January 18, 2011 News

Research and Resources: Autism Spectrum Disorders

Drug Shows Promise for Treating Autism 

Although the research is preliminary, scientists appear to be closing in on a molecular explanation for some cases of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and may have found a link between autism and a lack of chemical regulation in synapses in the brain.

In a clinical trial of 25 children with ASDs ages 6 to 17, researchers administered the drug arbaclofen, a commonly used muscle relaxer and antispastic agent, for eight weeks. At the end of the trial the most significant improvements were in the areas of irritability and communication, two of the most common behavioral challenges with ASDs.

The study, which was conducted and funded by Seaside Therapeutics in Cambridge, Mass., is considered preliminary because the study was not placebo-controlled. This factor is especially important in ASD studies because of the subjectivity of many of the tests used to assess patients. However, another larger placebo-controlled clinical trial that involved arbaclofen in children with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic order often linked to autism, found similar results.

For more information, visit Seaside Therapeutics website and select "Latest News."

IQ Doesn't Predict Academic Performance 

Many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have greater academic abilities than previously thought. Researchers at the University of Washington found that 90% of high-functioning children with ASDs showed a discrepancy between their IQ scores and their performance in reading, spelling, and math.

IQ scores reliably predict academic performance in the general population; the researchers investigated if the same was true for children with ASDs. In the study, 30 children with ASDs were administered academic tests for reading, spelling, and math. Researchers found that 27 out of 30 children scored either higher or lower than what their IQ scores would have predicted. Eighteen tested higher than predicted on at least one of the tests, particularly spelling and word reading; across the three academic tests, 18 scored lower than what their IQs would have predicted, suggesting the presence of learning disabilities.

Researchers also found a link between social skills and higher academic ability in school, finding that children who had higher social skills at age 6 tended to have higher word-reading skills at age 9.

"Academic achievement is a potential source of self-worth and source of feeling of mastery that people may not have realized is available to children with autism," said Annette Estes, research assistant professor at the University of Washington's Autism Center.

Autism Gene Rewires Brain 

A study by a research team at the University of California Los Angeles has shown how gene variants linked to autism alter the brains of people with the disorder. Using brain imaging and genetic analysis, researchers illustrated how the CNTNAP2 gene, which is linked to a higher risk for autism, rewires the brain.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 32 children as they performed learning-related tasks. Half of the children had autism, half did not, but some carried the risk gene. The goal was to measure the strength of various communication pathways among different regions of the brain.

Regardless of diagnosis, all children who carried the risk gene showed a disjointed brain, with frontal lobes over-connected but poorly connected with the rest of the brain. Researchers also observed a difference in connectivity between the left and right sides of the brain that correlated with the version of the risk gene a child carried. In those children with the non-risk gene, communication pathways in the frontal lobe linked more strongly to the left side of the brain, but children with the risk variant showed communication pathways in the frontal lobes to be more broadly connected with both sides of the brain.

"We saw that if you had the risk variant, your brain showed disrupted activation patterns whether you were diagnosed on the autism spectrum or not," said co-principal investigator Susan Bookheimer, a professor of psychiatry. "We suspect that CNTNAP2 plays an important role in wiring neurons at the front of the brain and that the risk variant interferes with that process."

The study appears in the online edition of Science Translational Medicine (search "autism gene").

Magic Tricks and Autism 

Magicians typically rely on misdirection, drawing attention to one place while carrying out their tricky business elsewhere. In the vanishing-ball illusion, a magician throws a ball in the air a few times, but on the last throw, he merely pretends to throw it. This misdirection depends on social cues and relies on audience members watching the magician's face—so it would seem that people with ASDs would be less susceptible to such social manipulation, right? Wrong.

In a British study, 15 teenagers and young adults with ASDs and 16 without watched a video of a magician performing the illusion. They were asked to mark where they last saw the ball on a still image of the magician. The last place it appeared was in the magician's hand, but many people mark the position higher up and say he threw the ball. The participants with ASDs were much more likely to think the magician had thrown the ball than the participants without ASD.

For more information visit the Psychological Journal online.


ASHA's evidence map on autism spectrum disorders is intended to provide clinicians, researchers, clients, and caregivers with tools and guidance to engage in evidence-based decision making. The map highlights the importance of the three components of evidence-based practice: clinical expertise, current best evidence, and client/patient perspectives.

ASHA's webpage on autism spectrum disorders, although not all-inclusive, includes links to a number of policy documents, special interest divisions, related organizations, and professional development opportunities.

ASHA Policy Documents 


Speech-Language Pathologists in Diagnosis, Assessment and Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders Across the Life Span: Position Statement, Technical Report, Guidelines, and Knowledge and Skills.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication  

Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists With Respect to Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Position Statement and Technical Report.

Auditory Integration Training (AIT) 

Auditory Integration Training: Position Statement

Eligibility and Inclusion 

  • Access to Communication Services and Supports: Concerns Regarding the Application of Restrictive "Eligibility" Policies: Position Statement and Technical Report (National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons With Severe Disabilities)
  • Practice Parameter: Screening and Diagnosis of Autism (Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society)
  • Inclusive Practices for Children and Youth With Communication Disorders

Facilitated Communication

  • Facilitated Communication: Technical Report


  • Communication Facts: Special Populations. Autism and Communication Disorders
  • Treatment Efficacy Summary—Autism Spectrum Disorders

The ASHA Leader Articles 

  • This Isn't Mars After All: Parents and Children After the Diagnosis of Autism
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders: Interdisciplinary Teaming in Schools
  • Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Role of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists in Service Delivery

Continuing Education 

  • Professional development products on autism and developmental disorders

Related Resources 

  • National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons With Severe Disabilities (NJC)
  • Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC)
  • Screening and Diagnosis of Autism: Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society
  • Bilingual Autism Resource Guide (from the website ASD from A to Z)
  • Interactive Autism Network
  • The Puzzle of Autism
  • National Autism Association
  • AWAARE Collaboration (Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education)

Networking Opportunities

  • ASHA discussion forums, special interest divisions


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