Memory hub could underlie social, cognitive quirks of autism

For most of us, telling a tale from our childhood is a simple, often spontaneous act. For people with autism, however, relating life experiences — whether from years ago or yesterday — can be a tall order.

Autism has an unusual effect on memory: It disrupts the recall of everyday events but often goes with an enhanced ability to hold onto facts. Many people with autism can master enormous amounts of detail about a chosen interest, be it the London transit system or the life of Georgia O’Keeffe.

These traits, among others, implicate the brain’s main memory hub, the hippocampus, in the condition. Preliminary studies in animals suggest that disruptions to the hippocampus and its circuits could underlie some of the cognitive difficulties common among people with autism1,2.

Some of these problems, such as trouble remembering social information, may stem from problems with memory per se. But others may relate to memory only indirectly.

“We’re recognizing that the hippocampus is really critical to a lot of the things that are clearly absent in autism — things like being able to flexibly make decisions based on past experiences,” says Loren Frank, professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Studies of the hippocampus could one day help to explain features of autism ranging from poor social skills to difficulty switching from one idea to another — an aptitude known as ‘cognitive flexibility,’ Frank says.

This brain region might also lend clues to therapy: People with autism may be able to use some unusual cognitive strengths to compensate for their weaknesses.

Social scripts:

The hippocampus’ name derives from its resemblance to a seahorse. In the 1950s, scientists established its role in memory after noting that people with a damaged hippocampus could not form new memories.

The anatomy of the structure may be somewhat atypical in the condition. One study of 8- to 12-year-olds found that children with autism have a larger right hippocampus than controls do, but this size difference diminishes as the children get older3.

The consequences of this anatomical oddity are unclear. But research hints that there are specific strengths and weaknesses in the way people with autism remember and learn.4

The hippocampus governs declarative memory, the conscious recall of facts and events. People with autism struggle with one aspect of declarative memory — autobiographical events. A detailed memory such as eating caramel corn at a carnival in yellow rain boots doesn’t stick in their minds5.

On the other hand, they are good at, and may even excel at, retaining names, dates and definitions, and other facts. These skills also fall under the purview of declarative memory. In one 2008 study, a group of individuals with autism with average or above-average intelligence named the objects in a series of pictures at least as rapidly and accurately as controls6.

In fact, declarative memory may help people with autism make up for some of their other difficulties, says Michael Ullman, professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.7. Because they have trouble with social skills, they may memorize ‘scripts’ for, say, how to behave at a birthday party or what to say when meeting someone new.


Although the hippocampus is often said to ‘store’ memories, it doesn’t function like a filing cabinet, says Frank. Instead, it’s more like an orchestra conductor, touching off patterns of activity elsewhere in the brain — in areas needed for processing sensory stimuli, emotions and so on — that result in the experience of a memory.

As a result, a glitch in the hippocampus, or its broader cognitive circuit, does not necessarily result in a memory storage problem. For example, people with autism may have trouble using memories to make decisions — a process that requires rapid toggling between internal thoughts and the external world. Deciding what to say in a conversation, for instance, involves listening to someone, registering their meaning and matching that with stored information and experiences — in milliseconds.

“Being able to switch attention back and forth is a critical aspect of our normal cognitive processes,” Frank says. “And that seems like something that may not be working well in autism.”

Frank and his colleagues have found that disrupting neural traffic between the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer shell, in rats leads to autism-like repetitive behaviors8. These animals may resort to such repetition because they cannot flexibly respond to varied, unpredictable stimuli, Frank says.

Frank’s team is studying a rat model of fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition related to autism, to see whether the rats have abnormalities in hippocampal circuits.

Conflict resolution:

People with autism may also have trouble altering memories in the face of conflicting information. For example, boys with fragile X syndrome are just as good as controls are at remembering items on a list. But they struggle with tasks that require integrating knowledge from different sources.9 “They tend to have a deficit when they’re asked to do something that contradicts what they were initially asked to do,” says Andre Fenton, professor of neural science at New York University.

Fenton and his team are investigating these ideas in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome. They have found that fragile X mice can learn to avoid an area that delivers an electric shock. But when the shock zone moves, they are slow to learn its new location2.

The team has identified one unusual feature in the mice, in hippocampus cells that track an animal’s location in space: The firing patterns of the cells are highly similar, even in different conditions. “It’s almost like it’s hyper-perfect. It’s hyper-reliable,” Fenton says. These over-synchronized neural signatures may underlie the difficulties with cognitive flexibility in people with autism, Fenton says.

Strangers everywhere:

In August, researchers reported a connection between memory formation in the hippocampus and genetic risk for autism. They found that in mice, turning on or off certain autism-linked proteins contributes to neuronal changes thought to underlie learning and memory formation in the hippocampus10.

One part of the hippocampus may be especially relevant for social behavior. Studies in mice suggest that this region, known as CA2, is crucial to social memory — an animal’s ability to recognize and remember details about members of its own species.

This area has a high concentration of receptors for oxytocin, a hormone involved in social behavior and bonding. In a 2014 study in mice, a team led by Richard Tsien at New York University found that oxytocin directly increases the activity of CA2 neurons involved in establishing social memories.

In another study that year, a separate set of researchers engineered a mouse in which they could specifically silence CA2 neurons. The results were striking. The mice recognized familiar objects and found their way through a maze as adeptly as controls. And they were social, sniffing other mice placed in the same cage. But they lost their social memory: They treated mice they had met before as strangers, sniffing them just as much as they did new mice1.

