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

Autism and the brain

Monday, October 25th, 2010 by admin

Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) hosts an annual continuing education conference to foster understanding of autism spectrum disorders and to provide information about strategies aimed at promoting learning in young children with autism spectrum disorders.  Brainjogging’s founder, Shirley Pennebaker, M.Ed.; cognitive therapist Katie Cyphers, M.A.; and Columbus Learning Center Director Sellers Cook will attend this year’s conference October 28-29, 2010.  In honor of this, Brainjogging’s blog posts this week will be devoted entirely to autism.

In the 1980s, researchers examined the entire brain of a man with autism.  This individual died at age 29.  His brain was sliced into thousands of thin sections and then examined. The brain from a typical man, or one without autism, who died at age 25 was similarly examined as a control brain.

Harvard University’s Dr. Margaret Bauman participated in the research group.  She reported that one main “difference was in the amygdalae, two almond-shaped clumps of cells deep in the brain, one on each side” (NPR).    The amygdalae are vital in processing certain emotional responses, especially fear.  Bauman also pointed out that the brain cells in the amygdala from the autistic brain were “smaller and more densely packed,” indicating that they were underdeveloped (NPR).

In 2006, scientists examined nine brains from people with autism and ten brains from typical people.  The individuals to whom the brains belonged ranged in age from 10-44.

The MIND Institute’s Dr. Amaral stated that brains of people with autism were clearly different in that they had “a decreased number of neurons in the amygdala, and then particularly in one subdivision of it called the lateral nucleus” (NPR).  The lateral nucleus communicates with a part of the brain that controls perception, which might explain why people with autism tend to process information by relying heavily on their own internal sense of body position, rather than visual cues.

Additionally, an underdeveloped amygdala might explain the tendency of an individual with autism to exhibit anxiety; his or her amygdala doesn’t properly regulate fear. Interestingly, “in boys with autism, the amygdala develops early and stops growing around the age of eight, [but] in typical boys, the amygdala continues to grow until age 18” (NPR).

Dr. Amaral says early development in the amygdala accounts for the reduced number of neurons later: while typical brains have about 12 million neurons, brains from individuals with autism average about 11 million.

*Listen to NPR’s podcast of Jon Hamilton’s “New Autism Study Shows Discrepancy in Autistic Brains.”

Soldier Will

Friday, October 22nd, 2010 by admin

Brainjogging strives to provide readers with access to current neurological and behavioral research and parent testimonials – but we also want readers to know our wonderful students!  They bring joy to our lives with their successes and, yes, their humor, albeit often unintentional humor.

Will, a five year old Brainjogger on the autistic spectrum, came in for his Brainjogging training session, during which students are introduced to the program and taught exactly how to use it.  Will promptly introduced his Brainjogging instructor to a vast array of helicopters that he brought from home.  His instructor expressed interest, smiled and said something along the lines of, “Wow, sunshine!  These are awesome!”  She noticed Will’s expression cloud a bit, but the moment passed and they moved along.

This particular instructor tends to refer to her students by numerous nicknames: sunshine, silly billy, buddy, smart girl, smart boy, kiddo, captain, Mr. Man, Mrs. Ma’am, etc.  As the instructor turned on Will’s computer and guided his attention to the Camp Academia, Inc. icon, Will explained that he already knew how to access Brainjogging and that he could do it himself.  His instructor promptly acknowledged his knowledge, exclaiming, “Well done, sunshine!”

Brainjogging’s little soldier, Will.

Will grew grave.  He patted his chest and said, “Soldier Will.”

“Excuse me?” the instructor replied.

Will patted his chest again, “I’m Soldier Will, not ‘sunshine’.”

Will’s father is an active service member; their family lives on Fort Benning.  To date, aside from “soldier,” Will has suffered himself to be called “captain,” but “sunshine” doesn’t fly anymore, and neither does “buddy.”  His instructors are careful to call him only those names that appeal to his sense of civic duty – perhaps one day, with Brainjogging’s help, Will will become the service member to which he aspires!

Children with autism struggle to conceal lies

Thursday, October 14th, 2010 by admin

A Queen’s University study found that “children with autism will tell white lies to protect other people’s feelings and [that] they are not very good at covering up their lies” (Science Daily).  This was the conclusion of a study propelled by psychology professor Beth Kelley and developmental psychology PhD student Annie Li. They conducted two tests for the study.In the first test, “children with autism were told they were going to get a great gift and were then handed a bar of soap.”   Most of the children with autism nodded or said yes instead of telling the researcher that they were disappointed to receive soap instead of a great gift.  Dr. Kelley stated, “The results are surprising, because there is a notion that children with autism have difficulty appreciating the thoughts and feelings of other people, so we didn’t expect them to lie to avoid saying things that may hurt others.”  Kelley’s and Li’s research reveals that children with autism do possess the ability to tell social white lies to protect others’ feelings.

