Archive for the ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)’ Category

Virtual conversation simulator beneficial for adults with autism

Thursday, May 19th, 2011 by admin

Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. recently published a study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking that investigated the effectiveness of a virtual conversation simulator in enhancing the conversational integrity of adults with autism.

A hallmark of autism is a degree of difficulty in communicating with other individuals, particularly in social interactions that require insight into and awareness of non-verbal conversational clues.  Many individuals with autism have normal intelligence levels but struggle with social situations.  Doctors from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and SIMmersion LLC in Columbia, Maryland, engaged adults with autism in a virtual conversation simulation program.  The prototypical program was designed to assess the value of such a program for individuals, specifically adults, with autism (ScienceDaily).

The study’s participants included 12 adolescents and adults with autism.  These individuals engaged in a virtual conversation simulator with an onscreen partner designed to replication realistic feedback triggered by the participant’s conversation responses (Trapgnier, C.Y., Olsen, D.E., Boteler, L., & Bell, C.A., 2011).  After two weeks, the participants were asked to use a Likert-type scale to rate the degree to which they found the simulator beneficial.  Study participants rated the simulator as highly beneficial.

One of the particular deficits associated with autism is the ability to understand and utilize pragmatic language, specifically elements of pragmatic language that often arise during conversations.  The researchers’ prototype rated individuals on their ability to manipulate, maintain and pleasantly conclude conversations on various topics, not just the participant’s preferred topics (Trapgnier, C.Y., Olsen, D.E., Boteler, L., & Bell, C.A., 2011).  This initial prototype for a virtual conversation simulator program supports the development of a more sophisticated program to investigate the degree to which virtual conversation simulators actually improve upon the pragmatic language skills of individuals with ASD.

Camp Academia, Inc. offers tutoring services for students with learning disabilities, and is particularly successful with individuals with ASD.  Camp Academia, Inc. has offices in Columbus and LaGrange, Georgia, and utilizes BrainJogging, its patented cognitive processing software.

Trepagnier, C.Y., Olsen, D.E., Boteler, L., and Bell, C.A. (2011). Virtual conversation partner for adults with autism [Abstract]. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 21(7).

Personal testimonial from the grandfather of a child with autism

Thursday, May 12th, 2011 by admin

Riley was diagnosed with autism and is completely nonverbal. He was five years old when his parents approached Camp Academia, Inc.  Riley’s family lives overseas and discovered Camp Academia, Inc. online.  Prior to being introduced to Brainjogging, Riley manifested various adverse behaviors: spitting on things and polishing them; compulsively doing crunches; climbing on furniture; standing directly in front of the television or washing machine and refusing to be moved; and failing to show interest in personal relationships, among other habits.

After spending several weeks with Camp Academia, Inc., Riley and his family returned home. Riley’s grandfather sent a letter to Camp Academia, Inc. two months after leaving LaGrange and settling back into a home routine.  One weekend, Riley went to his grandparents’ house.  Following the visit, his grandfather sent a letter to Camp Academia, Inc., outlining various changes in Riley’s behavior.  The following are excerpts from Riley’s grandfather’s letter.  Please note that the excerpts have been edited for grammatical consistency and protection of personal identity, but have not been otherwise altered.

Riley’s behavior actually changed…
As you are aware Riley had built up a lot of “habits” in his behavior and initially this was what gave us the clue some 4 years ago that perhaps he was autistic and we brought this up with Riley’s pediatrician. It was not about what he should be doing it was about what he was doing when he came to our house or we took him out that we brought up with the pediatrician. There has been a big change in regards to the habits Riley had 2 months ago.

Riley’s actions reflected personal investment in relationships…
When his dad left, there were a lot of tears and crying as Riley saw his dad get in his car and go. Riley was deeply upset. Prior to [Brainjogging], Riley would never have given a darn who came and went and had absolutely no interest in what other people were doing, only what he was doing at the time.

Riley’s grandfather was able to engage him in a bedtime activity…
I read his first story to him that night in bed.  Previously, he would show absolutely no interest and would want to play with the light switch, jump on the bed or anything other than lie there and listen and look at the pictures. Actually, he went to sleep as I read. He really likes the repeating ABC song and wanted to hear it the next morning after he had got out of bed and was dressed.

