Sunday, February 24, 2008

Aquariums May Help Kids With Autism

Horses Also Help With Sensory Integration Disorder

If 12-year-old Chandler Kinney's mother turns her back for long enough, Chandler has dashed next door or close to the fence to play with Einstein, a golden retriever who lives next door.

"She absolutely loves dogs," Paula Kinney, Chandler's mother, said. "She will sit at the fence for hours. She will let him lick her hands and she will just rub him."

Chandler is autistic and developmentally delayed. Although she is 12, she behaves like a 4-year-old.

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that affects 1 in 150 individuals. According to, the disorder occurs in all racial, ethnic and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls. Autism impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others.

Benefits Of Animals

Kinney understands the health benefits that animals can offer to her daughter, but has elected not to get a dog because she is waiting for her 2-year-old to get a little older before taking on additional responsibility.

But, when Kinney learned about a new product, the biOrb aquarium, designed to help autistic children, she said she would definitely be open to trying anything that would help her daughter.

"Yes, I would definitely be interested in something like that -- and if it has lights," Kinney said.

The biOrb aquarium combines the look of a traditional fish bowl with the performance of a high-tech aquarium, featuring a blue light. It is an 8-gallon, globe-style aquarium and can serve as the home to both tropical and coldwater fish.

The biOrb aquariums, produced by Reef-One and Casco, came about after research suggested that watching fish can help reduce stress and anxiety, promote relaxation and enhance learning abilities to provide healing benefits for children with autism.

Reef-One President Paul Stevenson said the aquariums, which are made with Plexiglas, are kid-proof. The company will also donate some of the biOrb aquariums to AutismSpeaks.

Mom Says Animals Beat Activities

Kinney has tried several different activities, such as music and motion classes, swimming, horseback riding, roller-skating and occupational, physical and speech therapy, to help Chandler.

She said that she noticed the benefits of the activities, but horseback riding in particular helped.

"She also has sensory integration disorder, so she was really clumsy," Kinney said. "She didn't have good body awareness, and the horseback riding and skating really helped."

An Arizona-based program specializes in treating autistic children with sensory integration disorder.

Michelle Muller, owner and founder of Autism Spectrum Alternative Program, involves all the members of a family in horseback riding.

She said that autistic children have a sixth sense, and they don't connect to the world using the five senses that most people use.

"(The way they communicate is) just not the same as ours," she said. "It's like a different language."

Muller said she provides hippotherapy, which involves riding a horse as well as equine-facilitated therapy, which is a whole-body experience that includes riding, feeding and touching the horse.

"It's not drug-related," Muller said. "It's all natural. It's all going back to the basics."

She said the response she gets from her families is pretty close to amazing because communication lines are finally opened.

"I haven't see a child yet that doesn't light up when on a horse. They are just in bodies that don't respond to their minds," she said. "Their mind is trapped in a body that can't communicate."

The 5-year-old program also involves yoga, color therapy and relaxation techniques.

Muller, who uses an 8-acre ranch, said it brings her great joy to watch a child ride up a hill and finally reach the top and scream, "I did it!"

Get Your Child Involved

There are many ways to get your own child involved with animals, whether he or she is autistic or not. Allowing them to care for fish can be a great way to develop responsibility without having the schedule of walking a pet like a dog. Rodents or cats can also help your child develop a schedule and bond with a pet at the same time.

If you have the time and energy to care for a dog, they can provide companionship, responsibility and physical activity.

If you want a dog but worry about your child not taking much responsibility or growing too attached, consider a foster program that allows you and your child to care for a pet while it waits for a permanent home.

Check with your local Humane Society to see if you and your children can volunteer to walk pets or play with cats, or check to see if there are any child-friendly volunteer opportunities available.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Autism aid is back on the table

New Jerseyans with autism would gain a government advocate, insurance coverage for promising treatments and help with living arrangements under a second wave of legislation detailed Wednesday.

In all, Assembly leaders say, they will propose six bills to support adults and children diagnosed with the neurological disorder. A similar effort in 2007 resulted in an eight-bill package -- signed by Governor Corzine -- that added millions of dollars for research, among other initiatives.

"This is Round 2, building on what we did last year," Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, a sponsor of both bill packages, told The Record. "We really have to have a multidimensional approach to how we tackle it."