In the second test, “children were given audio clues and asked to guess a hidden object.”  Most test subjects, with and without autism, guessed the easy clues, like a chicken when they heard a chicken clucking.  An intentionally difficult audio clue, Christmas music and an Elmo doll, was used to gauge the ability to lie of children with autism.  The tester left the room after playing the Christmas music, leaving the child alone with the object.  Upon returning, the tester asked the child if he or she peeked at the object.  Children with and without autism “were equally likely to lie that they had not peeked,” but only children without autism realized that giving the correct answer would reveal that they had peeked.  Children with autism were more likely to correctly identify the object, without realizing that knowing the object’s identity would give away that they peeked at the object.

The great news is that children with autism had the presence of mind to consider another person’s feelings and lie about appreciating their gift of soap, despite the fact that they were expecting something far more exciting!  Unfortunately, the test involving audio clues and hidden objects revealed that children with autism were not able to conceal the fact that they peeked at the masked object.  Overall, however, Kelley’s and Li’s study exhibits that children with autism are capable of tuning into others’ feelings, which one might argue is more significant than being able to conceal a lie.

Me, myself and … him? her? I?

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 by admin

There are multiple stereotypes about autism and individuals with the disorder.  The word “autism” comes from the Greek word “autos”, which means “self.”  There is a common misconception that individuals with autism are exceedingly concerned with their personal self, the “autos,” rather than with others.  This stereotype arises from various hallmarks of autism, including the tendency of some individuals with autism to repeatedly discuss things of personal relevance, rather than that which may be of interest to a conversational partner.

One of Brainjogging’s pupils is a particularly darling six year old girl withautism, E., who has been Brainjogging since late 2009.  She continues to impress Brainjogging’s staff with her infinite capacity for spelling and pronunciation – she has a true gift with reading!  Recently, however, Brainjogging instructors have been teaching E. about personal pronouns and how to use them, as she often refers to herself in the third person or uses inappropriate second person pronouns to refer to herself.  Recent research from the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre illustrates some of the cognitive wiring that might be inhibiting E.’s reception of personal pronouns and their application in language.Cambridge scientists found that “brains of individuals with autism are less active when engaged in self-reflective thought” (Science Daily).  Their study, published in the journal Brain, provides insight into potential explanations for why individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle with social difficulties – and for why little E. finds it difficult to distinguish between herself and another individual aloud.  Researchers used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging to measure volunteers’ brain activity; half of the volunteers have an autism spectrum diagnosis.

Dr. Michael Lombardo, one of the Cambridge researchers, asked volunteers “to make judgments either about their own thoughts, opinions, preferences, or physical characteristics, or about someone else’s, in this case the Queen [of England].”  Researchers were able “to visualize differences in brain activity between those with and without autism” by scanning the volunteers’ brains as they responded to each question.  The results are stunning: the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), which activates when people think about themselves, responded equally to questions about the self and the Queen in autistic volunteers. Typical volunteers’ vMPFC was “indeed more active when [they] were asked questions about themselves compared to when they were thinking about the Queen” (Science Daily).

Lombardo states, “Within the autistic brain, regions that typically prefer self-relevant information make no distinction between thinking about the self or another person.  This is strong evidence that in the autistic brain, processing information about the self is atypical.”

If Lombardo is correct in his suggestion that “processing information about the self is atypical” for individuals with autism, then these individuals must be explicitly taught how to relate to the self versus another individual. This training must include pronouns’ significance and appropriate application.  Teaching individuals with autism how to appropriately identify the self versus others, and others versus the self, will allow them to begin to develop a sense of self; one must first recognize the self as an independent and compelling entity before being able to relate to that self.  Brainjogging strives to teach students with autism how to function successfully – little E.’s journey with pronouns is only one story of many.  Check back to read up on E.’s progress!

A family affair? Autism’s potentially familial traits

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 by admin

Science Daily reports that autism is “highly heritable,” but it is also true that many individuals with autism are born into families that do not show any hallmarks of the disorder; there is mounting evidence that autism may be environmental as well as genetic.  Nonetheless, autism has “considerable genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity” (Science Daily). Most significantly for Brainjogging, “common impairments include deficits in saccades, or rapid eye movements that shift between objects in the field of vision, and smooth-pursuit eye movements, in which the gaze is stabilized on a slowly moving object” (Science Daily).

Abnormal eye movements and other sensorimotor and neurobehavioral impairments appear common in unaffected family members of individuals with autism, according to a report in the August issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

After studying eye movement testing and other assessments of neurobehavioral function in 57 first-degree relatives of individuals with autism, Matthew W. Mosconi, Ph.D., and other colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that “family members of individuals with autism tended to perform more slowly and less accurately on eye movement tasks, including those assessing saccades and smooth-pursuit eye movements” (Science Daily).  These findings suggest that “these alterations within sensorimotor and cognitive brain circuitry may be familial traits” (Science Daily).

