Foods For Thought: An Insight Into Special Diets

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Diets: caveman, paleo, “ape,” low carb, low glycemic, zone, ketogenic, specific carbohydrate, GAPS, “grain brain,” “wheat belly”diet — why is there so much interest in these diets? What are they targeting? Is it gut dysbiosis/inflammation or food allergies, or insulin dysregulation, or gluten intolerance, the optimal primate food, or something else? Is there perhaps a unifying explanation for their widespread applicability?

These diets all emphasize whole foods which are low on the glycemic index and high in good fats. There is good evidence that these diets present a potent way to help many children with autism and other conditions. Regardless, we need to always remember that therapies for children with autism must be individualized, and approached gently and systematically, in order to properly assess their impact. Some children need to follow a low oxalate, or phenol-free, or FODMAPS diet, and even so, there is still good reason to follow the general dietary principles discussed below, while following these special diets. Also know that the diets discussed below have effects which go well beyond what is commonly understood, for example: food allergies, weight loss, gut repair—psychological restoration. As I will discuss below, there is a wide variety of medical issues which may improve in people who follow this dietary approach. 

One common feature with all of these diets is resistance to their acceptance by organized medicine. Reflecting on the history of these diets, this is likely due, in part, to unclear mechanisms of action, collisions with prevailing “wisdom” about healthy eating (e.g., the food pyramid and the low fat, low cholesterol diet), and a strong food lobby for processed, sugary foods. Take a walk through the middle aisles of the grocery store and make a count of the breakfast cereals, chips and crackers, breads and desserts, sweetened beverages and juices if you doubt the influence of these foods in our personal and national economy. 

With deeper research into nutritional and digestive physiology, the human microbiome, and neuroimmunoendocrinology, a solid conceptual basis for these similar diets is being established, and their value is gradually “seeping in” to ordinary medical thinking and therapeutics. A second common feature of these diets is their emphasis on simple unprocessed foods, particularly vegetables and meats.

Another common feature is that they are labor intensive, requiring home preparation of most of the foods (thus giving the consumer good knowledge of the actual ingredients, and also the touch and energy of a person known to the one eating). Yet another common feature is the physical and emotional difficulty in making the required dietary changes. Often, children crave foods to which they have allergies or intolerances, and may experience painful, addictive-type withdrawal when these foods are removed from their diet. After briefly discussing some of these diets, I’ll return to consider the above questions, and some general thoughts about diet and health.

My first experience with these diets was with the caveman diet (and I’ll here include paleo and ape diets as almost identical), taught to me by the Society for Clinical Ecology in 1981. This diet was developed as a diagnostic approach to food allergies, aiming to eliminate the most common food allergens: grains, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts, sugar, potatoes, yeast, food additives. Persuading patients to try this diet for two weeks was not easy. However, I well remember one of my first patients who took on the diet for the recommended trial period. At our two week follow-up, she enthusiastically reported the clearing of her headaches, fatigue, digestive disturbances and achiness. She asked if she could remain on the diet long term, instead of challenging the foods she’d been avoiding. She received my approval, recognizing that this diet has been well tested over the history of primates and stone age, pre-agricultural man. The understanding at that time was that the diet was treating food intolerances, with symptomatic improvement attributed to removal of offending foods. This is often true, as it eliminates the most common food allergens, but it also eliminates the rapid-acting and high carbohydrate foods.

The low carbohydrate diet, popularized by Robert Atkins, has been followed by millions of people with many different health conditions. I would include the ketogenic diet, Zone diet, low glycemic diet as close relatives of the Atkins diet. This diet focuses particularly on carbohydrates, as the source of health problems, and aims for a very low (Atkins or ketogenic) or low (Zone, low glycemic and many others—SouthBeach, Protein Power, Rosedale) carbohydrate intake.

