Are Girls Disadvantaged by Current ASD Testing Methods?

According to current statistics, autism spectrum disorders are between four and five times more likely to affect boys than girls: the Centers for Disease Control states that 1 in 42 boys in the U.S. has ASD, compared with 1 in 189 girls. But a few experts are beginning to wonder if current diagnostic methods may be at least partially responsible for such a significant imbalance.

Some experts who specialize in working with girls with autism, such as psychologist Dr. Lori Ernsperger, claim that current testing methods for autism spectrum disorders may be inadequate for diagnosing girls, because the tests primarily concentrate on signs and characteristics that are more typically associated with male behavior. Contrary to widely held views within the health profession, Dr. Ernsperger and others believe that ASD can and does present differently in girls than in boys, and that in focusing too closely on the more severe or obvious signs of ASD, clinicians can overlook, or even dismiss, some of the subtler indicators that are more likely to be displayed by girls. It is therefore possible that the true number of girls with ASD is underestimated, and that many girls on the autism spectrum are not receiving the treatment and support that they need because no one is aware of their condition.

An important focus for Dr. Ernsperger, therefore, is how to adapt current diagnostic questionnaires in order to more accurately assess and diagnose girls with ASD. Instead of rewriting them, a possible first step is simply to implement different scoring levels for boys and girls; for example, with a diagnostic checklist of 20 questions, boys would need to score 18, but girls would need to score 16, in order to receive secondary testing. For an article about Dr. Ernsperger’s work in this area, see here.

Study Explores Effectiveness of Online Tools for ASD Therapy Training

For families raising a child with ASD, it can be challenging enough to make sure the child is receiving the regular support he or she needs, even when proximity to resources is not a problem. But for families living in remote areas without easy access to professional support, these daily challenges can be exponentially greater.

However, according to the results of a recent pilot study by psychologist and Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow Allison Wainer, effective help may soon be at hand for remote families, thanks to the power of the internet. Wainer’s study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University working with a small sample of five families, examined the practicality and benefits of teaching early ASD intervention techniques to parents and caregivers using a combination of online learning materials and live, remote coaching via videoconferencing applications like Skype.

The study unfolded over several stages: researchers first used Skype to observe children and parents playing together in order to develop a baseline measure of both the abilities of the children and the interactive styles of the parents. The parents then completed several self-led, web-based lessons on Reciprocal Imitation Training (RIT), a therapeutic technique that encourages imitation through play. The researchers then observed the parents once more, in order to note differences between the original parent-child interactions and the new interactions using RIT techniques. In the study’s final stage, researchers provided live coaching to the families in three, 30-minute videoconference sessions, giving real-time feedback and suggestions while watching the parents apply the RIT techniques.

At the end of the study, four out of the five sets of parents were accurate and consistent in their delivery of the therapy techniques, and the imitation skills of all the children had improved. While more testing with a greater number of families is still needed, the success of the pilot study is an excellent indicator of the benefits that web-based programs could offer to families in underserved, remote areas. Autism Speaks has more information about the study; see here for more details.

Learning Through Play with New ASD-Friendly Playgrounds

A playground is not only a place where kids can have fun; it is also an important learning environment: a space where growing and developing kids can build their motor skills and practice social interaction and cooperation. But until recently, due to their layout, equipment, or materials, playgrounds have not always been friendly or welcoming places for children on the autism spectrum.

These days, however, a new kind of playground is aiming to change that situation, and more and more of them are popping up across the country. Featuring specialized equipment specifically designed to meet the needs of children with ASD, these new playgrounds are making a big difference in the lives of a growing number of children by facilitating imaginative play and offering an appropriate degree of physical challenge.

For the most part, the unique equipment used in these playgrounds helps to spark social interaction or to provide sensory stimulation, both of which are especially helpful to children with autism spectrum disorders. For example, because children with ASD respond to movement and texture, a slide might use rollers rather than a simple smooth surface. Examples of more social equipment include the “we-saw”, a type of seesaw that takes at least two people to operate and has room for up to four, thus encouraging kids to get used to asking others to join them when they want to play.

