Tag: kids

Allergists Encourage Parents of Food Allergic Kids to Recognize Their Own Anxiety

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Transferring knowledge of food allergies, not fear, to children is crucial

A new article in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the scientific journal of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) discusses the difficulties faced by parents of children with food allergies in not transferring their own anxieties to their children.

“Food allergies are scary for both parents and children, which is why it’s important for parents to offer fact-based strategies in order to not increase their child’s concerns” says researcher Lisa Lombard, PhD, lead author of the article. “According to the allergists we interviewed, thoughtful and balanced communication and having credible information to share with your child go a long way toward helping your child with food allergies cope with their fears.”

Researchers conducted interviews with six board-certified allergists who treat a high volume of children with food allergies. The goal of the interviews was, in part, to get the allergists’ perspectives on the major factors contributing to elevated anxiety in food allergic patients.

“The allergists said the major factors contributing to elevated anxiety in kids with food allergies included fear of the epinephrine auto-injector needle, fear of anaphylaxis and apprehension about participating in oral food challenges or oral immunotherapy,” said Ruchi Gupta, MD, ACAAI member and study co-author. “They also said that although allergic reactions and epinephrine can be scary and disruptive, those experiences were often opportunities for positive coping. For example, successfully using epinephrine can bring a sense of relief after the unknown is faced.”

The allergists noted that with younger children in particular, the child might not be especially anxious, but the parents are. They also said that food challenges – where small amounts of a food a child might be allergic to are introduced in increasingly larger amounts – are an opportunity for families to lessen their fear of the unknown.

“Because children take cues from their parents, and their level of anxiety often reflects their parents’ level of anxiety, parents need to recognize how they’re communicating with their children about food allergies,” says Dr. Gupta. “The allergists interviewed told us they sometimes have parents come in for counseling without the child because doing so helps them take care of the child and the family at the same time. One allergist suggested parents use reassuring dialogue like ‘we’ll get through this’ with their kids rather than expressing their own anxiety of fear.”

Allergists are specially trained to test for, diagnose and treat food allergies. To find an allergist near you who can help create a personal plan to deal with your food allergies, and help you live your best life, use the ACAAI allergist locator.

About ACAAI

The ACAAI is a professional medical organization of more than 6,000 allergists-immunologists and allied health professionals, headquartered in Arlington Heights, Ill. The College fosters a culture of collaboration and congeniality in which its members work together and with others toward the common goals of patient care, education, advocacy and research. ACAAI allergists are board-certified physicians trained to diagnose allergies and asthma, administer immunotherapy, and provide patients with the best treatment outcomes. For more information and to find relief, visit AllergyandAsthmaRelief.org. Join us on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

Signs of Autism

Levels of autism in China

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Joint Chinese-UK study shows Levels similar to the West

The first large-scale study of autism in China has revealed that around one in a hundred people in the country has an autism spectrum condition – the same figure as found in the West.

The research was carried out by an international team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, UK, and the China Disabled Persons’ Federation and Chinese University of Hong Kong. It is the result of an international partnership launched in 2013.

Autism spectrum conditions – which include autism and Asperger’s syndrome – are characterised by impairments in social interaction and communication, alongside the presence of unusually repetitive behaviour and narrow interests, difficulties adjusting to unexpected change, and sensory hyper-sensitivity.

Autism was first described in Western cultures, and only later recognised in Asian countries. Around one in 100 school age children in the UK is autistic, but autism prevalence in China has been reported to be lower than in the West. The reasons for this difference are that most studies in China have only included the special school population, overlooking the mainstream school population; and that most studies in China have not used validated and reliable screening and diagnostic methods.

“Understanding the prevalence of autism is important because of its relevance to planning services to support those living with the condition, as well as their families,” said Professor Carol Brayne from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge (ARC) added: “We need to study autism outside Western populations, since most of the research to date has only been carried out in the West. This collaboration with colleagues in China is so valuable to help us understand what is universal and what is culture-specific in autism research.”