The role of the CA2 region in autism is not yet known. “Clearly the symptoms of silencing CA2 are not identical to the symptoms of autism where loss of sociability is one of the key findings,” says Steven Siegelbaum, professor of neuroscience and pharmacology at Columbia University in New York, who led the study. But problems with CA2 neurons could contribute to low social aptitude in autism, he says.

Siegelbaum’s team has found impaired CA2 function and social memory in a mouse model of 22q11.2 syndrome, a genetic disruption linked to schizophrenia and autism11. The researchers are investigating possible disruptions in the region in mice lacking the autism-linked genes CNTNAP2, SHANK3 or NRXN1a. If changes in CA2 function are associated with autism features in the mice, the researchers plan to test whether increasing or decreasing the activity of neurons in this region alleviates these features, Siegelbaum says.

This sort of research raises the possibility that future treatments for autism could attempt to modify the function of specific types of hippocampal cells. In the meantime, people with autism may be able to use their solid grasp of facts to circumvent some difficulties. Many autism interventions draw on this strength, explicitly instructing children when to make eye contact or how to take turns rolling a ball back and forth.

“Declarative memory is a really powerful and flexible system,” Ullman says. “It can [be used to] learn all sorts of different compensatory strategies.”



Writing about autism: ‘Parents are sick of being asked what special skill their child has’

It was at my first event for Shtum, almost exactly a year ago at Dulwich Books in London, when I first got a taste of the impact the book would have. Almost everyone asked me about autism. It may seem naive but I didn’t expect it. Despite having been a father to a non-verbal autistic son for almost 16 years, I had never had an in-depth conversation with anyone about the subject, apart from solicitors, barristers and doctors.

The event at the bookshop was something of a watershed in my life – and not an altogether comfortable one, for I had never been a joiner. No groups, no clubs, no societies, no Facebook groups, nothing. I had guarded my privacy and opinions. This had nothing to do with shame surrounding my son’s autism – far from it. But it was based on two long-held realisations of my own character: I hated confrontation and felt my opinions were of little value. And when one is crippled by the first, the second feels like pulling teeth. The first has not changed; the wrongness of the second, I am still coming to terms with.

So how did Shtum come about under such personal strictures?

It was born, using Pethadine and forceps, during a master’s in creative writing at City University, London. The course director told me I should write about autism. I told him I wasn’t going to. He may have mentioned the word “hook”; I may have replied with the word “bollocks”. And then I went home and thought about it and came back with two criteria: it had to be honest and it had to include genuine humour.

So I began writing and planning, and it quickly morphed into something wider, something thankfully beyond memoir – which I wanted to avoid at all costs – and into a work that discussed wider issues of communication and family secrets; how the ability to express oneself verbally is no guarantee of proper human communication.

During a first reading of 1,500 words above a pub in Clerkenwell, my current agent approached me – actually, within a couple of days, three other agents had emailed me hoping to see the finished manuscript, which was exciting and uplifting. But I still had to finish it. Finishing a novel is difficult – one as personal as mine even more so – but following many iterations and six weeks of anxiety after it was sent out, it was bought by Orion. And I thought the hard part was over.

And so back to the event at Dulwich Books. Autistic people and parents of autistic children are protective of their children and vocal critics of depictions of autism in the arts and media. That night I had extremely positive feedback from both groups. Subsequent events all over the country and online reviews have also proved to me that Shtum has provided a rallying point and, at the very least, solace to those parents of autistic children like mine who do not speak and who are sick of being asked what special skill their child possesses. I think the most often-used word in relation to Shtum has been “finally …”

I find this all humbling and gratifying. It has now been 10 months since the hardback was published. I have been a writer for 30 years, so the critical acclaim Shtum has received feels like a shock, but also a vindication of all the hard work that went into it.

As it is published in paperback, I am once again about to embark on a full schedule of readings, Q&As and panel discussions, most of which will no doubt focus on autism rather than the mechanics of writing. I think I’ve come to accept that if the mechanics are invisible, the story can shine even brighter – this has always been my experience as a reader – and I hope it continues to shine.


Emma waits in the kitchen because the smell makes her gag. So the day unravels like every other: bath running, Jonah standing half-sodden while I open the windows, remove the bedsheets and spray the mattress cover with disinfectant. The sheets I ball together with his reeking pyjamas. The aromatic nappy and soiled wipes get tied in a plastic bag, and in he hops –the bubble-covered water turning to consommé on contact. I clean him vigorously, showering off the stubborn bits, and dry him with his navy towel – any other provokes a tantrum. Dressed, I shoo him along the corridor for breakfast. That’s our division of labour – she deals with what goes in and I deal with what comes out.



Adults with autism overcome childhood language challenges

Results of a small study of adults with autism at Johns Hopkins has added to evidence that their brains can learn to compensate for some language comprehension challenges that are a hallmark of the disorder in children.

Studies analyzing electrical activity in the brains of children with autism have shown that they have difficulty sorting out pairs of words that are unrelated—like “clock” and “frog”—from those that are related—like “baby” and “bottle”—making it hard for them to process written or spoken language. Moreover, investigators believed that for most children with autism, this struggle with language persisted throughout their lives.

