American Morning

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December 7th, 2009
10:00 AM ET

Inside the Child’s Mind: Understanding autism

By Kiran Chetry, CNN

Eight-year-old Zander Pridy has no trouble reading big words.

“I read books of science and watch this cool show called ‘Nova,’” he tells me.

Today Zander is helping scientists make some discoveries of their own. Zander has an autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger syndrome.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia are using a MEG machine – short for magnetoencephalography – to study the brain waves of children like Zander with autism disorders.

“We're trying to study how children's brains respond to stimuli – to sounds, to words, to speech,” says lead researcher Tim Roberts.

They are hoping to unlock the mysteries of how an autistic brain works. Roberts says new clues are already emerging.

“When you hear a sound, the brain responds. When a child with autism hears a sound, their brain responds too, but a little bit later. … So what we're seeing is a fraction of a second, a split second delay in recognizing that sound.”

How does that play out in how children with autism learn and communicate?

Roberts says, “What happens is as speech becomes more complicated, we have more and more sounds building up and these delays cascade on each other leading to a difficulty in perceiving or recognizing the word.”

For Zander, those delays mean that too many sounds can be a real distraction – especially in the classroom.

“His teacher has an amplification device she wears and he has a speaker on his desk so that his teacher's voice stands out,” says Tara Pridy, Zander's mom.

Pridy says her son also struggles with conversation.

“He monologues. He'll get going and someone has to tell him – the person is not interested anymore. They were interested, but you're speaking too long about the subject. So we say TMI – too much information.”

It's an example of some of the difficulties that kids like Zander have in relating with their peers.

“Kids with autism really have a difficult time with social perception – understanding people's expressions,” says Dr. Robert Schultz, head of the hospital's center for autism research.

Dr. Schultz is using MRIs to understand the biology of the autistic brain.

“When we ask children with autism to do specific tasks that we know they have difficulty on, those areas of the brain that normally do those tasks are under-active.”

This research won't answer the question of what causes autism, but Schultz says it may lead to better diagnosis and earlier intervention.

“The ultimate goal is to understand at the level of the cell, the nerve cell in the brain, why are those cells functioning differently. And if we can understand why they're functioning differently, there's probably going to be a combination of treatments.”

“I really hope it helps us understand some of his strengths and the ways we can help him over any weaknesses,” says Zander's mom.

Zander has his own idea about what tests on his brain will reveal.

“So when they looked at your brain with the MEG machine, what did they see,” I ask him.

“Geniusness!” says Zander.


Filed under: Health • Inside the Child's Mind
soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. garyaodau

    Autism research examines high functioning Autism (and Aspergers) but continues to ignore low functioning (severely) autistic subjects. So, if research is focused exclusively, or almost exclusively, on participants with high functioning autism or Aspergers, HOW much do we REALLY know about Autistic Disorder which, by definition, includes those with low functioning autism if we don’t’ study low functioning autism? Let’s be honest, many researchers are uninterested in an autism case that doesn’t have a direct bearing on a positive grant flow. That’s why they hyper-focus on high functioning autism. Good Autism research begins at ground zero: the lowest functioning. The key to unlocking the mystery of autism will be found at ground zero: the bottom of the spectrum

    January 3, 2010 at 12:52 am |
  2. garyaodau

    A good example of severe autism is found on you tube when you type in autism and self injury or autism and seizures.....very interesting videos.

    January 3, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  3. Autisticmom

    I think Paula Bossert is correct about the differences between Asperger's
    and the classic autism. You are right about Kiran's report .It doesn't
    explain the whole picture. I live in Tampa. The University of South Florida
    USF only choose those children with Asperger's for research and
    therapies the rest with classic autism are not really considered .There is certain tendency of the media to only show on TV the "easy
    cases of autism" . Instead of those cases with
    classic autism that coexist with behavioral issues, no language at all,
    ADHD, feeding problems, poor fine motor skills etc.etc
    Good point Ms Bossert. By the way I don't have any problem with the n'