The first recorded publication on this dietary approach was in 1863 (Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public), by William Banting, a carpenter and eminent undertaker, who struggled with obesity from a young age. He rigorously followed many different exercise and dietary programs without success, including twenty hospitalizations for treatment of obesity. After decades of unsuccessful efforts, and being told by a famous physician that his obesity was normal, he finally encountered William Harvey MD. Inspired by the work of Claude Bernard (one of the fathers of the science of physiology), Dr. Harvey advised him to undertake a low carbohydrate diet (eliminating sweets, potatoes, grains, beer and sweet alcoholic drinks). In six months he lost 25% of his body weight, returning to normal weight, and also found lasting relief of a panoply of chronic symptoms. Despite Banting’s success, the publication of his book and development of a foundation to promote the diet, this diet met huge resistance from the medical profession, and Dr. Harvey was criticized and ostracized.

The general failure of acceptance of their findings is perhaps attributable to the lack of an accepted theory on why the diet worked, despite the fact that it did work for many obese people at that time. Today, the ketogenic diet and the modified Atkins diet are recognized as effective in control of seizures, and as potentially beneficial in neurodegenerative diseases (and possibly one form of brain tumor, the astrocytoma). However, these diets still face tremendous opposition from cardiologists and nutritionists, who preach the importance of low fat diets for weight loss and heart protection.

The specific carbohydrate diet (SCD, and GAPS, an updated version) was developed by Sidney V. Haas (author of 1951 textbook: The Management of Celiac Disease). It was popularized by Elaine Gottschall, (Food and the Gut Reaction 1987, second edition: Breaking the Vicious Cycle 1994) whose daughter was cured of ulcerative colitis by following Haas’ diet. The SCD was initially directed toward treatment of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis) and celiac disease. It has produced remarkable benefit, even clearing of their disease in some IBD patients in my practice, since I began collaborating with Elaine in the mid-1990’s. The conceptual basis for the diet is that it produces positive changes in gut flora, reduction in fermentation of undigested carbohydrates, and resultant decrease in bowel inflammation. The excluded foods are grains, potatoes (and a few other starchy roots), sugars except honey, most legumes, lactose. Allowed foods include unprocessed meats, nuts, fruits, vegetables, eggs, oils, honey, simple spices (and cultured dairy in non-autistic people, if tolerated). SCD and GAPS approaches have been extended to patients with autism, bringing tremendous benefit to thousands of these children.

On the other hand, Wikipedia’s article on SCD concludes: “…however, scientific evidence of the diet’s effectiveness is lacking, and the diet may pose a health risk due to lack of nutritional quality.” We hear these comments, despite seminal work at Harvard Medical Center by the GI team which has demonstrated that a very substantial portion of children with autism lack the intestinal disaccharidase enzymes required to digest starch, lactose and sucrose. In addition, several recent studies (one from U Mass Medical Center, one from Seattle Children’s Hospital) have shown clinical improvements in patients with inflammatory bowel disease who have been treated with this diet.

The “wheat belly” and “grain brain” diets are again very similar to the low carb dietary approaches, adding a particular focus on gluten and gliadin constituents of wheat. We have found in autism that many children have an opiate-like response to gluten (and to casein from milk products), with improvements in brain and gut function (and often a painful withdrawal period at first) after removing these foods strictly from their diet. As mainstream medical awareness of gluten intolerance expands, we are learning that many autoimmune diseases are aggravated by gluten intolerance whether or not the patient has celiac disease. In addition, patients with autoimmune thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, and even MS, may be encouraged to avoid gluten. Also, it is now recognized that the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is increased in people with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.

These diets have been referred to as anti-inflammatory; how might this be so? There are a number of considerations to explore. 

First and perhaps foremost, is that these diets emphasize whole foods, which are best eaten fresh and homemade. This reduces exposure to additives and processed foods, which themselves add toxic and inflammatory influences to our diet.

Vegetables and many fruits (especially berries, which are incidentally the lowest carbohydrate fruits) are rich in many phytonutrients, which stimulate our antioxidant defenses and help reduce inflammation. People who consume increased amounts of these foods, versus the nearly empty calories found in processed foods, have reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

Processed foods commonly contain toxic substances: food additives, hydrogenated fatty acids, amino acids which can be isomerized by processing—these substances and others (such as synthetic vitamins which function poorly or not at all as intended) may contribute to inflammation and tissue degeneration.

