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  • richardmitnick 11:20 am on March 21, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Autism Open Day aims to create ‘a better future’ for people on the spectrum", ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, Curtin Autism Research Group, , Telethon Kids Institute   

    From Curtin University: “Autism Open Day aims to create ‘a better future’ for people on the spectrum” 

    From Curtin University

    18 March 2019

    Lauren Sydoruk
    Media Consultant
    Tel: +61 8 9266 4241
    Mob: +61 401 103 373

    Yasmine Phillips
    Media Relations Manager, Public Relations
    Tel: +61 8 9266 9085
    Mob: +61 401 103 877

    Researchers from Curtin University and the Telethon Kids Institute will explore the strengths and skills that can help build a better future for people living on the spectrum at this year’s Autism Open Day.


    Adults and children with autism, their families and the wider community are invited to attend the free annual event, which will include presentations from autistic adults and information on current research and programs aiming to support people with autism.

    Autism Open Day will mark the start of Curtin’s Research Rumble, a series of events that promote the innovative research projects being undertaken at Curtin University, from March 24 to 27.

    Curtin Autism Research Group (CARG) Director Professor Sonya Girdler, from the School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology at Curtin University, said only 42 per cent of Australian adults with autism participate in employment, compared to 53 per cent with other disabilities and 83 per cent without disabilities.

    “People with autism possess unique skills and qualities that include being punctual, having high attention to detail and a high tolerance for repetitive tasks, and these skills can be beneficial to many employers, especially in the technology and software development industries,” Professor Girdler said.

    “It is essential to prepare and mentor young adults with autism throughout their education to ensure they are ready to tackle the workforce. Employers can play an important role in supporting autistic people in work environments, making small changes to the workplace and tailoring job descriptions to match an autistic individual’s skill set and strengths.

    “Australia has historically performed poorly in creating employment opportunities for autistic individuals compared to other nations, but the combined work of researchers, employers, the autistic and the wider community is working to improve that and create a brighter future for people on the spectrum.”

    Professor Girdler explained that Autism Open Day offered a great opportunity for people with autism and their families to exchange knowledge and experiences in a safe environment.

    “Members of the public attending this year’s Autism Open Day will have access to a range of important information about pathway planning for school leavers with autism, quality of life tips for adults with autism, medication use amongst adults with autism, the transition to school, and peer-mentoring programs for university students with autism,” Professor Girdler said.

    Autism Open Day will be held in the Technology Park Function Centre, 2 Brodie Hall Drive, Bentley, on Sunday, 24 March, from 10am to 3pm. Further information can be found online here.

    See the full article here .


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    Stem Education Coalition

    Curtin University (formerly known as Curtin University of Technology and Western Australian Institute of Technology) is an Australian public research university based in Bentley and Perth, Western Australia. The university is named after the 14th Prime Minister of Australia, John Curtin, and is the largest university in Western Australia, with over 58,000 students (as of 2016).

    Curtin was conferred university status after legislation was passed by the Parliament of Western Australia in 1986. Since then, the university has been expanding its presence and has campuses in Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai and Mauritius. It has ties with 90 exchange universities in 20 countries. The University comprises five main faculties with over 95 specialists centres. The University formerly had a Sydney campus between 2005 & 2016. On 17 September 2015, Curtin University Council made a decision to close its Sydney campus by early 2017.

    Curtin University is a member of Australian Technology Network (ATN), and is active in research in a range of academic and practical fields, including Resources and Energy (e.g., petroleum gas), Information and Communication, Health, Ageing and Well-being (Public Health), Communities and Changing Environments, Growth and Prosperity and Creative Writing.

    It is the only Western Australian university to produce a PhD recipient of the AINSE gold medal, which is the highest recognition for PhD-level research excellence in Australia and New Zealand.

    Curtin has become active in research and partnerships overseas, particularly in mainland China. It is involved in a number of business, management, and research projects, particularly in supercomputing, where the university participates in a tri-continental array with nodes in Perth, Beijing, and Edinburgh. Western Australia has become an important exporter of minerals, petroleum and natural gas. The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Woodside-funded hydrocarbon research facility during his visit to Australia in 2005.

  • richardmitnick 10:48 am on March 11, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Stanford researchers develop a smartphone app to simultaneously treat and track autism", ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder,   

    From Stanford University: “Stanford researchers develop a smartphone app to simultaneously treat and track autism” 

    Stanford University Name
    From Stanford University

    March 6, 2019
    Nathan Collins

    A smartphone app that could help diagnose autism uses a game to encourage kids to act out concepts such as being an artist or the feeling of being surprised. The app takes video of the kids at play to analyze and detect indicators of autism. (Image credit: Courtesy Wall Lab)

    Diagnosing autism can take half a day or more of clinical observation, and that’s the quick part – often, families wait years just to get to that point. Now, in hopes of speeding things up, Stanford researchers are developing a smartphone app that could drastically reduce the time it takes to get a diagnosis.

    The heart of the app, called GuessWhat, is a game that encourages kids to act out concepts such as playing baseball or the feeling of being happy. But just as important, says creator Dennis Wall, an associate professor of pediatrics and of biomedical data science, is the fact that the app takes video of kids at play – video that preliminary work suggests can be analyzed to figure out if kids have autism.

    With help from a Neuroscience:Translate seed grant from the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, Wall, James Landay, a professor of computer science, and colleagues are expanding GuessWhat’s capabilities as not just a diagnostic tool but perhaps a therapeutic one as well.

    “Children are missing an opportunity” to get help with autism, Wall said, and if the project is successful, it will “address a critical need in the diagnosis of autism.”

    Charades as diagnostic tool

    The original idea for GuessWhat, Wall said, came to him while playing a smartphone-based version of charades. In that game, players hold a phone on their foreheads, screen facing out, so that others can see a cue – a picture of an astronaut, for example – and try to guess that cue from what their friends act out.

    Wall realized that by getting kids to act out a variety of different concepts – astronauts and the like, but also emotions or social situations – he might be able to capture video of children and use machine learning algorithms on that video to determine the probability any one child had autism. That, Wall said, could be useful both for diagnosis and for tracking developmental progress. And for parents, it could be done relatively quickly and without having to wait years for a visit to a specialized clinic.

    “I thought if we could do something like this for autism, if could be really powerful,” Wall said.

    Here’s how it currently works. After parents or other adults open the app and sign in, they hold the phone up to their foreheads, screen facing out so a kid can see it. The screen then displays an image – pictures of emojis or people in various jobs or social situations – for the child to act out. The adult then tries to guess what the image represents.

    The difference from usual charades is the video. While a child plays, the smartphone’s camera captures video, which serves two purposes. In the initial stages, Wall, Landay and colleagues already know which kids have autism and which don’t, and the point is to analyze the video using machine learning methods to figure out which facial expressions, movements or other behaviors distinguish those with autism. From that, the app would learn to detect indicators of autism, which a child’s doctor could then use to screen kids without having to see them in a specialized clinic. Preliminary experiments, Wall said, suggest the strategy could work – and that the time is right to expand the team’s efforts.

