapel Hill. For parents, the results
should highlight the long-term effect of initiating conversations from
an early age, he said.
“Talking to your kids makes a big
difference,” Piven said. “Any impact on early language skills will
almost certainly have an impact on a wide range of later abilities in
school-age children and significantly enhance their probability of
Swanson said the most important takeaway from this work
is that parents can make a significant difference in language
development, even in children who are eventually diagnosed with autism.
can be amazing agents of change in their infants’ lives from as early
as 9 months old,” she said. “If we teach parents how to provide their
children with a rich communication environment, it helps support their
children’s development. I find that incredibly hopeful — the power that
parents have to be these positive role models.”
In addition to UT
Dallas and the IBIS study sites, researchers from Temple University,
Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, McGill
University and the University of Alberta contributed to this study. The
Simons Foundation also supported the research.
Newswise — Researchers have recently begun to realize that biological sex plays a key role in disease risk. Sex plays a role in hypertension, diabetes, arthritis – and in many neurological and psychiatric disorders. Depression and anxiety affect females more, while neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, early onset schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity, affect more males. Males are also more sensitive to prenatal insults, such as gestational stress, maternal infection and drug exposure.
//cdn.chitika.net/getads.jsTo better understand the molecular underpinnings of this disparity, Tracy Bale of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, along with several colleagues, focused on a molecule that plays a key role in placental health. In a study of mice, they found that the molecule, O-linked N-acetylglucosamine transferase (OGT) works by establishing sex-specific patterns of gene expression. The study was published this week in the journal Nature Communications. OGT seems to work via an epigenetic modification that broadly controls transcription, H3K27me3. Epigenetics is the study of changes in how genes are expressed. Dr. Bale showed that high levels of H3K27me3 in the female placenta produce resilience to stress experienced by the mother. This indicates at least one molecular pathway that allows females to be more resilient to maternal stress than males. “This pathway could help explain why we see this profound neurodevelopmental difference in humans,” said Dr. Bale. “OGT and H3K27me3 in the placenta are crucial to a lot of protein encoding that occurs during pregnancy, and so this process has a lot of downstream effects. The OGT gene is on the X chromosome, and seems to provide a level of protection for the female fetus to perturbations in the maternal environment.” Dr. Bale has focused much of her research on the links between stress and subsequent risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and schizophrenia in offspring. Her previous work on the placenta has found novel sex differences that may predict increased prenatal risk for disease in males. She has previously found that, in mice, a father’s stress can affect the brain development of offspring. This stress can alter the father’s sperm, which can alter the brain development of the child. Dr. Bale has also found that male mice experiencing chronic mild stress have offspring with a reduced hormonal response to stress; this response has been linked to some neuropsychiatric disorders, including PTSD. This suggests that even mild environmental challenges can have a significant effect on the health of offspring.
How can we get tangible benefit from the millions we spend on autism science?.
