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Looking Back at 2014: Advances in Research, Treatment, and Lifestyle

As we start to hit our stride with 2015, let’s take a moment to look back at the year that was and the many amazing advances that were made in relation to autism. As each year closes, our understanding of how to treat, diagnose, and analyze autism only grows and this year was markedly exceptional in the many great strides made.


Firstly, in the extensive scientific research being done to better understand the biological, neurological, and environmental causes and effects of autism, a number of studies were released this year that showed promising progress in researchers’ understanding of the disorder. Many of the landmark studies released this year focused on the brain’s role in autism, with scientists gaining greater insight into how to better diagnose individuals with autism through the use of simple brain scans.


Meanwhile, researchers in the UK at King’s College have taken cells from the hair roots of autistic people and reprogrammed them to a state similar to embryonic stem cells. From these, researchers can create brain cells, offering a new way to study autism in the lab before testing treatments on patients.


Furthermore, the growing consensus amongst scientists is that they should move away from studying individual mutations to looking at broader brain circuits. This method of looking at greater connections has also been seen in genetic research, as researchers are increasingly moving away from looking at singular genes to identifying how genes work together to cause autism.


In addition, in a recently published study, researchers zeroed in on why more children are being diagnosed these days and found that it was not an issue of autism becoming more prevalent, but rather that the guidelines for diagnosing the condition have grown much broader.


Meanwhile, therapists and experts continued to make advances in treating autism with a wide variety of technological tools. In the world of apps, there now exists over 500 different autism-based apps, of varying quality, that perform a myriad of different functions ranging from improving speech skills all the way to helping children and older individuals better understand their own and others’ emotions.


One such tool is SPEAK MODalities that helps those with severe autism to communicate by pairing together images and recorded sound. Another promising app that arrived this year comes from the firm Congoa and looks to ease the process of diagnosis by asking parents to complete a brief questionnaire and send in a personal video of their child performing tasks at home. So far the firm has been able to diagnose cases with an over 90% accuracy rate.


Finally, popular and mainstream culture continued to grow more accommodating to children and individuals with autism as seen in the rapid increase in movie theatres providing autism-friendly screenings in which the sound is turned down and the house lights are switched on. This trend spilled over to the theatre on both sides of the pond with British troupes offering autism-friendly pantomime performances while the first ever autism-friendly play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, hitting Broadway.


All told, it was a year of great advances across the boards and the many positive developments from 2014 offer significant hope for an ever better 2015.