    Charades as therapy

    Now, Wall said, “our goal is to build it up, and that’s where the seed grant comes in.” With that funding, the team is gearing up for field tests with a wider group of families, who will participate in co-designing the next version of the app. The team will also continue to gather data that could help the app better distinguish between kids with and without autism.

    The seed grant will also go toward developing GuessWhat into a therapeutic as well as diagnostic app, creating what Wall calls an action-to-data feedback loop. “That could enable us to track progress using GuessWhat game play as a metric while treating the children” to be more able to function well in social situations, Wall said. “Once they’re more social, many will switch tracks from a delayed development track consistent with autism to a more typical development track.”

    In the coming months, Wall and colleagues will work with clinicians to incorporate elements of two standard autism therapies, known as discrete trial learning and pivotal response training, into GuessWhat. Some features of those therapies, such as flashcards that teach kids to discriminate between emotions and games that emphasize imitation and social interaction, could be relatively easy to implement in a smartphone app, Wall said. Ultimately, the hope is to get ready for clinical trials to test GuessWhat’s therapeutic value sometime in the next few years.

    But the most important goal may be simply to keep track of a lot of data – for example, which diagnostic decisions are made and why. “Medicine in general has failed to do a good job of record management,” Wall said. “So, when something happens in a doctor’s office – identifying a breathing abnormality with a stethoscope, a visual screen of a developmental delay, a screen of the eyes – much of what drives that doctor to arrive at a decision is lost.” By actually storing lots of data on kids playing games, researchers have a better place to start when trying to understand what autism is and how to address it.

    “No one has ever captured this data before,” Wall said. “That creates an opportunity to do much, much more for developmental pediatric health going forward.”

    Wall is a member of Stanford Bio-X, the Maternal & Child Health Research Institute and the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. Landay is a member of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. Additional collaborators are Haik Kalantarian, a postdoctoral fellow in pediatrics and biomedical data science; Peter Washington, a graduate student in bioengineering; researchers Aaron Kline and Qandeel Tariq; and clinical research coordinators Kaitlyn Dunlap and Jessey Schwartz.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Stanford University campus. No image credit

    Stanford University

    Leland and Jane Stanford founded the University to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.” Stanford opened its doors in 1891, and more than a century later, it remains dedicated to finding solutions to the great challenges of the day and to preparing our students for leadership in today’s complex world. Stanford, is an American private research university located in Stanford, California on an 8,180-acre (3,310 ha) campus near Palo Alto. Since 1952, more than 54 Stanford faculty, staff, and alumni have won the Nobel Prize, including 19 current faculty members

    Stanford University Seal

  • richardmitnick 7:40 am on March 8, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, Autism TDF,   

    From Autism TDF Theatre Initiative: “TDF Autism Friendly Performances Audience-thrilling. Autism-friendly” 

    Austim TDF


    TDF Autism Friendly Performances present Broadway musicals and plays in a friendly, supportive environment for children and adults who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or other sensitivity issues and their families and friends. Since 2011, TDF has presented more than 15 autism-friendly shows on Broadway, starting with Disney’s landmark musical The Lion King.

    Some of the many autism-friendly performances on Broadway since then include Mary Poppins, Spider-Man, Wicked, Matilda, Phantom of the Opera, Aladdin and more. TDF’s autism-friendly performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was the first autism-friendly performance of a non-musical in Broadway history.

    Beyond Broadway, TDF’ works with theatres across the country as part of its National Autism Friendly Performances to help create environments that are accessible to all.

    TDF Autism Friendly Performances present Broadway musicals and plays in a friendly, supportive environment for children and adults who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or other sensitivity issues and their families and friends. Since 2011, TDF has presented more than 15 autism-friendly shows on Broadway, starting with Disney’s landmark musical The Lion King.

    Some of the many autism-friendly performances on Broadway since then include Mary Poppins, Spider-Man, Wicked, Matilda, Phantom of the Opera, Aladdin and more. TDF’s autism-friendly performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was the first autism-friendly performance of a non-musical in Broadway history.

    Beyond Broadway, TDF’ works with theatres across the country as part of its National Autism Friendly Performances to help create environments that are accessible to all.

    Upcoming autism-friendly shows for the 2018-2019 season:

    The Lion King, Sunday September 30, 2018 at 1 p.m. — SOLD OUT
    Frozen, Sunday November 4, 2018 at 1 p.m. — SOLD OUT
    Aladdin, Sunday March 3, 2019 at 1 p.m. —
    My Fair Lady, Sunday May 5, 2019 at 1 p.m.

    Performance Schedule
    SUNDAY @ 3 PM

    The most beloved musical of all time, Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY returns to Broadway in a lavish new production from Lincoln Center Theater, the theater that brought you the Tony-winning revivals of South Pacific and The King and I. Now nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival!

    Directed by Tony winner Bartlett Sher, the stellar cast tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a young Cockney flower seller, and Henry Higgins, a linguistics professor who is determined to transform her into his idea of a “proper lady.” But who is really being transformed?

    The classic score features “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On the Street Where You Live.” The original 1956 production won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, and was hailed by The New York Times as “one of the best musicals of the century.”

    What makes a performance autism-friendly?

    Slight adjustments to the production are made, including reduction of any jarring sounds or strobe and spot lights that shine into the audience. House lights are faintly dimmed but remain on. TDF works closely with professionals in the field and with consultants on the autism spectrum to make each show accessible and enjoyable for everyone.

    TDF creates resources for each production that help prepare audience members for a day at the theatre. A team of volunteers and autism specialists are available throughout the theatre. Break areas are available to anyone who may need to leave their seats during the performance.

    TDF Autism Friendly Performances are funded in part by:

    Darlene & Stuart Altschuler; The Theodore H. Barth Foundation; Helene and Ilene Berger; The FAR Fund; The Joseph H. Flom Foundation; Harry S. Black and Allon Fuller Fund, NEXT for AUTISM from the proceeds of Night of Too Many Stars; Stavros Niarchos Foundation; Adolph and Ruth Schnurmacher Foundation; Seventh District Foundation; and The Taft Foundation.

    This program is supported, in part, by public funds from New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

    This program is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

    If you too would like to support the work of the Autism Friendly Performances, please make a donation.

    We can make no assurances that these performances will be suitable for everyone with autism. Parents and guardians are solely responsible for their child’s viewing and engagement with these performances.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    About TDF
    A not-for-profit organization
    What is TDF?

    TDF is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing the power of the performing arts to everyone.

    Mission Statement

    TDF sustains live theatre and dance by engaging and cultivating a broad and diverse audience and eliminating barriers to attendance.

    Vision Statement

    TDF envisions a world where the transformative experience of attending live theatre and dance is essential, relevant, accessible and inspirational.

    For everyone who ever saw something live on stage
    or dearly wished they could.
    For every kid who wonders what if.
    For every teacher who’s looking to light the spark.
    For everyone who wants to know the thrill
    of the live experience, but thinks it’s not for them.
    We’re here to say: it’s for all of us.
    For the enthusiasts, the young, the old,
    the newbies and the nostalgics, the critics,
    the purists and the innocents.
    For those electric moments that change
    how we see, think, feel, live.
    For all those players, producers and creators
    who make the magic.
    For today’s shows and audiences – and tomorrow’s.
    For everyone who wants to feel the power
    of the performing arts.
    We’re here.
    We’re tdf.