Results of the new research from specialists at Johns Hopkins Medicine, published in the March issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, suggests that at least some adults with autism process unrelated words as well as adults without the disorder and their brains use distinct learning strategies to do so.

“There is often an assumption that people with autism will always have problems understanding the meaning of language,” says Emily Coderre, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “But our results suggest that adults with autism seem to use an alternative mechanism to process language that results in a different pattern in the brain.”

For the study, the researchers recruited 20 adults with autism spectrum disorder, considered mild to moderate. All participants had “normal” verbal abilities, according to standardized tests. Those with autism spectrum disorder were diagnosed by a specialist on the team based on their score on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule. Some participants were diagnosed early in life, and others not until adulthood. Many participants went to regular schools with special education tracks. Some participants had graduated high school, and some went through college. The research team also recruited a matching group of 20 participants without autism to serve as a comparative control group. Participants overall ranged in age from 18 to 69. Six were female, 35 were white, one was Asian, two were African-American, one was Hispanic and one was mixed race.

All participants completed a 90-minute computer task that asked them to decide whether two pictures or two words were related (e.g., baby and bottle) or unrelated (e.g., frog and clock). The task designers chose 400 pairs of tangible nouns, half of them in the form of words and the other half displayed as pictures.

One hundred of the noun pairs were related words, 100 were related pictures, 100 were unrelated words and 100 were unrelated pictures. The screen showed a picture or a word for 1 second and after a brief pause displayed the second picture or word.

While the participants completed the task, the researchers monitored their brain’s electrical activity using an electroencephalogram (EEG) that recorded activity from 256 electrodes. For their analyses, the researchers looked at the brain activity from nine small clusters of electrodes on the front left, middle and right of the head over the frontal cortex; in the left, middle and right of the top of the head over the central brain; and on the left, right and middle part of the back top of the head, where the parietal lobe is located.

When analyzing unrelated pictures or words, people with typical development have a spike on the EEG during the 200- to 800-millisecond window following the second word or photo, known as an N400 response. Researchers believe the N400 response reflects the brain’s ability to recognize that something is “off” and that two words or pictures aren’t related in a meaningful way.

When looking at related and unrelated pictures, the people with autism had the same N400 spike on the EEG readout as the people without autism.

Contrary to findings from earlier studies in children with autism, adults with autism also had the N400 spike in electrical activity on the EEG when looking at related and unrelated words. In the controls, the response occurred at 250 to 500 milliseconds in the front of the head and from approximately 400 to 800 milliseconds over the top and top rear of the head. The response in the adults with autism started later, from 400 to 800 milliseconds in both the top and top rear of the head.

From 400 to 800 milliseconds, the N400 spike was relatively evenly distributed over left and right sides of the head for the control participants, whereas in adults with autism, the spike was stronger over the right side of the head. Coderre says that these differences between the groups—an earlier onset of the N400 response for controls and a more right-sided N400 response for the adults with autism—suggest that the two groups used different strategies to think about the meaning of the words. She points out that overall, the adults with autism showed a similar N400 response to the controls, suggesting that they weren’t impaired at teasing apart the unrelated from the related words, contrary to previous studies in children with autism. “It appears that although the adults with autism in our study have brains that are ‘wired’ differently than those without autism, our findings strongly suggest this different wiring can still enable them to achieve good cognitive and language abilities, at least on this one measure,” she says.

“It is possible that some adults with mild or moderate forms of autism may have developed compensatory learning strategies that allow them to process language as well as people without autism,” says Coderre. She plans to repeat this experiment in children with mild to moderate autism to verify that the differences seen between adults and children are due to learned responses.

“If we can understand those compensatory strategies better, then teachers can use this information in language programs for children or those with more severe language deficits to help them develop these alternative strategies faster and earlier,” she adds. “I hope our study sends a hopeful message to people with autism or their parents.”

Coderre says that one limitation of her study is that they used single words for their analysis, simplifying it, whereas others in previous studies used full sentences in their study design, which may have affected the results. She also points out that they asked participants to think about whether the two words were related or not, which may have prompted them to use more explicit compensatory strategies. In future studies, she plans to repeat this experiment using an “implicit” task, in which participants aren’t told to think about the relationship between the words, allowing her to verify whether these results were due to learned compensatory strategies in adults with autism.

About 3.5 million people in the U.S. have autism, according to the National Institutes of Health, and about a quarter of those are nonverbal. Those with speech have difficulty with complex language processing, like understanding meaning, emotional states in the voice or metaphors.



Autism in the brain, region by region

If the brain were a house with many rooms, you wouldn’t find autism in just one of them. Autism has many causes and many forms. But no matter which form it takes, it seems to touch the entire brain. It permeates and perturbs the beams, foundation, wiring and piping of the house, rather than just, say, the kitchen.

Still, autism does have local effects: Different regions of the brain contribute uniquely to autism’s impact on cognition, emotion and behavior.

In this special report, we detail the regional consequences of autism, one brain area at a time. Studies of the hippocampus, for example, may help explain the uneven effects of autism on memory. Investigations of the superior temporal sulcus may provide a window into the impact of autism on social perception.

The report is ongoing. Over time, our reporters will step into the various rooms of the brain to probe autism’s effect on those regions.



How I Learnt to Thrive Living with Autism

6 years ago, back in 2011, life was very different for me. I had just been diagnosed with a form of autism, as well as an anxiety disorder and OCD. I was stuck in a school where I was not understood and subject to vicious bullying. I couldn’t do anything but feel helpless. However, this was until I learnt how to not only accept my diagnoses, but to thrive in spite of these conditions. This saw a new, positive chapter in my life begin.

