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1.  Non-Specialist Psychosocial Interventions for Children and Adolescents with Intellectual Disability or Lower-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Systematic Review 
PLoS Medicine  2013;10(12):e1001572.
In a systematic review, Brian Reichow and colleagues assess the evidence that non-specialist care providers in community settings can provide effective interventions for children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The development of effective treatments for use by non-specialists is listed among the top research priorities for improving the lives of people with mental illness worldwide. The purpose of this review is to appraise which interventions for children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders delivered by non-specialist care providers in community settings produce benefits when compared to either a no-treatment control group or treatment-as-usual comparator.
Methods and Findings
We systematically searched electronic databases through 24 June 2013 to locate prospective controlled studies of psychosocial interventions delivered by non-specialist providers to children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders. We screened 234 full papers, of which 34 articles describing 29 studies involving 1,305 participants were included. A majority of the studies included children exclusively with a diagnosis of lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders (15 of 29, 52%). Fifteen of twenty-nine studies (52%) were randomized controlled trials and just under half of all effect sizes (29 of 59, 49%) were greater than 0.50, of which 18 (62%) were statistically significant. For behavior analytic interventions, the best outcomes were shown for development and daily skills; cognitive rehabilitation, training, and support interventions were found to be most effective for improving developmental outcomes, and parent training interventions to be most effective for improving developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes. We also conducted additional subgroup analyses using harvest plots. Limitations include the studies' potential for performance bias and that few were conducted in lower- and middle-income countries.
The findings of this review support the delivery of psychosocial interventions by non-specialist providers to children who have intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Given the scarcity of specialists in many low-resource settings, including many lower- and middle-income countries, these findings may provide guidance for scale-up efforts for improving outcomes for children with developmental disorders or lower-functioning autism spectrum disorders.
Protocol Registration
PROSPERO CRD42012002641
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Newborn babies are helpless, but over the first few years of life, they acquire motor (movement) skills, language (communication) skills, cognitive (thinking) skills, and social (interpersonal interaction) skills. Individual aspects of these skills are usually acquired at specific ages, but children with a development disorder such as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual disability (mental retardation) fail to reach these “milestones” because of impaired or delayed brain maturation. Autism, Asperger syndrome, and other ASDs (also called pervasive developmental disorders) affect about 1% of the UK and US populations and are characterized by abnormalities in interactions and communication with other people (reciprocal socio-communicative interactions; for example, some children with autism reject physical affection and fail to develop useful speech) and a restricted, stereotyped, repetitive repertoire of interests (for example, obsessive accumulation of facts about unusual topics). About half of individuals with an ASD also have an intellectual disability—a reduced overall level of intelligence characterized by impairment of the skills that are normally acquired during early life. Such individuals have what is called lower-functioning ASD.
Why Was This Study Done?
Most of the children affected by developmental disorders live in low- and middle-income countries where there are few services available to help them achieve their full potential and where little research has been done to identify the most effective treatments. The development of effective treatments for use by non-specialists (for example, teachers and parents) is necessary to improve the lives of people with mental illnesses worldwide, but particularly in resource-limited settings where psychiatrists, psychologists, and other specialists are scarce. In this systematic review, the researchers investigated which psychosocial interventions for children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning ASDs delivered by non-specialist providers in community settings produce improvements in development, daily skills, school performance, behavior, or family outcomes when compared to usual care (the control condition). A systematic review identifies all the research on a given topic using predefined criteria; psychosocial interventions are defined as therapy, education, training, or support aimed at improving behavior, overall development, or specific life skills without the use of drugs.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 29 controlled studies (investigations with an intervention group and a control group) that examined the effects of various psychosocial interventions delivered by non-specialist providers to children (under 18 years old) who had a lower-functioning ASD or intellectual disability. The researchers retrieved information on the participants, design and methods, findings, and intervention characteristics for each study, and calculated effect sizes—a measure of the effectiveness of a test intervention relative to a control intervention—for several outcomes for each intervention. Across the studies, three-quarters of the effect size estimates were positive, and nearly half were greater than 0.50; effect sizes of less than 0.2, 0.2–0.5, and greater than 0.5 indicate that an intervention has no, a small, or a medium-to-large effect, respectively. For behavior analytic interventions (which aim to improve socially significant behavior by systematically analyzing behavior), the largest effect sizes were seen for development and daily skills. Cognitive rehabilitation, training, and support (interventions that facilitates the relearning of lost or altered cognitive skills) produced good improvements in developmental outcomes such as standardized IQ tests in children aged 6–11 years old. Finally, parental training interventions (which teach parents how to provide therapy services for their child) had strong effects on developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Because few of the studies included in this systematic review were undertaken in low- and middle-income countries, the review's findings may not be generalizable to children living in resource-limited settings. Moreover, other characteristics of the included studies may limit the accuracy of these findings. Nevertheless, these findings support the delivery of psychosocial interventions by non-specialist providers to children who have intellectual disabilities or a lower-functioning ASD, and indicate which interventions are likely to produce the largest improvements in developmental, behavioral, and family outcomes. Further studies are needed, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, to confirm these findings, but given that specialists are scarce in many resource-limited settings, these findings may help to inform the implementation of programs to improve outcomes for children with intellectual disabilities or lower-functioning ASDs in low- and middle-income countries.
Additional Information
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine Perspective by Bello-Mojeed and Bakare
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information (in English and Spanish) on developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disability
The US National Institute of Mental Health also provides detailed information about autism spectrum disorders, including the publication “A Parent's Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder”
Autism Speaks, a US non-profit organization, provides information about all aspects of autism spectrum disorders and includes information on the Autism Speaks Global Autism Public Health Initiative
The National Autistic Society, a UK charity, provides information about all aspects of autism spectrum disorders and includes personal stories about living with these conditions
The UK National Health Service Choices website has an interactive guide to child development and information about autism and Asperger syndrome, including personal stories, and about learning disabilities
The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence provides clinical guidelines for the management and support of children with autism spectrum disorders
The World Health Organization provides information on its Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP), which includes recommendations on the management of developmental disorders by non-specialist providers; the mhGAP Evidence Resource Center provides evidence reviews for parent skills training for management of children with intellectual disabilities and pervasive developmental disorders and interventions for management of children with intellectual disabilities
PROSPERO, an international prospective register of systematic reviews, provides more information about this systematic review
PMCID: PMC3866092  PMID: 24358029
2.  Prenatal and perinatal analgesic exposure and autism: an ecological link 
Environmental Health  2013;12:41.
Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are complex neurodevelopmental disorders. Susceptibility is believed to be the interaction of genetic heritability and environmental factors. The synchronous rises in autism/ASD prevalence and paracetamol (acetaminophen) use, as well as biologic plausibility have led to the hypothesis that paracetamol exposure may increase autism/ASD risk.
To explore the relationship of antenatal paracetamol exposure to ASD, population weighted average autism prevalence rates and paracetamol usage rates were compared. To explore the relationship of early neonatal paracetamol exposure to autism/ASD, population weighted average male autism prevalence rates for all available countries and U.S. states were compared to male circumcision rates – a procedure for which paracetamol has been widely prescribed since the mid-1990s. Prevalence studies were extracted from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Summary of Autism/ASD Prevalence Studies database. Maternal paracetamol usage and circumcision rates were identified by searches on Pub Med.
Using all available country-level data (n = 8) for the period 1984 to 2005, prenatal use of paracetamol was correlated with autism/ASD prevalence (r = 0.80). For studies including boys born after 1995, there was a strong correlation between country-level (n = 9) autism/ASD prevalence in males and a country’s circumcision rate (r = 0.98). A very similar pattern was seen among U.S. states and when comparing the 3 main racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. The country-level correlation between autism/ASD prevalence in males and paracetamol was considerably weaker before 1995 when the drug became widely used during circumcision.
This ecological analysis identified country-level correlations between indicators of prenatal and perinatal paracetamol exposure and autism/ASD. State level correlation was also identified for the indicator of perinatal paracetamol exposure and autism/ASD. Like all ecological analyses, these data cannot provide strong evidence of causality. However, biologic plausibility is provided by a growing body of experimental and clinical evidence linking paracetamol metabolism to pathways shown to be important in autism and related developmental abnormalities. Taken together, these ecological findings and mechanistic evidence suggest the need for formal study of the role of paracetamol in autism.
PMCID: PMC3673819  PMID: 23656698
Paracetamol; Acetaminophen; Autism spectrum disorder; Sulfation; Glucuronidation; Pro-inflammatory cytokines
3.  Review of neuroimaging in autism spectrum disorders: what have we learned and where we go from here 
Molecular Autism  2011;2:4.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a syndrome of social communication deficits and repetitive behaviors or restrictive interests. It remains a behaviorally defined syndrome with no reliable biological markers. The goal of this review is to summarize the available neuroimaging data and examine their implication for our understanding of the neurobiology of ASD.
Although there is variability in the literature on structural magnetic resonance literature (MRI), there is evidence of volume abnormalities in both grey and white matter, with a suggestion of some region-specific differences. Early brain overgrowth is probably the most replicated finding in a subgroup of people with ASD, and new techniques, such as cortical-thickness measurements and surface morphometry have begun to elucidate in more detail the patterns of abnormalities as they evolve with age, and are implicating specific neuroanatomical or neurodevelopmental processes. Functional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging techniques suggest that such volume abnormalities are associated with atypical functional and structural connectivity in the brain, and researchers have begun to use magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) techniques to explore the neurochemical substrate of such abnormalities. The data from multiple imaging methods suggests that ASD is associated with an atypically connected brain. We now need to further clarify such atypicalities, and start interpreting them in the context of what we already know about typical neurodevelopmental processes including migration and organization of the cortex. Such an approach will allow us to relate imaging findings not only to behavior, but also to genes and their expression, which may be related to such processes, and to further our understanding of the nature of neurobiologic abnormalities in ASD.
PMCID: PMC3102613  PMID: 21501488
4.  Modeling Autistic Features in Animals 
Pediatric research  2011;69(5 Pt 2):34R-40R.
A variety of features of autism can be simulated in rodents, including the core behavioral hallmarks of stereotyped and repetitive behaviors, and deficits in social interaction and communication. Other behaviors frequently found in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) such as neophobia, enhanced anxiety, abnormal pain sensitivity and eye blink conditioning, disturbed sleep patterns, seizures, and deficits in sensorimotor gating are also present in some of the animal models. Neuropathology and some characteristic neurochemical changes that are frequently seen in autism, as well as alterations in the immune status in the brain and periphery are also found in some of the models. Several known environmental risk factors for autism have been successfully established in rodents, including maternal infection and maternal valproate administration. Also under investigation are a number of mouse models based on genetic variants associated with autism or on syndromic disorders with autistic features. This review briefly summarizes recent developments in this field, highlighting models with face and/or construct validity, and noting the potential for investigation of pathogenesis and early progress towards clinical testing of potential therapeutics. Wherever possible, reference is made to reviews rather than primary articles.
PMCID: PMC3088489  PMID: 21289542
5.  The Autism Diagnosis in Translation: Shared Affect in Children and Mouse Models of ASD 
In recent years, there have been significant improvements in assessment and diagnostic procedures for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Standardized diagnostic instruments have been developed, promoting consistent diagnostic practices among clinicians. For clinical researchers, these instruments have facilitated collaborations across different sites by providing standardized metrics with which to evaluate ASD symptoms. Nevertheless, because ASD remains a diagnosis that is defined on the basis of behavior, there are significant challenges associated with modeling ASD social behaviors in laboratory animals. In order to more effectively study the causes of ASD symptoms and behaviors, there is a need to develop new ways of measuring social behaviors that can be applied to non-human species. Critically, while verbal dialogue between the clinician and patient is integral to clinical diagnoses, it cannot be employed for studies of animal models. However, observations of autistic-like social interactions can be modeled in animals. In this regard, communication between professionals in the clinical and basic sciences is necessary to break down the complex diagnosis into units of social impairment that can be more feasibly measured in different species. This paper presents a discussion between an animal researcher and a clinical psychologist. Using shared affect as an example, we explore potential avenues for increasing the utility of animal models to move us toward a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying social impairments in ASD.
