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New Developments in Autism Research Promises New Paths for 2015

After looking back at 2014 to see the advances researchers and therapists made last year in the increased understanding and treatment of autism, this week brings a number of recent news items that should be a source of hope for the many families around the world who have a family member with autism.

To start, as we observed last year in reviewing a number of the most promising new studies that provided insight into better understanding the causes and means of diagnosis in cases of individuals with autism, the brain has grown to be one of the primary areas of research scientists around the globe are choosing to focus on in their autism research. In looking at the news in the past week dealing with advances in autism research, one study from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is helping to rapidly expand our traditional “brain profile” of an individual with autism.

One problem area that the study sought to address is the fact that it is unknown whether people with autism have more or less connections in the parts of their brains that normally work together. This new study from Carnegie Mellon points forward to the fact that we might need to abandon our traditional understanding of what a “normal” brain profile of a person with autism looks like as people with autism appear to have connections that are each uniquely their own. The research could very well assist in making better-informed diagnoses alongside improving autism treatments.

According to Dr. Marlene Berhmann, “[The study] opens up the possibility that there are many altered brain profiles all of which fall under the umbrella of ‘autism’.” With the assistance of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) conducted while the subjects were resting, those with autism tended to display more unique patterns that were particular to each individual, while the neurotypical control subjects demonstrated largely similar patterns.

In other areas of research, a recent study found that people with autism see faces different from their peers, according to a team of Canadian researchers. Symptoms of this complex condition vary from person to person but they can revolve around difficulty with social interaction and communication. Accordingly, this recent discover could help to improve understanding of individuals diagnosed with autism and allow friends, family members, and healthcare workers to better interact with them. As the study concluded, it is not the judgment process itself that is unique to people with autism spectrum disorder, but rather the way they obtain clues in recognizing a face is far different.

Finally, in separate news that also highlights the role of the face in better treating autism, researchers at Southern Connecticut State University are developing therapies that will help individuals with autism—who tend to be less likely to use the face for understanding spoken communication—to improve their communication skills. While the study is still in its early stages, the goal of it is to determine not whether the brain is working correctly, but rather if facial recognition is under-reactive, which would give researchers an inroad to intervene.