While formal research is still needed to confirm the benefits that such playgrounds can offer to children with ASD, informal observation suggests that they are a great success. Teachers and caregivers at schools that feature the specialized playgrounds, such as the Shafer Center in Baltimore County, Maryland, have reported that children seem more confident and more comfortable interacting with others. You can read the Baltimore Sun article about the Shafer Center’s playground here.

Blarney “Through the Looking Glass”

Blarney is a picturesque village of around 2,500 people in the southwestern part of Ireland. The little town is lovely in its own right, with an interesting agricultural museum and a handful of beautifully kept gardens in the vicinity.

What makes the village a world-renowned attraction, of course, is the imposing Blarney Castle. The estate grounds offer several gardens and wooded walking paths, and plenty of opportunities for photographing the castle architecture, cultivated plants and trees, and waterways.

The top attraction, as everyone can guess, is the fabulous “Stone of Eloquence,” or simply “the Blarney Stone.” For decades, tourists from all over the world have stood in long lines, waiting to kiss the storied rock, in hopes of gaining the “gift of gab,” the blessing of never being at a loss for words.

It turns out that Castle Blarney is even more than its ancient history, green gardens, and legendary artifacts. In fact, it also occasionally serves as a majestic venue for select special events.

This August, Blarney Castle hosts a particularly fanciful theatrical presentation of Alice through the Looking Glass for kids of all ages. Lewis Carroll’s beloved story features memorable characters such as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, the Jabberwock, and, of course, Alice. This theatrical version of the novel was written by Michael Whitmore and remains true to the original, preserving all its delightful quirkiness for the audience. Just imagine the Wonderland-style fantasy of Alice, acted out against the backdrop of a towering stone castle set among the rolling green landscape of Ireland – amazing!

The event at Blarney is just one of several stops for the touring show, which is being presented by UK theater company, Quantum Theatre for Science. Established in 1988, the self-funding theater group specializes in producing educational theater aimed at improving young people’s literacy and numeracy skills. During summers, it also runs adaptations of favorite plays and stories for children, including this year’s tour of Alice through the Looking Glass and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

A Real Taste of Southern Maine at Kittery Community Market

Located about halfway between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine, the scenic seaside town of Kittery, Maine, is a convenient stop for travelers in New England. For tourists, there are a handful of historic forts to visit and nice beaches to wander. The area’s ties to the sea are evident not only in the many boating options around the town, but also in the gateway to the immense Portsmouth Naval Shipyard that has been in operation for over 200 years.

The stretch of Route 1 as it passes Kittery is renowned throughout the region as a great outlet shopping destination. Additionally, over the last several years the downtown area (often referred to as “Kittery Foreside”) has been reinvented as an artsy, boutique-lined town center, with lots of shopping and excellent dining.

One of Kittery’s finest and most unique shopping experiences is the Kittery Community Market. This great little weekly bazaar showcases products from dozens of local vendors. A huge array of locally sourced items are for sale here, including fresh produce, baked goods, pottery, canned goods, fabrics, honey, soaps, beer, and much more.

In addition to the excellent shopping, visitors to Kittery Community Market also get to enjoy live music by area talent. This summer has seen performances by several artists, including folk musician Sarah Nelson; guitarist Sam Southworth; and Wayne Read, inventor of the Xharp. Aside from the music, there are often also displays from local organizations introducing guests to their efforts in education, conservation, medicine, and other issues.

During the summertime, from late May until early October, Kittery Community Market is open on Wednesday afternoons from 2:00 PM until 6:00 PM, so visitors should plan accordingly. Don’t worry, though, if your travels don’t take you through the area in the summer. The Market is also open every other week during the winter months, so there are even a few opportunities to check out it out in time for the holiday season!