In the absence of molecular biomarkers that can be used to diagnose ASD, current diagnostic tools depend upon clinical assessments of behavior. Research efforts with human subjects have successfully utilized standardized diagnostic instruments, which include clinician interviews with parents and direct observation of the children themselves (Risi et al., 2006). However, because clinical instruments are semi-structured and rely heavily on dynamic social processes and clinical skill, scores from these measures do not necessarily lend themselves directly to experimental investigations into the causes of ASD. Studies of the neurobiology of autism require experimental animal models. Mice are particularly useful, in this regard, for elucidating genetic and toxicologjcal contributions to impairments in social function (Halladay et al., 2009). Behavioral tests have been developed that are relevant to autism (Crawley, 2004, 2007), including measures of repetitive behaviors (Lewis, Tanimura, Lee, & Bodfish, 2007; Moy et al., 2008), social behavior (Brodkin, 2007; Lijam et al., 1997; Moretti, Bouwknecht, Teague, Paylor, & Zoghbi, 2005), and vocal communication (Panksepp et al., 2007). Advances also include development of high-throughput measures of mouse sociability that can be used to reliably compare inbred mouse strains (Moy, et al., 2008; Nadler et al., 2004), as well as measures of social reward (Panksepp & Lahvis, 2007) and empathy (Chen, Panksepp, & Lahvis, 2009; Langford et al., 2006). With continued generation of mouse gene-targeted mice that are directly relevant to genetic linkages in ASD, there remains an urgent need to utilize a full suite of mouse behavioral tests that allows for a comprehensive assessment of the spectrum of social difficulties relevant to ASD. Using impairments in shared affect as an example, this paper explores potential avenues for collaboration between clinical and basic scientists, within an amply considered translational framework.
PMCID: PMC3684385  PMID: 21882361
6.  Co-expression Profiling of Autism Genes in the Mouse Brain 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(7):e1003128.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the most prevalent and highly heritable neurodevelopmental disorders in humans. There is significant evidence that the onset and severity of ASD is governed in part by complex genetic mechanisms affecting the normal development of the brain. To date, a number of genes have been associated with ASD. However, the temporal and spatial co-expression of these genes in the brain remain unclear. To address this issue, we examined the co-expression network of 26 autism genes from AutDB (, in the framework of 3,041 genes whose expression energies have the highest correlation between the coronal and sagittal images from the Allen Mouse Brain Atlas database ( These data were derived from in situ hybridization experiments conducted on male, 56-day old C57BL/6J mice co-registered to the Allen Reference Atlas, and were used to generate a normalized co-expression matrix indicating the cosine similarity between expression vectors of genes in this database. The network formed by the autism-associated genes showed a higher degree of co-expression connectivity than seen for the other genes in this dataset (Kolmogorov–Smirnov P = 5×10−28). Using Monte Carlo simulations, we identified two cliques of co-expressed genes that were significantly enriched with autism genes (A Bonferroni corrected P<0.05). Genes in both these cliques were significantly over-expressed in the cerebellar cortex (P = 1×10−5) suggesting possible implication of this brain region in autism. In conclusion, our study provides a detailed profiling of co-expression patterns of autism genes in the mouse brain, and suggests specific brain regions and new candidate genes that could be involved in autism etiology.
Author Summary
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition associated with many different genes. However, the neuroanatomical and functional properties of these genes in the brain are largely unknown. Here we examined the co-expression network of 26 genes associated with ASD, using data from the Allen Mouse Brain Atlas, which provides a whole-genome, high-resolution map of gene expression pattern in the adult mouse brain. We discovered that autism genes are significantly more co-expressed than expected by chance, suggesting common neuro-functional properties. We then examined the spatial properties of co-expression modules that are highly enriched with autism genes. Consequently, we found that genes in two of these modules are significantly over-expressed in the cerebellar cortex, and particularly in sections that are predominantly populated by granular cells. These findings provide the essential link between gene networks associated with ASD and specific brain regions, and hence lay out a basis for further exploration of the particular neuronal circuits involved in ASD etiology.
PMCID: PMC3723491  PMID: 23935468
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder consisting of a constellation of symptoms that sometimes occur as part of a complex disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication and behavioral domains. It is a highly disabling disorder and there is a need for treatment targeting the core symptoms. Although autism is accepted as highly heritable, there is no genetic cure at this time. Autism is shown to be linked to several genes and is a feature of some complex genetic disorders, including fragile X syndrome (FXS), fragile X premutation involvement, tuberous sclerosis and Rett syndrome. The term autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) covers autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD-NOS) and the etiologies are heterogeneous. In recent years, targeted treatments have been developed for several disorders that have a known specific genetic cause leading to autism. Since there are significant molecular and neurobiological overlaps among disorders, targeted treatments developed for a specific disorder may be helpful in ASD of unknown etiology. Examples of this are two drug classes developed to treat FXS, Arbaclofen, a GABAB agonist, and mGluR5 antagonists, and both may be helpful in autism without FXS. The mGluR5 antagonists are also likely to have a benefit in the aging problems of fragile X premutation carriers, the fragile X –associated tremor ataxia syndrome (FXTAS) and the Parkinsonism that can occur in aging patients with fragile X syndrome. Targeted treatments in FXS which has a well known genetic etiology may lead to new targeted treatments in autism.
PMCID: PMC3498468  PMID: 23162607
Fragile X Syndrome; Autism; mGluR; GABA; treatment
8.  Mapping Pathological Phenotypes in Reelin Mutant Mice 
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders with multifactorial origin characterized by social communication deficits and the presence of repetitive behaviors/interests. Several studies showed an association between the reelin gene mutation and increased risk of ASD and a reduced reelin expression in some brain regions of ASD subjects, suggesting a role for reelin deficiency in ASD etiology. Reelin is a large extracellular matrix glycoprotein playing important roles during development of the central nervous system. To deeply investigate the role of reelin dysfunction as vulnerability factor in ASD, we assessed the behavioral, neurochemical, and brain morphological features of reeler male mice. We recently reported a genotype-dependent deviation in the ultrasonic vocal repertoire and a general delay in motor development of reeler pups. We now report that adult male heterozygous (Het) reeler mice did not show social behavior and communication deficits during male–female social interactions. Wildtype and Het mice showed a typical light/dark locomotor activity profile, with a peak during the central interval of the dark phase. However, when faced with a mild stressful stimulus (a saline injection) only Het mice showed an over response to stress. In addition to the behavioral studies, we conducted high performance liquid chromatography and magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy to investigate whether reelin mutation influences brain monoamine and metabolites levels in regions involved in ASD. Low levels of dopamine in cortex and high levels of glutamate and taurine in hippocampus were detected in Het mice, in line with clinical data collected on ASD children. Altogether, our data detected subtle but relevant neurochemical abnormalities in reeler mice supporting this mutant line, particularly male subjects, as a valid experimental model to estimate the contribution played by reelin deficiency in the global ASD neurobehavioral phenotype.