Posted Nov 12, 2017
The U.S. government is the world’s biggest funder of autism research. For the past decade I have had the honor of advising various agencies and committees on how that money should be spent. As an adult with autism, sometimes I’ve been pleased at our government’s choices. Other times I’ve been disappointed. Every now and then I turn to reflect: What have we gotten for our investment? Autistic people and their parents agree on this: The hundreds of millions we’ve spent on autism research every year has provided precious little benefit to families and individuals living with autism today. Over the past decade the expenditures have run into the billions, yet our quality of life has hardly changed at all. It would be one thing if massive help was just around the corner, but it’s not. There are no breakthrough medicines or treatments in the pipeline. Autistic people still suffer from GI pain, epilepsy, anxiety, depression, and a host of other issues at the same rates we did before any of this research was funded. I don’t mean to suggest that nothing has been accomplished. Scientists have learned a lot. They know more about the biological underpinnings of autism. Researchers have found hundreds of genetic variations that are implicated in autism. We’ve quantified how autistic people are different with thousands of studies of eye gaze, body movement, and more. Scientists are rightly proud of many of their discoveries, which do advance medical and scientific knowledge. What they don’t do is make our lives better today. Why is that? In the past I’ve written about the idea that taxpayer-funded research should be refocused on delivering benefit to autistic people. What I have not written about, is why that hasn’t happened, at the most fundamental level. The answer is simple: Until quite recently, autistic people were not asked what we needed. There are many reasons for that. Autism was first observed in children and no one expects children to have adult insight and self-reflection. When autism was recognized in adults, they were assumed to be too cognitively impaired to participate in conversations about their condition. Finally, in the spirit of the times, doctors often assumed that they knew best. They were the trained professionals, and we were the patients (or the inmates.) So doctors studied every question they could imagine, and then some, seldom seeking our opinions except in answer to their research questions. They assumed they knew what “normal” was, and we weren’t it. Countless million$ went down the rabbit hole of causation studies, whether in genetics, vaccines, or other environmental factors. Don’t get me wrong—the knowledge we’ve gotten is valuable for science. It just did not help me, or any autistic person I know. Millions more have been spent observing us and detailing exactly the ways in which we are abnormal. Only recently have some scientists began to consider a different idea: Perhaps “normal” is different for autistic people, and we are it. Again the studies enhanced the scientists’ knowledge but didn’t do much to help us autistics. Then there are the educators and psychologists. They observed our “deviations” and then considered therapy to normalize us. That led to ABA and a host of other therapies. Some of those have indeed been beneficial, but the money spent on beneficial therapy is just a drop in the bucket when considering what we taxpayers have funded overall. Want a different and better outcome? Ask actual autistic people.
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We can tell you what our problems are, in many cases very eloquently. I’m not going to re-state all our needs here. I’ll tell you this: Whenever this topic comes up at IACC (the Federal committee that produces the strategic plan for autism for the U.S. government), the priorities of autistic people seem rather different from those of the researchers our government has been funding for so long. Autistic people have many disparate needs, but they all boil down to one thing: We have major challenges living in American society. Medical problems, communication challenges, learning difficulties, relationship issues, and chronic unemployment are all big deals for us. The issues are well laid out and many. Before autistic people began speaking out in great numbers, all we had was parent advocacy. We should not dismiss that, and parents still have a role today, particularly in advocacy for small children and children who are older but unable to effectively advocate for themselves. Even as we thank parents for their service, it’s time to recognize autistic voices (some of which belong to parents too) should be taking the lead. As much as parents did for us, they also unwittingly contributed to harm. Parents misinterpreted harmless stimming, and encouraged therapists to suppress it, leaving us scarred in adulthood. Many autistics of my generation remember being placed into programs for troubled children with parental encouragement in hopes we’d become “more normal.” We didn’t. Parents have given us bleach enemas, and some of us have died from misguided chelation and other treatments to “cure” our autism. I don’t blame parents for any of that. They did their best, given the knowledge of the day. But it’s a different day now. The children who grew up being “normalized” can talk about how it affected them, and parents and clinicians of today would be wise to listen.
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Autistic voices are finally speaking in large numbers and it’s time to pay attention. No one else knows life with autism. Parents and nonautistic researchers are sometimes listening. Hard as this may be for them to hear, they are always guessing. With autistics speaking out all over the world, that’s no longer good enough. For the first time, IACC has recognized this in the 2017 Strategic Plan Update. They say it’s time for a paradigm shift in how we do research. We need to focus on the needs of people living with autism today. That’s a realization that I appreciate, and it’s long overdue. So what’s the answer to why we’ve gotten so little return on our autism research investment: No one asked the autistic people what we wanted. It’s that simple. Had we been able to articulate our challenges, with the framework of knowledge we have today, and had we been listened to, we’d be in a very different place today. Today is gone, but tomorrow isn’t here yet, and it can be different. (c) John Elder Robison John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He’s the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He’s co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (a school for teens with developmental challenges), and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. The opinions expressed here are his own. There is no warranty expressed or implied. While reading this essay will give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.
John Elder Robison is the author of Raising Cubby, Look Me in the Eye, My Life with Asperger’s, and Be Different – adventures of a free range Aspergian. John’s books are sold in a dozen languages in over 65 countries.
