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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Barriers to Employment

In The Politics of Autism, I write:
The continued growth in white collar and service sector employment (where job descriptions routinely stress interpersonal skills) creates obstacles for people with deficits in social communication. As one autistic person told The Huffington Post, “the conveyor belt of traditional employment puts you at a huge disadvantage with high-functioning autism, because you talk the way you do, and that's an automatic strike one.” In the workplace as in college, disclosure involves the dilemma of difference. Writes Katherine Bouton, an author with a hearing impairment: “If you announce your condition, you risk being stigmatized; if you keep it a secret, you risk poor performance reviews or even being fired.”
At The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Liz Zabel writes about the high unemployment among autistic adults:
Much of that is due to the conventional interview process, said Lisa Goring, executive vice president of programs and services at Autism Speaks, an awareness and advocacy organization dedicated to funding research on the causes, prevention, treatments and cure for autism.

When you have difficulty socializing or even speaking, an interview setting in which you must prove your worth by talking about your abilities can be extremely difficult, she explained. Worse yet, if they’re completely lacking verbal skills, they’re unable to interview at all.

“It’s so unfortunate because so many people with autism have really good skills that are beneficial to employers, but they don’t get a chance to demonstrate them,” she said.

Even if they make it through the interview, some have difficulty with loud noises, bright lights, uncomfortable uniforms and other sensory issues.

“Some people will have meltdowns at work because their boss doesn’t realize the texture of their uniform is driving them nuts,” said Leah Parker, an autistic University of Iowa student and board member of the East Central Iowa Autism Society. “Having dialogues with autistic people about what their sensitivities are or their threshold for certain things to make a calmer environment from the get go is really important.”

Some, with the support of vocational rehabilitation, training and flexibility of employers, are lucky to find work that suits them.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Case for South Carolina Insurance Legislation

The Politics of Autism includes an extensive discussion of insurance legislation in the states.

At The State, Chris King writes of insurance legislation in South Carolina:
As the owner of a small business, I care about my employees, a strong and healthy community and a fiscally responsible state government. For all these reasons, I support Senate bill 135, which would help children with autism get the treatment they need.

Autism is a brain disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviors. It can be treated so the symptoms are not as disabling. A non-verbal child can develop the ability to communicate; a non-social child can acquire interpersonal skills; a child with aggressive or self-injurious behaviors can be freed from this tragic condition.
The most commonly prescribed treatment is applied behavior analysis, which has been used to treat children with autism for more than 40 years. When it is administered intensively, nearly half of the children who receive it are able to enter school indistinguishable from their peers.
As with other treatments for serious illness, these costs are difficult if not impossible for the average family to bear. That’s why families have health insurance — but some families have been denied benefits for their children. That’s just unfair.
S.135 helps remedy this by requiring certain health insurance plans to cover doctor-prescribed autism treatment, including applied behavior analysis. Many plans are already required to include this coverage. Under a law passed in 2007, fully funded group plans that cover 50 or more employees must cover autism treatment. So must the State Employee Health Plan.
Many self-funded corporations that employ South Carolinians have voluntarily included autism benefits in their plans — AT&T, Bank of America, WalMart, Starbucks, Volvo, Wells Fargo, the federal government, TD Bank, Greenville Health System, Lexington Medical, Boeing, BMW and Nexsen Pruet, for example.
This means that people who work for state government, fully funded large-group plans and self-funded corporations have autism benefits. Even children on Medicaid have the benefits. But the Average Joe who works for a small business does not. Average Joe’s child with autism is simply going without the treatment prescribed by his doctor, unless Average Joe happens to be independently wealthy.
S.135 would fix this, and the Senate has already passed it. The House should act now before it’s too late for many of these children.

Read more here:

College Student Attitudes Toward Autistic Peers

At The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Devon White, Ashleigh Hillier, Alice Frye, and Emily Makrez have an article titled: "College Students’ Knowledge and Attitudes Towards Students on the Autism Spectrum." The abstract:
Young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are attending university in increasing numbers. The importance of acceptance from peers and integration into the university have been recognized as key factors for success. We examined university students’ knowledge and attitudes towards students with ASD, underlying factors that contributed to such attitudes, and whether attitudes changed across two cohorts 5-years apart. The later cohort demonstrated greater knowledge and more positive attitudes toward students with ASD compared to students in the first cohort. However, knowledge was not found to be a significant predictor of attitudes and many students who were knowledgeable about ASD still reported negative attitudes toward participating in university and classroom based activities with students with ASD.
From the article:
We also found support for our hypothesis that students who personally knew someone with ASD would have more positive attitudes toward their peers with ASD, consistent with the findings of previous research (Gillespie-Lynch et al. 2015; Nevill and White 2011). Knowing someone with ASD was correlated with more positive attitudes across both cohorts.
  • Gillespie-Lynch, K., Brooks, P. J., Someki, F., Obeid, R., ShaneSimpson, C., Kapp, S. K., & Smith, D. S. (2015). Changing college students’ conceptions of autism: An online training to increase knowledge and decrease stigma. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(8), 2553–2566.
  • Nevill, R. A., & White, S. W. (2011). College students’ openness toward autism spectrum disorders: Improving peer acceptance. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(12), 1619–1628.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Case for Ohio Mandate Legislation

The Politics of Autism includes an extensive discussion of insurance legislation in the states.