Producers of processed foods, in order to increase “cravability,” add large amounts of fat, salt, sugar, other sweeteners, in excess of what we commonly use in homemade food. Also, consumption of high concentrations of fructose (found particularly in corn syrup and agave syrup) is associated with increased insulin resistance, which contributes to chronic inflammation.

In general, the processing of foods removes nutrients found in the whole food—such nutrients as fiber, essential fatty acids, trace minerals and fragile vitamins as folic acid. Reduced dietary fiber contributes to intestinal disturbances, essential fatty acids are important in regulating inflammation and cellular function, and trace nutrients are involved in many body functions including immune activities, neurotransmitter function, energy production, and cellular communication.

Food producers have attempted to compensate for nutrients removed in processing by “fortification” with synthetic vitamins and selected minerals. However, these do not begin to replace the incredibly rich and complex variety and balance of nutrients found in whole foods. For example, people with high blood levels of antioxidants have significantly reduced risk of vascular disease and cancer, but only if these antioxidants are obtained through diet. In fact, when the same antioxidants are supplemented, rather than being obtained through diet, the observed protective effect is lost. Terry Wahls MD’s experience with MS is instructive. Her progressive MS proved unresponsive to a vigorous vitamin and mineral supplementation program, but then responded dramatically to a rigorous whole food diet which emphasized large amounts of nutrient rich foods, including nine cups per day of specific fruits and vegetables.

Processing of foods tends to increase the caloric density, thus increasing the tendency to ingest more calories. This issue, along with the effects of food additives such as MSG, which directly stimulates insulin release, may contribute directly to obesity, and the increased inflammation inherent to obesity.

High glycemic foods (foods which raise the blood sugar quickly and extensively) stimulate insulin release. It is now recognized that insulin is a pro-inflammatory molecule, and that insulin resistance (with higher insulin levels, as is found in most overweight people, in metabolic syndrome, and in type 2 diabetes) is associated with increased risk of dementia and other inflammatory conditions (such as joint disease). Related to these effects is the documented benefit of the diabetic drug, Actos, in autism, which acts as an anti-inflammatory through NFkappaB and PPAR gamma signaling modulation. In essence, diets which minimize the rise in blood sugar occurring after eating also reduce insulin levels and thus may reduce inflammation. This is an important consideration in autism, where gut and brain inflammation are strong contributors to the pathology and symptoms children experience.

In summary, it makes sense, in children with autism and related conditions, to move beyond the first step of eliminating gluten and casein from their diet. Next, begin to focus on increasing consumption of healthy fats and reducing consumption of carbohydrates, particularly the quick acting and concentrated carbohydrates. These are found in large amounts in all grains and grain substitutes, potatoes, sugars, dried fruits and fruit juices, and in certain fruits (bananas, watermelon, dates, etc.). Healthy fats are found in coconut, olives, avocadoes, eggs, nuts and seeds, moderate meats, and clean fish {which are difficult to find}. Include moderate amounts of protein (meats, legumes, if tolerated, plus above mentioned protein sources), and 1-3 servings of fruit (especially berries, if not phenol/salicylate sensitive). There is strong convergent evidence supporting the value of these dietary approaches in children with autism and special needs. 

A good way to start would be the low glycemic diet, which aims to avoid foods with a glycemic index above 50 and a glycemic load above 10. 

Harvard Health Publications presents a table of glycemic index and load values for 100 foods, which will help you to begin evaluating food choices for your child. A much longer list of over 2400 international foods can be used to research less common foods your child may be willing to consume. Remember, this diet is very similar to the foods which primates have consumed since time immemorial. There is a reason why we are told not to feed the monkeys at the zoo—our diet can make them sick, as, in fact, our diet is making us sick!

Clearly, modifying the diet of a child with special needs is a daunting and sometimes terrifying proposition. Their eating habits, addictions, sensory issues, and in many cases, poor health and vitality all contribute to immense difficulties in accomplishing desired changes. In addition, it is difficult to help special needs children to understand the reason for removing favorite foods, as they will generally prefer to stay with the status quo. However despite all the challenges, we have seen immense progress in children whose parents succeed at major dietary interventions; it is worth all the effort in order to maximize their chances to make good progress. I have found it often very helpful if the whole family follows a similar program, and all may benefit from doing so, in addition to the emotional support provided to the child of special concern by doing this. 