Riley now understands instructions and takes “no” for an answer …
Riley liked to jump, swing and clamber on side tables and do lots of things on the bed. Now this is minimal. Sure, he has a bounce or two, but not for 20 minutes. Riley accepts a no and stopped [jumping on the bed] when he first started to do it on his visit.

Riley desired to communicate with others …
I saw and heard Riley telling his dad about the day, making all sorts of sounds. None of them intelligible, just a lot of excited noises that went on and on, but clearly he was pleased to see his dad and was, in his way, telling his dad about the day and making Luke sit in the one spot whilst this went on.

Even over a short span of time, Riley’s behavioral changes were evident …
We had him just overnight and these were all the changes we saw and we thought we would share these with you about the progress we see happening.  We are both thrilled at what is happening to our boy.

Individuals with ASD keep up with vanishing ball

Friday, January 14th, 2011 by admin

Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterized by social deficits, among other things. Accurately reading and understanding facial expressions is difficult for individuals on the spectrum.  Reading and understanding facial expressions is key in social situations, but also required for magic tricks that require misdirection, or the magician’s encouraging audience members to watch his or her face while he or she completes the “magic” with his or her hands. Click here to see an example of an amateur magician demonstrating the vanishing ball trick.

Magicians rely heavily on misdirection, on drawing attention to one place to detract from the “magic” occurring elsewhere.  Audiences watch the magicians’ face and are either taken in by his expression or they aren’t, depending on the degree to which they attend to the magician’s face rather than his hands.  Researchers at Brunel University hypothesized that “people with autism should be less susceptible to such social manipulation,” as they are less susceptible to social cues, and be less likely to be taken by a magic trick (Science Daily).

For the purposes of this study, 15 teenagers with autism and 16 without autism watched a video of a magician performing a “vanishing-ball illusion,” in which a magician tosses a ball into the air a few times and, on the last throw, merely makes a tossing motion and looks upward, as though following the ball’s trajectory, while the ball is actually hidden safely in his hand.  Subjects were asked to watch the video of this trick and then mark where they last saw the ball on a frozen image of the magician.  The ball actually last appeared in the magician’s hand, as he never threw it into the air on the last “throw,” but many subjects, including those with autism, marked a position higher up on the screen, as though the ball were ascending or descending.

Gustav Kuhn, in the Visual Cognition Lab at Brunel, is a study author with Anastasia Kourkoulou and Susan R. Leekam.  Kuhn stated the group “strongly suspected that individuals with autism should be using the social cues less than typically developing individuals” and that these individuals with autism would be more likely to watch the ball rather than the magician’s face.  In actuality, the people with autism “were much more likely to think the magician had thrown the ball.”  Kuhn suggested that this may be because the test subjects with autism are all students at a special college for autism and may have been trained to rely on social cues.  However, when Kuhn inspected where the individuals with autism fixed their eyes, he realized that, “like normally-developing people, they looked first at the magician’s face – but their eyes took longer to fix there.”  Additionally, the individuals with autism “had more trouble fixing their eyes on the ball.”

Kuhn hopes to repeat the experiment with children on the spectrum, as they may have had less coaching in attending to social cues.

Trait markers, state markers and compensatory activity in ASD

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011 by admin

Autism is strongly genetic and highly prevalent.  Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by “impaired social interaction and communication, and can disrupt the brain’s ability to interpret the movements of other people, known as ‘biological motion'” (Science Daily).  Interpreting others’ motions feeds into the social impairment associated with ASD; if individuals cannot interpret motion or read into the significance of those motions, they cannot understand these motions’ implications.Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify brain activity that “may characterize the genetic vulnerability to developing ASD.”  In order to identify this genetic vulnerability, and potential means of overcoming this vulnerability, researchers scanned the brains of children with autism and their unaffected siblings, in addition to typically developing children’s brains, as the groups “watched animations of biological movement.” The team identified three “‘neural signatures': trait markers – brain regions with reduced activity in children with ASD and their unaffected siblings; state markers – brain areas with reduced activity found only in children with autism; and compensatory activity – enhanced activity seen only in unaffected siblings.” The enhanced activity exhibited by siblings of individuals with ASD may provide insight into the ways in which one sibling overcomes genetic vulnerability to the disorder.