    December 19, 2009 at 3:50 pm |
  4. Paula Bossert

    Amanda, sadly you are nit-picking! I have published numerous papers, articles n' given presentations as well. On these occasions I carefully edit what I write n'or say. Hence, I will continue to use "n" as my time online may be more limited than yours. Moreover, I will continue to do hand-on volunteer n' advocacy work. I do not pretend to be a good second grade teacher as your content suggests you may be. Those I work with are too intelligent n'or disabled to take the time to make superficial comments similar to yours. I'm quite educated ultimately teaching at the college level. I also received the NYC Mayor's Scholastic Achievement Award many years ago. Please do not accuse me of not writing as YOU would have me write n' thereby suggest I sound uneducated. On the other hand, feel free to continue to write in your subjective, simplistic n' rather mean spirited way. Wow, I'm glad you're not teaching my very bright grandkids or my autistic n' retarded daughter as I would never allow you to demean them. They are far too precious to be exposed to your didactic type of "put downs." Oooops, I did it again. Clearly, "put down" is slang for "insulting someone" lest you do not understand the term.

    December 17, 2009 at 12:53 pm |
  5. Autisticmom

    Good work ! I salute Tim Roberts for this research in Philadelphia.
    We need more people like him in this world. Autism like other life long disorder has to be a priority to find the cause , treatment and cure.
    Thank you to all those that really are looking to help individuals with autism.

    December 16, 2009 at 10:49 pm |
  6. Amanda M.

    I have a few follow-up comments to start with. I live in Pennsylvania, and up until quite recently, my son and I were on our own. I waited tables while I completed my college degree. Despite being a low-income family, we still managed to get all the therapy and everything that he needed. As I stated in a previous comment, my son is now a functioning and happy preschooler. All the information I'm about to share is for Pennsylvania, but many states have similar programs, if you are willing to do the research and leg work to find them. First, go to your county assistance office. I am aware that this is embarassing, and you may see it as a failure, trust me, I've been through it. Your child will qualify for Medical Assistance, as long as they have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, as this is classified as a medical disability. Also, the welfare office has listings of agencies that may be able to help you. Remember always that different strategies work for different kids, and you may have to check into a few agencies and programs to design the one best suited to your child's needs. Check for other agencies. Use the internet as a tool to research programs in your area. Some in Pennsylvania include: Early Intervention (two chapters: Birth to Three and Three to School Age), The Family Center, Seneca Highlands Intermediate Units. Check out your local Autism Support Group, they will often have agency contact information, and the parents at these groups will have already been through much of what you are about to experience. We live in a very small rural community (5000 people in the whole county), and if we have access to all of these resources, I am quite confident that people living in more populated areas have access to the same, if not better and more, resources.
    Secondly, I do wish they would have shown a child who is less verbal and still struggles with day-to-day tasks, but I applaud CNN for putting a few success stories on this segment. It should give parents of autistic children hope and the drive to get their child where they need to be. Parents of autistic children must be shocked into action as soon as possible to assist their children in becoming functioning adults.
    Finally, and I'm not trying to pick a fight here, just voicing my opinion, if someone is going to post and claim that they have four teaching certifications, is it too much trouble to ask that they WRITE OUT the words they are using (such as 'and' instead of 'n')? These posts are not text messages to your friends. Some of us are professionals here. I'm not saying this to nit-pick, but you are undermining your education and all the hard work you have done to achieve it by writing in a very unprofessional and uneducated manner.

    December 9, 2009 at 8:41 am |
  7. janet

    My son was diagnosed with Fragile X Syndrome at 18 months of age, then later on he was diagnosed with autism. Fragile X Syndrome is hereditary and I believe that anyone who has a family member with an autism spectrum disorder, learning delays be tested for this as this has family wide implications.

    December 8, 2009 at 10:12 pm |
  8. Tara Pridy

    Viewer Paula,

    I understand your concern and hurt over high-functioning people being showcased on many medical shows, causing parents of autistic children to feel guilt. But when CNN called CHOP to be connected with a family, we had not yet met anyone from either organization. All they knew was that Zander was over 6, verbal and on the spectrum. The producer, Kiran, and the camerapeople (and CHOP folks) were all great.