At The Columbus Dispatch, Mark Swepston makes the case for insurance mandate legislation in Ohio:
HB 350 also applies to individual health-insurance plans that are grandfathered (in existence since March 2010); nongrandfathered individual plans already include autism coverage, thanks to executive action by Gov. John Kasich in 2012. Also thanks to Kasich, Ohio state employees already have autism benefits. So, in essence, this bill would level the playing field among all types of state-regulated plans in Ohio.
Some Ohioans have health plans not regulated by the state. Self-funded plans, typically offered by very large corporations, are regulated by the federal government and have control over the design of their benefits packages. Notably, numerous self-funded companies voluntarily include ABA coverage in their plans. These include AT&T, American Express, Bank of America, American Airlines, Walmart, Ernst & Young, Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., Starbucks, Volvo, Boeing, Wells Fargo, the federal government (civilian and military), Harvard University, Novartis, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Goldman Sachs, General Electric, General Motors and White Castle.
Thus, at present in Ohio, state employees have autism/ABA benefits. People with new individual plans have autism/ABA benefits. People who work for many large corporations, such as those listed above, have autism/ABA benefits. Even children on Medicaid have autism/ABA benefits. The Average Joe in Ohio does not have autism/ABA benefits. Average Joe’s child with autism is simply going without the treatment prescribed by his doctor, unless Average Joe happens to be independently wealthy. HB 350 would fix this.
Autism Speaks reports:
 On Wednesday, the Ohio House Committee on Government Affairs and Oversight passed HB 350 by a vote of 8-4.  The bill now moves to the House floor where it will be considered after the November elections.    

“I am pleased we have passed this important step with House Bill 350.   It is obvious that more and more people realize the necessity of providing this coverage for Ohio families.  I am truly grateful for the tremendous efforts by so many as we work to make Ohio the 45th state to enact autism insurance reform,” said bill sponsor, Representative Cheryl Grossman.

44 other states, including all states bordering Ohio, have enacted legislation similar to HB 350. Claims data demonstrate the average cost of required coverage is less than 50 cents per member per month.  The impact on health insurance premiums has been negligible and there has been no negative impact on small businesses.  

“This victory would not have been possible without an outpouring of support by grassroots advocates and community leaders” said Mike Wasmer, director of state government affairs at Autism Speaks. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

In The Politics of Autism, I write:
The conventional wisdom is that any kind of treatment is likely to be less effective as the child gets older, so parents of autistic children usually believe that they are working against the clock. They will not be satisfied with the ambiguities surrounding ABA, nor will they want to wait for some future research finding that might slightly increase its effectiveness. They want results now. Because there are no scientifically-validated drugs for the core symptoms of autism, they look outside the boundaries of mainstream medicine and FDA approval. Studies have found that anywhere from 28 to 54 percent of autistic children receive “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and these numbers probably understate CAM usage.
At Autism, Juliana Höfer, Falk Hoffmann, and Christian Bachmann have an article titled "Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review." Why just children and adolescents?  "Interestingly, we found no studies of CAM use in adults with ASD, which might explain why there was no significant association of age and CAM use."

 The abstract:
Despite limited evidence, complementary and alternative medicine treatments are popular in autism spectrum disorder. The aim of this review was to summarize the available evidence on complementary and alternative medicine use frequency in autism spectrum disorder. A systematic search of three electronic databases was performed. All research studies in English or German reporting data on the frequency of complementary and alternative medicine use in individuals with autism spectrum disorder were included. Two independent reviewers searched the literature, extracted information on study design and results, and assessed study quality using an established quality assessment tool. Twenty studies with a total of 9540 participants were included. The prevalence of any complementary and alternative medicine use ranged from 28% to 95% (median: 54%). Special diets or dietary supplements (including vitamins) were the most frequent complementary and alternative medicine treatments, ranking first in 75% of studies. There was some evidence for a higher prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine use in autism spectrum disorder compared to other psychiatric disorders and the general population. Approximately half of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder use complementary and alternative medicine. Doctors should be aware of this and should discuss complementary and alternative medicine use with patients and their carers, especially as the evidence is mixed and some complementary and alternative medicine treatments are potentially harmful.

Friday, May 27, 2016


A release from Hiram College:
There's a buzz penetrating the political scene this election year and it's coming from the world's largest minority group: people with disabilities.