May you be rewarded with a healthy, happy child and family!

About the Author

Since the beginning of his practice in 1975, John A. Green III, MD has worked with children and adults with chronic health problems which have not responded to conventional therapies. His patients frequently experience significant improvements by exploring and modifying diet and nutrition, toxic load factors, allergies and sensitivities, hormones and psychological influences. In the late 1990′s, Dr. Green was led by several of his early autistic patients to the Autism Research Institute. In the past 14 years, he has evaluated and treated more than 2,500 children with autism spectrum disorders from all over the world.

In addition to seeing patients individually, Dr. Green has mentored doctors in Italy, Hungary and Poland and participated in numerous roundtables including the Autism Research Institute’s Clinician’s Training and Thinktank, and the Northwest Physicians Autism Forum. He has also served as the editor for the AHMA quarterly member letter, authored two chapters in Recovering Autistic Children and made numerous presentations to DAN!, as well as other venues such as the Washington and Hawaii TACA (Talk About Curing Autism) meetings. In addition, his office regularly participates in research related to preventing and reversing symptoms associated with autistic spectrum disorders.

Dr. Green’s practice is located at The Evergreen Center in Oregon City, Oregon. He offers in-person visits and also offers support via email or Skype for individuals and families who reside out of the area.

NOTE:  The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the guest author and other contributors.  These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Autism Key and/or any other contributors to this site.

When Children with Autism Wander from School 

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The heartbreaking ending to the case of Avonte Oquendo, a non-verbal 14 year old with autism who walked out of his Long Island high school on October 4th, never to return, shines a harsh light on the safety of special needs children while at public schools. Security cameras captured him darting out a door towards a riverside park, but a cavalcade of errors made by the school left him missing until his remains were found scattered along the river bank earlier this week. His heartbroken parents intend to file a wrongful death suit against the school for taking too long to notice him missing, then even longer to adequately respond.

Mainstreaming is vaunted as the best case scenario for children with special needs, but the fact of the matter is that overcrowded schools are not adequately prepared for the task of having at-risk kids in their midst. Children with disabilities are disciplined at a much higher rate than neurotypical kids, which provokes a fight-or-flight response from them. Avonte’s school was five stories with five exits, and while a security officer noticed him in the hall and told him to get back to class, that individual failed to personally escort him to his destination. 

What is the takeaway from this horrific scenario?

As parents, we must ask hard questions of our children’s schools. We need to nail down a safety plan for them when they are out of our hands. Ruffle feathers, hold people’s feet to the fire — this can happen anytime, anywhere.

There are many great resources for combating wandering. If I had a child with autism in the school system who was non-verbal and/or prone to wandering, I’d invest in a GPS device that can be worn like a wristwatch.

Here is one site that describes some of them:  FriendshipCircle.org

Another great resource dedicated to this cause comes from The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE).  This group is a collaborative effort from the nation’s top autism organizations who’s mission is to prevent wandering incidents and wandering-related deaths within the autism community through education, resources and awareness. They currently provide a free PDF wandering brochure, which can be downloaded at http://www.awaare.org/docs/wanderingbrochure.pdf

Be proactive about your child’s safety when they are out of your hands. Let’s make Avonte’s tragic death a wake up call that saves other children’s lives

About the Author
Susan Moffitt
http://susanmoffitt.com

Quiet Santa Visits with Autism Spectrum Children

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There’s holiday cheer afoot this year as 140 malls across the country are providing “Quiet Santa” time for children with autism spectrum disorders. Trained by the California-based non-profit, AbilityPath.org, the malls open their doors before the shopping day starts to avoid crowds, the agony of waiting and the many other sensory pitfalls of public spaces. Time is scheduled for each family to visit with the “understated” Santa who is trained to read each child’s cues and respond to them accordingly.