What It’s Like Getting the Diagnosis


Being diagnosed with an illness or a disability, and proclaimed as ‘different’, isn’t easy for anyone. But when I had these labels slapped on me, my mind grieved for ages. As an adolescent in a community comprehensive school, I knew that any sort of difference would be picked up on and seen as an excuse to be bullied. I was not normal anymore, or so my peers seemed to think.

I would be in class, and people would shout abuse my way. All I heard was variations on: “You freak, you retard, go die!”, which really hurts at a young age. Want to know the most shocking thing? Not even the teachers understood. They were pretty much indirect ringleaders – ignorant of understanding and, even with specialist support, unwilling to adapt to a student with different needs. I would cry myself to sleep and hope to be accepted, to be some degree of normal, again.

It became clear that this was not acceptable, so after years of my parents fighting for what’s known as a ‘Statement of Special Education Needs’ – basically, a document outlining what support is needed that’s bound by law – we won. Within just a week or two, I moved to a more understanding mainstream school, which was a relief.

The Challenges of Living with Autism


The challenges of living with autism differ on a person-by-person basis, as people with autism exist on a highly complex spectrum. With Asperger’s Syndrome, I’m at the higher end of it. I have average/above average intelligence in certain areas, but still find social situations and adapting to them hard.

For example, I’m very driven to succeed in my career as a writer and journalist, but I can find it hard to adapt to new surroundings and to not seem socially awkward. But once I get used to a place or a community of people, I’m fine. To me, it’s about assessing a situation and coming to terms with it, whether that takes seconds, minutes, hours, days or even longer. You need to feel comfortable and safe, which is extremely hard if you’re on the spectrum.

Other challenges? There are many. I can be very persistent. This can be a good thing, in that I can demonstrate how passionate I am about something. But others can find this to be, quite frankly, annoying – which is understandable, because we’re all busy and have our own agenda. Still, I sometimes wish people would be more understanding and empathetic. I – and others with this condition – don’t mean any harm. We’re just trying to get by.

How I Learnt to Thrive Living with Autism

I’m not going to lie: it took me ages to adapt to living with autism. And I certainly never thought I’d thrive with it, even though my parents, close family and friends knew I could.

I’ve always loved being creative, especially with words. So, being stuck in my own mind and not knowing anything of the future, I decided to set up a personal blog. I wrote about coping with autism and the things going on in my, well, random mind. Soon, though, I paired this with my technical interest and set up a tech reviews site.

I would nag PRs for gadgets to review – under an alias, actually – and they obliged, which felt so enriching because clearly they believed in me and my blog. It soon become clear that I loved doing this and decided that journalism was for me.


When I had to find a work placement in Year 10, I took it upon myself to contact the local newspaper. A few days later, I received correspondence saying I was too young to conduct a placement. But this was not enough. So, yes, I did what any persistent person would do and contacted the paper’s MD. It turned out he understood autism having a son with the condition, and had me in for work experience.

This was so encouraging, and I felt so at home. Also, the fact that he replied showed me that, yes, I do have what it takes. And perhaps more importantly, that yes, I am different, but who cares? It was a major boost to my self-confidence, which had been left in tatters from being in a school where I seemed destined for failure.

Soon, my GCSEs came and I got into college to study English along with a BTEC in business. I’ve now come to the end of my college studies and have a place to study English at Swansea University. I’m very excited to start in September.

The lesson from my story? As with people not on the spectrum, using your interests to find a sense of purpose in life is paramount to thriving with autism. If you’re autistic, you’re capable of doing anything that a non-autistic person can do, whether that’s excelling at your studies or job, or having a meaningful relationship. Don’t let anyone make you think otherwise, as no one ever really thrives if they only listen to other people.

Final Thoughts

I’ve learnt so many things on the road to where I am today. The most pivotal has been being able to not only accept my condition, but to look at it in a positive light. I no longer see my autism as differentiating me from society, but rather as a part of my identity – that this is me, and that’s OK.

If I didn’t have this outlook, I’d be a totally different person, and know I wouldn’t be as focussed as I am. I genuinely believe that I’m spurred on by my interests more than anything else, but the support of those around me has also been crucial. Ultimately, the thing I’d say to anyone with autism is to just be yourself, surround yourself with people who understand and care, and follow your passion. That’s all you can do, really. But then isn’t that all anyone, autistic or not autistic, can do in life?




Autism Inspiration – Another Child OFF the “Spectrum” thanks to this mum’s LOVE & COMMITMENT

I hope this story serves as inspiration. We are led to believe health issues can’t be resolved and this simply is not the case in the very vast majority of cases. This family has achieved what modern medicine believes to be the impossible. With commitment to a healing protocol and the desire to want the best for their child AND the willingness to push through discomfort they have succeeded in seeing their son well on the road to recovery and no longer on the spectrum. The message here is that healing is possible but not without change and challenge. Success is only ever achieved if we are willing to feel the discomfort and do it anyway, don’t let your own “pain” impact your child’s potential healing and optimal health!

We began our GAPS journey almost 18 months ago and it’s been a rollercoaster ride.  However, the pre GAPS days with the stress and the worry that there was something wrong with our child, and his obvious unhappiness were a lot more stressful then GAPS ever was.

