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Autism News Round-Up: New Words, Optimism, and Patience

This week we’re looking at three new studies that go a long way towards adding much more nuance to our understanding of how children and individuals with autism learn new words and process optimism. Furthermore, we look at a remarkable new study that has developed mice without an autism-related genetic aberration present.

First up, a new study out of Ohio State University was released stating that children learn new words in the same way that those without autism do, but more slowly. Looking at two groups of children ages 18 months to 7 years, the researchers found that both groups used the same technique to learn the new word: they followed their teacher’s gaze as he or she identified a new object.

The children with autism were able to follow the teacher’s eye movements 75 percent of the time, compared with 78 percent of the time for children in the control group, the study findings showed. The researchers saw that while children with autism struggle to make eye contact, by emphasizing that they do so, their ability to learn new words improved.

“A lot of good work has gone into targeting this skill in kids with autism. It’s considered a pivotal skill — looking at other people and monitoring eye movement,” Allison Bean Ellawadi, director of the Autism & Child Language Learning Laboratory at Ohio State, said in a university news release. “We found that if we use eye gaze in a meaningful way, and in a consistent pattern, kids with autism will pick it up on their own, and they’ll learn new words,” Ellawadi added.

Now moving to a study out of Miami, University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences psychologists Dr. Michael Alessandri and Dr. Hoa Lam Schneider worked with Texas Christian University researchers to further the understanding of the relationship between optimism, coping strategies, and depressive symptoms among Hispanic mothers and fathers of children with autism. Traditionally, research has focused on how parents respond negatively to a child’s diagnosis, whether it be depression or maladaptive behaviors.

“Parents are really resilient and we wanted to learn the positive aspects of how they adjust when raising a child with ASD, as well as the specific coping strategies they are using,” said Schneider.  His colleague Alessandri added that, “Our hope is that by identifying these stress-buffering qualities we may be able to tailor clinical interventions for families in a way that affords them the opportunity to strengthen these personal characteristics and responses.”

Finally, a new mouse study out of Duke University has developed a new mouse model of a genetically-linked form of autism autism, which has revealed more about the role of genes in the disorder and the underlying brain changes associated with autism’s social and learning problems. The scientists honed in on the SHANK3 gene, which we’ve previously discussed as being tied to autism’s development, and ultimately succeeded in creating a mouse born without the SHANK3 gene present.

“This is an important first step in understanding the process of the disorder in humans,” lead author Yong-huh Jiang said. “For many families affected by autism, this is something that could provide hope and potentially lead to a treatment.” Considering how much the SHANK3 gene has been in the news this year, this is definitely a story we will be following closely.