  • richardmitnick 5:02 pm on February 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, Brain clock ticks differently in autism, ,   

    From RIKEN: “Brain clock ticks differently in autism” 

    RIKEN bloc

    From RIKEN

    February 15, 2019
    Adam Phillips
    RIKEN International Affairs Division
    Tel: +81-(0)48-462-1225
    Fax: +81-(0)48-463-3687
    Email: pr@riken.jp

    The neural ‘time windows’ in certain small brain areas contribute to the complex cognitive symptoms of autism, new research suggests. In a brain imaging study of adults, the severity of autistic symptoms was linked to how long these brain areas stored information. The differences in neural timescales may underlie features of autism like hypersensitivity and could be useful as a future diagnostic tool.

    Sensory areas of the brain that receive input from the eyes, skin and muscles usually have shorter processing periods compared with higher-order areas that integrate information and control memory and decision-making. The new study, published in the journal eLife on February 5, shows that this hierarchy of intrinsic neural timescales is disrupted in autism. Atypical information processing in the brain is thought to underlie the repetitive behaviors and socio-communicational difficulties seen across the spectrum of autistic neurodevelopmental disorders (ASD), but this is one of the first indications that small-scale temporal dynamics could have an outsized effect.

    Magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of high-functioning male adults with autism were compared to those of people without autism. In the resting state, both groups showed the expected pattern of longer timescales in frontal brain areas linked to executive control, and shorter timescales in sensory and motor areas. “Shorter timescales mean higher sensitivity in a particular brain region, and we found the most sensitive neural responses in those individuals with the most severe autistic symptoms,” says lead author Takamitsu Watanabe of the RIKEN Center for Brain Science. One brain area that displayed the opposite pattern was the right caudate, where the neural timescale was longer than normal, particularly in individuals with more severe repetitive, restricted behaviors. These differences in brain activity were also found in separate scans of autistic and neurotypical children.

    The team of Japanese and UK researchers think that structural changes in small parts of the brain link these local dynamics to ASD symptoms. They found changes in grey matter volume in the areas with atypical neural timescales. A greater density of neurons can contribute to recurrent, repetitive neural activity patterns, which underlie the longer and shorter timescales observed in the right caudate and bilateral sensory/visual cortices, respectively. “The neural timescale is a measure of how predictable the activity is in a given brain region. The shorter timescales we observed in the autistic individuals suggest their brains have trouble holding onto and processing sensory input for as long as neurotypical people,” says Watanabe. “This may explain one prominent feature of autism, the great weight given by the brain to local sensory information and the resulting perceptual hypersensitivity.”

    See the full article here .



    Stem Education Coalition

    RIKEN campus

    RIKEN is Japan’s largest comprehensive research institution renowned for high-quality research in a diverse range of scientific disciplines. Founded in 1917 as a private research foundation in Tokyo, RIKEN has grown rapidly in size and scope, today encompassing a network of world-class research centers and institutes across Japan.

  • richardmitnick 2:20 pm on February 13, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Adults With Autism to Benefit From New Employment Center at Rutgers, , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, , Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services, , The first program of its kind in the country   

    From Rutgers University: “Adults With Autism to Benefit From New Employment Center at Rutgers” 

    Rutgers smaller
    Our Great Seal.

    From Rutgers University

    February 14, 2019
    Megan Schumann

    Craig Lillard of Princeton (left) who works at Harvest in the Institute for Food Nutrition and Health as part of the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services with mentor Doug Stracquadanio. Courtesy of Rutgers University

    Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services, the first program of its kind in the country, will more than double in size

    The Rutgers University Board of Governors today approved a proposal by the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology to build a new facility for the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services (RCAAS) on Rutgers-New Brunswick’s Douglass campus.

    The two-year-old center, the first of its kind at a higher education institution in the United States, currently provides employment, vocational training and other services to 12 participants who commute from home. The expansion will enable the program to serve up to 30 participants. The project, estimated to cost $9.5 million, will be paid for through philanthropic funds.

    Christopher Manente, executive director of RCAAS, said, “We are committed to serving adults with autism by providing meaningful paid employment, full integration into the Rutgers community and ongoing research and training related to helping adults with autism lead full lives. We serve as a model that can be replicated at colleges and universities, or within small communities across the country.”

    Current participants have paying jobs on campus, five days a week, in food service, horticulture maintenance, university mail services, document and records management, the Rutgers Cinema, computer retail services, and other areas. Participants also benefit from individualized services to help them succeed on the job and maintain their independence in the community.

    The new facility will include a multifunctional gathering space and vocational training space, administrative offices for faculty and clinical staff and support spaces and provide community-based job training, life skills and recreational opportunities.

    Autism and autism spectrum disorder are among the fastest-growing developmental disabilities in the United States. Rutgers-New Brunswick’s Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology created the center to address the well-documented shortage of quality services that help adults with autism lead meaningful and productive lives, and to conduct research that can inform the development of other programs for adults with autism.

    The new building will be at the location of the former Corwin Dormitories on Nichol Avenue between Comstock Street and Dudley Road in New Brunswick. Its development will include demolition of the vacant Corwin residential buildings. Groundbreaking is expected later this year.

    Rutgers-New Brunswick is a leader in autism research facilities. The Rutgers University Cell and DNA Repository, containing the world’s largest collection of autism biomaterials, and the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, which includes an on-campus K-12 day school for children with autism from across New Jersey, are among many research and educational programs for autism at the university.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition


    Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a leading national research university and the state’s preeminent, comprehensive public institution of higher education. Rutgers is dedicated to teaching that meets the highest standards of excellence; to conducting research that breaks new ground; and to providing services, solutions, and clinical care that help individuals and the local, national, and global communities where they live.

    Founded in 1766, Rutgers teaches across the full educational spectrum: preschool to precollege; undergraduate to graduate; postdoctoral fellowships to residencies; and continuing education for professional and personal advancement.

    As a ’67 graduate of University college, second in my class, I am proud to be a member of

    Alpha Sigma Lamda, National Honor Society of non-tradional students.

  • richardmitnick 3:14 pm on February 12, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, , Stoney Brook U-SUNY   

    From Stoney Brook University – SUNY: “Is Autism Truly a Spectrum?” 

    Stoney Brook bloc

    From Stoney Brook University – SUNY

    New Research Suggests Classification More Complex

    February 8 , 2019
    Gregory Filiano

    A new study of children and adolescents suggests classifying autism is complex and not an all-or-nothing diagnosis.

    A new Stony Brook University-led study that compared two large independent samples of children and adolescents totaling about 6,000 people with and without diagnosed autism reveals that autism may be better understood as several interrelated spectra rather than a spectrum. The study is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

    According to the lead researchers – Stony Brook University Professor Matthew Lerner and graduate student Hyunsik Kim – the study findings may have vast implications with the way professionals classify autism and better understand and map the array of experiences of autistic people.

