Friday, February 27, 2009

Friendship House Autism Center plans announced

Muted lighting, soft colors and quiet plumbing — what sounds like interior options for a spa actually will be a carefully calibrated environment for autistic children.

“A lot of children with autism have issues with hypersensitivity, whether it’s a light flicker or the swish of a flushed toilet,” said architect Brian Doran, who conducted research and consulted behavior therapists for a modern vision in designing Friendship House’s $1.4 million Northeast Regional Autism Center expansion.

Friendship House officials on Thursday announced the 14,000-square-foot project, expected to begin in March, with a display of architectural renderings and a short tour of the proposed site, a former warehouse at Friendship House’s Maple Street offices.

Mr. Doran, with the Scran�ton design firm Hemmler & Camayd, also is the father of a mildly autistic child.

“We’re trying to create the right environment for therapists to execute their work,” he said.

Friendship House’s existing autistic program treats 60 children 2 to 21 years old at a building two blocks away on Derby Avenue. The expansion will move the program to Maple Street after the project’s expected completion in October.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, autism is a condition in a group of developmental disorders characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication problems and limited activities or interests. It is estimated three to six children of every 1,000 will have autism, and boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls, the institute said.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Computer Game Helps Autistic Children Recognize Emotions

An interactive computer software program called FaceSay™ has been shown to improve the ability of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to recognize faces, facial expressions and emotions, according to the results of a study conducted by psychologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). FaceSay™, created by Symbionica L.L.C., features interactive games that let children with ASD practice recognizing the facial expressions of an avatar, or software “puppet.” Specifically, the computer games teach the children where to look for facial cues such as an eye gaze or a facial expression.

The study found that the children with Asperger Syndrome who used the FaceSay™ program made significant improvements in their ability to read facial expressions. The children with autism made less improvement. Children in both the autism and Asperger groups, however, both improved their ability to recognize emotions.

Specifically, the children with autism who used FaceSay™ averaged a mean score of 14.8 on a facial recognition test. The control group averaged 12.8. The children with Asperger Syndrome scored much higher with an average score of 18.4 compared to 15.4 by the control group.

On an emotion recognition skills test, the children with autism who used FaceSay™ scored an average of 6.53. The control group’s average score was 5.2. The children with Asperger Syndrome had a mean test score of 8.7 compared with the control group score of 6.79. UAB doctoral student Maria Hopkins, Ph.D., and UAB associate professor of psychology Fred Biasini, Ph.D., conducted the study.

Autism spectrum disorder includes a range of developmental disorders such as autism, Asperger Syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders. Children with ASD often avoid eye contact with others, which prevents them from perceiving and understanding the emotions of others. Many have problems remembering faces.

Hopkins and Biasini tested 25 children with autism and 24 children with Asperger Syndrome. The children ranged in age from 6 to 15, with an average age of 10 years. The group consisted of 44 boys and five girls. The computer training sessions were held twice a week for at least six weeks for an average of 20 minutes each session. The software featured three interactive games.

Psychologists at UAB plan to conduct more studies to assess the longtime effects of the FaceSay™ intervention.

The study’s results were presented recently at a meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

Toward A Long-sought Saliva Test For Autism

Researchers in Italy are reporting discovery of abnormal proteins in the saliva of autism patients that could eventually provide a clue for the molecular basis of this severe developmental disorder and could be used as a biomarker for a subgroup of patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Autism involves social withdrawal, impaired emotional responses and communication skills, and other symptoms. With no laboratory test available, scientists are searching for biomarkers such as abnormal proteins that appear in the body fluids of individuals with autism that may provide a way to accurately diagnose autism and track its response to potential treatments.

Massimo Castagnola, Irene Messana, Maria Giulia Torrioli and Fiorella Gurrieri, compared proteins in the saliva of 27 children with ASD to those in a control group without ASD. They discovered that at least one of four proteins in 19 children in the ASD group had significantly lower levels of phosphorylation. That key body process activates proteins so that they can work normally.