Brainjogging increases brain activity by facilitating the growth of new neurons and more expedient communication between these neurons.  Individuals with ASD have atypical brain activity; Brainjogging increases these individuals’ brain activity, bringing it up to a more typical level.

Targeting social deficits in ASD

Friday, December 31st, 2010 by admin

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by three core deficits: difficulty with communication, issues with repetitive behaviors (stimming) and social competence.  Researchers at the University of Missouri are developing a social competence curriculum with a virtual classroom component, designed to facilitate disorder-specific assistance.

Stichter’s team developed this curriculum in an after-school formant; it is now being tested during the school day.  Stichter’s curriculum focuses on specific needs and behavioral traits within the autism spectrum.

Stichter says, “At MU, we’ve worked to develop intervention to meet specific needs, similar to a medical model for treating cancer: doctors don’t use one treatment model for all forms of cancer.”

Stichter’s curriculum will help insure that doctors do not treat all forms of ASD with a single treatment model, either.  Her curriculum almost enitrely focuses on social competence, as the ability to communicate effectively helps children achieve in the classroom and in the workplace.  Because high-functioning children on the autism spectrum tend to struggle with “determining and managing goals, understanding others’ feelings and regulating emotions,[…] Stichter’s curriculum focuses the student on recognizing facial expressions, sharing ideas, taking turns, exploring feelings and emotions and problem-solving” (Science Daily).  Strengthening these skills will significantly increase students’ social competency, thereby affecting not only their social lives, but also their overall educational experience.

Controlling the brain’s control center

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 by admin

A new Queen’s University study suggests that “impulsive behaviour can be improved with training and the improvement is marked by specific brain changes” (Science Daily).  PhD student Scott Hayton believes he has “pinpointed the area of the brain that controls impulsive behaviour and the mechanisms that affect how impulsive behaviour is learned” (Science Daily).

Mr. Hayton’s research was prompted by a desire to understand how students learn to hold their tongues and wait until being called on by teachers instead of blurting out answers.  Mr. Hayton explained, “We wanted to know how this type of learning occurs in the brain.  Our research basically told us where the memory for this type of inhibition is in the brain, and how it is encoded.”

Mr. Hayton and his team “trained rats to control impulsive responses until a signal was presented” (Science Daily).  As the rats learned to control their impulses, the electrical signals between cells in their brains’ frontal lobes grew stronger.  The significance of this experiment lies in the fact that as cells communicate more effectively, the brain grows more able to control impulses, indicating that humans’ brains, too, can be trained to better communicate and thereby more successfully control impulsiveness.

ADD/ADHD, in addition to addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder and gambling, is marked by impulsiveness.  The study’s principal investigator, Professor Cella Olmstead, explained that “children who have difficulty learning to control a response often have behavioral problems which continue into adulthood.”  Ideally, early intervention would train individuals’ brains to communicate more efficiently.  This increase in processing speed and efficiency would simultaneously decrease the chance of not being able to control impulsivity.

Brainjogging trains individuals’ brains by building new neurons and strengthening communication between existing neurons by continuously calling on brain circuits to communicate information.  The repetitive nature of Brainjogging’s exercises actually “work out” the brain’s neurons, making them more efficient in the same way that “working out” by lifting weights strengthens muscle groups.  By increasing students’ brains’ communication and strengthening the neurons in their frontal lobes, Brainjogging teaches students to control impulsiveness, which is particularly important for students with ADD/ADHD or the obsessive compulsive qualities sometimes associated with ASD.

ASD, proprioception and poor handwriting – what is the link?

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 by admin

[This post is a followup of yesterday’s post, entitled “ASD and handwriting problems.” Please click here to read “ASD and handwriting problems.”]

Another study conducted by the KKI and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, published in Nature Neuroscience and recently documented on this blog (click here for the relevant post) suggested that children with ASD “learn new actions differently than do typically developing children” (Science Daily).  Dr. Mostofsky, of the KKI, concluded that “children with autism relied much more on their own internal sense of body position (proprioception), rather than visual information coming from the external world to learn new patterns of movement” (Science Daily).