PMCID: PMC4154529  PMID: 25237666
autism spectrum disorders; reeler mice; ultrasonic vocalizations; social interaction; stress response; dopamine; glutamate; circadian cycle
9.  Imaging-Genetics in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Advances, Translational Impact, and Future Directions 
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorders that are unified by impairments in reciprocal social communication and a pattern of inflexible behaviors. Recent genetic advances have resolved some of the complexity of the genetic architecture underlying ASD by identifying several genetic variants that contribute to the disorder. Different etiological pathways associated with ASD may converge through effects on common molecular mechanisms, such as synaptogenesis, neuronal motility, and axonal guidance. Recently, with more sophisticated techniques, neuroimaging, and neuropathological studies have provided some consistency of evidence that altered structure, activity, and connectivity within complex neural networks is present in ASD, compared to typically developing children. The imaging-genetics approach promises to help bridge the gap between genetic variation, resultant biological effects on the brain, and production of complex neuropsychiatric symptoms. Here, we review recent findings from the developing field of imaging-genetics applied to ASD. Studies to date have indicated that relevant risk genes are associated with alterations in circuits that mediate socio-emotional, visuo-spatial, and language processing. Longitudinal studies ideally focused on early development, in conjunction with investigation for gene–gene, and gene–environment interactions may move the promise of imaging-genetics in ASD closer to the clinical domain.
PMCID: PMC3351673  PMID: 22615702
autism spectrum disorder; neuroimaging; genetics; imaging-genetics; neurodevelopment
10.  Monoamine oxidase A and A/B knockout mice display autistic-like features 
Converging lines of evidence show that a sizable subset of autism-spectrum disorders (ASDs) is characterized by increased blood levels of serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT), yet the mechanistic link between these two phenomena remains unclear. The enzymatic degradation of brain 5-HT is mainly mediated by monoamine oxidase (MAO)A and, in the absence of this enzyme, by its cognate isoenzyme MAOB. MAOA and A/B knockout (KO) mice display high 5-HT levels, particularly during early developmental stages. Here we show that both mutant lines exhibit numerous behavioural hallmarks of ASDs, such as social and communication impairments, perseverative and stereotypical responses, behavioural inflexibility, as well as subtle tactile and motor deficits. Furthermore, both MAOA and A/B KO mice displayed neuropathological alterations reminiscent of typical ASD features, including reduced thickness of the corpus callosum, increased dendritic arborization of pyramidal neurons in the prefrontal cortex and disrupted microarchitecture of the cerebellum. The severity of repetitive responses and neuropathological aberrances was generally greater in MAOA/B KO animals. These findings suggest that the neurochemical imbalances induced by MAOAdeficiency (either by itself or in conjunction with lack of MAOB) may result in an array of abnormalities similar to those observed in ASDs. Thus, MAOA and A/B KO mice may afford valuable models to help elucidate the neurobiological bases of these disorders and related neurodevelopmental problems.
PMCID: PMC3517692  PMID: 22850464
Animal models; autistic-spectrum disorders; monoamine oxidase
11.  Erythrocyte Shape Abnormalities, Membrane Oxidative Damage, and β-Actin Alterations: An Unrecognized Triad in Classical Autism 
Mediators of Inflammation  2013;2013:432616.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a complex group of neurodevelopment disorders steadily rising in frequency and treatment refractory, where the search for biological markers is of paramount importance. Although red blood cells (RBCs) membrane lipidomics and rheological variables have been reported to be altered, with some suggestions indicating an increased lipid peroxidation in the erythrocyte membrane, to date no information exists on how the oxidative membrane damage may affect cytoskeletal membrane proteins and, ultimately, RBCs shape in autism. Here, we investigated RBC morphology by scanning electron microscopy in patients with classical autism, that is, the predominant ASDs phenotype (age range: 6–26 years), nonautistic neurodevelopmental disorders (i.e., “positive controls”), and healthy controls (i.e., “negative controls”). A high percentage of altered RBCs shapes, predominantly elliptocytes, was observed in autistic patients, but not in both control groups. The RBCs altered morphology in autistic subjects was related to increased erythrocyte membrane F2-isoprostanes and 4-hydroxynonenal protein adducts. In addition, an oxidative damage of the erythrocyte membrane β-actin protein was evidenced. Therefore, the combination of erythrocyte shape abnormalities, erythrocyte membrane oxidative damage, and β-actin alterations constitutes a previously unrecognized triad in classical autism and provides new biological markers in the diagnostic workup of ASDs.
PMCID: PMC3880759  PMID: 24453417
12.  Etiology of infantile autism: a review of recent advances in genetic and neurobiological research. 
The etiology of autism is complex, and in most cases the underlying pathologic mechanisms are unknown. Autism is a hetereogeneous disorder, diagnosed subjectively on the basis of a large number of criteria. Recent research has investigated genetics, in utero insults and brain function as well as neurochemical and immunological factors. On the basis of family and twin studies, there appears to be a genetic basis for a wide "autistic syndrome." About a quarter of cases of autism are associated with genetic disorders such as fragile X syndrome or with infectious diseases such as congenital rubella. Genetic studies have shown an association between autism markers of brain development such as 3 markers of the c-Harvey-ros oncogene and the homeobox gene EN2. In some cases, autism is associated with insults early in gestation, including thalidomide embryopathy. Autism may arise from abnormal central nervous system functioning, since most autistic patients have indications of brain dysfunction, and about half of them have abnormal electroencephalograms. Similarly, the pattern of evoked response potentials and conduction time is altered in autistic children. There is substantial evidence from neuroimaging studies that dysfunctions in the cerebellum and possibly the temporal lobe and association cortex occur in autistic symptoms. Neurochemical studies have investigated the role of serotonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine, since levels of these neurotransmitters are altered in autism, although other hypotheses implicate overactive brain opioid systems and changes in oxytocin neurotransmission. Autoimmunity may also play a role; antibodies against myelin basic protein are often found in children with autism, who also have increased eosinophil and basophil response to IgE-mediated reactions. In summary, the prevailing view is that autism is caused by a pathophysiologic process arising from the interaction of an early environmental insult and a genetic predisposition.