    Kim explained that the results indicate autism is combined of three related domains of atypical behavior – social interaction difficulties, interpersonal communications difficulties, and repetitive or restrictive thoughts or actions. And each of these domains can range in severity from very mild to severe.

    “All of this suggests autism is not best understood as an all-or-nothing diagnosis, nor a single spectrum, but rather related spectra of behavioral traits across a population.”

    The research is supported in part by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Stoney Brook campus

    Stony Brook University-SUNY reach extends from its 1,039-acre campus on Long Island’s North Shore–encompassing the main academic areas, an 8,300-seat stadium and sports complex and Stony Brook Medicine–to Stony Brook Manhattan, a Research and Development Park, four business incubators including one at Calverton, New York, and the Stony Brook Southampton campus on Long Island’s East End. Stony Brook also co-manages Brookhaven National Laboratory, joining Princeton, the University of Chicago, Stanford, and the University of California on the list of major institutions involved in a research collaboration with a national lab.

    And Stony Brook is still growing. To the students, the scholars, the health professionals, the entrepreneurs and all the valued members who make up the vibrant Stony Brook community, this is a not only a great local and national university, but one that is making an impact on a global scale.

  • richardmitnick 2:48 pm on January 31, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, Changes in RNA editing play an important role in the disorder scientists find,   

    From UCLA Newsroom: “UCLA-led team uncovers critical new clues about what goes awry in brains of people with autism” 

    From UCLA Newsroom

    January 30, 2019
    Stuart Wolpert

    Changes in RNA editing play an important role in the disorder, scientists find.

    The research of UCLA professors Xinshu (Grace) Xiao, Dr. Daniel Geschwind and their team is the first comprehensive study of RNA editing in autism spectrum disorder.

    A team of UCLA-led scientists has discovered important clues to what goes wrong in the brains of people with autism — a developmental disorder with no cure and for which scientists have no deep understanding of what causes it.

    The new insights involve RNA editing — in which genetic material is normal, but modifications in RNA alter nucleotides, whose patterns carry the data required for constructing proteins.

    “RNA editing is probably having a substantial physiologic effect in the brain, but is poorly understood,” said co-author Dr. Daniel Geschwind, UCLA’s Gordon and Virginia MacDonald distinguished professor of human genetics, neurology and psychiatry and director of UCLA’s Institute for Precision Health. “RNA editing is a mysterious area whose biological implications have not been much explored. We know what only a handful of these RNA editing sites do to proteins. This study gives a new critical clue in understanding what has gone awry in the brains of autism patients.”

    More than 24 million people worldwide are estimated to have autism. In developed countries, about 1.5 percent of children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as of 2017. The disorder affects communication and behavior, and is marked by problems in social communication and social interaction, and repetitive behaviors.

    “We need to understand how a panoply of genetic and environmental factors converges to cause autism,” Geschwind said. “RNA editing is an important piece of the autism puzzle that has been totally under-appreciated.”

    The researchers analyzed brain samples from 69 people who died, about half of whom had autism spectrum disorder (which includes autism and related conditions), and about half of whom did not and served as a control group.

    Xinshu (Grace) Xiao, the senior author of the research and UCLA’s Maria R. Ross professor of integrative biology and physiology, and her research team analyzed seven billion nucleotides for each brain sample.

    Xiao’s team discovered reduced editing in the group members with autism. Specifically, they identified 3,314 editing sites in the brain’s frontal cortex in which the autism patients had different levels of RNA editing from the control group. In 2,308 of those sites, the individuals with autism had reduced RNA editing, said lead author Stephen Tran, a graduate student in UCLA’s bioinformatics interdepartmental program who works in Xiao’s laboratory. In the 1,006 others, they had increased levels of RNA editing, he added.

    Stephen Tran. Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

    In the brain’s temporal cortex, the people with autism had different levels of RNA editing from the control group in 2,412 editing sites, with 1,471 of those sites showing reduced editing levels, Tran said. In the brain’s cerebellum, the autism group members had different levels of RNA editing from control group members in 4,340 sites, of which 3,330 sites in the autistic brain had decreased levels. All three of these brain regions are very important in autism.

    The research, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, is the first comprehensive study of RNA editing in autism spectrum disorder.

    Xiao said RNA editing can be thought of as RNA mutations, analogous to the DNA mutations that are linked to many diseases.

    “The same piece of DNA can generate multiple versions of RNA, and possibly lead to different protein sequences,” said Xiao, director of UCLA’s bioinformatics interdepartmental graduate program. “RNA editing allows cells to create novel protein sequences that are not written in the DNA.”

    Scientists had long assumed that a sequence of RNA is a faithful copy of a gene’s DNA sequence — and that RNA is merely the cellular messenger that carries out DNA’s instructions to other parts of the cell. “This assumption was proved to be wrong when RNA editing was first discovered in the 1980s,” Xiao said, “and we are finding many examples where the genetic codes we inherit from our parents are edited in our cells.”

    In another major finding, the researchers identified two proteins, called FMRP and FXR1P, that regulate abnormal RNA editing in autism spectrum disorder. FMRP increases RNA editing and FXR1P decreases RNA editing, Tran discovered. The autism group had reduced editing levels regulated by FMRP, as well as reduced RNA editing overall.

    “This is the first strong data showing a broad and direct functional role for FMRP and FXR1P in the human brain and autism,” Xiao said.

    “Something about what FMRP does is clearly critical to autism pathogenesis,” Geschwind said. “Grace and her team show that these two related proteins are likely responsible for the reduced RNA editing, as well as the occasional increased RNA editing.”

    It is currently unknown, he said, whether the changes the people with autism had in RNA editing caused their autism, contributed to the disorder or were a result of it. “We can’t assign causality,” said Geschwind, who praised the research of Xiao’s team as “elegant and brilliant.”

    RNA editing may also be disrupted in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. The research team plans to continue to study this as well as other brain diseases.

    Xiao and Tran replicated their findings by analyzing the frontal cortex from a different group of 22 people who had autism spectrum disorder and a control group of 23 without the disorder. They found the same pattern of editing reduction as they found originally, Tran said.

    The researchers found RNA editing alterations in genes of critical neurological relevance to autism, including CNTNAP2 and CNTNAP4, NRXN1 and NRXN3, ANK2, NOVA1 and RBFOX1.

    Xiao and Tran used powerful methods of bioinformatics and statistics to identify the RNA editing sites, including a method similar to GIREMI that Xiao designed in 2015 with Qing Zhang, a former postdoctoral scholar in her laboratory.

    In searching for causes of diseases, most research has focused on searching for mutations in the DNA. “What was missing, until recently,” Xiao said, “is to look for RNA mutations that are not coded in the DNA. These changes in the RNA could have similar impact as DNA mutations.”

    This study may eventually lead to new treatments for autism, but likely not for many years, the researchers said.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    UC LA Campus

    For nearly 100 years, UCLA has been a pioneer, persevering through impossibility, turning the futile into the attainable.