The results suggest that these abnormal proteins might be the clue for anomalies in the phosphorylation of proteins involved in development of central nervous system in early infancy that are involved in ASD.

Surprising Language Abilities In Children With Autism

What began as an informal presentation by a clinical linguist to a group of philosophers, has led to some surprising discoveries about the communicative language abilities of people with autism.

Several years back, Robert Stainton, now a philosophy professor at The University of Western Ontario, attended a presentation by his long-time friend Jessica de Villiers, a clinical linguist now at the University of British Columbia. The topic was Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). De Villiers explained that many individuals with ASD have significant difficulties with what linguists call "pragmatics." That is, people with ASD often have difficulty using language appropriately in social situations. They do not make appropriate use of context or knowledge of what it would be "reasonable to say." Most glaringly, many speakers with ASD have immense trouble understanding metaphor, irony, sarcasm, and what might be intimated or presumed, but not stated.

Drawing on his philosophical training, however, Stainton noticed less-than-obvious pragmatic abilities at work in de Villiers' examples, which were drawn from transcripts of conversations with 42 speakers with ASD -- abilities that had been missed by clinicians.

Thus began research to more clearly understand and define the conversational abilities and challenges of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Stainton and de Villiers' research, in collaboration with Peter Szatmari, a clinical psychiatrist at McMaster University, has shown that indeed, many individuals with ASD do have "a rich array of pragmatic abilities."

These researchers do not contest the well-established claim that people with ASD have difficulty with non-literal pragmatics, such as metaphors ("Juliet is the sun") or irony/sarcasm ("Boy, is that a good idea"). They have, however, found that many speakers with ASD do not show the same difficulty with literal pragmatics. An example is the phrase, "I took the subway north" from a transcript of a conversation with a research participant with ASD. The use of the word "the" could indicate there is only one subway in existence going north. "The subway" could also be referring to a subway car, a subway system or a subway tunnel. Taking account of the context and the listener's expectations, however, the individual using the phrase was able to convey the specific meaning he intended. That is, he used pragmatics effectively.

In short, Stainton and his colleagues produced surprising evidence to show that speakers with ASD use and understand pragmatics in cases of literal talk, as in the subway example.

Stainton, who is also Acting Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western, says, "It is especially gratifying and encouraging, because this is an Arts and Humanities contribution to clinical research. Without a philosophical perspective, this discovery might not have been made."

Related research allowed de Villiers and Szatmari to develop a rating scale of pragmatic abilities that can be used in the clinical assessment of people with ASD. Stainton says, "In the short term, their new tool will help identify where an individual fits on that spectrum. In the longer term, however, by making use of recent results in philosophy of language, it may contribute to our theoretical understanding of the boundary between knowledge of the meanings of words, and non-linguistic abilities -- specifically pragmatics."

Stainton believes that both clinicians who work with people with ASD, and language theorists who are interested in pragmatics for philosophical reasons, will find these results striking.

ASD affects approximately one in 165 people. The results of the research, conducted from a study of 42 children with autism and Asperger's Syndrome, has been published in the journal, Midwest Studies in Philosophy.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Many Florida teachers may be ill-equipped to handle special-needs students


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, February 07, 2009

These were the tools kindergarten teacher Wendy Portillo had to handle an unruly student: 10 tokens to be taken away if he misbehaved, the occasional help of a volunteer and another teacher, and a trip to the principal's office.

The choice she made in May - have students vote on whether then 5-year-old Alex Barton should remain in class at Morningside Elementary in Port St. Lucie - has been debated and reviled.

That Alex was being evaluated, and later was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, has only fueled the controversy.

But the incident may point to more than the judgment of one teacher. Parents, educators and disability advocates say it highlights an often overlooked problem with inclusion, the national trend toward placing special needs students in regular classrooms: Many general education teachers receive little to no training in how to manage students with disabilities before they walk into class.