Dr. Mosconi’s study revealed that the aforementioned abnormalities

were associated with several brain pathways – including the cerebellar, frontotemporal, striatal and prefrontal circuits – that have been liked to autism, some of which are important for language skills, motor control and executive function, or the control and regulation of behavior. Science Daily.

These findings suggest that many hallmarks of autism are familial traits, to an extent.  Further research must be conducted to determine the degree to which the genetic traits of autism can be manipulated, but Dr. Mosconi has provided the scientific and autistic communities with significant research.  From here, scientists must investigate what leads to autism in some individuals and mere sensorimotor and cognitive brain circuitry impairments in others.

Individuals with autism have slower pupil light responses

Thursday, September 30th, 2010 by admin

Autism is not well understood, despite the fact that its prevalence among children is more staggering than that of childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.  University of Missouri (MU) researchers recently “developed a pupil response test that is 92.5 percent accurate in separating children with autism from those with typical development” (Science Daily).  Children with autism, according to MU’s study, “have slower pupil response to light change” (Science Daily).

Prior to this study, conducted by Gang Yao, associate professor of biological engineering in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the College of Engineering, there had been no comprehensive evaluation of “pupils’ response to light in children with autism” (Science Daily).  Scientists used “a short light stimulus to induce pupil light reflexes in children under both dark and bright conditions” (Science Daily).  They used a computerized binocular infrared device,

which eye doctors normally use for vision tests, to measure how pupils react to a 100-millisecond flash light.  A pupil reaction tests reveals potential neurological disorders in areas of the brain that autism might affect.  The results showed pupils of children diagnosed with autism were significantly slower to respond than those of a control group.MU’s research illustrates the autism’s interaction with pupils’ light response.  Increasingly, the eye is becoming the focus of studies on various types of learning disabilities; it seems that the eye is a kind of key to neurological disorders.  Camp Academia, INC.’s Brainjogging program actually strengthens peripheral vision by forcing student to track their eyes across a computer screen.  By training the eyes, Brainjogging simultaneously trains the brain!

*This story was also published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Brainjogging serves military families

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010 by admin

Fort Benning is a thriving military base in the southeast – and one of the busiest Army installations in the United States. Over 130,000 Soldiers and civilians live, work, train or use services at Fort Benning.  Brainjogging is proud to serve military families!  Our offices in LaGrange, Georgia and in Columbus, Georgia are accessible to Fort Benning’s Soldiers and their families.  Our convenient Columbus location, at 1022 2nd Avenue, provides expedient access to services for military families of children with learning disabilities.

Brainjogging specializes in learning disabilities and behavior disorders.  Living with a child with a learning disability or behavior disorder can be difficult even when two parents are involved; it can be even more difficult when one partner is deployed.  Brainjogging has been proven to increase attention levels, increase memory retention, build perceptual and processing abilities and improve motor skills!  We have enormous success with students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders.  We hope to be able to use our talents to serve Fort Benning military families and their children with learning disabilities.  Brainjogging is excited to extend a 10% discount on therapy sessions to military families! Please call our main office at 706.884.4492 for more information.

A mother’s perspective: September 2010 (sixth installment)

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010 by admin

Brainjogging's added bonus: making new friends. Nicola and fellow Brainjogger, Cooper, have become great buddies through Brainjogging!

Brainjogging is thrilled to reveal N.’s identity: Nicola.  Nicola’s family is so excited about her progress and her current level of cognition that they want readers to be able to picture “N.” as an actual person with a name and an identity, rather than as a mere initial on a blog.

“It is difficult to find the right words to express how excited we are with Nicola’s progress.”

– Nicola’s mother

Over the last few weeks, readers have been able to read Nicola’s mother’s personal testimonials of her daughter’s progress using Brainjogging.  Nicola’s mother has gifted Brainjogging and readers, especially, with six months of personal insight into Nicola’s gradual cognitive development.

At least for a while, this will be the last installment regarding Nicola’s wonderful progress.  As further developments occur, Brainjogging will share them with readers, but there are other success stories to share!

Nicola asks for Cooper every time she comes to LaGrange, Georgia for Brainjogging sessions!

September 16, 2010

Dear Brain Jogging,

It is difficult to find the right words to express how excited we are with Nicola’s progress.  We had another wonderful week at Brian Jogging!  During this visit, I am leaving Nicola to play with her teachers without me in the room, and I think she focuses a little better.  She worked really hard on making sentences and fine motor activities.  I feel like at the end of this week, we are saying more sentences!  Her brain jogging itself has improved.  Nic is starting to point at the letters and continues to improve with saying three letters.  We still have some challenging days, but we push through them, and we are doing some wonderful things.