    We doubt the critics, reject the status quo and see opportunity in dissatisfaction. Our campus, faculty and students are driven by optimism. It is not naïve; it is essential. And it has fueled every accomplishment, allowing us to redefine what’s possible, time after time.

    This can-do perspective has brought us 12 Nobel Prizes, 12 Rhodes Scholarships, more NCAA titles than any university and more Olympic medals than most nations. Our faculty and alumni helped create the Internet and pioneered reverse osmosis. And more than 100 companies have been created based on technology developed at UCLA.

  • richardmitnick 1:46 pm on January 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developing New Technologies to Extend Care to All Families Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, , THE BIG IDEA,   

    From UC Davis: “Developing New Technologies to Extend Care to All Families Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder” 

    UC Davis bloc

    From UC Davis

    January 14, 2019
    Katherine Lee

    UC Davis Has the Big Idea to Make It Happen

    The prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has almost tripled since 2000, affecting one in 59 children identified in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


    “Everyone knows someone affected by autism. It’s time for us to take responsibility for the growing number of families in need of quality care,” said Leonard Abbeduto, director of the UC Davis Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MIND) Institute.

    The MIND Institute, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, was founded by families for families to advance scientific discovery and improve access to interdisciplinary, cutting-edge care. The Institute’s mission is “to use the best science we can to help as many families as we can.”

    Although ASD is a lifelong condition, effective treatments can reduce the disabilities associated with ASD and lead to happier, more fulfilling lives for families and individuals, but these treatments must be made more widely available. Currently, gaps in access to providers and affordable care make it especially hard for families who come from under-resourced populations or rural areas. Moreover, gaps in care delay early identification and intervention, affecting developmental outcomes.

    “Families in rural areas and other underserved communities may not be able to see experts without traveling long distances, which creates a financial burden and can delay treatment,” explained Abbeduto, who is also the champion of the Autism, Community and Technology Big Idea. “Technology can be used to overcome such barriers and get help to families in need everywhere.”

    This Big Idea will harness the university’s unique strengths in health, neuroscience, engineering, education, community engagement, and social sciences, involving a variety of disciplines and perspectives to find innovative solutions for ASD.

    UC Davis’ Big Ideas are forward-thinking, interdisciplinary programs and projects that will build upon the strengths of the university to positively impact the world for generations to come. Researchers, scientists, clinicians and others are working on innovative and ambitious initiatives in the field of health, sustainability and more to solve both California’s and the world’s most pressing problems.

    The Autism, Community and Technology Big Idea will pioneer a first-of-its-kind lifespan approach for everyone living with autism. By building partnerships with communities, driving innovation in affordable and accessible technologies, and training doctors, nurses, teachers, employers, and family members, UC Davis will create new ways of advancing science and helping people with autism.

    “Every field of study will be relevant to adding its expertise and creativity to the solutions being proposed by this idea,” added Abbeduto. “However, without donor support, we won’t be able to help families in the way they deserve.”

    UC Davis poised to address urgent needs

    Home to more than 50 faculty and staff across five UC Davis schools and colleges, the MIND Institute will be a hub for the Big Idea, bringing together experts from various disciplines, as well as community groups, businesses, and families, to address autism on a grand scale. This expert knowledge will then be used to train doctors, nurses, teachers, employers and community leaders throughout the country. Such partnerships will address the needs of underserved populations and the unique challenges they face, using innovative technologies and solutions to help individuals living with autism and their families across communities.

    One such partner is Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities. For more than 10 years, he has worked on projects with the MIND Institute to improve access to and utilization of services for families affected by autism, fragile X syndrome and other developmental disabilities.

    “When there is an urgent need such as this, we need big ideas to make real progress in advancing solutions,” Aguilar-Gaxiola said.

    Aguilar-Gaxiola and his team serve Solano County and other areas in California and focus on Latino, Filipino, LGBTQ and other diverse families as well as those who are low income or for whom English is not their first language. Children in these populations tend to be diagnosed with autism later than urban or white families – leading to delayed treatment and worse outcomes over time.

    “Some families live two to three hours away from providers, with more than one child with autism at home, so it is critically important for UC Davis to reach them where they are,” Aguilar-Gaxiola said.

    Telemedicine expands access to care

    Telehealth, which is remote access to health services and provider care, makes it possible for UC Davis to care for families affected by autism and other ASD conditions no matter where they live. The face-to-face interaction in their own home through video conferencing, and the use of other technology, allow parents to affordably receive direct feedback and input on how to improve interactions and build important skills in their child.

    The use of telemedicine more broadly and effectively can improve ASD screening and offer treatments in a variety of spoken languages and to families in all areas across California and the country.

    Many children with ASD have challenging behaviors or problems with the change of routine associated with travel. Technology allows these families to overcome this access barrier, bringing care into their own home.

    Abbeduto recalls several patient families who were empowered through telemedicine. During a three- to four-month video conference training series with team members at the MIND Institute, these families learned how to become their child’s language therapist and were empowered to contribute to their child’s care. They were given strategies to support their child’s language development and to reduce the kinds of behaviors that impede social interaction.

    “Originally, family members were skeptical that they would be able to engage their child in play for longer periods of time by themselves,” Abbeduto said. “But at their exit interviews, without exception they each talked about how close they felt to their child and the unexpected positive changes in their life.”

    He concluded, “This kind of knowledge helps parents and caregivers overcome the need to depend on someone else to help their family. It allows them to feel more connected and competent and have more impact on their children.”

    Fostering independence and opportunity

    As part of the Big Idea, the MIND Institute is also developing interventions for adolescents and adults, a subgroup of individuals living with ASD who often experience a sudden lack of services after high school.

    Technology will allow interventions from the MIND Institute to better address the needs of these individuals. Virtual reality, apps, artificial intelligence and facial recognition software will be further developed and tested to support positive behaviors in communication and social skills needed for daily life.

    “We can use advances in technology to continue to monitor and support individuals living with autism so they can have fulfilling jobs and take part in a wider range of social activities throughout their lifespan,” explains Abbeduto.

    Furthermore, virtual support groups could connect individuals with autism or their families to additional social skills workshops, helping them move to independence and easing some of the burden on caregivers. Smart homes, for example, could be used to provide prompts for when it’s time to take medication or a bath, and give cues for getting ready for work or making a meal. Autism experts partnering with engineers could also utilize robotics to realize new ways of providing therapies and medications.

    The vision of this Big Idea will extend the reach of this technology, employing it in communities where experts in autism or specialized services are limited or non-existent. Through virtual conferences or workshops, UC Davis will be able to train the next generation of providers, teachers and administrators. This will empower and promote positive change at the individual level and create opportunities at a systems level.

    “Through this Big Idea, and with the help of donors, we will be able to create technologies that will take the expertise of the MIND Institute and extend its reach all over the world,” said Abbeduto. “It has the ability to make a positive impact on families everywhere.”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    UC Davis Campus

    The University of California, Davis, is a major public research university located in Davis, California, just west of Sacramento. It encompasses 5,300 acres of land, making it the second largest UC campus in terms of land ownership, after UC Merced.