"It's important to recognize that many of our teachers are going to have no training as teachers," said Jack Scott, director of Florida Atlantic University's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.

Florida has addressed its teacher shortage in recent years by making it easier to join the profession. Teaching certificates can be earned without a degree in education and, with fast-track programs, certificates can be earned within months. That has helped to ease the shortage, but Scott said it also has resulted in uneven levels of training among teachers.

Even teachers who earned degrees in education may have taken just one or two classes in special education, making them aware of their legal responsibilities but unsure of how to manage a class in which one child may not respond the way other children do.

"The trend toward inclusion really has caused some difficulties for teachers because you have to treat (special needs students) differently," said Karen Lyman, a teacher-coach in St. Lucie County schools. "You have to learn how to teach that child without affecting the rest of the children."

'Old school' methods futile

Elementary school teachers may have a difficult time, too, because many younger children, such as Alex Barton, come to school without a diagnosis. The result can be months of limbo for both teacher and child before an appropriate placement is determined.

Melissa Barton, who removed her son from Morningside after the vote, said training seems to occur after a child is placed in a class rather than before.

"They give the child to the teacher and then they see if there are problems," she said.

Few have defended the choice Portillo made the day she asked her students to vote on whether Alex should remain in class, but many say her actions may point to a teacher who needed not only more training but also additional support.

Alex had struggled with behavior since his arrival at Morningside. Portillo said she sent him to the principal's office at least once a week.

On the day of the vote, he flicked crayons and crawled under a table, lifting it with his legs until his classmates' work scattered to the floor, according to the school district's investigation.

Portillo's options, as provided by a school support team, were to take away Alex's tokens, to send him to the classroom of a designated teacher or to send him to the principal's office.

Portillo doesn't remember if she took away the tokens that day. The designated teacher was off campus, as was the volunteer. She sent Alex to the principal's office only to have him returned to her. All before lunchtime.

"I'm not defending her choice of things to do, and I think Wendy's been clear that she regrets it, but nobody knows what being in that class with that constant behavior day after day was like," said Vicki Rodriguez, vice president of the St. Lucie teachers union.

Lyman said teachers often need to be trained to react differently to inappropriate behavior, and the worst reaction, though perhaps natural, is to become angry or frustrated with the child.

"Our automatic reaction is, 'Why are you doing that? Stop doing that' and that's not working," she said. But the attention to the bad behavior actually reinforces it.

Scott said many teachers rely on "old school" punitive methods of discipline, most of which don't work with special needs students, particularly those with autism who may miss social cues.

"You can't punish these kids into behaving well," he said.

Inclusion often is not the cheapest approach to teaching special needs children, Scott said, and with less and less money going to public schools in Florida, it can be difficult to provide the assistance they need.

"A lot of kids really need more and better teaching and that's often hard to pull off," he said.

Mother calls for training

In St. Lucie, the school district's philosophy is one of positive discipline rather than negative, said Deborah Iseman, executive director of professional development.

Both the union and the school district receive frequent requests from teachers for additional training in classroom management, school officials said. One class the union offers, Managing Anti-Social Behavior, always has a waiting list, Rodriguez said.

Eric Graff, who occasionally had Alex in his class at Morningside, said he believes school and state officials may finally be recognizing the need for more teacher training.

"I think the more education we get, the better it is for us," he said. "I don't have a problem saying I don't have all the answers for each child."

With little training or improper placement, both teacher and child may be at risk.

A kindergartner detached the retina of a teacher at Garden City Elementary in Fort Pierce last year, according to police reports. And the year before, a classroom aide at Garden City was fired after she allegedly fractured the arm of an 8-year-old disabled child by improperly restraining him.

Barton, who is searching for a new school for Alex, said such incidents point to a need for greater understanding about disabilities and better use of resources.

She said many teachers she speaks to want additional training, but have little time or opportunity.

"They make it impossible for teachers and impossible for students," she said.