To address the gap in understanding autism in China, the researchers tested the total autism prevalence in mainstream and special schools in Jilin City, and mainstream school autism prevalence in Jiamusi and Shenzhen cities. They screened children aged 6 to 10?years old in the three cities using the Childhood Autism Screening Test (or CAST), a 37-item questionnaire, completed by parents, and developed and validated by the Cambridge team. The questionnaire gives a score of 0 to 31, and children scoring 15 or above were then given a clinical assessment. The results are published in the journal Molecular Autism.

In Jilin City, from a total population of 7,258, the team identified 77 cases of autism, equating to a prevalence of 108 per 10,000, very similar to that found in the West.

In Shenzhen and Jiamusi cities, only data for children in mainstream education was available; in Shenzhen City, 42 out of every 10,000 children in mainstream education had autism, and in Jiamusi City this figure was 19 per 10,000. In all three cities, the researchers identified new cases of autism in mainstream schools, confirming that there is under-diagnosis of autism in China.

“Contrary to previous studies, we have shown that the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions in China is in line with that found in the West,” said Dr Sophia Xiang Sun, who conducted this study as part of her PhD at Cambridge University and who is now based in the Star Kay Bridge Research Centre for Children with Autism in Xiamen, China.

Professor Patrick Leung, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “Previous research into the autism spectrum in China has mainly focused on the most severe subtype, childhood autism. We have been able to use a standardised screening methodology, allowing us to compare the results with Western countries to show that autism occurs broadly at the same rate, irrespective of culture.”

Dr Carrie Allison, from the Cambridge Autism Research Centre, commented: “Completing this study with colleagues in China has been nothing short of remarkable. It has involved translating Western autism screening instruments into Chinese, training Chinese clinicians in autism diagnosis, and working with national Chinese agencies, screening in three Chinese cities.”

Professor Fiona Matthews, the statistician on the Cambridge team and now based in Newcastle University, noted: “A strength of this study is the near universal response rate that is possible in China, which we rarely achieve in the West, making the epidemiology far more representative.”

The research was funded by the Autism Research Trust, the NIHR CLAHRC for East of England, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and the Medical Research Council UK.

Black Children Tend to be Diagnosed with Autism Later than White Children

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The rate of diagnosis for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is the same among all racial groups — one in 110, according to current estimates. However, a study by a Florida State University researcher has found that African-American children tend to be diagnosed later than white children, which results in a longer and more intensive intervention. The reasons for later diagnoses include a lack of access to quality, affordable, culturally competent health care, according to Martell Teasley, an associate professor in Florida State’s College of Social Work who has conducted a comprehensive review of researchliterature on autism and African-American children. In addition, the stigmaattached to mental health conditions within the black community contribute to misdiagnoses of autism, and underuse of available treatment services.

“There are no subjective criteria for diagnosing autism. Only brain scans can truly provide appropriate diagnoses, because we are dealing with biological and chemical imbalances in the brain,” Teasley said. “Not every child is going to have access to this kind of medical evaluation, particularly those who are indigent and don’t have health care funding.”

Teasley examined ASD diagnosis and treatment strategies, and their effect on African-American families, in “Autism and the African-American Community,” a paper published in a special issue of the journal Social Work in Public Health (Vol. 26, Issue 4, 2011) that dealt with health-care policy issues in the black community related to the human genome.

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Associate Professor in Florida State’s College of Social Work

Teasley co-wrote the paper with Ruby Gourdine, a professor of social work at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Tiffany Baffour, an associate professor of social work at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Because of the social stigma, Teasley says that some African-American families might be resistant to accept a diagnosis and treatment. “Less discussion about autism among African-Americans or between African-Americans and health care providers leads to misdiagnoses, a lack of treatment and a lack of services,” Teasley said.

