Friday, October 12, 2012

Thanksgiving and Rat's Whiskers

Latest Autism News

Another study, this time in the journal International Journal of Health Geographics reports a connection between rainfall in the Northwestern US and autism prevalence. Their study examined “whether the county prevalence of autism in the Pacific Northwest was associated with the source of drinking water for that county and whether this relationship was dependent on the level of environmental pollutants and meteorological factors in the county….We found the previously reported relationship between precipitation and autism in a county was dependent on the amount of drinking water derived from surface sources in the county. We also found a positive association between the EPA's risk of neurological disease and autism, but this relationship was only present in warm areas.”  The lead author of this study is S.S. Hilaire, about whom I have been unable to find any information, however he is apparently part of a laboratory at African Regional Health Education Centre, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.  It is unclear why a laboratory in Nigeria is studying climate and autism in northwestern US.  The original study on this topic was by Michael Waldman, Ph.D., of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y in 2008 and reported a correlation between autism and rainfall, which was later called into question, while the present study suggests a causal relationship.  It is difficult to know what to make of this finding.  About 58% of US drinking water comes from various surface water sources.  Among the highest in the country is a section of central Oregon. Without ongoing monitoring of possible contaminants, the alleged association with autism is not very enlightening (microbes, disinfectants, organic and inorganic chemicals and radiation).

Quick Tips

Thanksgiving is around the corner and parents are beginning to think about, and sometimes dreading, Thanksgiving dinner with all the relatives, noise and chaos that goes with it. Autism Speaks Family Services has some great leads for families to consider, including Thanksgiving activities and preparing your home and relatives for understanding your child’s needs, such as that
a person with autism often needs a getaway. Its good to prepare a place before the big day. Some ideas: set up a quiet bedroom with familiar toys, videos, books or other soothing items. Add familiar or fun sensory items: a therapy ball, a mini-trampoline, or even a squeeze toy can be a terrific calming tool. If you're inviting guests who don't know your loved one with autism, it might be in everyone's best interest to prepare them. Explain any differences or quirks that might be off-putting or confusing. Suggest ideas for how best to promote positive interactions ("Jimmy really loves trains - maybe you could bring some photos of your model layout!").  Show your child pictures of what to expect based on earlier thanks givings.  Explain what will happen to your child, who will be there and where they can go for some peace and quite.  Finally, prepare an escape plan if it’s necessary to leave grandma’s house because your child’s meltdown is disrupting everything and causing too much of a rucus.

Random Thoughts

The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan organization estimates that the cost of the 2012 Presidential campaigns will be around $5.8 billion dollars.  That would be enough money to provide a year of 30 hours per week of ABA intervention services for 52,000 children with autism and get them well on their way to better lives.  I wish we could say campaign ads did as much good.

What I’m Up To

I was invited to speak at a retirement symposium for a colleague at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Ford Ebner a distinguished neuroscientist.  He is famous for studying brain plasticity using animal models, specifically rats.  He discovered that if you trim baby rats’ whiskers from birth so they never have experience “whisking” to navigate, if you later allow the whiskers to grow back, they will never recover that lost ability.  He found that there is a critical period for learning to use their whiskers to navigate which are represented on the surface of their brain by specific groups of neurons. Once the neurons are lost because of disuse, they can’t learn normal “whisking” to navigate. Using those nerve cells spares them and creates distinct areas of the brain devoted to navigating by using their bristly little whiskers. This photo shows discrete brain cortical areas devoted to each whisker, which is pretty amazing.  That seems to be the basis of the same process in children with autism, who have a critical period between about 1 and 5-7 years to learning language and social skills.  That’s what I’ll be talking about on November 3rd, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, “What do Ford’s Rat’s Whiskers Have to Do With Kids with Autism?”

Autism Treatment Website

For those of you who don't regularly read my Autism Treatment website, this week's update includes a wonderful article written by Diane Lento from Oradell, NJ, about her daughter Kate's 21st birthday celebration.  She tells a moving tale of a series of challenges and finally finding a terrific school based on behavior analytic principles, Institute for Educational Achievement, under the Direction of Dr. Dawn Townsend.  It's a wonderful story.  There is also an article about growing awareness of elopement by kids on the autism conducted by a group at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Over half of kids on the spectrum go off on their own at one time or the other and are in danger.  Check it out, there are other goodies as well.  

Quote of the Week

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin, who entered Cambridge University in 1825 this week. 

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