Archive for the ‘Prevention’ Category

Rerun: Autism Apraxia and the Oboe

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

Shortly after starting speech therapy, it is not uncommon for our parents to be informed by the professional that their child has speech apraxia. Here’s the thing, the child does not have autism AND an inability to produce words. In the vast majority of cases, it’s part of that child’s presentation of autism, not a separate diagnosis.

This story is my analogy for how this mysterious condition can be best understood:

I can’t play the oboe. I probably never will. But, if I wanted to, it would probably take, like, 6 months just to be able to produce a single note. Then, maybe after 1 year – if I practiced every day – I might be able to play Three Blind Mice. Poorly.

My brain did not come preprogrammed with instructions about the correct embouchure to play a double-reed instrument (or any wind instrument, for that matter). So, I would have to practice that movement of my lips. My lungs were never used to delivering short blasts to fine-tune output. I would have to practice that, also. Then, I would have to figure out some way to combine a number of physical feats at the same time in order to deliver that first squeak.

It wouldn’t matter how many times my teacher told me to play a song. It wouldn’t matter if she raised her voice and implored me to do a better job. Perhaps a different teacher would get me more motivated? I might get frustrated with my lack of ability and stop trying for a while. I could start making horrible sounds just to make something come out, and then the teacher would say that I’m not trying or I’m doing it wrong. Instructors would become very disappointed if I started to bang on surfaces with the oboe – just to make any sound come out.

That is exactly how it must feel for children with ASD who cannot speak. When a neuro-typical infant starts to babble and imitate words, it is because they already have human speech hard-wired into their cerebral cortex. Toddlers don’t think about, or really even practice speaking. It just comes.

Think how much more work it takes for a young child to let the caretaker know that they want juice, if they cannot speak. Infants simply cry and the parent offers a variety of choices until they hit on the correct one. Later, certain cries indicate a desire for food, not a toy. Without speech, a toddler pulls the adult to the refrigerator or opens it himself in order to communicate his wishes.

The child is not simply being lazy. It would be much easier to do it the way the typically-developing sibling does… “JUICE” or “Juice, please” or “Mommy, I want juice!” The parent who says “I know he can speak ’cause he does it when he wants to,” is missing the point. That is what makes the child normal – we all do what we can when we want to, to the extent that our abilities allow. The ASD child speaks when he absolutely must, and then only when every circuit is working correctly.

Likewise, for language to increase, pathways need to be laid down so that the activity can take place as part of a much more complex social environment and therefore more often and (hopefully) appropriately. Then, the electricity has to flow so that the circuit is completed and results in the correct sequence of events. It takes practice, desire, and an ideal set of circumstances. Many times, parents report that their child said some complex combination of words and ask, “Where did he/she learn that?” Well, they are apraxic, not deaf.

By getting a patient in the best physical condition, the routes can be laid down. By supplying enough cellular energy, the circuits fire. By supplying S&L, OT and ABA, the child gets to practice. Parent’s love and encouragement supplies the desire to try. That takes a great deal of work by all parties involved.

I will never play the oboe, but, thankfully, the majority of ASD patients eventually speak (in practice, the number is even higher because of the younger age of diagnosis and appropriate interventions). Of course, that is just one part of their complex story. The goal is not to play solo, but to be part of a symphony.

Screen Addiction Disorder?

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Health professionals have coined a number of new-century terms in order to describe signs and symptoms that were previously unspecified. These have included, Sensory processing, Visual processing, Auditory processing, Executive functioning, Social anxiety, Oppositional Defiance, and Attention deficit – Hyperactivity disorders.

How About Screen Addiction Disorder?
It’s SAD.

Everyone, it seems, is glued to their gadget. We seek instant gratification about the latest Facebook post, email updates while at dinner, or even read and write texts while driving. These, and many more self-absorbed behaviors are magnified in autism.

The Child Development Center has treated a stream of youngsters who come in, balancing as many as 3 screens at the same time, in order to maintain self-control. In patients with ASD, repetitive behaviors and restricted interests are part of the fabric of their developmental disabilities. Why provide them with a tool that preys on their most serious weaknesses?

The two most common answers are 1) “It makes them happy,” and 2) “They are incredible with technology.”
1)  Kids don’t know what’s good for them, and 2) The software is great with the user, not the other way ’round. Even the youngest toddler can navigate a You Tube video or play Angry Birds.

Discussion 
Two recent NY Times op-ed stories got this discourse started. They were, First, Relax and Let Your Kids Indulge in TV, and Why Some Men Don’t Work: Video Games Have Gotten Really Good. Surely there is irony in these two stories appearing the same day?

The former opinion was written by an Australian mental health doctor and mother, who waxed nostalgic about the ‘good old days’, sitting around the TV with the fam. She wrote, “I find myself passing on to my children the addiction, at a time when this topic has become a focus of parental guilt and judgment.”