    Tara

    December 8, 2009 at 7:37 pm |
  9. Paula Bosset

    Kiran, once again parents of children with classic autism are hurt n' made to feel negligent that they have not "cured" their youngsters' developmental disabilities by using new strategies of intervention. Please, understand you are highlighting children with Asberger's, etc. Obviously, these children are not autistic. I have four teaching certificates, earned to serve children with disabilities. I helped redesign assessment scales to evaluate kids who were blind, deaf, autistic, etc. Your superficial coverage of one or two kids, who do not have classic autism, is very hurtful and dishonest. Surely, you are sufficiently educated to know the difference? You need to have your staff to do their home work n' not do superficial coverage of such an important topic. I guess the nephew you once mentioned as "autistic" is really within the spectrum n' will go to Harvard n' you will be able to cover tuition, not caring about the many families you have hurt. How can you sleep at night when you do so much damage to parents, who already are already devastated by their child's limitations n' lack of proper services, the real story by the way.

    December 8, 2009 at 5:39 pm |
  10. Roberta MacDonbald

    Kiran,
    Your clips on Autism were so informative – I know a friend whose son has Aspergers and this was informative to me

    Thx Roberta

    December 8, 2009 at 3:16 pm |
  11. Angelica Garza

    My son Angelo is 3 yrs old and at 2 and a half he got diagnosed with autism. before this iv never heard of it, i see it as he doesnt talk yet even though he did at one point. i dont like to see it as he is delayed or autistic he is very smart, does what i ask him to do, listens, loves being around people and other kids, very loveing and out going.

    my point is i know that even if their is never a cure for autism, doesn't mean that these kids will never be at the level they need to be. they are very smart smarter then most people around them may think. they have the will to learn and we have the want to teach them. i thank everyone who is involved in awareness for autism, cure or anything and everything that your doing to help these beautiful wonderful childern.

    December 8, 2009 at 1:23 pm |
  12. Mary DeBernardis

    Our daughter, now 33, displays the same social/speech issues as Zander. She was diagnosed as autistic 30 years ago and was given the proper diagnosis of Fragile X Syndrome at age 12, the leading genetic cause of mental impairment in the world, including autism.

    It is my prayer that Dr. Schultz will request the genetic test for fragile x for Zander, to rule it out as the cause of his autism. Our daughter and myself (her mom) also have large ears which I noticed in Zander and his mother–one of many physical characteristics that may be present in a person with fragile x syndrome (either full mutation or pre-mutation). For more information, I encourage readers to visit http://www.fragilex.org and http://www.fraxa.org to help us spread awareness about a genetic condition that is greatly underdiagnosed.

    December 8, 2009 at 12:45 pm |
  13. Lucinda Gutierrez

    I'm so glad there is more of an effort to understand autism. I have 2 sons, ages 17 and 16 yrs, who are autistic and my only children. There is no history in either families of autism and none of their cousins have autism so it is very frustrating. My older son also has Aspergers and is having a difficult time communicating and with stress-he knows he's autistic and he hates it. My younger son has Pervasive Developmental Disorder (a form of autism; not as high functioning as Aspergers), has no interest in friends but also wants to be "popular", but really doesn't understand the concept.
    I hope very soon my sons' can also benefit for treatment and more self confidence in themselves. I love them so much I cannot imagine my life without them.

    December 8, 2009 at 12:43 pm |
  14. John Babitskas

    Great story, the caveat. It would not have happened in they did not have the money or insurance to pay for it. The treatment is out of reach for the average family. Enough said.!