There were so many times people said to me ‘it must be so hard’ or ‘I don’t know how you do it, I don’t think I could’.  In reality, I found life a lot harder before GAPS.  It certainly is hard at the start, so much to learn and understand. The initial resistance, the sickness that can come from a major change of diet, die off, understanding the different things they may be sensitive to, regressing, the list goes on.

However, there are also the gains.  There is joy in watching your child eat such nutritious food, AND wanting it.  The immediate improvement with his digestion that I never realised was such a big issue, but the continuous crying that often followed meals stopped.  The joys of hearing him speak, losing his sensory issues, coping in crowds, and having eye contact with me.  The learning curve is huge but I have gained a lot of knowledge in 18 months.

I have gone through many hurdles, feeling overwhelmed, fear, not trusting my gut feeling as a mum, sacrifice, tears, regression, bothered by people’s opinions to name a few, but the gains have been incredible.  I have no doubt that our quality of life would be much different today if I had not intervened as I did.  The approach is not mainstream but if you take the time to learn and go with it, it is effective.

Every child is different and there is always going to be doubt, questions and this is where help is so necessary.  There is so much information and things to be unsure off. For me Sally was a huge support.  It is so important to have someone who understands and has knowledge to help you through the bumps on the road, and provide guidance to get you there successfully. Her compassionate and supportive nature was also very empowering, and her knowledge and guidance helped me find missing pieces in the puzzle, so thank you Sally.

The objective of this is not to credit anyone for success but to show it is possible.  I was lucky to have the full support of my partner, but he is a FIFO worker away for 26days at a time.  I have no family to support me in this country and only a few friends that supported me, but only a couple that were really interested.  I got to where I am now with the help of Sally, a great homeopath, my partner, a couple of supportive friends, facebook support pages and a determination that there is nothing that can’t be improved by lifestyle choice, nutrition and love.

My journey is not quite over, but I now have a happy, ‘normal’ child who is no longer on the ‘spectrum’ and continues to improve. It also saddens me what our modern society is doing to our children and it is up to us as parents to learn and guide our children as best we can. We do what we have to do, and the light and new sparkle in their eyes as you go through the journey makes it so worth it.



Cute 6 years old boy looking through the window

Researchers Are Studying Fecal Transplant As A Potential Treatment For Autism

To treat brain disorders like autism, scientists increasingly are targeting a different part of the body: the gut.

Imbalances in the gut microbiome ― the community of trillions of bacteria living in the digestive tract ― have been linked with mental and neurological disorders, including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Parkinson’s disease. Now, medical researchers are looking into ways of improving the health and diversity of the gut’s bacterial community in order to better treat these conditions.

New research suggests that the gut also may be an important site of intervention for autism spectrum disorders. Children with autism have been found to have a less diverse gut microbial community than neurotypical children, as well as lower levels of important strains of healthy bacteria. Scientists suspect that these differences play a role in behavioral symptoms of the disorder, like impaired social functioning.

“The role of microbiome in autism has received a lot of attention in the last couple of years,” Dr. Mathew Pletcher, vice president and head of genomic discovery at Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization, told The Huffington Post. “There is a lot of data supporting a link between behavior and digestive health.”

The preliminary study, conducted by researchers at Arizona State University and published in the journal Microbiome, showed that “microbiota transfer therapy” ― aka fecal transplants ― can improve the diversity of the gut microbiome, easing gastrointestinal and behavioral symptoms of austism.

While fecal transplants aren’t yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the early results are promising. Study co-author Dr. James Adams called findings “very compelling.”

“We completed a Phase 1 trial demonstrating safety and efficacy, but recommending such treatment and bringing it to market requires Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials,” Allen, a molecular biologist at the university, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing research on this treatment method with a larger, placebo-controlled trial in the future.”

Targeting The Gut To Treat The Mind

For the study, the researchers recruited 18 boys and girls ages 7 to 16 who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Each participant underwent a 10-week treatment program that included antibiotics, a bowel cleanse and daily fecal microbial transplants for two months.

Fecal transplants work by introducing the fecal matter of a healthy donor to the patients. The transplanted material contains around 1,000 different strains of gut bacteria, acting like an ultra-potent probiotic to help restore the health and diversity of the recipient’s intestinal flora.

At the end of the eight-week period, the participants showed a significant increase in the diversity of their gut microbiome, and increases in certain healthy bacteria strains thought to be deficient in children with autism. The healthy new microbes remained, even after the treatment period ended.

These changes in the microbiome seemed to lead to significant long-term symptom reduction. The participants showed an average of 80 percent improvement of gastrointestinal symptoms (which commonly occur with autism disorders). They also showed a 25 percent improvement in behavioral symptoms, including better sleeping habits and social skills.

”We were hoping for some improvement in autism symptoms and were pleased to see about a 25 percent improvement in only 10 weeks,” Dr. Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, a biologist and study co-author, told HuffPost. “It was great to see that autism and GI symptoms improvement remained at least eight weeks after treatment stopped.”

New Hope For Treating Autism

The next step for the team is to conduct larger, placebo-controlled trials to confirm the efficacy of the treatment.

While fecal transplants aren’t quite ready for widespread public use, other methods of improving gut health could be of benefit to individuals with autism. A Baylor College study published in June suggested that adding one particular strain of beneficial bacteria into the gut of individuals with autism could lessen symptoms.