Lights are dimmed, escalators shut down, music paused and water features stilled to provide a calm and welcoming experience. An activity table awaits with coloring books and toys. There’s a chair set up for children next to Santa if the prospect of his lap is just too much. Many kids sit on their parent’s lap beside him. Families are delighted to be able to take a Christmas photo that in years past would’ve been impossible. 

Happy parents and children are no longer shut out from a Christmas ritual neurotypical families take for granted. The number of participating malls tripled from last year. One can only hope that number expands exponentially in the future.

About the Author
Susan Moffitt
http://susanmoffitt.com

Assistance for those on the Cusp of Adulthood

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Autism strikes a family’s heart, soul and wallet.  Estimates by The Autism Society puts a lifetime of care for an autistic child at $3.2 million.  Autism parents know firsthand the brutal toll to the family coffers of therapies that can run $40,000 to $50,00 per year.  Families tangle with insurance companies, invariably ending up with many out of pocket expenses.  Educational instability generated by schools unable to provide a safe learning environment creates tremendous hardship as parents relinquish employment to home school their child, or move them to private schools in search of the elusive best case scenario.  Relocation to other states is frequently necessary to track down more generous insurance, autism services and competent school systems. 

Having personally endured harrowing financial hardships raising my twins with autism as a single parent, I recently found a measure of peace through successfully attaining Social Security Insurance (SSI) for one of my sons. This is disability insurance that pays a monthly amount of about $700.  You have to be in dire straits to receive this money before your child turns 18 because the family income is then included as a determinant of eligibility.  However, after your child turns 18, family income is no longer counted, and your child receives that income even if he lives with you indefinitely.  The application can be done over the phone in an hour and a half.  Releases are signed so you don’t have to submit hard copy records.  It takes up to 6 months for the application to be processed and you receive three months back payment in a lump sum, a nice reward for your patience. 

After your child turns 18, you as the parent can also apply to his paid caregiver, receiving a paycheck for between 30 to 200 hours per month.  Pay is low, of course, ($10/hour plus 7 hours of paid training), but why not be compensated for what you already have done around the clock for the last 18 years? 

Another door that opens is Vocational Rehabilitation, a service that identifies your child’s employment needs and helps them to achieve them.  Some cost is involved unless your child is on SSI.  This program does not pigeon hole your child in menial, repetitive tasks, but truly supports whatever their individual needs may by paying for higher education and/or training programs and the supports that may entail, like transportation or a personal aide to attend classes and help them navigate their day. 

If you need help, avail yourself of it.  God knows, you’ve earned it.

About the Author
Susan Moffitt
http://susanmoffitt.com

Disney Changes Set to Impact Special Needs Families

Some upsetting news has emerged for families of individuals with autism and other special needs who plan to visit Disney World or Disneyland anytime in the foreseeable future.

According to Mice Age, the widely popular Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program, which helped accommodate guests with special needs, is set to discontinue at the beginning of next month.  The GAC previously allowed an individual with special needs and up to five other guests to access the “FastPass” areas, by-passing many of the long lines in the process. The card did not guarantee parties would skip every line, but it was a huge relief for those who were unable to wait in long lines due to their physical or developmental issues.

The GAC program will supposedly be replaced by something called the Disabled Assistance System (DAS). Without getting into details on the DAS (including the poorly chosen name), it appears to be a very bad alternative that will severely impact the overall experience of special needs families who visit any of the Disney theme parks.

There’s speculation that the planned changes are due to rampant abuse of the system carried out by able-bodied individuals.  Due to health privacy laws, Disney Cast Members were not allowed to ask for medical documentation for those requesting a Guest Assistance Card, essentially turning the program into an honor system.  As one would imagine, this led to some series abuse, and perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back occurred earlier this year when the Today Show did an embarrassing exposé about families hiring "disabled tour guides" from Craig’s List, who would accompany them on trips for the sole purpose of obtaining a GAC.  That sickening story can be watched below.

These developments are upsetting on so many levels, and it would be very easy to direct one’s anger at Disney for making these changes.  Ultimately, however, the anger should be directed towards the shameful individuals who abused this system that led to these planned changes in the first place.  What these selfish people don’t realize is that most of us would gladly exchange the struggles we face with having to wait in long lines at Disney. 