It seems that the handwriting deficits demonstrated by children with ASD may persist into teen years and adulthood because handwriting skills were initially developed by relying on proprioception rather than visual cues.  This would explain the atypical letter formation characteristic of individuals on the spectrum.  Dr. Mostofsky’s study suggested that targeting visuo-motor skills in children with autism would enhance and perhaps encourage greater reliance on visual cues.Brainjogging encourages reliance on visual cues!  Brainjogging targets the eyes and focuses on enhancing visuo-motor skills.  Perhaps Brainjogging’s targeted visuo-motor intervention will correct neurological abnormalities that encourage proprioception, which seems to lead to poor handwriting.  If corrected in childhood, these neurological abnormalities may be eliminated or at least reduced so that older individuals show greater reliance on visual cues, which may very well lead to their forming more typical letters.

ASD and handwriting problems

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 by admin

In November of 2009, Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) researchers conducted the first study on handwriting quality in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  The study confirmed that handwriting is a real problem for individuals with autism.  Children with autism struggle to form letters correctly, although their “size, alignment and spacing… [is] comparable to typically developing children” (KKI).  The root cause, as identified by KKI researchers, was fine motor control.  The study compared “handwriting samples, motor skills and visuospatial abilities of children with ASD to typically developing children” (KKI).A subsequent study, conducted in November 2010 and published in the 16 November 2010 of Neurology, suggests that handwriting problems in children with ASD continue into teen years (ages 12 to 16).  Two groups, each consisting of 12 individuals with ASD or unaffected by the disorder, were examined.  The group of adolescents with ASD exhibited “poor handwriting and motor skill impairments when compared to typically developing peers” (KKI).  However, in the adolescent group, perceptual reasoning abilities were the greatest indicator of handwriting deficits.  Perceptual reasoning abilities “reflect a person’s ability to reason through problems with nonverbal material” (Science Daily).   Out of 204 possible points, the adolescents with autism earned only 167 points, compared to 183 earned by typically developing peers.

Dr. Amy Bastian, the study author, stated, “There are several techniques available to improve handwriting quality, such as adjusting pencil grip, stabilizing the writing hand with the opposite hand or forming letters more slowly.”

The techniques of which Dr. Bastian speaks are all excellent for lessening the degree of handwriting problems, but they do not address the neurological basis for the problems.   Brainjogging actually improves students’ visuospatial abilities and perceptual reasoning, which allows students with autism to realize a difference in their handwriting, among other benefits.

Anxiety, autism and eye movements

Friday, November 5th, 2010 by admin

Chase Johnson referenced anxiety as the main reason that he once avoided eye contact.  He cited “feeling as though he were being stared into” as the source of the discomfort generated by maintaining eye contact.

Social anxiety is a hallmark of ASD, but so, too, is it a general psychiatric condition experienced by individuals that are not on the spectrum.  Psychiatric comorbidities – inattention, hyperactivity, aggression, depression, anxiety, mania and even psychosis – often occur with ASD, but there is significant discussion regarding whether or not these conditions are part of ASD or actual comorbidities.Dr. Roma Vasa of the Kennedy Krieger Institute delivered a lecture on “Anxiety in Youth with Autistic Spectrum Disorder.” Dr. Vasa indicated that ASD adds an additional layer of social, emotional and developmental impairment to children and their communication.  Immature communicative skills reduce people with ASD’s ability to explain their feelings, and their ASD generally makes it difficult for them to understand the very abstract concept of “feelings.”  Luckily, neuroscience reveals what some individuals with ASD cannot communicate.  Studies show that structural and functional changes in the amygdale of people with autism lead to weak connectivity between the amygdale and regions of the cortex involved in regional anxiety.  Regional anxiety occurs in the brain’s frontal cortex.  People with autism have strong connections between adjacent brain regions but not between regions that aren’t localized.  In individuals with autism, the amygdale has reduced communication with the frontal cortex, which controls anxiety.