Enter #CripTheVote, a Twitter/social media conversation that encourages voters and political candidates to exchange concerns and views on disability rights.
When people with disabilities consider themselves part of a group, they take action, such as through #CripTheVote, according to Michelle Nario-Redmond, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Hiram College. Nario-Redmond's "Disability Group Identification and Disability-Rights Advocacy: Contingencies Among Emerging and Other Adults" (Emerging Adulthood: 2016) reveals this phenomenon.
In her study of 204 emerging adults with disabilities, Nario-Redmond found those who identify themselves as members of the disability community are more involved in political activism and civil rights advocacy and are also more in tune with discrimination than their counterparts who identify less as group members.
"They see the unfairness in the world and recognize discrimination as a problem of those who impose it, not those inflicted by it," says Nario-Redmond, who explains that group membership opens communication channels. It gives people a chance to hear others' opinions and in turn, perhaps, validates their own.
Nario-Redmond points out that people with disabilities who come together as group members are likely to vote in elections. Her daughter, a registered voter since she was 18, encourages this year's presidential candidates to look at history and, in particular, at last year's 25th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act.

More information: M. R. Nario-Redmond et al. Disability Group Identification and Disability-Rights Advocacy: Contingencies Among Emerging and Other Adults, Emerging Adulthood (2015). DOI: 10.1177/2167696815579830

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Autism in San Antonio

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss prevalence and costs.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje reports at The San Antonio Express-News:
The first-ever study on the prevalence of autism in San Antonio and the surrounding area shows more than 30,000 adults and children struggle with the disorder — and there aren’t enough specialized providers to care for them.

The 151-page report, undertaken by a Houston-based health care consulting firm, gathered data from San Antonio and seven surrounding counties to find that 1 in 79 people are currently on the autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, a condition that ranges from mild to serious and is typically marked by social awkwardness, difficulty in communicating, repetitive behaviors and other problems.

The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation commissioned the study after a series of roundtables begun about a year ago revealed a lack of information about the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in San Antonio and the struggles faced by families that experience it.
The estimated economic impact of ASD in San Antonio, when such things as lost productivity and medical costs are taken into account, is around $2 billion annually, he said.

But one of the biggest problems revealed by the study is the dearth in San Antonio of highly-specialized providers who treat ASD, such as pediatric neurologists, developmental pediatricians and licensed school psychology specialists. Moreover, many health care providers who diagnose or treat ASD don’t make it a focused part of their practice, Goulden said.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Exceptional Minds

The Politics of Autism, I discuss the employment of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Many posts have discussed programs to provide them with training and experience

In Parade back in February, Nicola Bridges reported on one such program, Exceptional Minds, a visual effects animation studio that’s also a nonprofit vocational training program for young adults with autism. (Its website is here.)
At Exceptional Minds, located in a nondescript building close to Hollywood’s major studios, visual effects artists on the spectrum are hard at work. Ant-Manand Avengers: Age of Ultron feature their talents, as do The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. On the small screen, their work is seen in Martin Scorsese’s new HBO drama, Vinyl. In Game of Thrones, these talented artists made every fake falling snowflake melt on the actors’ faces in postproduction.
KCBS-TV has a short piece with co-founder Yudi Bennett:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

"Communication Impediment" on Texas Driver Licenses

[M]any police departments have trained officers and other first responders how to spot signs of autism and respond accordingly. Some organizations have also published identification cards that ASD adults can carry in order to defuse potential conflicts. Virginia provides for an autism designation on driver licenses and other state-issued identification cards. Once again, however, the dilemma of difference comes into play. One autistic Virginian worries: “Great, so if I get into an accident, who’s the cop going to believe, the guy with the autistic label or the guy without it?” Clinical psychologist Michael Oberschneider is concerned about the understanding level of first responders: “I think many people still think of Rain Man or, more recently, the Sandy Hook Shooter, when they think of autism even though very few people on the autistic spectrum are savants or are homicidal and dangerous.”
Isis Romero reports at KSAT-TV, San Antonio:
A San Antonio family is helping the Texas Department of Public Safety to launch an awareness campaign, about getting a special notice on the back of Texas driver's licenses, for those with speech impediments, autism, or other disabilities.
Sam Allen, and his mother Jennifer, are also working with the Texas DPS to train troopers and other law enforcement officials, on how to recognize and understand autistic drivers.
Sam was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism, at the age of 10.

Although he's never been pulled over by law enforcement, Sam said he feels confident having the notice on the back of his license, if he ever does.

"I have kind of a safe feeling with me, knowing communication impediment with me on the back of my driver's license," Sam said.
From the Texas Department of Public Safety:
Texas Transportation Code §521.125 allows the Texas Department of Public Safety to include a notice on the driver license or identification card of those who indicate they have a health condition that may impede their ability to communicate with a peace officer.
The health condition must be supported by a written statement (Physician’s Statement form DL-101) from a licensed physician and presented at the driver license office before the communication impediment notice may be included on the back of the driver license or identification card.
From Aspergers101:

Monday, May 23, 2016

Push for Full Funding of IDEA

In The Politics of Autism, I write about special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has written the chair and ranking Democrat of the Senate Appropriations Committee:
Dear Chairman Blunt and Ranking Member Murray,
I write today on behalf of children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities to urge you to increase funding for Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This program serves one of our country’s most vulnerable populations, yet has never received full funding. Children living with autism and other developmental disabilities have the right to receive the high-quality, comprehensive range of services provided by IDEA.
As you know, the majority of educational services provided to children with developmental disabilities fall under IDEA Part B. This program authorizes grants to states based on the state’s number of children between ages 3-21 and the number of children within that age range living in poverty. When passed into law, Congress authorized IDEA funding equal to 40 percent of the national average per pupil expenditure (APPE) multiplied by the number of children with disabilities served. Unfortunately, IDEA has never received the full appropriation to help ensure that children and families receiving services and supports thrive.
In Fiscal Year 2016, federal funding for IDEA Part B only covered 16 percent of APPE. This means that appropriations fell short of the full funding by approximately $17.85 billion dollars. As the full funding estimate continues to rise, it is critical that we work to close the gap between this and the annual appropriation.
It is important that educational services and resources are available for families and children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities.
Unfortunately the ongoing lack of funding for IDEA does not reflect the current need for services. A recent report issued by the Office of Autism Research Coordination and the Interagency Autism Coordination Committee found that only about seven percent of funding for autism research went to the development of services and less than one percent of research funding went to issues that follow people with autism throughout their lifetime.
In order for our nation’s children to thrive, we must invest in services that set them up for success. For this reason, I urge you to decrease the funding gap between the estimated need and the actual funding by increasing appropriations for IDEA Part B. I know you have been working on these issues for some time and I appreciate the opportunity to work with you in supporting this critical funding situation.
Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator

Sunday, May 22, 2016

In California, Autism Up, Intellectual Disability Down

While many people with autism received the tag of “mentally ill,” even more fell into the category of “mentally retarded.” Again, the reasons for the label are easy to grasp. Some people on the spectrum do have low IQs, though not as many as researchers once thought. More important, poor attention to task may cause intelligent people with autism to stumble on standardized tests. “Mental retardation” was a convenient catchall category for people with low scores and unusual behavior.
At Left Brain/Right Brain, Matt Carey looks at data from the California Department of Developmental Services.  He finds support for the idea that diagnostic substitution accounts for much of the apparent rise in autism prevalence:
You see I also graphed intellectual disability. I got autism counts, intellectual disability counts and “unduplicated” (total, each disabled person counted once) by birth year. I also got census data by birth year. And I graphed them. And anyone claiming CDDS data show an autism epidemic needs to do the same and to explain this graph, complete with the sharp peak for birth year 1993. (click to enlarge):

Intellectual disability has dropped. Off about 40% of the peak value.
If you think your idea for the rise in autism is correct, let’s take the failed vaccine idea as an example, you need to also explain how that resulted in far fewer people with intellectual disability. Plain and simple. And none of these claimed causes of an “epidemic” can explain the drop in ID.
Why bother challenging the people claiming an autism epidemic? Because it denies the existence of undiagnosed autistic adults. We have very little effort to identify those who were missed in past generations. And the likelihood is that these people–our people–are not being supported appropriately because of their misdiagnoses. And not only are we abandoning the misdiagnosed, we are failing to learn. What worked for past generations, the adults of today? What failed? What are the appropriate supports for the various needs of autistic adults? We don’t know today. And are unlikely to know by the time my kid is an adult, especially if we aren’t even looking at autistic adult needs today.
And then there’s the whole autism causation question. People spending their time trying to correlate CDDS data–data clearly confounded by numerous social influences–are unlikely to ever find a real answer.
But, for those who want to keep trying, include all the data. Give an explanation for this and you may be on to something.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Training for Special Education

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education today announced more than $13.4 million in grants to higher education institutions to fund quality personnel preparation programs to help improve services and results for students with disabilities.  From the release:
“We are committed to promoting equity and excellence at every level of the education system,” said Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. “These grants will give special education teachers and leaders the skills to help America’s students with disabilities achieve their academic potential.”
Of the $13.4 million, more than $4.1 million is being awarded under the Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results for Children with DisabilitiesLeadership Personnel program. The funds will go to higher education institutions to prepare doctoral students for faculty and administrator positions in special education, early intervention and related services.

The remaining $9.3 million in support is being provided under the Combined Priority for Personnel Development to help address state-identified needs for highly qualified personnel in special education, early intervention and regular education programs that serve children with disabilities. The funds will help train teachers and direct service providers in such areas as early childhood, low-incidence disabilities, related services and transition services.
The Office of Special Education Programs is a primary source of federal funding for training in special education, early intervention and related services.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Yet Another Purported Risk Factor: Circumcision

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss various ideas about what causes the condition.
Here is just a partial list of correlates, risk factors, and possible causes that have been the subject of serious peer-reviewed studies:
Air pollution and proximity to freeways;
Maternal thyroid issues;
Autoimmune disorders;
Induced labor;
Preterm birth;
Birth by cesarean section;
Maternal and paternal obesity;
Maternal and paternal age;
Maternal post-traumatic stress disorder;
Smoking during pregnancy;
Antidepressant use during pregnancy. 
I also write:  "If the science were not confusing enough, its coverage in the mass media has added another layer of murk.  News reports hype tentative findings and weak correlations as “breakthroughs” in the quest for autism answers. "  One recent example is the notion that too much folic acid may play a part.