    December 8, 2009 at 8:53 am |
  15. Amy Selich

    Thank you so much for the story on autism. As a parent who heard those same words about my "Spectrum" child who had profound symptoms at 1 and half, and was later diagnosed with Aspergers, I cry every time I watch your stories on this. NO ONE but a parent truly knows the gut wrenching feeling you have when you are told your child has autism. We too, started intensive therapy at the age of 2 for our son and now at the age of 14 most of his symptoms are gone. We lived in San Diego and took advantage of every free study they conducted for testing for the cause and trying new therapies. Parents must be creative because back then most Pediatricians didn't have clue on how to guide you. I went through five Pediatricians, four of which told me I was just being a nervous new mom. I just knew that I was the only one to create a care plan that was going to help him.

    Unlike your second story I wouldn't call my son recovered because there are still many social bumps along the way and he doesn't always connect well with others, but you certainly wouldn't call him Autistic anymore. I forget social skills classes so misfit kids can share their best practices. We found baseball as a means for him to be social, but be individual, and he now plays travel baseball and was even the MVP of a major tournament. My husband and I still marvel at how far he came. So the moral of the story is start early, try everything because you never know what will work and NEVER give up! Thank you Kiran for such a wonderful series.

    December 8, 2009 at 8:46 am |
  16. Jan Hawkins

    12/8/2009
    Your series on Autism has been very informative. I have a grandson who is autistic but fortunate enough to obtain early intervention. His therapists, teachers, and parents have worked together to help him progress so that now he is in a general education class with a little support. It must be said that Jay has also worked hard to make this progress.
    Autism Speaks is a wonderful website and organizaton. In AZ there is a research center that is marvelous called SARRC,
    Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center in Phoenix, AZ They have a website, http://www.autismcenter.org/resources.aspx and magazine. They are always looking for volunteers.
    This morning you mentioned a resource book written by Jake's mother. Could you repeat the Title and/or post it on your website? Karin said it but I did not catch it nor where I could find it. Thank you.
    Nana Jan

    December 8, 2009 at 8:01 am |
  17. Amanda M.

    I recall the moment my son, just under a year old, stopped speaking and looking at me. I thought, like so many other parents, that he had hearing problems. When we went for testing, however, I was told that his hearing was, in fact, exceptional. Luckily, I had a friend from high school who worked for The Family Center (linked with Early Intervention in Pennsylvania). She came to visit my son, and on that first day told me he was probably autistic. Immediately, he began therapy. I did alot of research, took training courses, talked to anyone I could find about what was happening to my little boy. The actual diagnosis was devastating. The psychologist said he "is definitely autistic." No doubt in her mind. I decided then and there that I would do everything in my power to make Aiden a fully functional individual. I tried the autism support group, but the chapter here seems to just accept the fate they have been handed. They suggested my son wear a pin reading "Excuse my behavior, I'm autistic." My son's behavior was not to be excused, not if I could do anything about it. We worked hard. I went to a Verbal Behavior lab, a summer course for teachers of autistic children. I took the information home with me (it seems very similar to the ABA discussed on your show), and immediately began to apply it. I forced him to look at people when they spoke to him, would not allow him to stim in public. Curbing his behaviors was a full-time job for me. I demanded he be mainstreamed in school, and enrolled him to begin half-day preschool (in a classroom with typical and atypical kids mixed) right around his third birthday. They told me we could medicate him or put him in a special class instead. I told them we would not be doing either. Our in-home speech therapist cried on her last visit to the house (kids transition to a new program at age 3). Aiden spoke his first words to her after two years. He said, "Hi, Ronna," appropriately and with proper inflection, but, most importantly, without prompting. I cried with her. He began preschool. Being around the other kids helped him come out of his shell a bit. Everyone was on the same page: demanding his social interaction and proper behavior during school hours. He was rewarded with an hour of "Weird Time" when he returned to the house. He still had little or no spontaneous language, but this slowly improved. I began dating a man with a little girl the same age as Aiden, and they became fast friends. She also demanded his social interaction, and often, his undivided attention. Slowly, the strange behaviors lessened, and his verbalization improved. He was making eye contact again! He started to call me "mama" again. He still does, and I still tear up once in a while when he says it. He will be six in August, and he will be starting kindergarten. WITH the typical kids. Most people cannot even tell that he is on the spectrum now, unless they are a therapist or another parent of a child with autism, or sometimes, when he is really tired. His diagnosis has actually been changed, also, which they told me was almost unheard of. He is now listed as PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder), which is still on the spectrum, but does not carry as many of the negative connotations as straight "autism." My son is a success story, and all it took was a little hard work. I definitely believe that the biggest thing is Early Intervention. Once autistic children get into a routine, it is very hard to change. The child must be shown the proper way to do things BEFORE the improper behaviors become routine, and eventually, necessary. I believe that most children can be turned around with early diagnosis, therapy, and lots of work.