  • richardmitnick 11:56 am on January 8, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, ,   

    From Science Alert: “One of The Most Common Assumptions About Autism May Be a Complete Misunderstanding” 


    From Science Alert

    8 JAN 2019


    Putting yourself in another person’s shoes is never easy, and for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the practice is thought to be especially challenging.

    But even though this neurological condition is often considered a barrier to understanding complex emotions,recent research suggests this may be nothing more than a simple misunderstanding.

    For the first time, researchers have shown in a small study that adults with ASD can recognise regret and relief in others just as easily as those without the condition, and in some cases, they are even better at it.

    “We have shown that, contrary to previous research that has highlighted the difficulties adults with autism experience with empathy and perspective-taking, people with autism possess previously overlooked strengths in processing emotions,” says senior author Heather Ferguson, an expert in neurolinguistics, semantics and syntax at the University of Kent.

    Using state-of-the-art eye-tracking methods, the researchers analysed 48 adult participants – half with ASD and half without – as they read a story about a character who experiences either regret or relief.

    In the narrative, the protagonist makes a decision that results in either a good outcome or a bad outcome, and the final sentence sums up the character’s mood explicitly, saying whether their choice left them feeling regret or relief (for instance, “… she feels happy/annoyed about her decision… “).

    As predicted, when the final emotion did not match up with the rest of the story (for instance, “she bought new shoes that she loved, and she felt annoyed about her decision”), the majority of participants spent longer reading through the text. They also looked back at previous sentences more often.

    There was only one plausible explanation: the readers were trying to make sense of a story that didn’t make sense.

    Because they understood the protagonist’s desires and actions, most of the readers were able to predict whether the character would feel regret or relief – a psychological concept called counterfactual thinking.

    Previous studies have shown that this sort of thinking can be disrupted in people with ASD, but the new findings suggest something completely different.

    Instead, the results were surprisingly similar for both adults with ASD and adults without ASD. Not only were participants with ASD equally adept at recognising regret, they were actually faster at computing relief.

    Together, this suggests that adults with ASD are remarkably savvy when it comes to feeling empathy and processing emotions.

    “Thus, our findings reveal that adults with ASD can employ sophisticated processes to adopt someone else’s perspective, and use this in real-time as the reference for future processing,” the authors conclude.

    At first, the results appear to fly in the face of previous research – and it’s a small study, so we can’t get too carried away just yet. But when taking a closer look, there is another explanation.

    The authors think that the differing results may simply stem from the method.

    By removing the need for participants to describe their own emotions or the emotions of others, the new research takes a more direct route to the truth.

    Using eye-tracking, the authors were able to tap into a participant’s immediate, neurological response to emotional content. This is a useful technique because it completely cancels out the bias that a participant might exhibit when describing their understanding of another person’s emotional state.

    The authors are therefore suggesting that adults with ASD can implicitly and correctly read another person’s emotions, they just aren’t able to accurately describe those emotions to researchers.

    In other words, the past studies on counterfactual thinking may have simply been conflating expression with understanding.

    “These findings suggest that the previously observed difficulty with complex counterfactual emotions may be tied specifically to difficulties with the explicit expression of emotions rather than any difficulty experiencing them implicitly at a neurocognitive level,” the authors conclude.

    This study has been published in Autism Research.

    See the full article here .


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  • richardmitnick 11:14 am on October 26, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ASD-Autism Spectrum Disorder, , VR   

    From Science Magazine: “Virtual reality could show others what autism feels like—and lead to potential treatments” 

    From Science Magazine

    Oct. 26, 2018
    George Musser


    As part of a virtual reality simulation, this everyday scene has been distorted with some of the various effects—overexposure, blur, enhanced edges, heightened contrast, color desaturation, and visual snow—that people with autism often report experiencing. Yukie Nagai

    The forest is still—until, out of the corner of my eye, I notice a butterfly flutter into view. At first it is barely perceptible, but as I watch the butterfly more intently, the trees around it darken and the insect grows brighter. The more I marvel at it, the more marvelous it becomes, making it impossible for me to look away. Before long the entire forest recedes, and the butterfly explodes into a red starburst, like a fireworks display. Everything goes dark. Then, dozens of white dots swarm around me. On my left, they are just dots. On my right, they leave long trails of spaghetti-like light. The contrast makes me acutely conscious that the present is never experienced as a mathematical instant; it has some duration, and the perception of that can vary with context.

    The sensation evaporates as soon as I take off my headset.

    This immersive virtual-reality (VR) experience was a preliminary look at Beholder, an art installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in September that sought to recreate how autistic people perceive the world. It is now on display at the gallery that commissioned it, Birmingham Open Media. The project’s creator, Matt Clark, has a severely autistic 15-year-old son, Oliver. “He can’t talk; his behaviors are extremely challenging,” says Clark, creative director of United Visual Artists, an art and design group based in London. Clark built Beholder so he and others could see the world through his son’s eyes. He collaborated with artists who either are on the spectrum or have family members who are.

    The project exemplifies a new approach to the use of VR for autism. For more than two decades, scientists have experimented with the technology to set up controlled scenarios to study autistic traits. At the same time, some teams have used VR to create role-playing environments for practicing social skills. Increasingly, however, people with autism are using VR to convey their own experiences, both to raise awareness of the condition and to capture the cognitive and perceptual differences that characterize it. Some experts hope these efforts will lead to new research collaborations and applications.

    These immersive experiences are, in many ways, the digital equivalent of Temple Grandin’s narratives, which were among the earliest first-person descriptions of autism. A dozen or so projects that can be viewed online use loud noises or flashing lights to try to reproduce sensations such as sensory overload at a shopping mall, office meeting or family get-together. Slightly more elaborate efforts, such as the trailer for Carly Fleischmann’s book, Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism, and the animation Listen, layer the effects over a storyline. But a few are especially ambitious in aiming to provide specific sensory impressions. Examples of the latter are Beholder and an augmented-reality system created by researcher Yukie Nagai and her colleagues at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Osaka, Japan.

    Proponents of VR argue that no other medium comes as close to putting you in someone else’s shoes. “Having a perceptual experience—that’s something we haven’t been able to do without VR,” says Albert “Skip” Rizzo, research professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and a pioneer of using VR in psychiatry. “You can watch a movie, but it’s different than walking around and having your perceptual experience,” Rizzo says.

    These projects are not uncontroversial, however. So-called ‘disability simulation exercises’—blindfolding people to demonstrate vision impairment or making them use crutches to appreciate mobility challenges—are mainstays of diversity training. But they fail to capture the social isolation that is often part of a disability, and they can evoke pity and condescension, driving people apart rather than together.

    Simulations of autistic experience have been met with a similar ambivalence. They also must confront the basic metaphysical question of whether subjective experience is something that can ever be shared. “I can understand that a neurotypical parent might be desperate to understand their autistic child’s point of view,” says Susan Kruse, gallery supervisor at Birmingham Open Media, who is autistic. “But how can anyone get inside another person’s mind and experience what they experience?”

