Math prodigy: Autism is key to success

A young math prodigy tells 60 Minutes he’s proud of his autism and considers it a key to his success. At 13, Jake Barnett is a college sophomore.

Autism linked to educated parents

Autism “is more a surge in diagnosis than disease,” concludes the Los Angeles Times. Statewide, 1.1% of California elementary students have been identified as autistic, but rate is much higher in affluent communities than in rural districts.

. . .  the number of students receiving autism services, including speech, behaviorial and other therapies, has grown fivefold since 2000, driving up special education costs even as school budgets are being slashed.

“Warrior parents” who fight for services get much more help, adds the Times.

For autistic children 3 to 6 — a critical period for treating the disorder — the state Department of Developmental Services last year spent an average of $11,723 per child on whites, compared with $11,063 on Asians, $7,634 on Latinos and $6,593 on blacks.

. . . The divide is even starker when it comes to the most coveted service — a behavioral aide from a private company to accompany a child throughout each school day, at a cost that often reaches $60,000 a year.

In the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, white elementary school students on the city’s affluent Westside have such aides at more than 10 times the rate of Latinos on the Eastside.

My niece provides after-school therapy for children on the autism spectrum. She plans to earn a doctorate in psychology and specialize in the field.

The Education Commission of the States reviews state efforts (pdf) to help students with autism, notes On Special Education.

A ‘tsunami’ of disabled students

Community colleges are seeing a “tsunami” of students with intellectual and physical disabilities. Some colleges offer special programs for students with developmental disabilities or autism.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Why do so many “proficient” high school students end up in remedial math?

A ‘tsunami’ of disabled students

Community colleges are seeing a “tsunami” of students with intellectual and physical disabilities.  Some colleges offer special programs for students with developmental disabilities or autism.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Why do so many “proficient” high school students end up in remedial math?

Korea: 1 in 38 kids have autistic traits

Autism diagnoses — including children somewhere on the “autism spectrium” — are soaring. Is it a real rise or a change in diagnosis?  Korean researchers say 1 in 38 children have autistic traits; two-thirds attend mainstream classes and receive no special help.  This looks like seek and you shall find.

Retracted autism study an ‘elaborate fraud’

A now-retracted study linking autism to vaccine was an “elaborate fraud,” concludes an investigation published by BMJ, a British medical journal.

The study’s author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, “misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study,” charges investigator Brian Deer. Of the 12 cases in Wakefield’s paper, five showed developmental problems before receiving the MMR vaccine and three never had autism, said Fiona Godlee, the journal’s editor.

Wakefield received $674,000 from lawyers hoping to sue vaccine manufacturers, BMJ reports.  He also hoped to make money from  diagnostic and other tests for autism and MMR-related issues, said Godlee.

Wakefield was stripped of his medical license earlier this year.

“Meanwhile, the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession,” BMJ states.

The now-discredited paper panicked many parents and led to a sharp drop in the number of children getting the vaccine that prevents measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccination rates dropped sharply in Britain after its publication, falling as low as 80 percent by 2004. Measles cases have gone up sharply in the ensuing years.

Measles cases are up in the U.S. as well, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 90 percent of those infected had not been vaccinated or their vaccination status was unknown.

“But perhaps as important as the scare’s effect on infectious disease is the energy, emotion and money that have been diverted away from efforts to understand the real causes of autism and how to help children and families who live with it,” the BMJ editorial states.

Evidence of fraud isn’t likely to change the minds of true believers. The damage continues.

Fewer students called ‘learning disabled’

Fewer students are being classifed as learning disabled, reports Education Week. But nobody’s sure why.

Learning-disability enrollments declined from 6.1 percent in the 2000-01 school year to 5.2 percent in 2007-08, according to the U.S Department of Education. Overall,  special ed enrollments dropped from 13.8 percent to 13.4 percent.

Forty percent of special ed students are considered learning disabled; 80 percent of those have trouble with reading.

So, scholars say, the dropping numbers could be linked to improvements in reading instruction overall; the adoption of “response to intervention,” which is an instructional model intended to halt the emergence of reading problems; and a federally backed push toward early intervention with younger students.

All those efforts could be serving to separate students with true disabilities from those who just haven’t been taught well in the early grades.

In the first year Florida schools adopted Reading First, 10.4 percent of third graders were identified as learning-disabled, wrote Joseph K. Torgesen, a psychology and education professor at Florida State. That dropped to 6 percent of third graders by the third year. In each year of school, more children learned to read well.

But some see another explanation: Schools may be classifying fewer children as learning disabled to avoid higher costs or to evade accountability for educating special-ed students.

It’s also possible that some children who would have been diagnosed as learning disabled in the past are now categorized with  autism spectrum disorder or “other health impairments,” which are showing growth.

On Children of the Code: “Mind-shame” endangers the schooling of children who struggle with reading.

Meet the teacher, Mr. Robot

Can robots teach? In labs around the world, social robots are learning how to engage children and teach simple skills, reports the New York Times.

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism.

South Korea is using robots as teacher aides and classroom playmates and is experimenting with English-teaching robots.  A UC-San Diego robot is teaching Finnish to preschoolers. At USC and University of Connecticut, children on the autism spectrum are interacting with robots.

