April Is Autism Awareness Month

University researchers work to assist those affected by Autism Spectrum
April 5, 2014 Updated: April 5, 2014

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that can affect thinking, feeling, communication, speech, and social behavior, among other functions. A group of experts and researchers at the University of Kansas have made significant progress in the past several years in aiding those who have language cognitive development disorders. Here are a few of their findings.

Vocal Signature
Language Environment Analysis (LENA) is a new technology software that can automatically label and analyze infant and child vocalizations from recordings that will distinguish them from those of normally developing children with 86 percent accuracy. It can also distinguish developing children and children with autism from children with language delay.

“Autism does appear to have a unique vocal signature,” said Steven F. Warren, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research and professor of applied behavioral sciences at the University of Kansas, in an email interview. “It is presently unclear how early this vocal signature might be useful in identifying children who ‘may’ have autism, or develop autism.”

According to Warren, because the lack of measurement technology in the past, progress was held back in case studies.

“This vocal signature does not itself result in a diagnosis of autism,” he said. “However, it could be used early in a child’s life to identify whether a child should be given a comprehensive evaluation.”

Warren believes that this will allow a less costly form of collecting and analysis of data unimagined in language research that can significantly impact the screening, assessment, and treatment of autism and behavioral sciences in general.

iPad App For Children
Kathy Thiemann-Bourque, University of Kansas assistant research professor at the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in Kansas City, will be directing a four-year study, “Communication Intervention for Preschoolers learning to use AAC (CI-PAAC),” funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

This voice output application for iPad will act as a speech-generating device programmed to the specific needs of each child. The app will display pictures and photos taken at home or at school so that the child can press them to express wants and needs, greet others, or make comments and communicate. 

“Many young children with autism have complex communication needs but do not develop functional speech,” said Thiemann-Bourque in press release. “An alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) can allow them to communicate independently, but most studies that report success involve communicating with adults, not with peers.”

Communications Complexity Scale
Communications Complexity Scale (CCS) is a tool used by researchers to measure the communication development of both children and adults with disabilities as diverse as autism spectrum disorders, deaf-blindness, and cerebral palsy.

“Understanding the communication status of individuals with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities is difficult because they often communicate in ways that may not be readily recognized, even by clinicians,” said scientist Nancy Brady, University of Kansas, in a press release. Brady pioneered communication assessment and intervention for children with deaf-blindness.

Saliva and Pupil Indications
Researchers at the University of Kansas have discovered that larger resting pupil size and lower levels of salivary enzyme associated with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine are found in children with autism.

According to John Colombo, professor of psychology and director at the University of Kansas Life Span Institute, the alpha-amylase (sAA) levels of developing children gradually rise and fall throughout the day.

“What this says is that the autonomic system of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is always on the same level,” said Christa Anderson, assistant research professor at the University of Kansas, in a press release. “They are in overdrive.”

*Image of the word “autism” via Shutterstock