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Articles by Melissa Feldsher

tech February 14, 2011

TeachTown: Where Autistic Kids Go to Learn

What do you get when you cross these three people: A data analyst who has a son on the autism spectrum, a Chief Science Officer who is grounded in behavioral analysis studies, and the brainchild of the animated cartoon Rugrats? TeachTown: Basics 2.0, that’s what. TeachTown bills itself as providing “exceptional activities for exception children,” and it largely lives up to its promise. Geared toward individuals in the age 2 to 7 developmental range with autism and other special needs, TeachTown offers more than 800 instructive on and offline lessons that are fine-tuned to the needs of those with autism, a complex neuro-developmental disorder defined by impaired social interaction and affected 1 out of roughly every 150 births. PLATFORM FOR PARENTS Split into six “learning domains,” the animated world of TeachTown and its inhabitants convey concepts like basic math skills, language development, and interpersonal and life skills. In practice, these areas ... keep reading »
tech October 18, 2010

New iPad Apps for Autism

OK, admit it.  The iPad is the new gadget for the technologically savvy, as well as the merely technologically competent.  Perhaps one of the best features of the iPad is not the device itself, but the plethora of apps that span every interest from Netflix film buffs to Bloomberg news junkies to fantasy football fans.  Now, those with autism, a complex developmental disability that affects social interaction and communication skills, can bask in the mesmerizing glow of the iPad. Proloquo2Go, an iPad and iTouch app that allows users to touch icons that correspond with “spoken” words or phrases, is an excellent tool for those on the non-verbal end of the spectrum and one that has been mentioned previously in abledbody’s text-to-speech coverage.  With thousands of pictures, a default vocabulary of over 7,000 items and a price tag of $189, the Proloquo2Go is far more comprehensive than your average emoticon.  AssistiveWare, which ... keep reading »
Life October 1, 2010

Wyndham Bets On Autism Friendly Hotels

Anyone who’s travelled with a person with autism can tell you how disruptive it can be. While strange places, airport security, traffic jams, and the lack of decent legroom are enough to put anyone in a tizzy, for those who are autistic — where a day-to-day routine is critical — these interruptions can be deeply disorienting. Luckily, if you’re staying at a Wyndham hotel, you’ve got some help. In a move that could — and should — be replicated by other large hotel chains, Wyndham has begun to tailor rooms specifically to the needs of parents and their autistic children. Wyndham’s recently redesigned rooms are a reflection of growing market demands for better services for people with autism, a complex developmental disability that impairs social interaction and communication skills and affects 1 in 150 children. In Texas, Wyndham’s Garden Hotel Austin has five rooms for special needs guests. The rooms feature ... keep reading »
Blog March 17, 2010

Court Cites Science in Rejecting Vaccine Link to Autism

In a verdict that will serve as another likely nail in the coffin for an autism theory, a federal vaccines court threw out three cases last week that dispel a belief that thimerosal — mercury-containing preservative — causes autism. I have previously covered this controversy: Some people believe vaccines with this preservative can cause autism, a complex neuro-developmental disorder. Yet piles of scientific research disprove this theory. Earlier rulings on this matter have been sent to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and that’s where these three cases are likely to end up. But not even case dismissals help us to better determine the real origins of autism, which affects 1 in 110 children. Autism today remains a tangle of environmental and genetic leads, but nothing conclusive. Those who are most affronted by this verdict are, obviously, the more than 5,300 parents who had filed claims with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ... keep reading »
Blog March 17, 2010

Journal’s ‘Belated’ Autism Retraction Hurts Science

While I can only hope that the recent retraction of a 1998 study that claimed the vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) could increase children’s risk of developing autism will close the door on this staunchly held belief, I’m afraid the myth still will prevail. In a statement explaining its retraction, The Lancet, a British medical journal, which published the study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, said, “it has become clear that several elements are incorrect … in particular, the claims in the original paper that children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false.” To parse that out for you, the main issue with the Wakefield study was a misleading breach of ethics. Specifically, Wakefield wrote that the 12 children in his case report were referred to his clinic with stomach problems; actually, the children were part of a lawsuit ... keep reading »
News Watch March 1, 2010

Oxytocin Unlikely to Aid in Autism

What is love? Chemically speaking, it’s a hormone called oxytocin, which is at the center of a new findings that suggests the hormone that’s present when breastfeeding mothers bond with their babies can also help autistic people with social interactions. The study, which is set to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal, looked at 13 individuals with high functioning autism, a complex neuro-developmental disorder defined in part by impaired social interaction. Those who inhaled oxytocin were more likely to respond to focus on pictures of human faces and interact with a character in a virtual ball tossing game. While the scope of the study is obviously small, it is part of a burgeoning body of research that suggests the benefits of oxytocin. An Australian study found that 16 males who inhaled oxytocin were more likely to recognize facial expressions. Previous research has ... keep reading »
Blog&Life February 12, 2010