Yes, it’s making people a bit nervous, though nobody thinks robots will replace human teachers.

When San Diego preschoolers pulled the arms off the RUBI robot, engineers programmed RUBI to cry when its arms were pulled. The children stopped pulling and  hugged the robot to stop it from crying.

RUBI significantly improved the vocabulary of nine preschoolers, researchers found.

At Honda Labs in Silicon Valley,  Asimo “taught grade-school students how to set a table — improving their accuracy by about 25 percent.”

In person they are not remotely humanlike, most of today’s social robots. Some speak well, others not at all. Some move on two legs, others on wheels. Many look like escapees from the Island of Misfit Toys.

Robots that look human come across as creepy, researchers say.  The way to encourage social interaction is to make sure the robot responds at a natural rate.

In recent experiments at a day care center in Japan, researchers have shown that having a robot simply bob or shake at the same rhythm a child is rocking or moving can quickly engage even very fearful children with autism.

“The child begins to notice something in that synchronous behavior and open up,” said Marek Michalowski of Carnegie Mellon University, who collaborated on the studies. Once that happens, he said, “you can piggyback social behaviors onto the interaction, like eye contact, joint attention, turn taking, things these kids have trouble with.”

At the University of Connecticut, a French robot called Nao works with children on the autism spectrum. Controlled by a therapist,  Nao demonstrates “martial arts kicks and chops and urges the child to follow suit; then it encourages the child to lead.”

“I just love robots, and I know this is therapy, but I don’t know — I think it’s just fun,” said Sam, an 8-year-old from New Haven with Asperger’s syndrome, who recently engaged in the therapy.

This simple mimicry seems to build a kind of trust, and increase sociability, said Anjana Bhat, an assistant professor in the department of education who is directing the experiment. “Social interactions are so dependent on whether someone is in sync with you,” Dr. Bhat said. “You walk fast, they walk fast; you go slowly, they go slowly — and soon you are interacting, and maybe you are learning.”

Georgia Tech scientists are trying to teach robots to understand nonverbal cues, so they’ll know when a child is confused or tuned out.

Robot teachers: sinister machines or patient helpers?

Vaccine scare doctor loses license

Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who persuaded parents that the MMR vaccine leads to autism, has lost his medical license for being  “dishonest,” “misleading” and “irresponsible” in his research, writes Tom Chivers in The Telegraph.

There were many large studies carried out, all of which failed to show any link between the vaccine and autism. A 2002 study of 500,000 Danish children in the New England Journal of Medicine found no links  while a 2005 Cochrane Library meta-analysis also came back negative and reminded the world that: “Measles, mumps and rubella are three very dangerous infectious diseases which cause a heavy disease, disability and death burden in the developing world … [T]he impact of mass immunisation on the elimination of the diseases has been demonstrated worldwide.” . . .

. . . MMR was introduced in Britain in 1988. Hundreds of thousands of children were given it. If there is a link, we would expect a sudden rise in autism diagnoses. There was none.

Autism levels were slowly rising beforehand, and continued to rise afterward, although it is not clear how much of that was due to new diagnostic criteria. But there was no step change in 1988 in Britain, or at the time of introduction in other countries.  There is no link between vaccination and autism.

Vaccination rates fell sharplyin Britain after Wakefield’s research — now repudiated — was published. Autism diagnoses have continued to rise. So has the rate of measles, mumps and rubella.

Bipolar or TDD? Asperger's or autism spectrum?

Proposed changes in psychiatrists’ diagnostic manual could introduce “new mental disorders,” reports the Washington Post.

Children who throw too many tantrums could be diagnosed with “temper dysregulation with dysphoria.” Teenagers who are particularly eccentric might be candidates for treatment for “psychosis risk syndrome.” Men who are just way too interested in sex face being labeled as suffering from “hypersexual disorder.”

Asperger’s Syndrome and autism could become “autism spectrum disorders,” a change opposed by many Asperger’s advocates.

Advocates say the new categories are more precise. Critics say people in normal distress will be misdiagnosed, put on medication and stigmatized by insurance companies.

Among the concerns are proposals to create “risk syndromes” in the hopes that early diagnosis and treatment will stave off the full-blown conditions. For example, the proposals would create a “psychosis risk syndrome” for people who have mild symptoms found in psychotic disorders, such as “excessive suspicion, delusions and disorganized speech or behavior.”

“There will be adolescents who are a little odd and have funny ideas, and this will label them as pre-psychotic,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the DSM revision process.

“Temper Dysregulation with Dysphoria” is intended “to counter a huge increase in the number children being treated for bipolar disorder by creating a more specific diagnosis,” the Post reports. But some fear it will encourage unneeded treatment of moody kids.

In addition to classifying the symptoms of grief that many people experience after the death of a loved one as “depression,” the proposals include adding “binge eating” and “gambling addiction” as bona fide psychiatric conditions; they also raise the possibility of making “Internet addiction” a future diagnosis.

The American Psychiatric Association will listen to feedback before deciding on the proposed changes for the new diagnostic manual, due out in 2013.