PMCID: PMC1188990  PMID: 10212552
13.  Atypical sulcal anatomy in young children with autism spectrum disorder 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2014;4:593-603.
Autism spectrum disorder is associated with an altered early brain development. However, the specific cortical structure abnormalities underlying this disorder remain largely unknown. Nonetheless, atypical cortical folding provides lingering evidence of early disruptions in neurodevelopmental processes and identifying changes in the geometry of cortical sulci is of primary interest for characterizing these structural abnormalities in autism and their evolution over the first stages of brain development. Here, we applied state-of-the-art sulcus-based morphometry methods to a large highly-selective cohort of 73 young male children of age spanning from 18 to 108 months. Moreover, such large cohort was selected through extensive behavioral assessments and stringent inclusion criteria for the group of 59 children with autism. After manual labeling of 59 different sulci in each hemisphere, we computed multiple shape descriptors for each single sulcus element, hereby separating the folding measurement into distinct factors such as the length and depth of the sulcus. We demonstrated that the central, intraparietal and frontal medial sulci showed a significant and consistent pattern of abnormalities across our different geometrical indices. We also found that autistic and control children exhibited strikingly different relationships between age and structural changes in brain morphology. Lastly, the different measures of sulcus shapes were correlated with the CARS and ADOS scores that are specific to the autistic pathology and indices of symptom severity. Inherently, these structural abnormalities are confined to regions that are functionally relevant with respect to cognitive disorders in ASD. In contrast to those previously reported in adults, it is very unlikely that these abnormalities originate from general compensatory mechanisms unrelated to the primary pathology. Rather, they most probably reflect an early disruption on developmental trajectory that could be part of the primary pathology.
•A new single-site cohort of 73 young children (1.5–11 years) with autism and controls•State-of-the-art methodology used to compare geometrical attributes of sulci•Combination of automatic extraction of descriptors with manual identification of sulci•Clearly evidence localized sulcal shape abnormalities in the autism group•Different relationships between age and structural changes in brain morphology
PMCID: PMC4053636  PMID: 24936410
Autism; MRI; morphometry; sulci
14.  Absence of age-related prefrontal NAA change in adults with autism spectrum disorders 
Translational Psychiatry  2012;2(10):e178-.
Atypical trajectory of brain growth in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) has been recognized as a potential etiology of an atypical course of behavioral development. Numerous neuroimaging studies have focused on childhood to investigate atypical age-related change of brain structure and function, because it is a period of neuron and synapse maturation. Recent studies, however, have shown that the atypical age-related structural change of autistic brain expands beyond childhood and constitutes neural underpinnings for lifelong difficulty to behavioral adaptation. Thus, we examined effects of aging on neurochemical aspects of brain maturation using 3-T proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) with single voxel in the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC) in 24 adult men with non-medicated high-functioning ASDs and 25 age-, IQ- and parental-socioeconomic-background-matched men with typical development (TD). Multivariate analyses of covariance demonstrated significantly high N-acetylaspartate (NAA) level in the ASD subjects compared with the TD subjects (F=4.83, P=0.033). The low NAA level showed a significant positive correlation with advanced age in the TD group (r=−0.618, P=0.001), but was not evident among the ASD individuals (r=0.258, P=0.223). Fisher's r-to-z transformation showed a significant difference in the correlations between the ASD and TD groups (Z=−3.23, P=0.001), which indicated that the age–NAA relationship was significantly specific to people with TD. The current 1H-MRS study provided new evidence that atypical age-related change of neurochemical aspects of brain maturation in ASD individuals expands beyond childhood and persists during adulthood.
PMCID: PMC3565815  PMID: 23092982
anterior cingulate; Asperger syndrome; autistic disorder; case–control; human; pervasive developmental disorder
15.  Channelopathy pathogenesis in autism spectrum disorders 
Frontiers in Genetics  2013;4:222.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a syndrome that affects normal brain development and is characterized by impaired social interaction as well as verbal and non-verbal communication and by repetitive, stereotypic behavior. ASD is a complex disorder arising from a combination of multiple genetic and environmental factors that are independent from racial, ethnic and socioeconomical status. The high heritability of ASD suggests a strong genetic basis for the disorder. Furthermore, a mounting body of evidence implies a role of various ion channel gene defects (channelopathies) in the pathogenesis of autism. Indeed, recent genome-wide association, and whole exome- and whole-genome resequencing studies linked polymorphisms and rare variants in calcium, sodium and potassium channels and their subunits with susceptibility to ASD, much as they do with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders. Moreover, animal models with these genetic variations recapitulate endophenotypes considered to be correlates of autistic behavior seen in patients. An ion flux across the membrane regulates a variety of cell functions, from generation of action potentials to gene expression and cell morphology, thus it is not surprising that channelopathies have profound effects on brain functions. In the present work, we summarize existing evidence for the role of ion channel gene defects in the pathogenesis of autism with a focus on calcium signaling and its downstream effects.
PMCID: PMC3817418  PMID: 24204377
calcium; mTOR; Fragile X syndrome; tuberous sclerosis; Rett syndrome; Prader-Willi syndrome; Angelman syndrome
16.  Decreased frontal gyrification correlates with altered connectivity in children with autism 
The structural correlates of functional dysconnectivity in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been seldom explored, despite the fact that altered functional connectivity is one of the most frequent neuropathological observations in the disorder. We analyzed cerebral morphometry and structural connectivity using multi-modal imaging for 11 children/adolescents with ASD and 11 matched controls. We estimated regional cortical and white matter volumes, as well as vertex-wise measures of cortical thickness and local Gyrification Index (lGI). Diffusion Tensor Images (DTI) were used to measure Fractional Anisotropy (FA) and tractography estimates of short- and long-range connectivity. We observed four clusters of lGI reduction in patients with ASD, three were located in the right inferior frontal region extending to the inferior parietal lobe, and one was in the right medial parieto-occipital region. Reduced volume was found in the anterior corpus callosum, along with fewer inter-hemispheric frontal streamlines. Despite the spatial correspondence of decreased gyrification and reduced long connectivity, we did not observe any significant relationship between the two. However, a positive correlation between lGI and local connectivity was present in all four clusters in patients with ASD. Reduced gyrification in the inferior fronto-parietal and posterior medial cortical regions lends support for early-disrupted cortical growth in both the mirror neuron system and midline structures responsible for social cognition. Early impaired neurodevelopment in these regions may represent an initial substrate for altered maturation in the cerebral networks that support complex social skills. We also demonstrate that gyrification changes are related to connectivity. This supports the idea that an imbalance between short- and long-range white matter tracts not only impairs the integration of information from multiple neural systems, but also alters the shape of the brain early on in autism.
