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Autism spectrum disorder update – Part two

| June 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) becomes apparent in children within the first three years of life and affects the young brain’s normal development of social, communication and other skills.

In late March 2014, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) released its latest ASD survey, showing a 30% jump in eight-year-olds diagnosed with ASD since 2008.1 However, said the survey authors and other scientists, this does not mean that more children are contracting ASD, but rather that more children are being identified.

ASD students excluded

The United Kingdom-based charity Ambitious about Autism (AAA) agrees,2 and has released new data of its own. About four in 10 children in the UK with ASD are being excluded from school on a regular basis in one way or another, says the charity. AAA has called upon the British government to step up its protection of ASD and other special needs children, who are missing out on excursions and activities and even, in some cases, lessons. Forty per cent of parents interviewed for the AAA survey said that over the last year they had been called by schools to either fetch their children early or to keep their children at home. UK schools have a legal obligation to educate all children equally, but the report – part of a larger ‘Ruled Out’ campaign – found that about 60% of UK teachers and administrators feel underequipped when it came to caring for ASD students.

Tips for teachers

For schools that include ASD children, authors Brenda Smith Myles and Amy Bixler Coffin, writing for online magazine The Conversation, have useful tips.3 Each institution should provide a ‘home base’ where students with special needs can go to escape stress and regain control. Home base is a positive environment that should feature routinely in the school day. Teachers should not overemphasise the importance of handwriting with ASD students. Tablets and other digital devices can help here. Teachers should also help students to become as organised as possible, and to create routines that reinforce stability and familiarity. Just as with any child, the key to keeping an ASD student engaged and happy is to focus on a student’s skills. “Testing content before it is taught allows the teacher to find out the student’s strengths and weaknesses. The student can then take part in activities that explore their talents in greater depth,” suggest Myles and Coffin. And above all, say the two experts, teachers need to be aware of changing circumstances, and be flexible enough to deal with them.

Cut the chloride

As teachers find new ways to work with children, scientists around the world report new possibilities. Yehezkel Ben-Ari of the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm)4 heads a team that has discovered that high salt levels present in the nerve cells of newborn babies could trigger the onset of the disorder. In utero, foetuses need high chloride levels, but these are quickly lowered during delivery, controlled by oxytocin, the hormone released by the mother during labour. “Chloride levels during delivery are determinants of the occurrence of autism spectrum disorder,” proclaimed Ben-Ari in the journal Science.

The study strengthened other French research done in 2012, during which 50 ASD children aged between three and 11 years were given the diuretic drug bumetanide, which made them expel excess chloride ions in their urine. Their autistic symptoms improved during the treatment, Ben-Ari said. The experts may soon have other important clues about ASD and its causes. In Seattle, USA, at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, scientists are busy compiling an atlas of the brain.5 The latest addition is a new map of the human brain in utero. Scientists are zooming in on the neocortex, the seat of higher cognitive functioning, using a DNA microarray to measure gene activity at different stages of foetal development. This powerful tool suggests that genes active in ASDdiagnosed individuals are ‘switched on’ in the womb.

Less lipstick

And at York University in Toronto, Canada, a team has uncovered dangerous links between lipids – specifically ceramides, palmitic acids and cholesterol, used as anti-ageing agents in cosmetics – and ASD.6 Using real-time imaging microscopy, the scientists have discovered that the brain lipid called Prostaglandin E2 can change the behaviour of neural stem cells, affecting early embryonic development. The findings caused researcher Dorota Crawford – who headed up the study – to reassert the argument that the environment plays a significant factor in pregnant women and their unborn babies when it comes to the cause of ASD.

Camel cure

Anecdotal evidence of all kinds continues to play a strong role in the way that many parents are handling children with ASD. Two American mothers swear by camel milk sourced from the Middle East. Christina Adams and Zeba Khan reported their findings to Autism United Arab Emirates. In 2005, Adams published A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention and Recovery,7 documenting her challenges in dealing with her son’s severe ASD symptoms, which included food intolerances and allergies, skin problems, auditory processing delay, expressive/receptive language delay and constipation. Then she heard about camel milk and its alleged restorative properties. It took Adams until 2007 to get through all the red tape and secure a prescription for frozen camel milk. It costs her US$2 000 per shipment. “The rest,” she said, “is history.” “The morning after my son ingested camel milk, he demonstrated astonishing improvement in behaviour including eye contact, communication and emotional expression,” documented Adams in the November 2013 edition of Global Advances in Health and Medicine.8 Khan also raves about the benefits of camel milk for ASD children. Other parents in similar situations, however, report no improvements.

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4. See, for example: institute-of-health-and-medical-research.
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7. Adams, C. (2005) A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention and Recovery. New York City: Berkley Trade.
8. See:

Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2014

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