Autism and I (A Boy in the World Book 1)

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Adam McCrimmon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. Watching your child grow and develop is a source of delight. However, some parents become concerned when their child appears to develop differently than others.

As an associate professor and registered psychologist in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, I specialise in diagnostic assessment of ASD for individuals from toddlerhood to adulthood. I have found that informing parents of the symptoms of ASD can help them decide if their worries are warranted.

As well, many parents are unaware of how the disorder is currently characterized and therefore struggle to understand if an assessment may benefit their child. Those with ASD typically demonstrate symptoms by two to three years of age. However, many will display signs earlier in development and ASD can be reliably diagnosed around 18 months of age. Within the social communication domain , children may demonstrate a delay in speech development — either by using no single words by 18 months or no two- to three-word phrases by 33 months of age.


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Sometimes they lack, or have limited skill with, pretend play. Other signs could include reduced interest in playing with peers, not showing or bringing objects to others to share an interest, smiling infrequently at others or failing to gesture to express their needs — for example by nodding or raising their arms to be picked up.

An Autistic Teenager (Self-Proclaimed "Aspie")

For example, they might not wave back to someone who waves at them. For example, a child may crave visual input by staring at a fan for a long periods of time.

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Or they may be overly distressed by typical household noises, haircuts or being touched. Children often become attached to specific objects — such as a block or a notebook that they must carry around with them — yet show little interest in toys. They can become intensely interested in things like door knobs or toilet seats, or become obsessed with a familiar cartoon character or toy. They may repetitively wave their arms or hands, rock or spin when excited. Some children repeat actions over and over, such as turning a light switch on and off.

Some focus on small parts of an object the wheel of a toy car rather than the entire object the car. They may be aggressive towards others or may injure themselves. They often crave predictability and struggle when their routines are disrupted. Importantly, no single symptom is necessary or sufficient for a diagnosis. However, more symptoms do increase the potential for a diagnosis. As well, many children display symptoms consistent with ASD yet grow out of them naturally and do not receive a diagnosis.

Even 18 weeks after treatment started the children had begun showing reduced symptoms of autism.

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The children who leave autism behind

After two years, only three of them still rated as severe, while eight fell below the diagnostic cut-off point for ASD altogether. These eight thus now count as neurotypical.

Exactly how gut bacteria might contribute to autism is a puzzle. But light has been shed on the matter by the second study, published this week in Cell by a team led by Sarkis Mazmanian of the California Institute of Technology. They collected bacteria from the faeces of both neurotypical and autistic people who ranged in their symptoms from mild to severe and transplanted these into hundreds of mice. They then interbred the recipient mice and studied the offspring of these crosses—animals that had picked up the transplanted bacteria from their mothers at birth.

They were looking for the rodent equivalent of ASD. And they found it. Most of the young mice harbouring gut bacteria from autistic human donors showed features of autism themselves. These included repetitive behaviours, reduced social and vocal communication with other mice, and restricted movement. In contrast, none of the mice colonised with bacteria from neurotypical people ended up autistic.

One long-held suspicion is that a molecule called gamma-aminobutyric acid GABA is involved. GABA is a neurotransmitter, meaning that it carries signals between nerve cells. In particular, it counters the action of another neurotransmitter, glutamate, that excites nervous activity in the brain. Studies have shown that levels of GABA are lower than normal in the brains of autistic children though, inexplicably, not in autistic adults. Dr Mazmanian and his colleagues produced evidence supporting this idea.

Teaching young children - National Autistic Society

They collected faeces, blood and brain tissue from the rodents in the experiment. They, too, drew potentially therapeutic conclusions from their results, and tested those conclusions by giving the missing substances to female mice carrying autism-inducing bacteria in the weeks before those females become pregnant.

Dr Krajmalnik-Brown and Dr Adams are now recruiting volunteers for a large-scale trial of MTT for adults with autism, to see if they, too, can benefit. The paradigm, it seems, really is shifting. Dig deeper: Treating autism: Gut bacteria may offer a treatment December 8th Dealing with autism: Beautiful minds, wasted April 16th The rise of autism: Spectrum shift April 16th Join them. Subscribe to The Economist today.


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