PMCID: PMC3820980  PMID: 24265612
cortical folding; cerebral morphometry; tractography; neuroimaging; autism spectrum disorder
17.  Mapping Brain Abnormalities in Boys with Autism 
Human brain mapping  2009;30(12):3887-3900.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit characteristic cognitive and behavioral differences, but no systematic pattern of neuroanatomical differences has been consistently found. Recent neurodevelopmental models posit an abnormal early surge in subcortical white matter growth in at least some autistic children, perhaps normalizing by adulthood, but other studies report subcortical white matter deficits. To investigate the profile of these alterations in 3D, we mapped brain volumetric differences using a relatively new method, tensor-based morphometry (TBM). 3D T1-weighted brain MRIs of 24 male children with ASD (age: 9.5 years ± 3.2 SD) and 26 age-matched healthy controls (age: 10.3 ± 2.4 SD) were fluidly registered to match a common anatomical template. Autistic children had significantly enlarged frontal lobes (by 3.6% on the left and 5.1% on the right), and all other lobes of the brain were enlarged significantly, or at trend level. By analyzing the applied deformations statistically point-by-point, we detected significant gray matter volume deficits in bilateral parietal, left temporal and left occipital lobes (p=0.038, corrected), trend-level cerebral white matter volume excesses, and volume deficits in the cerebellar vermis, adjacent to volume excesses in other cerebellar regions. This profile of excesses and deficits in adjacent regions may (1) indicate impaired neuronal connectivity, resulting from aberrant myelination and/or an inflammatory process, and (2) help to understand inconsistent findings of regional brain tissue excesses and deficits in autism.
PMCID: PMC2790012  PMID: 19554561
Autism; TBM; white matter; gray matter; cerebellum; morphometry
18.  Autism Spectrum Disorder as Early Neurodevelopmental Disorder: Evidence from the Brain Imaging Abnormalities in 2–3 Years Old Toddlers 
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that occurs within the first 3 years of life, which is marked by social skills and communication deficits along with stereotyped repetitive behavior. Although great efforts have been made to clarify the underlying neuroanatomical abnormalities and brain-behavior relationships in adolescents and adults with ASD, literature is still limited in information about the neurobiology of ASD in the early age of life. Brain images of 50 toddlers with ASD and 28 age, gender, and developmental quotient matched toddlers with developmental delay (DD) (control group) between ages 2 and 3 years were captured using combined magnetic resonance-based structural imaging and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). Structural magnetic resonance imaging was applied to assess overall gray matter (GM) and white matter (WM) volumes, and regional alterations were assessed by voxel-based morphometry. DTI was used to investigate the white matter tract integrity. Compared with DD, significant increases were observed in ASD, primarily in global GM and WM volumes and in right superior temporal gyrus regional GM and WM volumes. Higher fractional anisotropy value was also observed in the corpus callosum, posterior cingulate cortex, and limbic lobes of ASD. The converging findings of structural and white matter abnormalities in ASD suggest that alterations in neural-anatomy of different brain regions may be involved in behavioral and cognitive deficits associated with ASD, especially in an early age of 2–3 years old toddlers.
PMCID: PMC4057630  PMID: 24419870
Autism spectrum disorder; Toddler; Magnetic resonance imaging; Voxel based morphometry; Diffusion tensor imaging
19.  Evidence that autistic traits show the same etiology in the general population and at the quantitative extremes (5%, 2.5% and 1%) 
Archives of general psychiatry  2011;68(11):1113-1121.
Genetic factors play an important role in the etiology of both autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and autistic traits. However, little is known about the etiologic consistency of autistic traits across levels of severity.
We compared the etiology of typical variation in autistic traits with extreme scoring groups (including top 1%) which mimicked the prevalence of diagnosed ASD in the largest twin study of autistic traits to date.
Twin study employing phenotypic analysis and genetic model-fitting in the total sample and extreme scoring groups (top 5%, 2.5%, 1%).
A nationally-representative general population twin sample from the United Kingdom.
The families of 5,988 12-year-old pairs in the Twin Early Development Study.
Main Outcome Measure
Autistic traits as assessed by the Childhood Autism Spectrum Test.
Moderate to high heritability was found for autistic traits in the general population (52% for females; 76% for males). High heritability was found in extreme scoring groups. There were no differences in heritability among extreme groups or between the extreme groups and the general population. A continuous liability shift towards autistic trait affectedness was seen in the cotwins of individuals scoring in the top 1%, suggesting shared etiology between extreme scores and normal variation.
This evidence of similar etiology across normal variation and the extremes has implications for molecular genetic models of ASD and for conceptualizing ASD as the quantitative extreme of a neurodevelopmental continuum.
PMCID: PMC3708488  PMID: 22065527
Autism; twins; genetics; autistic traits
20.  Altered functional and structural brain network organization in autism☆ 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2012;2:79-94.
Structural and functional underconnectivity have been reported for multiple brain regions, functional systems, and white matter tracts in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Although recent developments in complex network analysis have established that the brain is a modular network exhibiting small-world properties, network level organization has not been carefully examined in ASD. Here we used resting-state functional MRI (n = 42 ASD, n = 37 typically developing; TD) to show that children and adolescents with ASD display reduced short and long-range connectivity within functional systems (i.e., reduced functional integration) and stronger connectivity between functional systems (i.e., reduced functional segregation), particularly in default and higher-order visual regions. Using graph theoretical methods, we show that pairwise group differences in functional connectivity are reflected in network level reductions in modularity and clustering (local efficiency), but shorter characteristic path lengths (higher global efficiency). Structural networks, generated from diffusion tensor MRI derived fiber tracts (n = 51 ASD, n = 43 TD), displayed lower levels of white matter integrity yet higher numbers of fibers. TD and ASD individuals exhibited similar levels of correlation between raw measures of structural and functional connectivity (n = 35 ASD, n = 35 TD). However, a principal component analysis combining structural and functional network properties revealed that the balance of local and global efficiency between structural and functional networks was reduced in ASD, positively correlated with age, and inversely correlated with ASD symptom severity. Overall, our findings suggest that modeling the brain as a complex network will be highly informative in unraveling the biological basis of ASD and other neuropsychiatric disorders.