With the recent news of President-Elect Trump’s talks with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to potentially head a new commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity, many in the scientific and healthcare communities are understandably rattled. Kennedy is a well-known skeptic of vaccine safety, and has previously described the vaccine/autism allegations as such:
“They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”
Mercury is toxic to the human body. It’s important, however, to understand how the mercury present in immunizations is different than the mercury in, say, the scary old thermometer in your medicine cabinet. Thimerosal is a vaccine preservative. Since the early 20th century, small amounts of thimerosal have been used in vaccines to prevent the growth of fungi and bacteria. Thimerosal is mainly composed of ethylmercury. When we hear concerns of mercury toxicity (for example, with the consumption of fish), we are primarily concerned about the compound methylmercury.
Methylmercury (left) and ethylmercury (right) have different chemical structures and are metabolized differently in the body.
Intelligence, Genius and High Achievement Are Not “On” the Autism Spectrum
Posted Apr 01, 2016
April is autism awareness month—so autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will be in the news. Although the recent redefinition of autism as a spectrum condition ensures that children whose disabilities were previously unrecognized and left untreated are better served; it is also important to be mindful of the boundaries for the autism spectrum to avoid potentially devastating mistakes. This is especially important as society seeks to identify autism spectrum disorder at earlier and earlier ages. Because very young children have widely variable abilities and behavior patterns that are quite different from older children, key clinical markers of autism in school-age children are much less reliable for diagnosing toddlers and preschoolers. For example, a primary symptom of autism is disruptive behavior—and severe tantrums. In school-age children these behaviors are a very reliable indicator for autism. In contrast, nearly every two-year-old displays rather severe tantrums—after all it is called the terrible twos for a reason! It is absurd to place all two year olds on the autism spectrum because of tantrums. Skilled clinicians can indeed accurately diagnose autism in two-year-olds, but it is all too easy to mistake a naturally occurring tantrum as a symptom of autism spectrum disorder. Similarly, it is all too easy to mistake the traits of precious, highly intelligent toddlers and preschoolers as symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. In their recent book “The Prodigy’s Cousin” Joanne Ruthsatz and Kimberly Stephens provide engaging—and intriguing narratives describing prodigies. They also note that many of these children have siblings or other first-order relatives who are clearly on the autism spectrum, which is certainly true for mathematicians, engineers, and physicists. Also, for the children described in The Prodigy’s Cousin, it was not unusual for the prodigies themselves to be initially misidentified as having autism. One potential reason for this is that a child prodigy is quite dedicated to developing the ability that captures her interest—be it music, math, art, dance or scientific thinking. Because of this, prodigies tend to practice these talents over and over again often to the exclusion of activities other children are usually engaged in. Although it may seem simple to distinguish prodigy from autism spectrum disorder, it is noteworthy that children with autism are highly “routine preferring” and often do the same things over and over again rather obsessively. And this is precisely what Ruthsatz and Stephens see in prodigies: these children are very focused on practicing and mastering a particular ability. These authors were very straightforward in stating that prodigy behavior should not be viewed as a form of autism, but it is clear that mistakes were made. But what if the autism spectrum were actually expanded to include the kind of focused practice required to master talent often seen in child prodigies—and in highly intelligent people? What are the consequences for society if the unique talents of prodigies, geniuses, high achievers—or anyone else with asynchronous child development or an unusual learning style—were to be redefined as symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder and eliminated? There is a very real concern that identifying prodigy as a form of autism spectrum disorder would actually end up derailing the development of extraordinary ability in precocious children. To be sure, some people on the autism spectrum are highly intelligent, but being highly intelligent doesn’t necessarily mean a person is on the autism spectrum. When autism is diagnosed, a relatively strict intervention program is often provided. One goal of this treatment is to diminish obsessive routines. If a child does indeed have autism, this intervention can be highly effective. But what if a child does not have autism, and is a prodigy instead? Could treatment designed for autism prevent a math prodigy from developing her unique talents when she is taught to stop “obsessing” on numbers as a cure for her “autism spectrum disorder?”