A wonderful memory from this week will be Nicola deciding to count beyond 10 and going for 20!  She started with 11 all by herself and got some of the other numbers on her own.   AMAZING!!  We are now going to practice counting to 20….I think we can do it.  She also requested to go to the potty.  Her memory is improving and more and more words are coming.  I am really hoping to break through on some of her fine motor skills as well. She is going to work hard on elbow to knee as well.  Her language is really coming; I can’t imagine when we have all our words and sentences flowing what we are going to learn from Nicola.  Nicola’s school is very excited for her as well!

Thank you very much for all your support…we cannot wait to show off [during] the month of October.



*As always, this parent testimonial has been reprinted without editing for content; testimonials are occasionally edited for grammar, but all changes are bracketed.

Gastrointestinal problems in autistic individuals explained in research

Thursday, September 16th, 2010 by admin

While certain biological traits have been said to lead to autism, their causation of the disorder has not been proven.  However, most health professionals and parents of autistic children agree that there are certain metabolic abnormalities among autistic individuals.  While one study by the

The difficulty of potty training children with autism is compounded by their tendency toward "holding" their waste.

Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network suggests that there is no relationship between gastrointestinal problems and type of autism, gender, race, or IQ, the findings show that gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and constipation are common among autistic individuals (Science Daily).  Often, individuals with autism will “hold” their fecal matter; to expedite potty training an individual with autism, parents and/or guardiansshould praise “going number two” as an enormous accomplishment.

As it stands now, a child must undergo evaluations which map his or her “social interaction, communication and imaginative skills” (Science Daily).  Recently, however, research has suggested that autism might one day be detected by a simple urine test.  Many major scientific and medical journals and websites have produced articles stating this theory.  It is strange to think that a disorder commonly linked to brain activity could be detected by a simple urine test, but autistic individuals have a different bacterial makeup in their intestines than do people without an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  All humans have bacteria in their intestines, 90-95% of which is E. coli.  However, a study in Australia shows that levels of E. coli are much lower in autistic individuals, generally around 56%, and even as low as 10% in some cases (“Cellular Malnutrition and Intestinal Dysbiosis in Autism,” Behavioural Neurotherapy Clinic, September 2010).

Scientists believe they might soon develop a simple urine test to expedite diagnoses of autism.

A urine or fecal test would show levels of different bacteria, thereby making it easier to test for autism through non-invasive means.  While these tests would not be the decisive factor in an autism diagnosis, they could be used in conjunction with traditional evaluations to determine more precisely the individual’s prognosis.  This could also lead to new treatment options, such as replacement or supplemental bacteria and digestive enzymes.  This study is a positive leap for parents of individuals with autism!

A mother’s perspective: August 2010 (fifth installment)

Monday, September 13th, 2010 by admin

N. continues to progress in her verbalization and enunciation – her memory is improving and her attention is increasing, too!  Below, N.’s mother, J., shares the changes she’s noted during August 2010, N.’s fifth month of Brainjogging.

August 12, 2010

Dear Brainjogging –

Hi!  Yeah … another wonderful week!  N. has once again made great progress, and we will leave with PROUD smiles.  It has been interesting to look back at the initial testing and retesting done at the 5 month mark.  It is a good reminder not to stress about some of the things I wish N. were doing or achieving at a higher level.  She is so [much] better at verbalizing everything … There are phrases coming out!  She is definitely expressing her opinion J.  She can count 1-10; it is not all the time, but we can do it!  ABCs are there, and we will get the sequence.  N. is more in tune to the world around her.  She noticed my new shoes today without me saying a word.  She loved her visit at First Baptist.  I was delighted that she did not want to leave.  She loves other children.  We are still working on balance, but N. is starting to pedal a little on the tricycle.  She can stand on one foot.  Amazing to see her name all the flashcards without repeating the “teacher” … that is on her own.

We definitely still have our moments where we don’t want to Brainjog, but we are always doing it, and N. has some wonderful pronunciations of Xs.  The three letter sequence is still improving!!  What is so exciting is the compliments from her therapists and family!  Everyone is so proud of her.  Her memory is there.  For instance I told her one day she would take tap, and she is reminding me.  It is so great to know we are tapping into everything that is inside my smart girl.  Once we are 100% verbal, I can’t imagine.  It still feels like a lot of work, but the progress makes it seem like a no-brainer to always do our work.  I am raising my expectation.  We start school tomorrow.  She is going to do so well!  Thank you for a wonderful week.

-J. and N.

P.S.  I am going to step up the potty-training.  She comprehends the act; it’s a matter of effort!

*As always, this parent testimonial has been reprinted without editing for content; testimonials are occasionally edited for grammar, but all changes are bracketed.