► Complex network analysis of resting-state fMRI and DTI tractography in autism ► Local and long-range functional connectivity is reduced in ASD. ► Reduced local efficiency and modularity of functional networks in ASD ► Altered age-related trajectory of global efficiency for structural networks in ASD
PMCID: PMC3777708  PMID: 24179761
Resting-state functional connectivity; Diffusion tensor imaging; Graph theory; Brain networks; Autism spectrum disorders
21.  Differences in White Matter Fiber Tract Development Present from 6 to 24 Months in Infants with Autism 
The American Journal of Psychiatry  2012;169(6):589-600.
Evidence from prospective high-risk infant studies suggests that early symptoms of autism usually emerge late in the first- or early in the second-year of life after a period of relatively typical development. This is the first neuroimaging study to prospectively examine white matter fiber tract organization during this interval in infants who develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by 24 months.
Participants included 92 infant siblings from an ongoing imaging study of autism. All participants had diffusion tensor imaging at 6 months and behavioral assessments at 24 months, with a majority contributing additional imaging data at either or both 12 and 24 months. At 24 months, 28 infants met criteria for ASD; 64 infants did not. Microstructural properties of white-matter fiber tracts reported to be associated with ASD or related behaviors were characterized by fractional anisotropy (FA) and radial and axial diffusivity.
FA trajectories differed significantly between infants who did versus did not develop ASD for 12 of 15 fiber tracts. Development for most fiber tracts in infants with ASD was characterized by elevated FA at 6 months followed by slower developmental change overtime relative to infants without ASD. Thus, by 24 months of age, lower FA values were evident for those with ASD.
These results suggest that the aberrant development of white matter pathways precede the manifestation of autistic symptoms in the first year of life. Longitudinal data are critical to characterizing the dynamic age-related brain and behavior changes underlying this neurodevelopmental disorder.
PMCID: PMC3377782  PMID: 22362397
22.  Response monitoring, repetitive behaviour and anterior cingulate abnormalities in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) 
Brain  2008;131(9):2464-2478.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by inflexible and repetitive behaviour. Response monitoring involves evaluating the consequences of behaviour and making adjustments to optimize outcomes. Deficiencies in this function, and abnormalities in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) on which it relies, have been reported as contributing factors to autistic disorders. We investigated whether ACC structure and function during response monitoring were associated with repetitive behaviour in ASD. We compared ACC activation to correct and erroneous antisaccades using rapid presentation event-related functional MRI in 14 control and ten ASD participants. Because response monitoring is the product of coordinated activity in ACC networks, we also examined the microstructural integrity of the white matter (WM) underlying this brain region using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measures of fractional anisotropy (FA) in 12 control and 12 adult ASD participants. ACC activation and FA were examined in relation to Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised ratings of restricted and repetitive behaviour. Relative to controls, ASD participants: (i) made more antisaccade errors and responded more quickly on correct trials; (ii) showed reduced discrimination between error and correct responses in rostral ACC (rACC), which was primarily due to (iii) abnormally increased activation on correct trials and (iv) showed reduced FA in WM underlying ACC. Finally, in ASD (v) increased activation on correct trials and reduced FA in rACC WM were related to higher ratings of repetitive behaviour. These findings demonstrate functional and structural abnormalities of the ACC in ASD that may contribute to repetitive behaviour. rACC activity following errors is thought to reflect affective appraisal of the error. Thus, the hyperactive rACC response to correct trials can be interpreted as a misleading affective signal that something is awry, which may trigger repetitive attempts at correction. Another possible consequence of reduced affective discrimination between error and correct responses is that it might interfere with the reinforcement of responses that optimize outcomes. Furthermore, dysconnection of the ACC, as suggested by reduced FA, to regions involved in behavioural control might impair on-line modulations of response speed to optimize performance (i.e. speed-accuracy trade-off) and increase error likelihood. These findings suggest that in ASD, structural and functional abnormalities of the ACC compromise response monitoring and thereby contribute to behaviour that is rigid and repetitive rather than flexible and responsive to contingencies. Illuminating the mechanisms and clinical significance of abnormal response monitoring in ASD represents a fruitful avenue for further research.
PMCID: PMC2525446  PMID: 18550622
autism; anterior cingulate cortex; response monitoring; functional MRI; diffusion tensor imaging
23.  White matter microstructure correlates with autism trait severity in a combined clinical–control sample of high-functioning adults☆ 
NeuroImage : Clinical  2013;3:106-114.
Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) studies have demonstrated white matter (WM) abnormalities in tracts involved in emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but little is known regarding the nature and distribution of WM anomalies in relation to ASD trait severity in adults. Increasing evidence suggests that ASD occurs at the extreme of a distribution of social abilities. We aimed to examine WM microstructure as a potential marker for ASD symptom severity in a combined clinical–neurotypical population. SIENAX was used to estimate whole brain volume. Tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS) was used to provide a voxel-wise comparison of WM microstructure in 50 high-functioning young adults: 25 ASD and 25 neurotypical. The severity of ASD traits was measured by autism quotient (AQ); we examined regressions between DTI markers of WM microstructure and ASD trait severity. Cognitive abilities, measured by intelligence quotient, were well-matched between the groups and were controlled in all analyses. There were no significant group differences in whole brain volume. TBSS showed widespread regions of significantly reduced fractional anisotropy (FA) and increased mean diffusivity (MD) and radial diffusivity (RD) in ASD compared with controls. Linear regression analyses in the combined sample showed that average whole WM skeleton FA was negatively influenced by AQ (p = 0.004), whilst MD and RD were positively related to AQ (p = 0.002; p = 0.001). Regression slopes were similar within both groups and strongest for AQ social, communication and attention switching scores. In conclusion, similar regression characteristics were found between WM microstructure and ASD trait severity in a combined sample of ASD and neurotypical adults. WM anomalies were relatively more severe in the clinically diagnosed sample. Both findings suggest that there is a dimensional relationship between WM microstructure and severity of ASD traits from neurotypical subjects through to clinical ASD, with reduced coherence of WM associated with greater ASD symptoms. General cognitive abilities were independent of the relationship between WM indices and ASD traits.
