Neuroscience and Society: Autism

When we’re trying to help people who have troubles due to autism spectrum disorders, one of the first challenges is definition: What does “autism” mean?

“Autism was and is still currently defined by behaviors,” Dana Alliance member Barry Gordon said, as researchers haven’t yet found solid biomarkers or other internal signals to identify it. “Whenever you read about autism, you might want to dig into what definitions they go into,” he said during a recent discussion at the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) in Washington, DC.

Autism -Dawson - Oct2018Even definitions by behavior vary. For example, fellow presenter Daniel Geschwind said, problems with language used to be part of the diagnosis, but now doctors and other caregivers usually only count differences in social behavior and the presence of “repetitive-restrictive” behavior (like hand-flapping or always needing to do activities in the same order).

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Free Public Event on Autism

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Autism is a mysterious and puzzling disorder. In 1943, American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner first published a paper describing 11 children who were highly intelligent but displayed “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness.” He called this condition “early infantile autism.” Prior to that time, people with autism were simply called insane. Autism is now officially known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and, while there is a wide variation in the nature and severity of its signs, people with ASD typically have difficulty with social communication and interaction, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. Continue reading

The Science of Autism is the Story of Real People

Guest post by Ted Altschuler, Ph.D.

Ruth had stopped doubting herself the morning she saw Joe do a jigsaw puzzle upside down. For some time, she had been nagged by a feeling that he was not like her other children in some crucial way. Six months earlier, Joe had stopped speaking, even though, up to that point, he had seemed to be developing normally…

And then there were these puzzles. He was working on one just then, a map of the United States whose parts were sprawled, like him, all over the kitchen floor and through the doorway into the living room. He was getting it done: New Hampshire met Maine, and New Mexico snapped in next to Arizona. But he was getting it done fast, almost too fast, Ruth felt, for a two-year-old. On a hunch, she knelt down to Joe’s level and pulled the map apart, scattering the pieces. She also, deliberately, turned each piece upside down, so that only the gray-brown backing was showing. Then she watched what Joe did with them.

He seemed not even to notice. Pausing only for a moment, Joe peered into the pile of pieces, then reached for two of them. They were a match. He immediately snapped them together, backside-up, between his knees on the floor. It was his new starting point. From there he kept going, building, in lifeless monochrome, out of fifty pieces, a picture of nothing.

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An Enlightening Conversation on Autism

An hour before a program titled “The Spectrum” began, featured participant David Amaral, Ph.D., complained that in the weeks leading up to the event, he had had trouble getting his hands on Snow Cake, a 2007 film in which Sigourney Weaver plays a high-functioning autistic woman. “I tried Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, and couldn’t find it anywhere,” said Amaral. “But I was eventually able to find the DVD on Amazon—and liked it very much.”

That’s high praise coming from one of the nation’s foremost researchers on autism. Amaral, UC Davis Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and the Beneto Foundation chair, and founding research director of the M.I.N.D. Institute, and Weaver, an acclaimed actress, film producer, and noted environmentalist, discussed autism to a sold-out audience at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.

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Lyn Hughes Photography, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

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Former Dana grantee Beth Stevens joins ranks of MacArthur ‘geniuses’

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Early last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced the 2015 MacArthur Fellows. Former Dana grantee Beth Stevens was among the 24 recipients. According to MacArthur President Julia Stasch, the award goes to individuals who are “shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways.” The fellowship, colloquially known as the MacArthur ‘genius grant,’ comes with a $625,000 ‘no-strings-attached’ stipend to allow recipients to “advance their expertise [and] engage in bold new work.”

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