    Virtual experiments

    Autism therapists and researchers started to use VR in the mid-1990s, not long after headsets became widely available to consumers and other forms of immersion, such as first-person shooter games, became popular. Researchers often deployed the technology to create virtual environments to help autistic people rehearse stressful encounters. For instance, Rizzo’s team built a virtual job-interview training program. In a study published last year, they recruited adults with autism or other conditions for a training regimen involving interviewers who ranged from gentle to aggressive. Rizzo says the participants with autism significantly improved in their interviewing skills, as rated by job counselors.

    A similar application lets autistic children practice public speaking in a virtual classroom with an audience of eight avatars. To encourage them to look around the room rather than stare straight ahead, the avatars start to fade away if the speaker fails to make eye contact with them. “So it became a game of keeping the avatars on the screen by shifting attention,” says Peter Mundy, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who developed the program. “We found that the kids with autism really responded to that.”

    VR can also make autistic children more comfortable in strange environments. In an unpublished July 2018 case study, a team led by Nigel Newbutt at the University of the West of England in Bristol gave 11 autistic children, aged 10 to 14 years, a VR tour of a local science museum a few days before their actual visit. “Students reported feeling less anxious, less stressed, more prepared for that space,” he says. “In fact, the teachers also found that when the pupils got there, they knew where they wanted to go; they had a greater sense of purpose and direction.”

    Back in the lab, virtual environments have also offered researchers a welcome new experimental technique. Nathan Caruana, a cognitive neuroscientist who uses VR to study social cognition in autism, prefers it to standard screen-based scenarios. “All of those paradigms have largely relied on non-interactive tasks, where people are responding to a face with averted gaze on a screen,” says Caruana, associate investigator at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “But it doesn’t really reflect the dynamics and complexity of a social interaction.”

    VR also facilitates imaging experiments that would otherwise be impossible—such as enabling someone lying in a scanner to banter with virtual humans. “In order to measure this in an imaging platform, you basically have to use virtual reality,” Mundy says.

    For all its apparent advantages, however, VR has yet to be rigorously tested as a therapeutic or research tool for autism. Several meta-analyses this year turned up comparatively few studies, and most had only a handful of participants and no control group. Newbutt and a colleague, for instance, found a total of six studies since 1990 that have tested head-mounted VR displays in students with autism. “There isn’t that much evidence to support the use of this yet,” Newbutt says.

    One reason is cost, not just of the equipment but of the programmers and animators needed to create the content. Mundy laments that he hasn’t been able to implement some of his ideas for lack of people with the relevant expertise. “One of the reasons I couldn’t go further with it was that I couldn’t pay the coder as much as a high-tech company [could],” he says. Consequently, VR scenarios remain highly simplified, and the technology’s much-touted advantage—realism—remains out of reach.

    Newbutt also says that researchers have seldom asked autistic people what they want from the technology. “There’s still a bit of a tendency to research about autism and autistic groups as opposed to research with them,” he says. This is precisely what the new first-person experiences seek to rectify.

    Righting the balance

    Many people with autism are drawn to VR out of a feeling of invisibility.

    “Until a predominantly neurotypical society/culture puts in the equivalent amount of effort and time to understand us and listen to us as we put into understanding and listening to it, we will continue to be disabled,” says Sonja Zelić, an autistic artist based in London who contributed to Beholder. Imperfect though it is, VR can help to right that balance.

    Some people with autism say they prefer VR to a conventional talking-head interview because it doesn’t require them to sit in front of a camera; they can work behind the scenes. “I find it an uncomfortably voyeuristic situation to have to explain my autistic experiences publicly,” Kruse says.

    Even the best-intentioned typical people cannot fully understand what life is like for autistic individuals when it’s described only in words, says Benjamin Lok, a VR researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Lok has not worked on such projects but has a 9-year-old son, Brandon, who is on the spectrum. “Trying to explain that world that Brandon sees, not only to us, but to family members—that is a challenge,” Lok says. “I would think, if I could get my mom and dad to go through [a VR] experience, how would they interact with Brandon differently?”

    London has emerged as a center of autism-related VR projects. In 2016, Don’t Panic, a creative agency there, produced an immersive experience for the nonprofit National Autistic Society. The simulation portrays how isolated and overwhelmed an autistic child might feel at a shopping mall. In another simulation, the BBC’s corporate neurodiversity initiative puts its protagonist in an office meeting with a breathtakingly condescending coworker. Flashing lights and shimmering carpet patterns connote sensory overload, and a soundtrack that incorporates a throbbing heartbeat and rushed breathing signals a rising panic. Sean Gilroy, who ran the BBC project with an autistic colleague, says family members of people with autism or other conditions have reacted favorably. “They’ll spot things in the film that their sons or daughters or sisters or brothers have spoken about,” he says. “It brings it to life; it makes it real. It can get quite emotional for people.”

    The Party, produced by The Guardian newspaper, is notable for its inner dialogue as its teenage protagonist copes with her unsympathetic relatives and family friends. The project was the brainchild of novelist Lucy Hawking, daughter of the late physicist Stephen Hawking; her son, William, is autistic. The script writer, Sumita Majumdar, is also autistic, and the project involved input from autism researchers. “We tried to be true to the science, but it was really important that we built a lot of the visual experience of the film on what people had said,” says Owen Parsons, a graduate student in Simon Baron-Cohen’s lab at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “Of course, if the science is correct, then those two things should not disagree with each other,” Parsons says.

    Real-time reflections

    The augmented-reality system created by Nagai’s team also draws heavily on input from people with autism. Instead of dropping you into a department store or house party, it takes a video feed of wherever you happen to be and transforms it in real time to what a person with autism might experience. Whatever claim it has for representing autistic perception rests on a simple principle: People with the condition report that their sensory experience changes with context. “Sometimes I’m in a good condition, and sometimes I’m in a very bad condition,” says Satsuki Ayaya, an autistic doctoral student at the University of Tokyo who worked with Nagai on the simulator. Ayaya says these fluctuations make her conscious of what her condition involves and how it might differ from the neurotypical experience. The augmented-reality system seeks to replicate these fluctuations in autistic perception. “There are variations of symptoms in each individual,” says Shin-ichiro Kumagaya, associate professor of medicine at the University of Tokyo and another of Nagai’s collaborators. “It is the foundation to verify the validity of this system.”

    In 2014, Nagai showed 22 autistic people videos of a train station, a supermarket and two dozen other everyday vignettes. In each of these settings, the participants rated which of 12 visual effects they experienced and to what degree. The team edited that list down to six particularly common effects: overexposure, blur, enhanced edges, heightened contrast, color desaturation and visual snow. Nagai correlated the participants’ reports with the features of each scene, such as brightness, movement and sound level. In the end, she settled on the last three of these visual effects as being the most reproducible for her simulation.

    Nagai’s simulator is an unwieldy contraption: a standard gaming headset kitted out with a webcam. Cables run to a laptop that a graduate student carries in a sling like a newborn. When I strap on the simulator on a May day in Osaka, I have a normal, if slightly lagging, view of the room around me. As the student switches on the simulator, though, Nagai’s face blurs, making her expressions hard to read. Turning away, I quickly find myself captivated by what appears to be an abstract Impressionist painting; it turns out to be a gray cubicle partition. I look at my hand; the creases resemble intricate henna art. The system’s heightened contrast brings out even the smallest textures.