Some parents have also have found success using dietary interventions to improve gut health. But so far, research is too limited to support a nutritional approach.

“Dietary changes such as increasing fiber intake, avoiding food allergens, or taking probiotics may have some limited benefit for some individuals, but in our opinion this treatment has a lot more promise,” said Krajmalnik-Brown. “Probiotics only contain one to 10 strains of bacteria that do not normally grow in the gut, whereas human microbiota contain more than 1,000 strains.”

But it’s early days yet. Pletcher, who was not involved in the research and reviewed the findings for HuffPost, warned of the study’s small sample size.

“I wouldn’t say these results are necessarily surprising, but with a study of this size ― we have to not over-interpret the results,” Pletcher said. “This is an encouraging first step in determining if this type of treatment will provide real benefit to the autism community.”

In other words, don’t take it upon yourself to try this one just yet. The researchers caution that improper techniques used without the guidance of a physician could result in serious harm.

“Families, do not try this at home,” said Krajmalnik-Brown. “Microbiota should be very carefully screened and the treatment should be done under medical supervision.”



5 Changes in The First Year of an Autism Diagnosis

Having a child diagnosed with Autism is life changing. This neurodevelopmental condition is so prevalent, yet many parents struggle with the changes ahead.

After noticing the subtle signs of a developmental delay in our child, we reached out to a psychologist who performed an evaluation in our home and diagnosed our son at just over two years old with Autism.

Here are some of the changes I’ve noticed in the first year of the diagnosis and, hopefully, can help you:

1. Your appreciation for life grows

Suddenly, as you watch a child grow and struggle in life you come to realize how valuable life is.

As the parent of a “non-verbal” three-year-old I can now see how the little things begin to matter more. My three-year-old son saying “box” and pointing to a box means more to me than you could imagine. Every effort he makes to verbally communicate is a blessing. Life is so fragile; once you come to terms with this diagnosis you can begin to let go of expectations and appreciate reality.

2. Your perception of everything changes

I suddenly hear, feel and see things differently. My mind is hyper aware and I’m hyper sensitive to everything. I can walk into a room and tell what will cause a meltdown, frustration or great joy to my son.

This ability has been evolving since my son’s diagnosis one year ago and I know it will continue to change as he grows. I may not always be able to control the environment around him, but at least I know I can help him navigate every day life.

3. You don’t care about material things

Suddenly, I do not own many valuable items. My clothing is extremely inexpensive. The decor in my house is minimal. The toys are everywhere but never for a long time, as we like to keep the home decluttered.

Valuable collectives simply don’t stand a chance here and if we happen to have them, like an antique child’s toy piano, it’s okay that my son broke it. As a family we find little real value in expensive items; we prefer to spend our hard eagerned money on making memories.

4. You admire other special needs parents 

Once you become a special needs parent you will begin to find suppport groups and organizations that can help you and your family. When I meet these parents I can connect to their struggles so easily; we don’t even have to say a word. If I know you have a special needs child, I am on your side. The stress of daily life for special needs parents is real; we never know what challenges lie ahead of us. We also are constantly worrying about the future—will our child be able to enjoy his/her life? It’s comforting to know we are not alone, so I always urge these relationships with other special needs parents to grow as we provide support to one another.

5. Your hopes and dreams will change

Not long ago, I imagined running a business and getting back into the work force to alleviate the financial stress of having a single income family. Because of my son, that has changed. My current dreams are to help families of children with special needs and disabled people.

I do hope to join the work force in a freelance field, but realistically as my son grows and his younger sibling grows as well, I am forever focused on their wellbeing first. I believe my dreams have completely changed but I am excited to see where it takes me.

I hope these steps help you gain greater perspective about your child and yourself.