Another involves circumcision.  Sarah Kovac reports at Time:
Dr. Morten Frisch is a Danish epidemiologist who led a study examining the link between circumcision and ASD. The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, found that boys who undergo circumcision are more likely to be diagnosed with autism by age 9. “Considering the widespread practice of non-therapeutic circumcision in infancy and childhood around the world,” the study states, “confirmatory studies should be given priority.”
But Frisch’s study is not without its critics, one of the most vocal being Professor Emeritus Brian Morris of the University of Sydney. “The problem with Frisch’s fundamental premise is that circumcision causes pain in infants and boys… Sometimes observers believe that crying during a circumcision is because of pain when in fact it is more likely because of the baby having to be restrained.” Morris also points out that, in many circumcisions, the baby doesn’t even cry during the procedure, and may even fall asleep.
His argument is supported by statistics out of Australia, where circumcision rates have been dropping since the 1960s, but ASD diagnoses have been rising.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Pathways to Early Diagnosis and Intervention

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss evaluation and diagnosis of young children.

At IMFAR 2016, Maria Martinez had a paper titled: "Pathways to Early Autism Diagnosis and Intervention." The abstract:

Families of children with an ASD have more difficulty accessing and using services compared to families with children with other mental health care needs (Vohra, Madhavan, Sambamoorthi & St. Peter, 2014). The Autism CARES Act of 2014 introduced legislation to reduce barriers to screening, diagnosis and treatment however little is known about pathways that lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention. The Anderson model of health care utilization (Aday & Anderson, 1975) provides a framework to organize and examine factors associated with earlier access to autism services.


The purpose of this study is to identify pathways associated with early screening, assessment and intervention that can be utilized to develop a system of service that provides early intervention for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other developmental disabilities in order to facilitate children’s ability to reach their maximum potential. The target audience includes researchers, stakeholders and policy makers.


Data from the 2014-2015 North Carolina Needs of Young Children with Autism Survey are presented that represent over 450 families with a child diagnosed with an ASD. Descriptive statistics and logit modeling analyzed de-identified demographic, diagnostic and service use information using the Anderson health care utilization framework. Pathways to early intervention as well as models predicting early parent recognition of concerns, who first recognized concerns, time to diagnosis, and early intervention are presented.


Early parent recognition is associated with parents sharing concerns with more providers prior to a child’s initial ASD diagnosis (p < .005), ASD presentations with lower levels of functioning (p < .005), parents (vs. providers) first recognizing a concern (p < .005), and type of providers conducting initial autism assessment (p < .05). Who first recognized developmental concerns was associated with parent completion of an autism screener at their doctor’s office (p < .01) and minority child race/ethnicity (p <.05). Early diagnosis was associated with ASD presentations with lower functioning (p < .001), type of provider (p < .05) conducting ASD assessment, and autism screening (p < .05). Early intervention was associated with ASD presentations with lower functioning (p < .05) and type of providers conducting initial autism assessment (p < .05).


Parents who recognized concerns early were more likely to enter a pathway to earlier child diagnosis and intervention, particularly in cases of prompt initial diagnosis. This appears to be associated with type of provider conducting initial autism assessment and severity of child functioning, reflecting quicker pathway entry for families who are swiftly connected with specialists as well as autism presentations with greater functional impairment that may be easier to identify. When providers initially recognized developmental concerns, families were more likely to enter a pathway to quicker diagnosis and earlier intervention.
It is important for policy makers to support and increase autism awareness among parents and providers, routine autism screening and follow-up, strategies to improve provider recognition for minority and higher functioning children, and availability of specialists trained to conduct early diagnostic assessments

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Autism and Assets

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the employment of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Yuki Noguchi reports at NPR:
"Once you develop into an adult, those resources plummet," says Leslie Long, vice president of adult services for the advocacy group Autism Speaks. 
An estimated 50,000 people on the spectrum enter adulthood every year. Face-to-face job interviews can be a challenge for many, Long says, and some engage in repetitive behaviors, which can seem odd to the uninitiated. 
But those idiosyncracies sometimes mask hidden talents, she says — like intense focus, or a facility with numbers and patterns. 
"I mean, look at what happened with the housing bubble and the financial market," she points out. "It was a man on the spectrum who saw which mortgages were going to fall. And I don't think that's something an average person would have been able to do." 
That particular case — of Dr. Michael Burry, the physician and hedge fund manager featured in the book and movie The Big Short — is in many ways exceptional, Long admits. (Burry has a son with Asperger's syndrome, and has said he believes he fits thediagnosis, as well.) 
Still, with baby boomers starting to retire, and with talent in increasingly short supply, companies as varied as Microsoft, Walgreens, Capital One, AMC Theaters, and Proctor & Gamble are all starting to actively recruit people who have autism spectrum disorder. They aren't yet putting a lot more people to work, but their recruiting and training programs are becoming models for other firms.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Autism: What Are We Spending Money On?

Yesterday, I cited a passage in The Politics of Autism: "A key question in autism policy evaluation is simple to pose, hard to answer: How do autistic people benefit?"  Indeed, uncertainty is a major theme of the book, which concludes with a call for research in what works.

