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Autism in the News: Mardi Gras, Medical Marijuana, and Genetically Engineered Mice

Autism was in the news so much last week, that I’m going to try to bring you the highlights! When referencing studies, I’ve tried to link the actual study (when possible), or at the very least, the press release from the research organization.

Autistic Girl Bullied at Mardi Gras, Then Receives Own Parade
An eleven-year-old girl who was cruelly made fun of by drunken college students received her own special performance by her favorite parade group, the Krewe of Muses. After reading Amy Mueller’s heartbreaking blog post about her daughter Emily being called “a retard” while in what was supposed to be a family-friendly parade-watching zone, members of the all-female krewe invited the girl to a massive special performance, which they dubbed “Emily Gras.” At the performance, Emily was showered with gifts, souvenirs, and love.

Flame Retardant Products Linked to Increased Autism Risk
Using genetically-engineered mice, researchers at University of California Davis have shown that a common flame retardant is linked to neurodevelopmental changes. The mice were genetically engineered to be susceptible to Rett Syndrome, a a disorder that occurs primarily in females and causes regression in expressive language, motor skills and social reciprocity in late infancy. The condition affects about 1 in 10,000 children.

Researchers examined the effects of the chemical BDE-47 (Tetrabromodiphenl ether), a member of the class of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenylethers, or PBDEs. PBDEs have been used in a wide range of products, including electronics, bedding, carpeting and furniture.  They have been shown to persist in the environment and accumulate in living organisms, and toxicological testing has found that they may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity and neurodevelopmental toxicity, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. BDE-47 is the PBDE found at highest concentrations in human blood and breast milk, raising concerns about its potential neurotoxic effects during pregnancy and neonatal development.

The study is important because it looks at how autism may be triggered in those genetically susceptible. Janine LaSalle, the study’s senior author, said that better understanding of the epigenetic pathways implicated in social behavior and cognition may lead to improved treatments for autism spectrum disorders.

“While the obvious preventative step is to limit the use and accumulation of PBDEs in our environment, this would likely be a long-term solution,” said LaSalle. “These pollutants are going to be hard to get rid of tomorrow. However, one important preventative that all women could do tomorrow is to start taking prenatal vitamins before becoming pregnant, as these may counteract the toxins in our environment through DNA methylation,” she said.

A study by researchers at UC Davis conducted in 2011 found that women who reported not taking a daily prenatal vitamin immediately before and during the first month of pregnancy were nearly twice as likely to have a child with an autism spectrum disorder as women who did take the supplements — and the associated risk rose to seven times as great when combined with a high-risk genetic make-up.

Autism Speaks Offers Downloadable ‘Tool Kits’ for Sleep Strategies, Dental Care
Autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks has released two new “toolkits” for parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Sleep Strategies for Children with Autism: A Parent’s Guide and Treating Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Tool Kit for Dental Professionals, are both available for free download on the Autism Speaks Tools You Can Use webpage.

The Sleep Strategies Guide helps families select ideas that have the best potential to work well with their lifestyle. It recommends that families implement their sleep plan when they have the time and energy to see if it will work, trying one small change, and then slowly incorporating other changes. With consistent routines and persistent effort, families often see changes in their child’s sleep patterns over several weeks.

Individuals with ASD may present with dental conditions resulting from behaviors associated with ASD or diets often higher in carbohydrates which can lead to dental decay. ATN dentists and therapists developed the Tool Kit for Dental Professionals after observing that dentists, despite being well-versed in strategies for treating children, often feel unprepared for interacting with patients with the special sensitivities and medical issues often associated with autism.

Study: Autism Detection Delayed in Minorities
Although the prevalence of autism does not vary across racial and ethnic groups, studies have shown that minority children are less likely to receive an early diagnosis than white children. Researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD, have now found that minority children are also more likely to have more severe symptoms of autism than their Caucasian peers. The study controlled for socio-economic factors.

“We found the toddlers in the minority group were significantly further behind than the non-minority group in development of language and motor skills and showed more severe autism symptoms in their communication abilities,” said Rebecca Landa, whose study included children and parents of African American, Asian and Hispanic descent. “It’s really troubling when we look at these data alongside diagnosis statistics because they suggest that children in need of early detection and intervention are not getting it.”

Parents Seek to Treat Their Autistic Son With Medical Marijuana
After trying everything from diet changes, therapies, and various prescription psychiatric medications, an Oklahoma City couple wants to try treating their son’s autism symptoms with THC, the active component in marijuana.

Catherine and Gill Meijas, whose autistic son requires around-the-clock care, say that moving will be their only choice if the treatment isn’t legalized in Oklahoma soon. Oklahoma Senate Bill 573 would allow for the legalization of regulated medical use of marijuana in Oklahoma. Medical marijuana is now legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia. The bill appears to be currently stalled in committee.

For obvious reasons (like the fact that marijana is classified as a Schedule 1 Narcotic), there are no clinical studies on the use of marijuana to treat autism symptoms.

However, a nonprofit organization called The Unconventional Foundation for Autism has partnered with the biotech pharmaceutical research company Cannabis Science, Inc. to advance documentation of the use of marijuana to treat people with autism. The University of California Irvine Medical Center is also working with The Unconventional Foundation for Autism to document the experiences of families using medical marijuana to treat the associated symptoms of autism.

Study: Guidelines Need to Be Clearer In Treating Kids With Both ADHD and Autism
A study out of Washington University in St. Louis, MO, highlights the need for greater understanding about proper use of ADHD medications when treating people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Currently, physicians use a trial-and-error approach when treating “challenging behaviors” with medication.

“Unfortunately, there is very poor understanding of overall medication use for kids with autism,” says Paul T. Shattuck, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Observations from the present study reinforce the complexity of pharmacologic treatment of challenging behavior in kids with ASDs and Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There needs to be a clearer guide for treating kids with both an ASD and ADHD. Additional studies examining the treatment of core and associated ASD symptoms are needed to guide the treatment of these kids,” he says.

The study also found that autistic African-American children were less likely to receive medication than white youths.

“Also striking are the high rates of antipsychotic, antidepressant/antianxiety and stimulant medication use in these youths,” Shattuck said.

Autistic Girl’s YouTube Video Goes Viral
And in case you missed it, a YouTube video called S#!T Ignorant People Say to Autistics went viral.

Did you miss last week’s round-up of autism news? Check it out here.

(Photo Credit: DoctorWho/Flickr)

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