The do’s and dont’s after an autism diagnosis

Over ten years ago, my son Tate was diagnosed with autism and my life was forever changed. I am regularly asked for advice from parents of children newly diagnosed with autism. The diagnosis can be intimidating and parents are sometimes unsure of where to turn or what to do. I don’t have all the answers. But I do remember the panic, fears, denial, and the distress I felt when my own son was diagnosed. I know now so many things I did not know then. I can honestly say that the life we are living is not scary at all. And so I tried to put into words some of the things that I thought might help a parent of a child newly diagnosed with autism.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis intimidate you. Do give yourself some time. Do some reading. Ask some questions. Do not jump to conclusions. Do not let all the doctors, therapists, educators, or the price tag that comes with autism intimidate you. One day you will look back on this and wish you could reassure yourself because you’ve got this.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis cause you to feel sorry for yourself. Do count your blessings. In reality there are things so much worse than an autism diagnosis. Look around you. There are people dealing with truly tragic situations. Now, roll up your sleeves. Your role as your child’s advocate is going to keep you busy. Things are going to be okay.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis cause you to forget. Do remember that sweet baby you fell in love with! He/she is still that child! Don’t become so caught up in the present or so fearful of the future that you forget what’s important. Don’t forget that you are your child’s parent first and his teacher/therapist second.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis leave you feeling self-conscious or paranoid. Do understand there is no guilt to be had or blame to be placed. There is nothing you could have done differently to prevent your child’s autism. I will not lie. If your child melts down, or engages in stereotypic behaviors in public, there will be stares. There will possibly be rude questions and awkward silences. There will probably be people who think your child needs discipline when, in fact, discipline would be pointless. Don’t let people who are uneducated about autism cause you to feel humiliated. Know this: It does get easier with time.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis isolate you. Do reach out for help. It is true that some people unfamiliar with autism might stop coming around after the diagnosis. They do not understand the behaviors, the meltdowns, the necessity for routine, and the jargon we speak. If you find yourself in need of understanding, find a parent who has already walked a few miles in your shoes. Online groups can be helpful. There are most-likely support groups and other parents in your situation within driving distance. Look to public schools and recreational activities in your area, as well as religious programs. There is a lot of camaraderie in the autism community. Reach out. We help each other.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis rob your other children. Do explain autism to your children and what it means to your family. A child with autism will likely need more care than his siblings. Reassure your other children often and show them how important they are to you. When possible try to include all your children in the therapies and activities your child with autism needs. There may be many things your other children want or need that your child with autism cannot participate in. Sometimes your other children will have to have your undivided attention too. Your world cannot ALWAYS revolve around the child with autism.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis steal your joy. Do maintain a sense of humor. You have a choice. You can dwell on all the what-ifs and the should-have-beens and become bitter or you can accept what is and look for the joyous moments around you. Having a child with autism will not suck all the fun out of life. A sense of humor can help you tremendously. The fact is, autism or not, kids are fun and kids say and do really funny things. Enjoy those things. Don’t let autism silence the laughter in your home.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis squash your hope. Do be willing to dream a little differently. Before the autism diagnosis you were possibly envisioning driver’s education, college, a wedding, and grandchildren. Don’t stop dreaming dreams for your child. Those things still might happen. If, as your child ages, it becomes clear some of those things will not be happening, then modify your expectations. But stay motivated to help your child become the best that he can be.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis cause you to doubt your faith. Do take advantage of the things autism can teach you. God does not “zap” families with autism because they’ve been “bad.” Many parents of children with autism report they have become much more patient and understanding people since their child’s autism diagnosis.

Don’t let the autism diagnosis pull you into frivolous debates. Do use your time and energy wisely. You have got important things to be doing. Focus your attention, time and energy on your children and their needs. Don’t get caught up in the autism community debates that lead to nowhere. Whether or not you choose to use the word “autistic” or the phrase “person with autism” is no one’s business but your own. Your right to disclose your child’s diagnosis to everyone in your community or keep it in house is also your own. These kinds of disputes are not helpful and only cause division in the autism community. Don’t get involved. Your time is much too valuable.

I can imagine what you are feeling. I have been there. Autism is like a thief in many ways. It has been known to rob children of their childhoods. It can sometimes steal the joy and hope from parents. Autism has drained a lot of bank accounts and has ruined marriages. But it does not have to be that way. Don’t let an autism diagnosis do those things to you.





Translate Autism: Making The Disorder A Gift Not A Curse

Recognize the Challenge

It was the night of the 4th of November, and a child was born. The boy was seemingly healthy at birth. 2 years later, the boy’s father was given the possible diagnosis, and his unbelief became denial. Common belief was that his son was autistic. One year later, this question haunted the boy’s father, “What is perfect about autism?” He, like many fathers, didn’t know how to translate autism into a positive thing at all, so he imagined himself to be wrong in his thinking. “Who would ask such an insensitive question?” he would ponder.

Today, being much different, I gladly admit that I am the man who initiated that question, and I am the father of an autistic son, named Malik. When that question “What’s perfect about autism?”…arose in my mind concerning his diagnosis, and “…only a monster could ask something so cruel.”

Depression instantly took hold, and I pushed the idea into the dark quarters of my mind. Simultaneously, I blocked out the sickening thought whenever it came to light. I was broken, and consumed by the mental wars in which I was entrenched.

Once the denial subsided and I recognized the issue, these selfish questions took hold in my mind, “Why my family? Why me?” Initially at least, I was bitter, disbelieving, and disgruntled over the cards dealt to my young son, but ironically, the haunting question that I had first hated: “What is perfect about autism?”, drove me to find its answer. A challenge that communication, which is the foundation of the answer, taught in this article.

Cultivation, and the controversial practice that I call “Clipping the Wings of the Disorderly”, both being explained in full detail at a later date, brought the answer. Like weavers, they intertwined my unraveling family together.

Accepting Autism

The ability to recognize something and having the ability to accept it are two very different abilities. I recognized that my son is autistic. The first time the actual words came out of my mouth, I wept bitterly. Today, voicing that reality since having accepted the truth, brings me peace of mind. This fact empowered me to look at the challenge with a better attitude. Autism, while affecting individuals in different ways, is actually a communication disorder.

My entire life, I had always equated autism to mental retardation and low I.Q. To be clear, I was very wrong in that assumption. In fact, most autistic cases don’t affect intelligence whatsoever. This realization was the most eye opening, or at least I thought it was.

That realization brought another, and I began to realize why I really did not want my son to be autistic. To be frank, I didn’t want to have a dumb son. My philosophy on what value means was so selfish and offensive. I thought of my own son, whom I am supposed to unconditionally love, as a burden almost. If anyone, I was the one who needed treatment or specialized help. It took being thrown that far out of my comfort zone to realize my grievous mental disorder – Selfishness. Even still, there are greater realizations to find.