“This will lead to greater challenges for families — more stress and anxiety, and poorer developmental outcomes.” African-Americans also might resist a diagnosis and treatment because of a mistrust of mainstream health care providers over past discrimination. “African-Americans are well versed in going to a doctor who might have biases or discriminatory practices, so they may not readily accept what a doctor says,” Teasley said. In addition, a cultural divide between African-Americans and mainstream health care providers can hinder a timely and correct diagnosis.

“There are not enough health care professionals who understand the cultural norms and attributes of the African-American community,” Teasley said. African-Americans live in all types of settings, but the majority live in urban areas, which have seen a decline in the number of mental-health care agencies since the 1980s. “This lack of accessibility causes a problem for some African-Americans,” Teasley said. Once a child is diagnosed with ASD, Teasley says both the child and the members of his or her family needs to receive appropriate training and counseling. “The children need behavioral counseling so they can develop the skills to live as independently as possible,” he said. “The families need to learn how to work with children who are autistic. “Intervention for any autistic child needs to start around age 3, so we can get the child to begin to learn how to eat right and develop normal, healthy routines, which will result in a better developmental outcome,” Teasley said. “Later intervention will result in a poorer developmental outcome that can have a lasting impact on the child’s and family’s quality of life.”

Martell Teasley, College of Social Work(850) 644-9595; mteasley@fsu.edu

Kids with autism develop life skills through dance

A University of Delaware team uses dance to teach social communication skills to children with autism.

A study at the University of Delaware is exploring how dance can help kids with autism enhance their social communication skills as well as their motor skills.

Protecting kids from risky drinking

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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Many parents permit their adolescent children to drink alcohol, believing this helps teach them responsible use and avoids the appeal of ‘forbidden fruit’. In research studies, greater parental permissibility for alcohol has been linked to earlier and heavier drinking in adolescence. However, it is not clear whether parents allowing adolescents to drink is itself to blame, or if this kind of permissibility is simply a marker for other factors (relating to the family, parents or child) that increase the risk of problem alcohol use among adolescents. For example, parents’ own heavy drinking, family sociodemographics, and adolescents’ friends’ use of alcohol can all affect the likelihood of alcohol misuse among adolescents, and each of these risk factors might also be underlying causes of parents allowing drinking. In a new report published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from Pennsylvania State University have used intergenerational data from a contemporary UK study to examine whether parents allowing adolescents to drink is itself associated with risky drinking in adolescence, beyond other such risk factors.

The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) has collected data from over eleven thousand parents and children from infancy through to 14 years, using regular interviews. Children were asked questions about their alcohol use when they were aged 11 and 14 years; the data showed that by age 14, half had drunk more than a few sips of alcohol, around 10% had drunk heavily, and 3% had drunk heavily at least 3 times in the past year. Seven percent had made a rapid transition to heavy drinking, defined as escalating to having at least five drinks at a time, within a year of having their first drink.  

Parents of 14-year olds were asked if they permitted their child to use alcohol, with about 16% of parents indicating that they did allow this. Using a series of statistical analyses, the researchers found that these teenagers faced an elevated risk of heavy alcohol use at age 14, even after accounting for a large host of other risk factors measured earlier when children were age 11. Specifically, children who were permitted to drink alcohol had over twice the odds of engaging in heavy or frequent heavy drinking by age 14, and almost double the risk of a rapid transition to heavy drinking, than those whose parents did not permit alcohol use.

These findings do not support the idea that allowing children to drink alcohol inoculates them against alcohol misuse, and will help to target prevention and screening efforts to reduce underage drinking. However, the researchers note that because adolescent heavy drinking and parental permissiveness about alcohol were measured at the same point in the survey (at around age 14), the findings represent an association rather than cause and effect; further research will be needed to establish whether parental permissiveness leads to adolescent heavy drinking, or whether adolescent drinking over time leads parents to become more permissive.

Parents Allowing Drinking is Associated with Adolescents’ Heavy Alcohol Use. J. Staff, J. Maggs (pages xxx).