New Health Code Would Strip Asperger’s of An Identity

There is an excellent opinion piece in the February 9 edition of The New York Times arguing against my position that Asperger’s syndrome, or AS, should be placed outside the autism spectrum. Here’s my take, based on my experience writing about autism and having a family member with the disorder. Long considered a high-functioning form of autism, Asperger’s is characterized by having difficulty interacting socially, repeating behaviors, and delayed motor functioning. However, Asperger’s has until recently maintained a separate diagnosis from autism, a complex neuro-developmental disorder defined by impaired social interaction and other behaviors. Beginning with the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) in May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has recommended a redrafted diagnosis to include both labels. The new criteria require that the symptoms begin in early childhood, deficits be measured in social interaction and communication, and there are repetitive behaviors ... keep reading »
Blog February 11, 2010

“Poignant” Temple Grandin is a Lens for Autistic Wonders

I doubt I’m alone in saying I need another tearjerker, disease-of-the-week movie like, well, a hole in the head. Good thing HBO’s recent biopic, Temple Grandin, is no such thing. Sweet, studied, and poignant, Temple Grandin isn’t about overcoming a handicap, but instead it shows us how to look at the world differently and succeed. The movie’s protagonist, Temple Grandin, is a graduate student who has Asperger’s syndrome, a complex neuro-developmental disorder defined by impaired social interaction and other behaviors. Symptoms of Asperger’s and autism can include thinking of the world in a highly visual way (Grandin herself likens it to Google Images), which lends itself particularly well to the silver screen. In fact, the diagnosis has recently been re-classified as part of the autism spectrum disorder. Were this just a tale of one woman just overcoming a diagnosis, I’d probably start to reach for the remote. However, ... keep reading »
Life January 9, 2010

Asperger’s Only Looks Like Autism

Asperger’s syndrome looks a lot like autism, but it isn’t. That isn’t stopping medical experts from considering a change to a national mental illness classification guide to roll Asperger’s under autism — a move that has many people connected to Asperger’s in an uproar. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) say they may eliminate the Asperger’s definition -– characterized by social isolation and eccentric behavior in childhood — in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which is considered the bible of medical classifications. The definition would be revised in 2012. Asperger’s may instead be included under autism, a complex neuro-developmental disorder that can also be defined by impaired social interaction, among other behavioral eccentricities. This move isn’t being taken lightly. Though the DSM is universally consulted by psychiatrists, doctors, health insurers, and educators, it includes some egregious errors. For instance, prior to 1968 ... keep reading »
Life January 9, 2010

CDC Data Marks Sharp Rise in Autism

One in every 100 U.S. children has an autism disorder, according to new data released on December 18, 2009 from the Autism Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. That’s approximately 1 percent of all 8-year-olds in this country. The CDC defines autism to be a set of incurable conditions that include autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and certain pervasive development disorders. Autism is a complex neuro-developmental disorder defined by impaired social interaction, communication deficits, restricted interests and repetitive behavioral patterns. Those on the autism spectrum range from mild symptoms to severe inability to communicate. The rise was driven partly by better detection of the brain disorder but did not rule out an increased risk for developing symptoms. Catherine Rice, the lead author of the CDC study, said one factor for the increased diagnoses was “better detection, particularly among children who may not have come ... keep reading »
Life November 9, 2009

“Fish” Study Helps Deflate Autism Myths

As the flu season gets underway, health officials have a weighty job convincing the public that the H1N1 vaccine is safe – if they can get it. Meanwhile, some parents juggle safety concerns while confronting the popular belief that mercury-laden vaccines can cause autism in children, though this myth has been widely debunked in the scientific community. A recent environmental study pokes another hole in this theory, finding that mercury blood levels in autistic and non-autistic children are similar and in line with standard for normal levels. The amount of fish a participant ate on a regular basis was the largest predictor of mercury levels, according to the study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives. Mercury gets particular attention because of its known neurotoxicity. Some flu vaccines contain thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that prevent bacterial contaminations and has been in use since the 1930s. Initially, mercury levels were lower for children with autism, possibly ... keep reading »
Life October 7, 2009

Abercrombie Shows True Colors in Autism Blunder

Trying on a sweater should never end in a lawsuit. Yet, that’s exactly what happened between retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch and a 14-year-old autistic customer, Molly Maxson. The Ohio-based chain of popular mall stores known for employing (and selling to) the preppy, collegiate and impeccably symmetrical was ordered to pay $115,000 for discriminating against an autistic teen by refusing to let her join her sister in a fitting room. The company, who has reported $26.7 million in sales declines over the last quarter, cited adherence to its shoplifting policy. According to Rita Shreffler, executive director of the National Autism Association, discrimination against people with autism is common. For autistics who are reliant on daily routines or have a sensory processing dysfunction, it can be stressful enough to venture into a clothing store, supermarket, movie theater, or dentist’s office. Now add isolation and intolerance. If only this incidence could ... keep reading »