    Led by Nagai, I shuffle down the hall and out into the parking lot. Everything is whited out at first, as if I’ve taken off my sunglasses on a glaringly bright day. Whenever I turn my head or a car drives by, color drains from the image, like applying a noir filter on Instagram. As we re-enter the building, the abrupt darkening unleashes a blizzard of random speckles across the scene like so many polka dots. The lobby’s uneven lighting is exaggerated. Shafts of light alternate with darker regions, giving people ghostly outlines.

    The simulation is purely visual, but Nagai says they have been recruiting volunteers for a study of sound perception. The team is experimenting with audio effects such as white noise; drone notes, such as a constant 1000-hertz background sound; and filters that suppress certain ranges of audio frequencies.

    Since 2015, Nagai and her colleagues have held some two dozen workshops in Osaka and Tokyo for teachers, therapists and parents of autistic children, in which they let people try the simulator, see clips from it in several everyday settings, and then discuss it. The researchers also screen conventional video documentaries about autism. Ayaya was initially dubious about the project but has since come around. “It was better than I expected,” she says. The simulation highlights aspects of her perception, such as the visual snow, that she had taken for granted, she says. “I was surprised that neurotypical people were surprised,” she says.

    Being made aware of these perceptual differences could even help people with autism develop strategies to compensate. “One of the participants in our experiments told me that after she joined our experiment she started wearing sunglasses in her daily life,” Nagai says. “Also, she told me she changed the lights in her room to an LED system so that she can control the brightness.”

    Ayaya stresses that even if the simulator succeeds at representing the autistic sensory experience, it cannot capture higher-level aspects of perception. “You may see how we see, but what you feel is not always the same as what we feel,” she says.

    A forthcoming paper on the simulator reinforces this point. Kuriko Kagitani-Shimono, a pediatric neurologist at Osaka University, says she showed video clips from the simulator to 45 autistic people and 46 neurotypical volunteers and used magnetoencephalography to measure their brain responses. The patterns of activity did not match. “The actual sensory responses of autistic people are different from those of typically developed people wearing the simulator in many ways,” she says.

    Nagai has not demonstrated the system outside these workshops, and a YouTube video does not do it justice, so other researchers were unable to comment. They say they like the principle it is based on, however. Parsons says the real-time feed might provide greater immediacy than a scripted film. “You’re getting that experience one step closer,” he says. Newbutt praises Nagai’s partnership with people on the spectrum: “Autistic people themselves can reproduce visual experiences, and this is very novel and something that has not been done before,” he says.

    Intersubjective experiences

    Researchers are looking toward broader applications of VR to help autistic individuals. In September, Nagai held a workshop for architects and interior designers. Open-plan offices and fashionably noisy restaurants seem almost calculated to frustrate people with autism, and VR systems could be used to sensitize designers. “There could also be new directions for research, for example, in relation to how spaces—such as schools, doctors’ surgeries—could be designed to better reflect the needs of a neurodiverse population,” says Sarah Parsons, an autism researcher at the University of Southampton in the U.K. who consulted on “Beholder.”

    Therapists, too, could use a simulator of autistic perception in their training. Lok has helped to develop simulators for doctors and nurses to practice their bedside manner, albeit not for autism. He founded a company, Shadow Health, to sell these virtual patients. “They can look any way; they can sound any way; they can behave any way that the educator wants them to; and you can get immediate feedback on how you did,” he says.

    Clark says the technology could also be adapted to provide a portable meditative space for people with autism. “This could act as a place of sanctuary,” he says. In one unpublished study, Newbutt asked 31 autistic and 13 typical students, aged 6 to 16 years, at four English schools to rank the needs they thought VR could fill. The top choice in both groups of students was for VR as a means to relax when they feel overwhelmed. “Their preference, across all of those questions, is that [VR] makes them feel relaxed and calm,” Newbutt says.

    Mundy also envisions a multiplayer or ‘yoked’ experimental paradigm in which two participants work together. One would be a passenger in the other’s experience, so as to see (and learn from) how the other reacts. “The world is no longer reacting to your gaze and head turns and things of that nature; it’s reacting to somebody else’s,” Mundy says. “You’re seeing the world and interacting with the world in a passive way.” Autistic and typical people alike could benefit from inhabiting someone else’s point of view, he says. “Virtual reality has the potential to establish real-time intersubjective experience.”

    As with other uses of VR in autism research and therapy, however, there has been a lack of systematic evaluation. Participants in Nagai’s workshops fill out exit questionnaires, but Kumagaya says the team has only just begun to follow up to see whether the experience has any lasting effect on attitudes toward people with autism. For now, the only evidence that VR succeeds at eliciting empathy is anecdotal.

    Many worry that by portraying only one narrow dimension of autism, VR applications may actually backfire. Zelić is blunt about its limitations: “I feel that it is almost impossible to convey the depth of autistic intensity and emotion visually because we don’t express this in recognized neurotypical ways, and so these types of reconstructions can fall into a kind of parody.” A cautionary tale comes from schizophrenia research. Over the past two decades, numerous researchers have developed immersive experiences of psychosis that depict visual and auditory hallucinations, including malign voices. These simulations can be disturbing to watch. In 2011, a meta-analysis of nine such projects found that they made the participants more empathic to people with schizophrenia but also less willing to interact with them.

    The Beholder project seeks to present more general impressions that give a fuller sense of the autistic experience. “I didn’t really want to be drawn into another stereotypical ‘how difficult life would be if you had this condition’ [situation],” Clark says. “I think there’s a place for that, for sure, but I meant to do something different.”

    Clark, known for his eclectic multimedia installations and stage sets, says the project started with an awkward pause in conversation with Birmingham Open Media’s founder, Karen Newman. “We were just talking about family life and quickly realized that both Matt’s son and my brother are autistic,” she says.

    The two artists decided to explore VR as a natural way to communicate alternative modes of perception. Clark began observing his son more purposefully, watching for what captivated the boy. “He would open the curtains a little bit and just study the dust motes, as if it was like a universe of stars that were floating around,” Clark recalls. The pair also recruited Zelić and Kruse. Kruse described, among other things, how when something moves through the air, she sees it as though it were drawing out a path through space, giving each moment an extended duration. (Others have also suggested that altered time perception is a distinguishing feature of autism.)

    The team opted to focus on what Clark’s son and Zelić find beautiful and translated these thoughts into a series of nature scenes, including the one with the butterfly. “No one ever thinks to talk about autism from this [positive] perspective,” Kruse says. “The narrative is always focused on difficulties, or the strange, maybe dramatic differences of the autistic mind.” And the vignettes they developed are compelling as art, regardless of what they may or may not say about autism. In one preview scene of Beholder, rain falls onto the floor, sending out languid ripples; in another, leaves fall gently to the ground. In yet another, I was shrunk to mouse size, lost but in awe of giant blades of grass swaying overhead.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

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