ACER-19-4039.R1

Bullying children with autism

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BINGHAMTON, NY – Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to experience bullying than children without ASD and this bullying gets worse with age, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Hannah Morton, a graduate student in the clinical psychology PhD program at Binghamton University, aimed to conceptualize bullying in children with ASD in order to specifically identify different bullying and behavior types. Her research also emphasizes the need to establish better definitions of bullying behaviors.

“This research is important because it contributes to our understanding of how bullying is nuanced,” said Morton. “This variability means it is crucial to establish a definition for bullying and have standard assessments to know when and what types of bullying are occurring.”

Morton, along with Binghamton psychologists Jennifer Gillis, Richard Mattson and Raymond Romanczyk, focused this study on teachers and parents of children with ASD, and community members without an ASD child. Participants took a survey containing 80 scenarios of interactions between two school-aged children. The scenarios varied from children ages four to fifteen. Sixty-four of these scenarios contained a type of bullying behavior (i.e. physical, verbal, interpersonal and cyber). The participants were randomly presented with 16 scenarios, and were asked to rate the severity of the interaction between the two children, as well as indicate which types of bullying were present.

Results showed that a child’s increased age predicted higher bullying severity ratings. The findings also showed that bullying among older children with ASD is viewed as especially problematic by their parents, and that perceived bullying severity differed according to the type of bullying behavior (i.e., physical, verbal, interpersonal, and cyber). 

“This paper emphasizes that bullying is a really broad construct,” said Morton. “What any two people might be referring to when they use the term ‘bullying’—regardless if they are parents, teachers, researchers, etc.— likely differs, and perhaps in subtle ways.”

Morton plans to further her research on this topic by focusing specifically on the bullying behaviors that children with ASD experience compared to children without ASD.

This research was conducted through Binghamton University’s Institute for Child Development, which offers early intervention services, speech services and more to children and families in the Binghamton region. 

The paper, “Conceptualizing bullying in children with autism spectrum disorder: Using a mixed model to differentiate behavior types and identify predictors,” was published in Autism.

A super tool helps kids with autism improve socialization skills

A team of NIH-funded researchers at Stanford University Medical School has found that children with autism improved measurably on a test of socialization and learning when their therapy included an at-home intervention with Google Glass. Google Glass is a headset worn like eyeglasses that provides augmented reality on a miniature screen, with sound. The smart system of eye wear and mobile-phone-based games helped the children with autism understand emotions conveyed in facial expressions.

Autism is a complex neurological and developmental spectrum disorder that affects how children interact with others, communicate, and learn. Many children affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unable to discern facial expressions, so miss out on important cues that aid in learning and socialization.

The Stanford team, led by Dennis P. Wall, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Biomedical Data Sciences, used Google Glass’s built-in camera along with software customized to run on a smart phone as an intervention that care givers used with their children at home to supplement clinic-based therapy.  The study was published March 25, 2019, in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Technology can be a terrific asset to the therapy process, for both physical and neurodevelopmental gains,” said Tiffani Lash, Ph.D., director of the NIBIB programs in Connected Health (mHealth and Telehealth), and Point-of-Care Technologies. “This is a heartwarming achievement and a promising example using a bioengineering approach. The innovative software and hardware solution coupled with the therapeutic component meets a dire need for many children and their parents.”

Google Glass is lens-less, non-invasive, and peripheral—sitting off to the right side of view for the child. “The system acts as a true augmentation to their reality, keeping them in their natural social world, as opposed to taking them out of it,” Wall said. “In contrast to virtual or mixed reality, augmented reality is potentially a powerful vehicle through which we can teach children social skills to rescue some of these deficits early in their development.”

A camera in the device captures the facial expression of family members in the glasses’ field of view, reinforcing what the child sees by providing an image and audio prompt. It detects up to eight emotions: happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, disgusted, “meh,” and neutral. The glasses are wirelessly connected to a smartphone device that may be operated in three different play modes. There is ‘find the smile’ game, where the child is prompted to say something that prompts an expression in the family member’s face; the ‘guess the emotion’ game, where the family member asks the child to guess the emotion from the family member’s face; and free play, an unstructured mode of identifying facial expressions.