Before I looked into understanding the disorder, the catalyst to my change was the mind-altering account of one of the greatest treasures in the human race. Her name is Temple Grandin. Later, you will read the interpretation of the story of Temple Grandin that author and historian, Robert Greene, presents in the instant classic, Mastery. Her life is a triumph in perseverance, and a testament to the fact that the autistic are viewed, treated, and at times, even raised incorrectly. Once I learned of her truly awe-inspiring biography, I was moved to learn more of this misunderstood disorder.

Before being made privy to the fact that autism is a communications problem, my mental fabric was torn with ignorance. Thankfully, today when I remember my previous self, who thought the way I did, I no longer recognize him. When I finally caught a glimpse of my repulsive reflection, my instinct was to get it away from me. Much like that cold, blinding fog, being chased away by the morning star, my selfishness has been pushed out. With the veil lifted, at last I envisioned what for many families is an ally, my family’s foremost foe – Communication.

Communication is Key

Considering that communication is the underlying symptom of the autism disorder, I made a decision. If this disorder is going to cripple my son’s ability to verbalize his inner thoughts, our family’s mission will be to focus on learning communication to the best of our ability. The hope was this: if we could communicate on a higher level we could 1) Compensate for some of his main shortcomings, and 2) As we learn and evolve, although his evolution will be slower, he too will come to adapt to his weaknesses. My family quickly accepted the new focus on communication, but I’ve always had a tendency to dream big. Becoming a master of language is harder than it sounds. While we were learning, we still had our moments of frustration and misunderstanding. Interesting enough, Malik became the most patient person among us. To this day, there’s probably only one that I would consider to have transcended previous language barriers within our family unit – only Malik.

When presented the opportunity, my sons and I have a morning routine we perform together. Our ritual begins with a brisk walk starting just before daybreak. Malik, on this morning, was 5 years old and still non-verbal. At dawn, Malik’s ability to communicate shone as evidently as the sunrise. I watched him thoroughly explain his mood and desires without using words. His use of non-verbal cues, his body language, and his facial expressions, all shifting from sequences to simultaneous actions is like an art in and of itself. My autistic son taught me how to translate autism from negative to positive. His gift allowed him to do that, instead he would transform a disorder, into an instrument, one he practices continually.

To strangers, his attempts and interactions make little sense. Those who know my son will testify that Malik is capable of communicating deeply detailed emotions, non-verbally. Everyone who knows him describes his charm, his innocent humor, and his stubborn streaks. They would also relate that Malik has an obsessive love for animals, and for building of any sort. What few see is the determination. This determination, an inner-strength, is often overlooked. He sees himself as able, no matter what, he will not give up. Verbal communication will not elude him forever. I am sure once his tongue is loosened and he merges body language with spoken communication, nothing will stand in his way. Then, what we all called a disorder will prove to be a gift. A trying fire, if you will, manifesting gold of greater purity.

Temple Grandin: The Role Model

Temple Grandin was forged in that same fire. She came forth as a peculiar treasure, with a worth far above rubies. Historian, Robert Greene, sheds light on Miss Grandin’s life in his masterpiece, Mastery. Mr. Greene paints a heartfelt picture from which the autistic and their parents will undoubtedly draw not only strength, but inspiration as well. In Mr. Greene’s words:

“Some people do not become aware of inclinations or future career paths in their childhood, but instead are made painfully aware of their limitations. […] Nobody faced this fate more powerfully than Temple Grandin. In 1950, at the age of three, she was diagnosed with autism. She had yet to make any progress in learning language, and it was thought that this would remain her condition. […] But her mother wanted to try one last option, […] she sent Temple to a speech therapist, who miraculously, slowly managed to teach her language.”

“Despite this improvement, Temple’s future still appeared limited at best. Her mind functioned in a different way she thought in terms of images not words. […] She was not good at socializing with other children, who often made fun of her for her differences.”

“Whenever she felt troubled she instinctively retreated to two activities that were comfortable to her: interacting with animals and building things with her hands. […] Several years later she found herself pursuing a master’s degree in Animal Sciences at Arizona State University. […] Her professors there could not understand such an interest, and told her it was not possible. Never being one to take no for an answer, she found professors in another department who would sponsor her. She did her study, and in the process caught a glimpse of her Life’s Task. […] Slowly, with her visual sense of design and engineering, she taught herself the rudiments of the business. She expanded her services to designing more humane slaughterhouses and systems for managing farm animals.”

“With this career solidly in place, she proceeded to go further: she became a writer; she returned to the university as a professor; she transformed herself into a gifted lecturer on animals and autism. Somehow she had managed to overcome all of the seemingly insurmountable obstructions in her path and find her way to the Life’s Task that suited her to perfection.”

In my eyes, Temple Grandin demonstrates one ability strongest: The Ability to Translate Autism. After my mind recognized that my son was autistic, I then journeyed through my inner darkness. Truth and understanding brought acceptance, like a lamp of light, causing the darkness to flee and show me what I had to do. First and foremost I had to answer the question, “What is perfect about autism?” The answer is this: The disorder is perfect because, it makes those it challenges, and those in close relation to the challenged to translate autism from seemingly a disability, to the power it can become. Thankfully, my son’s gift of autism proved to be the answer all along. Making use of what we were given galvanized that answer. Though we have only begun to learn the first aspect of this three part translation, parents, caregivers, friends and family alike must experiment with these three helping hands. Communication, cultivation and “Clipping the Wings of the Disorderly” in order to learn the necessary translation.

Do not receive the curse of autism; receive the gift and the freedom, not the failure the “disorder” brings.