We live in Florida and were actually considering renewing our annual pass for Disney, but these planned changes to the GAC program pretty much make that decision easy.  There is no way we could have a meaningful or enjoyable experience at these parks without some way to avoid excessive wait times.  It’s the reality of our son’s condition.

For those who want to do something about these planned changes, there is a Change.org petition that can be signed here.  Tell Disney not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to find a better solution to accommodate special needs families, while simultaneously weeding out the fraudsters in the process.

Seattle Area Hospital in Hot Water Over Autism Ads

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Seattle Children’s Hospital was forced to pull its new ads from King County buses after complaints about its call to eradicate autism. The cherubic face of a young boy gazed out from the side of a bus which read, “Let’s wipe out cancer, diabetes and autism in his lifetime.” 

The juxtaposition of autism with tragic and often fatal diseases captured the attention of The Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Washington chapter (ASAN-WA), who in turn organized an online campaign to galvanize opposition to the message.

Seattle Children’s received scores of emails, phone calls and comments on its Facebook page and subsequently pulled the ad last Friday, posting this comment:  “We are sorry for the hurt and anger these ads have caused – that was never their intent." 

Just like Autism Speaks with its "I Am Autism" video a few years ago, Children’s Hospital made a similar gaffe in not respecting the broad spectrum that is autism.

As Matt Young, co-leader of ASAN-WA put it, “Autism is a disability, but it is not a disease. It is not a life-threatening illness. The idea it’s a state to be wiped out has much negative impact on our lives.” ASAN champions the notion of "neurodiversity,"or autism as a burden/blessing of having your brain differently wired. 

Incidents such as these serve to re-ignite the debate between viewing autism as a disease to be cured versus a disorder to be respected. Parents of low functioning, self-harming children would do anything to cure their children of autism, while at the high functioning end of the spectrum there is more concern for civil rights and equal opportunity.

But at neither end of the spectrum is autism regarded as a life-threatening disease, even though children with autism are more vulnerable to calamities associated with their disorder, such as wandering. Fairness calls for accuracy and Seattle Children’s was rightly criticized for not demonstrating an appreciation of the nuances of describing autism.

On Monday, Katharine Fitzgerald, director of marketing and health promotion at Seattle Children’s said: “It’s been difficult because we do so much to support children, teens, and families affected by autism here at Seattle Children’s, and we’re doing amazing research at our research institute.” 

Children’s Hospital also boasts a "cutting-edge" Autism Center. The bus ad was intended to raise awareness for Seattle Children’s Research Institute and reflect the “breadth and depth“ of the institute’s research arm, according to Fitzgerald. 

They certainly raised awareness, but not the way they intended. Like many others before them, they are now aware of what a minefield it is to address autism from a solely problematic perspective.

About the Author
Susan Moffitt
http://susanmoffitt.com

Minecraft for Children with Autism

If you have a school-aged child, it’s highly likely that you’ve already heard of Minecraft, an interactive, online game that allows players to build and create textured cubes in a 3D, virtual world. Other activities include exploring, gathering, crafting and combat. To date, there are over 11 million players worldwide, with those numbers rapidly increasing by the day.

Because of a user’s ability to play Minecraft in a “multi-player” mode, those with autism can highly benefit from it by developing their communication and social skills, as well as enhancing their creativity at the same time.

These benefits have not been overlooked by Stuart Duncan (aka AutismFather), an autism advocate from Canada who is best known for his online advocacy through blogging and social networking sites. Duncan has even guest blogged on this site in the past.

Last month, Duncan launched AutCraft, a pet project that is the first Minecraft server dedicated to providing a safe, fun and learning environment for children on the autism spectrum and their families at no cost to them.

AutCraft is a members only group and each user must be “whitelisted” prior to playing. Since its launch a few weeks ago, nearly 500 players have already been added the AutCraft community.

Within the world of AutCraft, no swearing or bullying is allowed and the environment has been modified so no monsters will attack players. This means that users are free to adventure and explore anywhere they want, without the typical “dangers” that exist in the game’s regular modes.

My 11-year-old son with autism recently joined and has loved the ability to play and interact with others.