Wrong century, wrong technology.
“Family Ties” ≠ “Mortal Combat!” And, Phil Donahue ≠ Twitter.

The latter story was based on a publication in The National Bureau of Economic Research entitled, Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men. The authors concluded that, “… innovations to gaming/recreational computing since 2004 explain on the order of half the increase in leisure for younger men, and predict a decline in market hours of 1.5 to 3.0 percent…”

The Times article quoted, “Adam Alter, a professor of marketing and psychology at New York University who studies digital addiction, highlighted the fact that, unlike TV shows or concerts, today’s video games don’t end.”

“Most forms of entertainment have some form of a stopping cue — signals that remind you that a certain act or episode is ending, like a commercial or a timer. Many video games don’t have them… They’re built to be endless or have long-range goals that we don’t like to abandon.” If this phenomenon is true for able-bodied young men, then this ought to be a cautionary tale for those who are even more susceptible.

I warned about this addiction previously. Repetitive viewing of videos and games does not promote imagination or socialization, which are core skills especially lacking in autism. Modern children spend little enough time outdoors, so a burning desire to get back to the iPad leaves athletic skills and exercise sorely neglected. Sound sleep suffers, as well.

Conclusion
If your child is neurotypical, the condition is problematic. The usual approaches to achieve balance can be successful (as long as the family isn’t experiencing the same syndrome). The author of the ‘TV is good’ piece claims to have found that ability to get her kids on nature walks and back home to watch informative documentaries.

Parents of children with ASD know this digital dilemma well. Reasoning, bribery, even physical punishment is fruitless. It takes hours of ABA to extinguish this seemingly obsessive-compulsive behavior.

This advice is offered to alert new parents, who may simply wish to entertain, or offer an early academic background. If the concern is that your child may suffer a ‘digital gap’, there will plenty of new iStuff coming out all of the time. It’s best to wait until there is a level of discipline and restraint.

We see evidence of Screen Addiction Disorder in all kinds of individuals, but it’s worse in patients with autism. It’s SAD. Treatment is difficult, prevention is the best strategy.

A Tale of Two Studies – About Autism

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

June 2017
Two quite different papers were published recently, which together directly address important aspects regarding our understanding about diagnosis, prevention and treatment of autism.

The first article is entitled, “Functional neuroimaging of high-risk 6-month-old infants predicts a diagnosis of autism at 24 months of age.” An earlier diagnosis – much earlier – might be on the horizon if this interesting MRI study holds true.

The algorithms are very dense. In fact, I had to ask my neuro-radio-pathologist friend to help me interpret the data, and he said the math gave him a headache! For example, “… a total of 974 functional connections in the 6-month- old brain that showed a relationship with behavior at 24 months and were different between groups. Together, these functional connections constituted <4% of the potential 26,335 total functional connections studied…”

It’s not anatomy, i.e. structure that was evaluated, but the workings of neural pathways, implying that autism (some forms of it, anyway) is present in the brain at a very early age. Autistic behaviors that could be predicted and, possibly successfully prevented or reduced, included social interaction, expressive language, and repetition, among a number of other important parameters.

This evaluation represents a new generation of ‘machine-based learning’, which itself begs further scrutiny. There was a small sample size, and questions remain about the reliably of testing an infant’s thoughts, while inside a moving, noisy environment. The bottom line is, there was high sensitivity and specificity for predicting signs and symptoms at 2 years.

A complementary investigation, published elsewhere, happened to appear this month. It is entitled, “Randomised trial of a parent-mediated intervention for infants at high risk for autism: longitudinal outcomes to age 3 years.” As in the other paper, younger siblings were chosen as subjects, due to their 20 times increased risk of developmental challenges. In similarly aged infants and toddlers, there were improved overall outcomes in the treatment group.

The authors wrote,”… that a very early intervention for at-risk infants has produced a sustained alteration of subsequent child developmental trajectory; reducing prodromal autism symptoms into the second and third years of life to a total of 24 months following end of the intervention.
(Possibly useful data in response to beneficiaries’ requests for insurance coverage?)

Discussion
It is reassuring to observe that, “Earlier diagnosis can lead to appropriate preemptive treatment with improved outcomes,” has become a model of research. Authors of the MRI piece wrote, “Given the known plasticity of the brain and behavior during the first year of life, together with the absence of the defining features of the disorder, intervention during this presymptomatic phase, before consolidation of the full syndrome of ASD, is likely to show considerably stronger benefits compared with later treatments.”

Conclusion
Such analyses ought to shape new treatment paradigms for this exploding epidemic. As similar attitudes become more commonplace, it ought to behoove conventional medicine to look at this evidence-based approach, and start doing more appropriate assessments for patients diagnosed with ASD.

Of course, “further study is required.” In the meantime, information is accumulating that, even a pre-emptive diagnosis seems prudent.

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