The estimated annual cost of caring for individuals with autism is US$268 billion (Leigh and Du, 2015). What is this buying? Beyond a general knowledge of setting and type of service provided (e.g. educational, mental health, speech therapy, and occupational therapy), we know very little about the type and quality of interventions being delivered. For several reasons, it is imperative that we be able to accurately and efficiently characterize the treatment that children with autism receive in their communities.
  • One reason for this urgency links treatment to our basic understanding of mechanism and subtype in autism.
  • The second reason for characterizing intervention is the need to identify active mechanisms, with the goal of refining treatments (e.g. Kasari and Lawton, 2010;Schreibman et al., 2015)
  • The third reason to characterize interventions is that we can measure the quality of care individuals with autism receive.The service delivery infrastructure for individuals with autism has not kept pace with the dramatically increasing number of children diagnosed. Service providers rush to hang out shingles saying that they treat autism, but there are few licensure and credentialing practices in place. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Building the Gauges

A key question in autism policy evaluation is simple to pose, hard to answer: How do autistic people benefit? How much better off are they as a result of government action? While there are studies of the short-term impact of various therapies, there is surprisingly little research about the long term, which is really what autistic people and their families care about. As we saw in chapter 4, few studies have focused on the educational attainment of autistic youths. For instance, we do not know much about what happens to them in high school, apart from the kinds of classes that they take. One study searched the autism literature from 1950 through 2011 and found just 13 rigorous peer reviewed studies evaluating psychosocial interventions for autistic adults. The effects of were largely positive, though the main finding of the review is that there is a need for further development and evaluation of treatments for adults.
Autism Speaks reports on comments by Dr. Paul Shattuck at IMFAR:
“There have been many calls to ‘move the needle’ on adult outcomes,” he said. “But we still need to build the gauges to see if adult outcomes are truly improving over time.”
By what few measures are available, he said, it appears that, overall, young adults on the autism spectrum are doing poorly despite historic expenditures into research and interventions.
By way of example, Dr. Shattuck noted the “National Autism Indicators Report” that his team released earlier this month. (Autism Speaks Vice President of Adult Services Leslie Long served on the report’s advisory panel.)
The report found that nearly 18,000 people with autism used state-funded vocational rehabilitation programs in 2014, more than double the number five years earlier. But only 60 percent of these people left the program with a job. And 80 percent of these worked just part-time at a median weekly rate of $160, putting them well below the poverty level.
In part, he proposed, we’re doing so poorly in supporting the transition to adulthood because such a thin sliver of autism research funding is going toward lifespan issues such as developing effective supports to improve success in employment and community integration.
The recent “Portfolio Analysis Report,” by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) put that sliver at just 1 percent of total autism research expenditures in 2012, Dr. Shattuck noted. (See graphic below.)

I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But the fact that there are cries to move the needle on adult outcomes in the context of tiny outlays in support of adult research reminds me of a quote attributed to Henry Ford: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ The only way we can move the needle on outcomes is to first move the needle on funding for a research agenda that prioritizes services and life course questions.”
Adding to the urgency, Dr. Shattuck said, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed last year, requires all states to dedicate at least 15 percent of their vocational rehabilitation budgets to programs for transition-age youth (teens and young adults).
“So here we are embarking on a huge policy experiment, with state governments spending huge amounts of money, but with little guidance and no plan for measuring whether any of this effort is having the desired impact of improving to lives,” he warned.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Underserved Populations

In The Politics of Autism, I write about the experiences of different ethnic and racial groups.

Roy Grinker and colleagues have a paper titled "Mobilizing Community Systems to Tackle Challenges of Early Detection of ASD in Underserved Populations."  The abstract:
Background: There is a pressing need to improve the capacity of communities to detect ASD early to change developmental trajectories and improve outcomes. Although delays in social communication usually appear by 18-24 months, most children are not diagnosed until 4-5 years of age. Underserved families are identified even later and are underrepresented in intervention research. This new collaborative of 4 universities in partnership with the National Black Church Initiative (NBCI) has infused community-based participatory research and implementation science within a services research study to build consensus with stakeholders in the planning stages to lay the foundation for sustained utilization. The long-term project aim is to study effectiveness of mobilizing community systems using a web-based professional development platform with links to family resources and tools to increase family engagement and expedite receipt of screening, diagnosis, and early intervention services.

Objectives: To describe qualitative research findings from focus groups with families and providers designed 1) to identify challenges and barriers to early detection and access to early intervention (EI) for children under 24 months, and 2) to develop strategies to promote EI in underserved populations.
Methods: Focus groups with community stakeholders, including parents (n = 105) and professionals (n = 45), were conducted in Southwest Florida, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and NYC. Separate groups were held for primary care physicians, parents/grandparents from NBCI, and parents of children at-risk for developmental delay. Topics included: 1) barriers to early screening in primary care settings; 2) strategies to engage families and professionals and improve participation in the screening/referral process; and 3) information sharing about EI with families at the time of screening, diagnosis, and referral. Focus groups were audio-recorded and transcribed.

