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Autism News Round-up: Surgery, Immune Systems, and Handwriting

This week in our look at how autism is represented in national and local news stories, we look at an article providing guidelines on how to best prepare a child with autism for surgery, a study linking weak immune systems in mothers to increased autism risks, and why children with high-functioning autism possess unusual penmanship skills.

Starting with handwriting, a new study is reporting that children with high-functioning autism display handwriting uniquely different from those without autism and that teachers should not only be aware of this, but provide different homework and assignments accordingly. This conclusion emerges from a new study undertaken at the University of Haifa. “The typical process of handwriting performance among children with high-functioning autism is unique, but while the education system addresses reading skills, it pays almost no attention to handwriting skills,” explains Professor Sara Rosenblum, the author of the study.

Children who are on the high-functioning spectrum differ from other children with autism in terms of their linguistic and communicative abilities, while still displaying difficulties within the social, sensory, and emotional fields. “Since children with high-functioning autism are integrated in classes together with children with normal development, it is important to be careful not to pressure them during the performance of handwriting tasks. They should be given sufficient time, because time pressure creates cognitive stress and may impair the content of their handwriting. Given the central role of writing throughout the academic process, including in academic studies, improving handwriting skills with the assistance of an occupational therapist may improve academic abilities and contribute to an improvement in achievements and in self-confidence,” concluded the study authors Ben Simhon and Professor Rosenblum.

Moving from the classroom to the operation room, another new study is introducing new ways to help children with autism during surgery in ways other than sedation. “Surgery can be overwhelming for anyone; however, for those patients diagnosed with ASD . . . breaking routine and navigating the novel environment of a surgical ward can be debilitating,” said lead author Dr. Scott Koski, a child psychiatry fellow at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora. To help children with autism to not be overwhelmed by the surgical environment, the team of researchers looked at 11 studies completed between 1997 and 2016 that put forth means of handling children with autism other than sedation.

Doctors can make changes to the surgical or pre-surgical setting to match patients’ specific needs and preferences, the study also concludes. “By their nature, these settings are difficult for individuals with autism to handle when they are often reliant on time and routine to react to their external environment,” said Dr. Arvind Venkat of the Allegheny Health Network and Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Finally, looking at one more study this week that directly concerns mothers, a team of researchers are reporting that a high propensity towards developing infections during a pregnancy, which can be indicative of an overactive maternal immune response, and thus increase the chances of giving birth to a child with autism. However, researchers are disputing the long-held belief that an overactive immune system is the culprit by finding that high levels of an inflammatory protein in pregnant women to a low risk of autism in their children, suggesting that a strong immune response is protective.

“It was the opposite of what we expected to find,” says senior researcher Lisa Croen, director of the Autism Research Program at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California. The study directly contradicts a 2013 Finnish study that tied the inflammation to an increased risk of autism. Instead of a woman’s immune system’s response to an infection being indicative of autism risk, researchers are now arguing that it is in fact the strength of a woman’s immune system that can determine the degree of autism risk.