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Autism Science Foundation to host online chat with Jill Locke tomorrow (Friday)

26 Apr

Jill Locke is a researcher (a post-doc) at the Center for Autism Research at the U. Pennsylvania. Here is her biography from the CAR website:

Dr. Locke is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Autism Research. She completed her doctorate degree in Educational Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Jill worked with Dr. Connie Kasari at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment where she contributed to multiple randomized controlled treatment trials that examined the effects of targeted social skills interventions on the peer relationships and social networks of elementary-aged children with autism in the Los Angeles public schools. She created a social skills assessment tool using the Q-Sort methodology for her dissertation that investigated the differences in teachers’ and classroom aides’ perceptions of social competence in children with and without autism spectrum disorders as well as how these perceptions related to teacher-student and peer relationships.

Jill’s research interests are in social skills training and friendship/relationship development in children and adolescents with autism. She is also interested in exploring the ways in which treatment gains in intervention programs are generalized and sustained over time as well as the delivery to and sustainability of evidence-based practices in community settings.

She will be participating in a live chat on the Autism Science Foundation’s Facebook page tomorrow (Friday, April 27) at 12 noon Eastern time.

If you want an idea of what these online chats look like, transcripts are online for last week’s chat with Stephen Shore, Marcus Center Autism Research Dr. Celine Saulnier, and Yale Autism Scientist Dr. Kevin Pelphrey.

Professor Simon Baron Cohen endorses Neurodiversity

16 Dec

Neurodiversity, that much misunderstood, much maligned concept has been dragged through the mud for years by people determined to misunderstand it and misrepresent it. We all know who these people are.

However, it also has its supporters and people determined to understand it on either a social or personal level. One such person is Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.

In an interview with the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog Professor Baron-Cohen was asked:

Individuals with Asperger syndrome often use the term “neurotypical” to describe normal people, and in an effort to lessen the stigmatization associated with autism as a medical condition, the Asperger community has initiated the so-called neurodiversity movement. Can you briefly describe the neurodiversity movement and its implications on the diagnosis of autism spectrum conditions?

To which he replied:

The neurodiversity movement has been a very positive influence in reminding us that there is no single pathway in neurological development, but there are many ways to reach similar end-points.

Stigmatizing anyone, whether they have autism or any other characteristic, is wrong, since the point about these labels is not to pick out the person in order to make their lives worse, but to help others understand their special needs and qualities.

How nice to see a researcher who _gets_ it.

New autism prevalence 1.5% in UK

31 May

A new study published (officially) tomorrow discusses ‘Prevalence of autism-spectrum conditions: UK school-based population study’.

Its an interesting study for quite a few reasons. Firstly, it offers a new autism prevalence of 1.5% (1 in 66). That’s the message that the press will no doubt focus on (and, as Kristina blogs, already have). And I’ve absolutely no doubt that our friends from JABS, Age of Autism and various other anti-vaccine fringe groups will be painting this as part of their ‘evidence’ that we’re in the throes of a massive autism ‘epidemic’.

However, the paper itself is very nuanced and is clear in its messages. However, to be absolutely sure I was correct in the conclusions I drew I had an email conversation with Professor Baron-Cohen before writing this entry.

Point 1: This study confirms the baseline rate of 1% as asserted by the Baird et al paper

Baird et al (2006) asserted that their findings would offer a baseline rate of autism prevalence, that prevalence being 1%. This figure was ascertained by looking at a SEN population of a South Thames cohort. Baron-Cohen et al (2009) confirmed that figure:

These authors took the decision to screen only the ‘at-risk’ population and assert that their estimate should be regarded as the minimum figure. Our results from screening the entire school-aged population support this assertion…

In other words Baron-Cohen et al also looked at the ‘at risk’ population and also found a prevalence of 1%.

Point 2: Baron-Cohen et al identify a further 0.5% to make a total prevalence of 1.5%

What is different about the Baron-Cohen paper is that as well as looking at the ‘at risk’ group they _also_ looked at mainstream schools. Using the CAST screening tool, this study identified a previously unknown prevalence of 0.5% within this mainstream environment.

Our results from screening the entire school-aged population…highlights the reality that there are children with autism- spectrum conditions, notably children with high-functioning autism, who remain undetected in primary schools. These children may use strategies to mask their social and communication difficulties such as going to the computer room at playtime. They may be quiet and cooperative at school and not difficult to manage and therefore teachers may not be aware that they have difficulties. Primary schools in the UK are typically small and foster a supportive and nurturing environment. It may not be until these children move to secondary school that their true differences are revealed.

Often I have heard people asking how it is possible that people with autism could possibly be missed. The Baron-Cohen et al paper gives a graphic answer to that question.