The bills will be considered Monday during a meeting of the Assembly Health Committee in Trenton.

Roberts did not have an estimate of what the latest legislation could cost. But he noted that some proposals -- particularly one to encourage home placement over institutional care -- would involve shifting expenditures among existing programs. And health plans, not taxpayers, would be required to reimburse the cost of expensive behavioral and other therapies that some insurers now decline to cover.

"I think [Roberts] introduced some really good pieces of legislation," said Leslie Long, director of public policy for the New Jersey chapter of the Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community. "It sends a message to families that the state is listening ... and willing to take a step forward. We need to take a leap, though."

New Jersey has the country's highest rate of autism, with one in 94 children affected, according to a study released last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national rate is one in 150 children.

Autism can include impaired communication skills, social awkwardness and repetitive behavior. It has no known cause or cure.

The Legislature and Corzine have identified autism as a prime concern. In September, the governor approved the state's most comprehensive autism-related legislation ever, including establishing a council for adults, mandating childhood screening and dedicating millions of dollars to research.

Some of the legislation described Wednesday is based on existing services.

The Office of the Advocate for Persons with Autism, for instance, would be created within the Department of the Public Advocate, whose divisions work on issues important to consumers, voters, senior citizens, those with mental illness and others.

One bill would encourage people with autism to find their own living arrangements, with supervision. The idea is to decrease the number waiting for placement in state-run residences, and it resembles the state's "aging in place" initiatives dating to the mid-1990s.

The bill to require insurance coverage for therapies is similar to the mental-health parity requirement, enacted in 1999.

The three other pieces of legislation would create identification cards, establish a Web site as a clearinghouse for all autism-related services available in New Jersey and set up a student peer program in Grades 7-12, for typical students to interact with those who have autism.

Use of the ID cards would be voluntary. Some people with the diagnosis are sensitive to light and sound and they may not comply with a police officer's order to freeze or a firefighter's request to evacuate. In such a situation, an ID card could convey that the bearer may act atypically, but is not a danger.

Long, of the autism center, said the Web site and other forms of outreach are sorely needed.

Families and people with autism "need to be able to pick up the phone and find out where they get help," Long said.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mother's antibodies tied to development of regressive autism: study

VANCOUVER (CBC) - Scientists have identified a potential new cause of autism in children, by examining what happens in the womb before a baby is born.

Researchers at the Sacramento, California-based UC Davis MIND Institute and Center for Children's Environmental Health have found that in mothers of children with autism, antibodies in their blood bind with the brain cells of the fetus, possibly interfering with brain development and resulting in latent autism.

"This is one of the first studies to identify immunological factors in mothers that could be linked to autism in the very earliest stages of life," said Judy Van de Water, senior author of the study and professor of rheumatology, allergy and clinical immunology at UC Davis, in a release. "Our results should lead to more research on the prenatal environment and the onset of autism."

"We are also optimistic that in the future a prenatal test and therapeutic intervention preventing IgG exposure during pregnancy could protect some children from ever getting autism."

Researchers took blood samples from 123 mothers, 61 of whom had children with autism and 62 who had children without the disorder. They zeroed in on specific antibodies - IgG antibodies - and then exposed fetal brain tissue to the antibodies. They wanted to determine whether the antibodies would react with fetal brain proteins.

IgG antibodies are involved in the body's defence system, helping the immune system fight off infections. They have the ability to cross the placenta and provide a key immune system boost to the growing baby. However, they have also been implicated in autoimmune diseases like arthritis, multiple sclerosis and lupus.

Researchers discovered that in seven of the blood samples, there was a high degree of reactivity between two fetal brain proteins and the IgG antibodies, with six of the seven samples from mothers of children with regressive autism. Regressive autism is a form of autism that develops between 12 and 24 months of age.

None of the reactive samples were from women with children who didn't have autism.

"It's possible that early exposure to maternal antibodies sets in motion a biological path to autism, with the behavioural outcomes not apparent until much later. It's also possible that an environmental exposure sometime after birth could be required to set this process in motion," said Van de Water.

Scientists now hope to test the presence of antibodies in women in all stages of their pregnancies to determine how the reactive process occurs.

The study was published online Monday and will be published in a future issue of Brain, Behavior and Immunity.