Driven by an iterative, grounded theory approach, researchers analyzed transcripts with an inductive, open-coding technique to identify emergent thematic dimensions, recurrent patterns and analytical categories. Focused coding of the remaining transcripts, using Dedoose software, identified major themes and frequency counts linked to core theoretical concepts. The use of multiple sites and the mapping of diverse stakeholder viewpoints within the same community (physicians, grandparents, and parents) onto themes allowed for increased dimensions of variation in this purposive sample, and for saturation of themes. Research team members completed five inter-rater reliability tests in Dedoose, resulting in very good agreement (average pooled Cohen’s kappa=93.6). Further measures of inter-rater reliability included consensus coding, data review, and discussion and resolution of discrepancies.

Results: Sixteen major themes emerged from 1,709 excerpts, and illustrative quotes were drawn from diverse topics surrounding culture, early developmental milestones and red flags, family-physician trust, previous experience with individuals with autism/other disabilities, stigma, materials, resources, support, and practical and psychological/motivational barriers to accessing screening, assessment and intervention (Figure 1).

Conclusions: Topics for further exploration include the role of family power structures and processes impacting engagement in community screening, diagnosis and early intervention services; trusted materials and resources used in information gathering about ASD and developmental milestones; where families turn when traditional support systems fail; and family feelings, perspectives, and resistance to classifying a child who is continuously growing.

Causes, Correlates, and Folic Acid

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss various ideas about what causes the condition.
Here is just a partial list of correlates, risk factors, and possible causes that have been the subject of serious peer-reviewed studies:
Air pollution and proximity to freeways;
Maternal thyroid issues;
Autoimmune disorders;
Induced labor;
Preterm birth;
Birth by cesarean section;
Maternal and paternal obesity;
Maternal and paternal age;
Maternal post-traumatic stress disorder;
Smoking during pregnancy;
Antidepressant use during pregnancy. 
I also write:  "If the science were not confusing enough, its coverage in the mass media has added another layer of murk.  News reports hype tentative findings and weak correlations as “breakthroughs” in the quest for autism answers. "

The written press release was titled “Too Much Folate in Pregnant Women Increases Risk for Autism, Study Suggests.”
The subsequent headlines were similar: “Autism Linked to Overdose of Folate and Vitamin B12 During Pregnancy” (The Telegraph), “Study: Too Much Folate, B12 In Pregnant Women Can Multiply Autism Risk By 17.6” (CBS), “A Study Asks: Too Much Folic Acid a Cause of Autism?” (Fox News). I could go on.

At this point, though, the evidence is extremely premature. The findings have not been peer-reviewed or published in a journal; the press release referred only to a brief scientific abstract that is being presented at a conference this week.

It remains to be seen if the findings hold up to the scrutiny of peer review and, so, warrant publication in a medical journal. Even if they do, after that, the correlation would need to be seen again, and again, in multiple studies, before it could reliably be said to exist. Then, if it does exist, the challenge would be to attempt to figure out what drives those elevated levels in a person’s blood.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Services and Autistic Adults

When disabled people reach their 22d birthday, they no longer qualify for services under IDEA. ... People in the disability community refer to this point in life as “the cliff.” Once autistic people go over the cliff, they have a hard time getting services such as job placement, vocational training, and assistive technology. IDEA entitles students to transition planning services during high school, but afterwards, they have to apply as adults and establish eligibility for state and federal help. One study found that 39 percent of young autistic adults received no service at all, and most of the rest got severely limited services.
Background: Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have substantial difficulty accessing services (Kraus et al., 2003; Kogan et al., 2008), and many of their service needs go unmet (Chiri & Warfield, 2012). However, the majority of studies have focused on children with ASD, and studies with adults have generally only included individuals in their twenties (Shattuck et al., 2012). Thus, there is very little research on service needs of adults with ASD. Even less is known about how service needs for those in middle adulthood may differ depending on their living situation, which is important due to the high number of adults with ASD living with family caregivers (Krauss et al., 2005).

Objectives: The current study investigated the service use in a large sample of adults diagnosed with ASD as children between 1970 and 1999 at the UNC TEACCH Autism Program. Specifically, this study compared services received, unmet needs, and obstacles that impacted service usage for adults living with family caregivers compared to those not living with family caregivers.

Methods: Caregiver surveys were completed for 189 adults with ASD (21-64 years of age; M age=35.5). All participants were diagnosed with ASD during childhood (initial evaluation M age=7.22). Caregivers of adults with ASD completed a survey that included 34 questions about service usage. Analyses examined differences in service usage, unmet needs, and obstacles attaining services for those living with family members and those not living with family (including those living independently, in supervised housing, a group home, or institution).
Results: As adults, 47% of individuals with ASD lived with family members. Analyses indicated that those living with family members received significantly fewer services than those not living with family members. Specifically, they received less support with independent living skills (24% family, 62% non-family; X2=14.97, p<.001), psychological care (23% family, 57% non-family; X2=17.41, p<.001), social work (23% family, 49% non-family; X2=7.40, p=.007), and transportation (26% family, 70% non-family; X2=19.89, p<.001). Furthermore, adults living with family members were reported to have significantly more unmet needs than those not living with family members (65% family, 43% non-family; X2=9.96, p=.007). Families with adults living at home reported more struggles in knowing where to find services (36% family, 11% non-family; X2=13.68, p<.001). These findings hold when comparing individuals living at home to different types of residential categories for those living outside the home (e.g., those living with family members received fewer services than those living independently).