•Novel comparison of white matter microstructure in neurotypical and autistic adults•White matter coherence related to autistic trait severity in combined sample•The relationship between social intelligence and white matter is independent of IQ.•White matter anomalies are significantly more pronounced in the autistic subjects.
PMCID: PMC3791280  PMID: 24179854
Autism spectrum disorder; Autism quotient; Diffusion tensor imaging; Tract-based spatial statistics; White matter
24.  Behavioural and skill-based early interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders 
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) comprise typical or infantile autism (Kanner syndrome), Asperger’s disorder and atypical autism or pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified. The syndrome is characterized by deficits in (1) verbal and nonverbal communication, (2) reciprocal social interaction and (3) repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and activities.
Early behavioural interventions are based on learning theory and behaviour therapy. They take into account specific deficits in perception, emotional reactions, social interaction and communication. In Germany, these comprehensive models are not widely evaluated and implemented.
Research questions
What are the clinical effectiveness and safety of early behavioural or skills-based early interventions in autism compared to other interventions or to treatment as usual?What are specific factors responsible for the effectiveness?What are the cost-effectiveness and cost consequences of different early interventions in autism?Which legal, social and ethical aspects are relevant with regard to the implementation of the respective interventions in persons with autism?
Following a systematic review of the literature, controlled studies on early behavioural or skills-based interventions published since 2000 in English or German with children until the age of twelve are included and critically appraised. Studies must have at least ten participants per intervention group.
In total, 15 publications based on 14 studies, eight systematic reviews and one health economic study are included. Most studies evaluate early interventions based upon the Lovaas model (Early intensive behavioural treatment (EIBT), Applied behavioural analysis (ABA)). Other evaluate pragmatic interventions or interventions based on other theoretical models like specific parent interventions, responsive education and prelinguistic milieu teaching, joint attention, symbolic play, and picture exchange communication system. Behaviour analytic interventions referring to the Lovaas model remain the most empirically evaluated early interventions in autism. Preschool children with autism can achieve improvements in cognitive and functional domains when treated within behavioural interventions with a frequency of at least 20 hours per week. It is not clear which is the minimum duration of effective interventions, and which active components are necessary for the effectiveness. There was no high quality evidence for other comprehensive early interventions. The identified health economic study is not suitable to evaluate the cost-effectiveness or cost consequences of early interventions. No publications concerning legal, ethical or social aspects were identified. The financial situation of persons with autisms and their families will be improved through the implementation of the “Pflege-Weiterententwicklungsgesetz” (Pf-WG). Further questions concern the organisation of care and the legal representation of autistic patients. Ethical questions arise mainly in the context of the equal supply of care to each individual patient in all regions of the country and the situation of the caregivers.
There are only a few studies with high methodology evaluating early interventions in children with autism. Most studies have a short duration with a lack of blinded outcome assessment in many cases. The lack of high quality comparative studies does not allow answering questions of comparative effectiveness of early interventions in autism. It can be concluded that interventions referring to the Lovaas model seem to have the highest effectiveness. This seems to be especially true when they are run clinic-based. However, there was no solid evidence with regard to factors responsible for the effectiveness of programms according to the ABA model. With regard to communication improvement, a systematic parent training seems to be superior to treatment as usual where a mixture of therapeutic elements is used. As well for clinical and health economic studies there is a substantial problem of generalisability into the German context. The identified health economic study is not suitable to evaluate the cost-effectiveness or cost consequences of early interventions.
Based on the available studies, there is no sufficient evidence for any of the evaluated behavioural early intervention programmes. Studies suggest that preschool children with autism in behavioural intervention programmes with a frequency of at least 20 hours per week can achieve improvements in cognitive and functional domains. There is no evidence that in a substantial portion of the children a normal development can be achieved by early interventions. Most research evidence is available for ABA. A minimal necessary intensity of interventions to achieve positive outcomes cannot be derived from literature. There are no valid statements possible as to cost-effectiveness or consequences of these interventions. Effective early interventions may reduce total autism costs in the long run. This may be achieved when the initial high treatment expenditures are more than compensated later if persons with this disorder have better social functioning.
PMCID: PMC3011283  PMID: 21289897
25.  More is less: Pitch discrimination and language delays in children with optimal outcomes from autism 
Lay Abstract
Parents, clinicians, teachers, and researchers seem to agree that individuals with autism spectrum disorders often have sharper hearing, including abilities like perfect pitch, better memory for specific sounds, better abilities to tell one sound apart from even a very similar sound, and so on. We asked whether this sharper hearing ability is related to some of the difficulties in autism, including later development of language: Is better hearing part of having ASD? One important part of this study is that it includes a group of people from all over the U.S. and Canada who had ASD when they were younger (diagnosed before age five years), but who do not have any symptoms now that they are teenagers. We call this an “optimal outcome”. They do not have any symptoms, they do not need any special education services, and their IQ scores are in the normal or high-normal range. We measured the ability to hear the difference between two tones, or pitches, in 26 teenagers with optimal outcomes, 29 teenagers with high-functioning autism, and 20 teenagers with typical development. The teenagers who have ASD were better at hearing pitch differences, suggesting that this special ability is part of ASD; the teenagers with optimal outcomes did not differ from the typically-developing group. Also, the teenagers with the best pitch abilities tended to be the latest to start talking when they were toddlers. The paper discusses what these results mean for communication in ASD, and for the process of learning language more generally.
Scientific Abstract
The autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders, diagnosed behaviorally but associated with differences in brain development. Individuals with ASD exhibit superior auditory perceptual skills, which may correlate with ASD symptomatology, particularly language skills. We describe findings from individuals diagnosed with ASD before age five, who now have no symptoms (e.g., having optimal outcomes). Unlike an ASD group, which shows heightened pitch discrimination, the Optimal Outcome group’s abilities do not differ from those of typically developing controls. Furthermore, pitch discrimination is associated with both current autism symptomatology and early language milestones. Findings illuminate processes associated with resolution of autism. We also discuss a specific mechanism by which heightened auditory discrimination leads to language delays in ASD.
PMCID: PMC3869875  PMID: 23929787
Language; Language Delays; Auditory perception; Autism; Long-Term Outcomes

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