Due to the rapid growth of AutCraft, Duncan is already considering launching a second server. He has put in a considerable amount of time into this project and is providing a fantastic service for the autism community.

If you would like to have your child’s Minecraft user name whitelisted, visit http://www.AutCraft.com and click the ‘Sign Up’ button, then request an invite.

Because of the time, maintenance, management and server costs, Duncan is in need of sponsors that would be willing to assist him with growing this project. He has set up a donation tab on his site for those who would like to help.

In Autcraft, everyone is equal. There is no young or old, boy or girl, neurotypical or autistic – none of that matters. Everyone is there to learn, explore and have a great time.

Check it out — you and your family will be glad you did.

Children With Autism Detect Motion Twice as Fast

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Recent studies at Vanderbilt University and the University of Rochester reveal a startling discovery about autism.  In testing a common theory about autism that overwhelming sensory stimulation inhibits other brain functions, researchers decided to study how kids with autism process moving images.  They found that children with autism detect simple movement twice as quickly as their typically developing peers. 

Here is the gist of the study:  The researchers presented 46 children — 20 with autism and 26 without with short video clips of moving black and white vertical bars. The images appeared in three different sizes and all the kids, ranging in age from 8 to 17, had to do was indicate whether the bars were moving right or left. The scientists ran the experiment twice — once with high-contrast images and then again with low-contrast ones. When the black bars were darker and easier to see, the researchers expected the autistic children to do better, figuring they’d be less inhibited by so-called spatial suppression, a mechanism that makes it harder for typical observers to perceive motion as the things they’re looking at increase in size. 

The autistic children did do a lot better with the higher contrast images than the control group, but not because they lacked spatial suppression, it turns out. As the image size increased, the children with autism were slower at recognizing motion. But at each size, they were still twice as fast as the control kids. 

Common wisdom is that autism is a brain impairment, but this finding supports an evolving theory that autism is actually a condition in which the balance between different brain processes is impaired.  While this may result in functional problems, it also results in enhancements.  Even the enhancements, such as being able to perceive motion twice as fast, can produce a problematic flood of sensory information. 

In a college child development class, I saw a fascinating film in which a smiling, loving mother lifts up her newborn baby, who promptly begins screaming.  When the film speed was slowed way down, you could see a series of angry, frustrated, harried, expressions on the mother’s face that weren’t visible to the naked eye and made sense of her baby’s outburst. 

The conclusion was that so called “vibes” are our ability to unconsciously process these high speed images that comprise a person’s seemingly static expression. Could it be that the autistic inability to read facial expressions is actually due to the fact that they are reading these high speed messages twice as fast as the rest of us and are overloaded with the information?   

I wonder…

Turkish Sociologist Declares Children With Autism Born Atheists

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Recently, Turkish sociologist Fehmi Kaya declared in numerous Turkish media outlets that children with autism are “atheists due to a lack of a section for faith in their brains.” He elaborated by saying, “That is why they don’t know how to pray, how to believe in God. It is necessary to create awareness [or religion] in these children through methods of therapy.” Digging the hole even deeper he declared, “Research says atheism and autistic children are linked. Researchers in the USA and Canada say that atheism is a different form of autism.”  His organization plans to hold sessions to help autistic children embrace religion beginning this June. 

Frighteningly, this man is the head of the Health and Education Associations for Autistic Children in his native land. When I tried the links to articles about his statements, they were all broken. Turns out, after a firestorm of anger he apologized to autism families, all the while never backing off of his initial premise: “The message I wished to give was not about autism and atheism, but to highlight that these children cannot communicate, cannot form empathy, live in their own worlds and are isolated.  I meant that we should take them out of their isolation with proper therapy methods”. 

It’s tiresome to hear someone, especially someone with power and influence in the Turkish autism community, declare children with autism constitutionally incapable of empathy, especially when there is widespread acknowledgement that autism spectrum individuals can actually feel other people’s feelings too intensely to cope. And unable to communicate? Certainly, communication skills exist on a very broad spectrum. Is it offensive to give children with autism intensive therapy to sensitize them to religion?

