Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pre-natal test may detect autism

LONDON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- British researchers say high levels of testosterone discovered during pre-natal testing may indicate a risk of autism.

Cambridge University scientists say the testosterone levels were determined using amniotic fluid removed from pregnant mothers through amniocentesis, which is used to detect Down syndrome in unborn infants, the Guardian newspaper reported Monday.

Lead researcher Simon Baron-Cohen said there needs to be a debate over the consequences of testing for autism. Many people with autism have extraordinary abilities in mathematics and music.

"If there was a pre-natal test for autism, would this be desirable?" he said. "What would we lose if children with autistic spectrum disorder were eliminated from the population?"

Researchers from Cambridge's autism research center discovered the testosterone link after studying 235 children from birth to the age of 8. Children with high levels of testosterone before birth showed autistic traits such as a lack of sociability and verbal skills by the time they were 8, the newspaper said.

Animated series helped children with autism recognize emotions: study

SASKATCHEWAN (CBC) - Some children with autism showed significant improvements in recognizing and understanding emotion after viewing an animated series created by British autism researchers, a new study indicates.

In an article published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers describe their study of 20 high-functioning children with autism age 4 to 7.

Over four weeks, the children watched at least three episodes of an animated series created for autistic children called The Transporters. The series, developped by the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University in conjunction with the U.K. government, features computer-animated trains, trolleys, ferries and cable cars with the faces of real-life actors expressing emotions.

"The children with autism who'd watched the DVD not only improved on recognizing [emotion on] faces … they'd seen before but even on new faces," said study author Prof. Simon Baron Cohen, director of Cambridge centre.

"So, this suggested they hadn't just mimicked. They'd actually learned the concepts and could apply them in novel ways," added Baron Cohen, who helped to develop the DVD.

Jo-Lynn Fenton of Halifax has been waiting for The Transporters to be released in Canada for the past two years. She hopes the series will help her son, Rhys, who has autism, which makes it difficult for him to recognize and communicate emotion.

"He can identify the emotions, but he can't always put the emotions in the right context," she said.

Each short episode focuses on a specific emotion and the facial cues associated with it. After each episode, there is an interactive quiz.

Children with autism who watched the DVD for 15 minutes a day over a one-month period caught up with other children in their ability to recognize emotions, said Baron Cohen, unlike children who did not watch the series.

More research is needed to look at how long the effects may last and whether the benefits apply to all children in the autism spectrum.

The DVD will be ideal for young children with good language skills, but there is a drawback, said Dr. Susan Bryson, an autism expert at IWK Health Centre in Halifax.

"For a lot of children, what's particularly difficult is picking up emotion in faces when it’s a little more subtle, not so exaggerated," said Bryson. "But this is probably a good starting point."

The British research team isn’t making a profit from the DVD — 25 per cent of the proceeds will go to autism charities, and the rest will be used to make more episodes.

The Transporters series sells online for about $60 and is available in North America as of this week.