The device also records a video that parents can observe at a later time to monitor the progress that their child makes with the activities. “Our hope was that the video playback would be a good source of reinforcement learning with the children,” Wall said. “It provides the opportunity for the learner to focus in on certain human emotions that they may or may not be getting right, so they might become more adept at detecting those emotions in real time.”

The researchers recruited 71 children between the ages of six and 12 who all had been enrolled in a program of applied behavioral analysis therapy—the standard care for most children with ASD. Experts recommend 20 hours per week of the standard therapy, in which the child interacts with a therapist who leads learning activities to improve social, motor, and verbal behaviors, as well as reasoning skills through observation and positive reinforcement. The authors cite the current cost for this standard therapy to be between $40,000 and $60,000 per year, noting that parents can often wait up to 18 months for their child to gain access to the therapy.

Experts suggest that it is important for children with ASD to receive a diagnosis early—which can be assessed by the age of two—so that children can begin treatment as early as possible. According to the authors, learning aids such as the type tested in the study could begin to address this difficult challenge of accessing therapy more immediately, outside the clinic.

Of the 71 enrolled in the study, 40 children also received the augmented reality device to play the programmed games or freely play during 20-minutes sessions, four times per week. After six weeks, the team assessed all 71 children on a standard socialization scale.

The researchers found that children receiving the smart-glasses intervention along with standard therapy scored significantly better in the post-study assessment than those in the control group. Children who used the smart glasses improved 4.58 points on the standard scale above those who did not use the Google Glass intervention. Authors unrelated to the work by Wall and colleagues recently published in Autism Research that changes of 2 to 3.75 points on the scale represent a clinically important difference.

“This is based on a statistically rigorous approach to the analysis of the data,” Wall said. “We should be excited about the result. While the overall effect is modest, the positive change seen in the treated children is significant and points to a new direction that could help more children get the care they need, when they need it.”

Wall noted that the device represents a short-term learning aid and predicts that in the not-too-distant-future there will be a wider array of available augmented reality wearables. “After a period of time, they take the glasses off and they grow on their own into more complex social scenarios.”

Though a playful intervention, families in the treatment group missed a portion of the prescribed hours in which to practice with Google Glass, and most preferred the structured games over the unstructured free-play option. But the activity was positively received to the point that children who participated in the study created a new name for the tool, calling it Superpower Glass, a moniker the authors adopted in writing their report on the study. The researchers have begun to plan for a larger, follow up study.

For more about autism spectrum disorder, go to: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/in…

The research was conducted with support from NIBIB (EB025025) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD091500), both at NIH.

The study: Effect of Wearable Digital Intervention for Improving Socialization in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Voss C, Schwartz J, Daniels J, Kline A, Haber N, Washington P, Tariq Q, Robinson TN, Desai M, Phillips JM, Feinstein C, Winograd T, Wall DP. JAMA Pediatrics. 2019 Mar 25

Jurassic fossil

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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.

“Essentially, the 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’

This 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.

“Now 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

Luo 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.

“Hyoids 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 tree-dwellers.

“Its limb bones are as thin as matchsticks, and yet this tiny Mesozoic mammal still lived an active life in trees,” Neander said.

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.

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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).

Autism Study Stresses Importance of Communicating with All Infants

Photo by Zoltan Tasi

Language Skills Can Benefit from Parents’ Early Support, Interactions.

University of Texas at Dallas

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.

“You 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.

She said 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.

“How do 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.

The 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 with autism.

“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.”

Correcting the misunderstanding of parents’ influence in autism has been a gradual fight against outdated conceptions, Swanson said.

“When parents 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 months.

“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 autism diagnosis.”

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 campus.

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 success.”

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.

“Parents 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.