Here enters Brainjogging: Brainjogging trains the brain.  Through repeated, targeted exercises, Brainjogging facilitates communication between brain cells.  Brainjogging’s eye movements strengthen students’ cognitive processing speeds and their brain regions’ overall ability to communicate with one another.  More and more, researchers are focusing on the eye as the source of learning disabilities.  Individuals with autism have slower pupil light responses than typically developing individuals; they also rely more on their body’s relation to an object than on visual cues.  Dyslexia is often referred to as “word blindness” because people with dyslexia often do not move their eyes far enough to the sides to see words.  A recent study on anxiety by University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health found that “increased brain activity in the amygdale and anterior hippocampus” can predict anxious temperaments (Science Daily).  Autism is marked by significant activity in the amygdale and reduced connectivity to other brain regions.

Researchers from Wisconsin-Madison stated, “We think we can train vulnerable kids to settle their brains down.” Brainjogging settles students’ brains!  Brainjoggers experience significant decreases in anxiety-related behavioral manifestations.  Daily Brainjogging exercises strengthen students’ brains’ connectivity, thereby enabling brain regions to communicate more effectively and with greater reliability.  KKI’s Dr. Vasa stated that cognitive therapy shows promise for decreasing anxiety in clinical studies – we know that cognitive therapy decreases anxiety in our Brainjoggers.  One Brainjogger, a darling six year old child that once picked her hands until they bled, no longer manifests this behavior; she also does not worry bandaids into tatters.  The general education teacher of a five year old that began Brainjogging only six weeks ago has reported that this child is no longer hand-flapping or chewing on his shirt.  In older students, we see a marked increase in self-esteem.  Brainjogging deceases anxiety and increases self-esteem – it is a valuable resource for those experiencing anxiety, whether or not they are on the spectrum.  Students with language processing disorder, who are very susceptible to depression, experience heightened self-esteem with Brainjogging.  We train the brain – and we can help settle your child’s brain.

Chase Johnson: Living life to the fullest extent

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010 by admin

A few of Brainjogging’s staff members had the pleasure of meeting Chase Johnson at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s (KKI) 10th Annual CARD Conference.  Chase is a 21 year old with Asperger’s Syndrome.  He was a KKI intern from April to August, 2010 and has recently helped start an Autism Support Group.

Chase Johnson, a 21 year old man with Asperger's Syndrome, makes his diagnosis work with his life rather than against it.

Chase was born three to four weeks premature; he achieved typical developmental milestones until age two, when his family realized that he seemed to have a speech delay.  His parents even questioned his hearing and discovered that Chase was prone to chronic ear infection; tubes did not resolve his delayed communication.  Chase was echolalic in his vocabulary, “sucking up words and phrases from commercials and everything around [him] and not having the slightest clue what [these words] meant.”  His mind “drew connections where there were none.”  Echolalia renders communication exceedingly difficult; if a child draws a mental connection between a seemingly random word and situation and doesn’t possess the language capabilities to further explain the perceived relationship, he or she literally cannot help others understand communicative intention.

Chase received a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome in the sixth grade, after years of being tormented by peers and even his sister.  Chase’s sister envied the attention he received as a child; she, like many siblings of children on the spectrum, wasn’t able to understand that ASD requires extended attention.  Chase suggests that parents “show compassion to the sibling on the spectrum” but also to “find a way to show a deeper sense of attention to the non-ASD sibling” so that the neurotypical sibling won’t feel cheated of attention.

Although he has overcome nearly all conventional ASD social barriers, Chase still struggles with the communicative inabilities often associated with ASD.  Chase occasionally suffers from mind blindness, or an inability to recognize that others may not share his own conventions.  He was overwhelmed by anxiety for much of his life; anxiety is a hallmark of ASD. Chase explained his own former aversion to eye contact as distaste for feeling as though someone were staring into him, forcibly commanding his attention.  Aversion to eye contact is a stereotypical ASD behavior, but hearing Chase’s insight into why he feels he averted eye contact is significant.  Throughout his life, however, Chase has been lucky  to have family and friends to help him manage his anxiety levels and propel him toward the successful life he now leads. Chase is a student in Indiana and attended American University for a year and a half.  Chase provides fellow individuals on the spectrum with an example of how to make Asperger’s Syndrome work within the constructs of successful interpersonal  experiences.

To read more about Chase’s experiences, visit his blog.