Let it be said that Kaya isn’t making up his ideas out of whole cloth.  There is some credence to the idea that the concrete thinking of autism and the propensity of individuals with autism to navigate their world through logical reasoning lends itself to atheist thought. If something can’t be proven, logically it does not exist.  In 2011, a study by University of Boston did suggest that those with high functioning autism were ‘more likely’ to be atheists. 

Yet atheists are displeased with Kaya as well.  According to Carlos Diaz, president of the Atheist Alliance International, “There are scientifically valid methods for treating children with autism, but these have nothing to do with religion. It would be best for the child if treatment focuses on what actually works instead of a highly spurious goal of creating belief.” 

My major problem with Kaya is the rigidity of his declarations. In my own microcosm, one of my twin sons with autism is a spiritual quester, and the other an avowed atheist. In reflecting upon what has worked for my one son in his forays into religion, I suggest that more creativity and flexibility is required on the part of churches in order to reach members with autism.  My son Jackie attempted a formal worship service at a local church, but the hard-surfaced pews and the sheer formality quickly sent him into a tailspin. He couldn’t sit still and remain quiet and people around us glowered and “shh-ed” him. The end result was us bidding a hasty retreat as he starting melting down. 

In contrast, an “Experimental Worship” with stations featuring hands on activities such as lighting candles, weaving a prayer tapestry, asking for a blessing, dropping a stone in a bowl of water to represent letting go of a hurt, etc. was a wild success. As in any environment, accommodation is key. 

Discussions of religions are always fraught with peril. That said, I see my one son’s belief in an orderly universe governed by natural laws as his own sense of God.  And my other child’s spiritual sojourn as a quest for a spiritual community that accepts him as he is.

Respite Care Vital to Autism Families

iStockphoto.com/AndreasREH

During Autism Awareness Month and the other eleven months of the year, I am aware of the toll that autism takes on families.  A key to alleviating this stress is respite care.  The value of respite care is now being substantiated by researchers from Brigham Young University and Wasatch Mental Health who have conducted a study on the effects of respite care on autism families.  One hundred and one two parent households across the nation were polled who had children with autism between the ages of 1 to 33. 

Parents individually answered questions about their marriage, their feelings about daily responsibilities like money and work as well as how much respite care they received during a typical week or weekend. They indicated that about 64 percent of their kids with autism spent time with a respite care provider. Grandparents were most often the ones cited in giving parents a break.  Also mentioned were babysitters, community agencies and extended family members. The results indicated that, “Just one additional hour of respite care per week was related to an increase of six to seven points in marital quality, which is approximately one half of a standard deviation. This finding offers hope to couples parenting a child with ASD."

Adding to the evidence of respite care’s impact is a study last year in which researchers found a decreased risk for psychiatric hospitalization in kids and young adults with autism whose caregivers used respite services. 

While this study addresses two parent households, single parents are even more vulnerable to the stresses of not having respite care. Many of you already know I am raising twins with autism alone. A few years ago I made a desperate search for respite care for one of my sons that included calling the governor of Washington State. Then Governor Christine Gregoire’s aide connected me to a state mental healthcare provider program.  After an odious home visit and exhaustive interview process, I was referred to a state approved agency for four hours of respite care a month. 

The aide who was sent to our home had no training in autism and spoke to my child in baby talk although he was a precocious sixth grader. When he had a meltdown and threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming, she called the fire department. Adding insult to injury the aide’s supervisor phoned me afterwards and read me the riot act because my son had “kicked her employee”. I tried to explain that her employee had gotten too close to him as I’d specifically instructed her not to, but ended up hanging up instead.

At this point I’d like to issue a friendly challenge to transform “autism awareness” into action.  If you know an autism family, you know someone who could use your help. Maybe you can’t commit yourself to watching their child with autism for a whole hour. Maybe you watch them while the mom goes to the store, transforming a potential ordeal for her into a quick outing. Double your next batch of muffins and show up at their door. Give her your phone number and let her call when they need to talk.  Inquire how their child is doing. Use your imagination. Any small gesture will be a great blessing and incredibly appreciated.

About the Author
Susan Moffitt
http://susanmoffitt.com

 
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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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