Conclusions: These data indicate that adults living with family members receive approximately half the amount of services as adults who are living outside the family home. Further, adults living with family are reported to have a greater unmet need for services and difficulty knowing where to access services. With approximately half of this adult sample living with family, these results have clear implications for public policy; we need to work to increase services for middle-age adults with ASD living with family and knowledge regarding where to find these fundamental services.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Autistic Man v. Trump

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the issue's role in presidential campaigns

Matthieu Vaillancourt writes at The Independent:
As someone who lives with autism, I am angered and disgusted by Donald Trump’s position on the correlation between vaccines and autism. The very fact that he believes in the myth of an autism epidemic is detestable, but worse is the fact that he uses those with autism as vulgar props to gain attention for his campaign. Because of his endorsement of this ridiculous theory, he provides publicity for snake oil sellers who actively exploit autism sufferers and their families.
Donald Trump has no record in helping those with autism, or even showing an ounce of care. His only interest in autism is the posting of misleading comments on social media.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Impact of Mandates

The Politics of Autism includes an extensive discussion of insurance legislation in the states.

At IMFAR, David Mandell and Colleagues have a paper titled "The Effects of Autism Insurance Mandates on Treated Prevalence and Service Use."  The abstract:
Background: In the US, 42 states have passed autism insurance mandates that require commercial insurance plans to pay for autism-related services. These mandates have not been rigorously evaluated. The few studies of the mandates have not assessed their effects directly on the number of children diagnosed with autism or the services they received as a result of the mandates.
Objectives: To assess the effects of the autism insurance mandates on the treated prevalence of autism and use of and spending on behavioral therapies among children with autism.
Methods: We used data from the Health Care Cost Institute from 2008–2012. HCCI data includes health care claims from three large insurance companies in 50 states and the District of Columbia. A difference-in-differences design with state and year fixed effects was used to identify the independent effects of the mandates, separate from other state characteristics. Outcomes among four groups of children were compared: 1) children in states with an active mandate who had insurance subject to the mandate; 2) children in states with an active mandate whose insurance was not subject to the mandate; 3) children in states without a mandate whose insurance would have been subject to the mandate if one were active; and 4) children in states without a mandate whose insurance would not have been subject to the mandate if one were active. Additional analyses estimated the impact of mandates on treated prevalence in the first, second, and third or later years after implementation. Regression models also adjusted for patient age, sex, insurance plan type, and calendar month and standard errors were adjusted to account for clustering at the state level. A second set of analyses using a similar analytic approach will examine the effects of the mandates on service use among children diagnosed with autism.
Results: Analyses of the effects of the mandate on service use and spending are ongoing. Mandates were implemented in 29 states by the end of the study period. Mandate enactment increased the treated prevalence of autism overall by 12.2% (95% confidence interval [CI]: 6.1%, 18.63%) from a base of 2.4 per 1,000. Treated prevalence increased by an average of 9.9% (95% CI: 4.7%, 15.2%) in the first year after enactment, by 16.6% (95% CI: 7.1%, 26.0%) in the second year, and by 17.2% (95% CI: 8.6%, 25.8%) in the third or later year.
Conclusions: This study represents the most rigorous analysis to date of a widespread state-level insurance mandate policy in the US. We found that autism mandates have had a statistically significant but small effect on treated prevalence, which remains far below what would be expected based on community prevalence studies. Mandates may be a necessary but not sufficient policy for helping children obtain services reimbursed through private insurance. Analyses that will be completed prior to the conference will examine whether the mandates had an effect on use of behavioral health care, functional therapies, and other types of relevant care and total and out-of-pocket spending on these services paid for through private insurance.
At Kaiser Health News, Shefali Luthra reports on the study and quotes Alycia Halladay, chief science officer at the Autism Science Foundation:
"You can't rely on these mandates alone. You can't say, 'OK now, everything's hunky-dory, and everyone's being served the right way,' " she said.
There are a few possible reasons the coverage requirements aren't always translating to people getting treatment.
Even if insurers have to cover care, there is wide variation in how generous the coverage is. Plans can argue that certain services like speech and occupational therapy as well as applied behavioral therapy aren't necessary. Or insurers can require higher cost-sharing, or reimburse at a low enough rate that providers don't participate. Also, not all mandates are equal — some states cap coverage, allow ceilings to the number of visits or limit the age range of beneficiaries.
Even when a mandate is in place, it's often unclear what insurance plans are actually required to pay for, said Halladay. Plus parents of autistic children may not realize what services are covered, she added.
Then there's also the fact that, compared to the need, not enough doctors are familiar with autism treatments, noted Mandell, who co-authored a qualitative study published last November in the journal Autism. The research presented Wednesday will appear this summer in JAMA Pediatrics.
"There are long waiting lists for people to get medical referrals for their autism-related problems. There are wait lists all over the place. And that's because there aren't enough people trained," Halladay said. "It's not an easy problem to solve."