Point 3: Caution should be applied in assuming that results ascertained in Cambridgeshire could be applied across the rest of the country

The area is very affluent within the UK and has excellent autism resources for autistic children. It is a given that many families have moved into the area to try and exploit those services. This would have a positive effect on prevalence that is not consistent with the majority of the UK.

Our study does not report on migration of families but given the level of services for and awareness of autism-spectrum conditions in Cambridgeshire, this remains a distinct possibility. Caution should therefore be employed in assuming that the figures reported here can be applied nationwide.

Professor Baron-Cohen and I had the following exchange about the autism ‘epidemic’:

KL: What would you say to someone who says that your paper is strong evidence of an ‘autism epidemic’ (because you know they will)?

SBC: I think the term ‘epidemic’ of most value in relation to contagious diseases, which autism is not.

KL: Can I rephrase my question? Would you say your findings support the idea that there has been a true rise in prevalence? As oppose to the seven items you say have caused a seeming rise in autism earlier in your paper?

SBC: There has been a real rise in prevalence but what is at issue are the causes of this rise. In the paper we summarize the quite ordinary factors that might have driven the rise, such as better recognition, growth of services, and widening diagnostic criteria.

So next time someone who likes to bandy about the phrase ‘epidemic denier’ like he knows what he’s talking about when he claims that the ‘epidemic deniers’ say that autism is just better recognised these days, tell him there’s a lot more than just one reason:

Prevalence estimates for autism-spectrum conditions have shown a steady increase over the past four decades. In 1978, the consensus estimate for classic autism was 4 in 10 000; today autism-spectrum conditions (including classic autism) affect approximately 1% of the population. This massive increase is likely to reflect seven factors: improved recognition and detection; changes in study methodology; an increase in available diagnostic services; increased awareness among professionals and parents; growing acceptance that autism can coexist with a range of other conditions; and a widening of the diagnostic criteria.

Memo to Bob and Suzanne Wright

22 Oct

Bob, Suzannewelcome to the UK.

I read your interview in the Telegraph. Fascinating. I’d like to highlight a few points.

“We want the best minds in the world to focus on this,” says Wright. “And we want the UK to be a big player in the global movement.”

“Until now it seems to have passed under your radar,” adds Suzanne – a statement that could anger all the British activists who have been working in the field for decades.

Um yes, just a bit. You see, in the UK, we already have some of the best minds ‘working on this’.

And ‘passed under our radar’? One could assume that Suzanne Wright has a monumental gift for saying stupid things after reading that. Maybe she hasn’t heard of the National Autistic Society a parent founded organisation formed over 40 years ago in 1962. Maybe she hasn’t heard of it because it doesn’t cry about ‘the children’ all the time and because it recognises the fact that autistic people have a voice (no autistic people are on AS board whereas autistic people are represented at many levels of NAS) and are – in the main – adults and it tailors its aim appropriately. Whilst NAS is far from perfect it has learnt the necessity to respect autistic people for the fact that they are autistic. Something the Wrights aren’t even close to. If the Wrights want to get any traction in the UK they need to shut their mouths and listen to NAS.

And then the anti-vax rhetoric starts, giving lie to the idea that AS are pro-vaccine.

….The last vaccine Christian had before he regressed was MMR – that’s why my daughter concentrates on that. I don’t know whether his autism is linked: it was certainly coincidental, what we don’t know is if it was causal. Nor do we know whether the thimerosal (the mercury-based preservative used in vaccines) is a factor, although mercury is clearly poisonous. Governments want to run from that issue but they should become more aggressively involved. They have to follow children through to see if there are any effects.

Well Bob actually we do know if his MMR shot was causal. It wasn’t. We also do know if thiomersal is a factor. It isn’t.

I personally haven’t seen a government ‘running from the issue’. I’ve seen government spokespeople repeat what science tells us. There is no link. No matter how much people think there is or believe there is, based on the available evidence, there isn’t. Science has followed through to see if there were any effects. There weren’t. How much clearer does it need to be Bob?

Virginia Bovill perfectly sums up my own concerns about you and your wife’s organisation:

The other major source of concern is Wright’s focus on prevention and cure. This upsets Virginia Bovill, founder of TreeHouse, the charity hosting the lecture, who is currently studying for a DPhil on whether the quest to prevent and cure autism is morally justified. “Where would prevention lead – to ante-natal testing and abortion?” she asks. “The thought of a world without all the people I have met with autism is not a world I would want to live in. I would rather people said: ‘They are here, autism is here – how can we help these children fulfil their potential; how can we support their parents?'”

This is a very British pragmatism. The issue is right here and needs to be addressed. Do you want to help or do you want to force through your own beliefs simply because they are your beliefs? If the latter please just hop back on the plane. We don’t want you here.