Before dismissing this notion, bear in mind that many prodigies, high achievers, and highly intelligent individuals are also notoriously noncompliant in addition to being dedicated to developing their special talents. For example, when piano virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein was a child, he smashed a violin when his parents tried to shift his “obsessive” devotion to the piano to other instruments. Would his amazing abilities as a concert pianist have been derailed if his obsession with playing the piano over and over—and his dramatic refusal to comply with requests to be less obsessive —were viewed as a symptom of autism spectrum disorder rather than natural traits of a child prodigy? Perhaps even more worrisome are recent articles implying that geniuses (and prodigies) such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton,[3, 4] Mozart, Bill Gates and many others display signs of autism. Many many geniuses were temperamental and, at times, difficult to get along with. In addition, perhaps in part because of their high intelligence, they may not necessarily be highly motivated to please teachers or parents or to complete schoolwork they find uninteresting. In his biography, Winston Churchill recalled that “My teachers saw me at once [as being] backwards and precocious, reading books beyond my years and yet at the bottom of the Form [class ranking]. They were offended. They had large resources of compulsion at their disposal, but I was stubborn. Where [whenever] my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or could not learn.” . Because there are reports that Mr. Churchill also talked late, one can not help but wonder whether his collection of precocious traits, challenging behavior, and slowed communication development would have resulted in an Autism Spectrum diagnosis in modern times. Perhaps the most devastating consequence of misguided efforts to retrospectively view high intelligence, prodigy, and high achievement as manifestations of autism spectrum disorder is the trivializing effect this has on the extensive impact that severe “classic” autism spectrum disorder often has on families. It is cruel to suggest that parents of children with autism could have somehow shaped the pervasive developmental challenges these children display into becoming the next Mozart, Einstein, Newton, or Gates if only the “right” treatment were provided early enough. This view of autism spectrum disorder also trivializes the Herculean efforts these families make to help their child learn to speak, to be in school, and to regularly cope with severe tantrums and meltdowns.
We can all applaud the efforts to identify—and treat—autism spectrum disorders as accurately, effectively, and as early as possible. But it is also vitally important that prodigy and genius not be redefined as disabilities requiring treatment—rather than unusual gifts to be nurtured.
Switched On, a new memoir by John Elder Robison, has greatly increased interest in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) as an experimental treatment for autism. We’ve asked a leading expert to weigh in on whether there’s enough science behind TMS to recommend its use outside of research studies. This week’s “Got Questions?” answer is by neuroscientist Lindsay Oberman, director of the Neuroplasticity and Autism Spectrum Disorder Program at Brown University’s Bradley Hospital, in East Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. Oberman is a pioneer in the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in the study of brain plasticity in people with autism spectrum disorder. Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s remarkable ability to modify its own structure and function. For readers who are not familiar, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is a noninvasive procedure that uses electromagnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. TMS can be used either to study or to treat neurological and mental health conditions. When a single session of TMS is applied, researchers can observe the response to the stimulation and use that information to make predictions about how the brain functions. In this way, we use TMS to study the brain. These single session studies are not intended to be therapeutic. Alternatively, when TMS is applied in repetitive stimulations over several sessions we refer to this as “repetitive TMS,” or rTMS. This technique has the ability to change the response of the brain for several weeks to months after the series of sessions. By analogy, it’s like asking someone who isn’t a musician to play a song on a piano by showing him or her some sheet music. If you did it once, that may be a way to study a person’s natural ability. But if you did this every day for six weeks (the typical schedule for therapeutic rTMS), the person might learn to play the song on the piano. In transcranial magnetic stimulation, electromagnetic fields stimulate specific regions of the brain. Image courtesy the Mayo Foundation. Two decades of TMS research For more than 20 years, researchers have been studying TMS as a potential therapy for a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions. Currently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared the use of TMS for the treatment of depression in adults who haven’t been helped by medication. FDA clearance is an important indicator that a treatment can help some patients – as demonstrated in carefully conducted clinical trials. A growing body of research suggests that TMS can likewise help relieve the symptoms of schizophrenia and improve movement rehabilitation after a stroke. However, it doesn’t yet have FDA clearance for these uses. TMS for the treatment of autism: Still in its infancy By comparison, research on TMS as a treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) remains in its infancy. A search on PubMed, for example, turns up 42 journal articles on TMS and autism. But many are either theoretical or review articles or single session research studies. Only 13 of these papers represent clinical trials, and only one was a placebo-controlled trial. (Including a comparison to a placebo, or sham treatment, is important in a study to distinguish true benefits from the effect of expectations.) Some of these clinical studies have suggested that TMS can help relieve symptoms such as irritability and repetitive behaviors and improve autism-related disabilities in areas such as eye-hand coordination and social skills. However, for the most part, these clinical studies have involved very small numbers of participants ranging from one to 27 participants. Taken together, all 13 studies involved fewer than 200 participants. Yet another limitation of our early research is that we’ve focused primarily on certain subgroups such as adult men with ASD but without either intellectual disability or epilepsy (which commonly co-occurs with autism). We’ve excluded people with epilepsy for safety reasons, and most of the early work was in adults. We’re just starting to study TMS with children. Currently, I know of three ongoing clinical trials using TMS as a treatment for ASD. These include a Canadian study looking for improvements in executive functioning with an expected enrollment of 60 adolescents and young adults with ASD. A French study is looking at possible changes in social cognition and aims to enroll around 50 adults with ASD. And a study in Israel is looking at changes in social interaction with an expected enrollment of 20 children and adolescents with ASD and intellectual disability. Caution needed Because of all these limitations, I caution against drawing conclusions from the preliminary results of the TMS studies that I and others have conducted. I know it’s easy to get overly optimistic given the media coverage and web posts about the remarkable responses some people with autism have reported after participating in a TMS study. Sometimes these reports make TMS sound like “the answer” to debilitating autism symptoms. Questions needing answers As a researcher, I want to see a number of questions answered before TMS becomes a treatment option for autism outside of a careful research study: 1. What is the appropriate dose? In other words, how long should the sessions be? How many sessions? How often? At what intensity? Like a drug study, we have to understand how much TMS is needed to lead to behavioral changes and still be safe and tolerable. Does the dose need to be scaled up or down depending on the age of the individual or other co-occurring neurological or mental conditions? 2. Where in the brain should the stimulation be applied and with what frequency? 3. What behaviors are we hoping to improve? TMS applied to a single part of the brain isn’t likely to improve all the common symptoms of autism. But it may improve specific symptoms. Currently, it’s not clear which symptoms may be more or less responsive to TMS. 4. Who may be a good candidate for TMS treatment for autism? To date, studies have largely focused on verbal adults. But TMS may have a greater impact on a younger brain. We need to conduct larger studies that enroll both verbal and nonverbal individuals and children and adults in order to begin identifying the subgroups of people who are most likely to respond to TMS. 6. Do we have clear evidence of benefit from TMS versus a placebo, or dummy treatment? Only one published study has included a blinded sham control condition. That’s where neither the researchers nor the participant know who’s getting the actual treatment and who’s getting the sham treatment until after the study is over. Therefore, it’s currently unclear how much of the effect reported in the other twelve published studies were due to a placebo effect. 8. Is it ethical to start offering TMS outside of research studies as an “off label” (not FDA-cleared) autism treatment? Insurance is unlikely to cover a treatment that’s not yet FDA cleared. But countless individuals and families may be desperate for anything that may relieve their or their loved one’s symptoms. I don’t want to see these people spend tens of thousands of dollars for a treatment that we don’t yet know will help – and might make symptoms worse. Cautious optimism Despite all the above cautions, I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t see promise for TMS as a future treatment in ASD. Quite the opposite, I continue to focus my research career in this direction. So while I can’t currently support the use of TMS as a treatment for ASD outside of a research setting, I can promise you that my colleagues and I will continue to wholeheartedly pursue research to answer the questions we’ve raised. Hopefully the end result will be a safe and effective new treatment option for individuals with ASD. In closing, I want to welcome anyone who has questions or interest in participating in our studies to contact me and my team at email@example.com. We would be happy to answer your questions.