    December 8, 2009 at 7:53 am |
  18. Tracy Mulvaney

    Thank you for this hopeful story. I'm feeling so sad because my boyfriend and his ex wife did not have the ability to offer their son, Nickie the same intensive therapy. Nickie is now 8 years old. Although he has progressed, and is wonderful to be around, he needs more help. It breaks my heart to think he would be able to benefit from the intense therapy, but the resources are not available. Both parents work very hard to pay for the approx $4000/month in medical expenses. They are trying to have Nickie transferred from the current public school into a specialized school for children with Autism where he will receive more intense therapy. The school districts don't want to transfer the kids because they carry much of the expense. What do schools do to support the children who didn't get this therapy early on? We need to help families get this therapy!!
    CNN please stay diligent about getting to the root of this, and helping families who are desperate to help their children.

    December 8, 2009 at 7:47 am |
  19. Ked

    I trully believe ABA works, my little girl was diagnosed at 2 years old and she had been on 1 to 1 ABA therapy 15-18 hrs a week. And she had improved albiet small steps but postive steps.
    I would like to mention the need for insurance reform in ABA therapy...most insurance only pay for 1hr a week service at best. Individual ABA is VERY EXPENSIVE. We have exahusted our savings, 401k but it is worth it.

    December 8, 2009 at 7:34 am |
  20. Kal

    Growing up with Asperbergers's my self and after decades of training,
    I understand the "delay" in recognizing verbal and social clues.

    We are also very bright. One advantage to Aspbergers is the person with this condition never stops learning or improving on a skill or task whether redundant or complex.

    We will catch up to the best at what we do and then exceed performance with swami like mastery eventually.

    December 8, 2009 at 12:03 am |
  21. Nicco

    Good Stuff !!
    After talking to a few educators and therapists who work with autistic children, it is amazing how effective early intervention can be.
    The problem is more acute in developing countries with limited resources and with a society still grappling to understand autism. In India for example, a very small percentage of children get correctly diagnosed with proper training to try to integrate them into mainstream. I met up with Dr. Priyanka an ENT surgeon who gave up a lucrative practice to focus on training parents of children with special needs as she realized the magnitude of the problem and limited availability of resources/funds in developing countries.

    December 7, 2009 at 11:17 pm |
  22. wenn chen

    It is amazing that the researchers could utilize the high tech in search for what happens in a brain of autism and of a regular person. I hope this could unlock the mystries of autism and lead to help the person live their normal life.

    December 7, 2009 at 11:17 pm |
  23. Joe Stern

    Is this study being funded by pharmaceutical companies so they could once again state that there is no link between Autism and Vaccines. MMR and combo vaccines are cheap and dangerous

    December 7, 2009 at 11:15 pm |
  24. Ricky Mavers

    Why are there so many stories about autism on cnn? Every time I come to this page it's something new about autism, yet you never mention other afflictions like epilepsy, albinism, midgetness, progeria etc. Can we get some more variety in our disorder-reporting?

    December 7, 2009 at 11:02 pm |
  25. sravon

    read the article about aspergers

    December 7, 2009 at 10:56 pm |
  26. Barry

    Please find a solution to make learning easier for these children... I have four children with Asperger syndrome all under the age of 10.

    December 7, 2009 at 9:18 pm |
  27. Neal Blackstein

    I saw your report this morning on Autism and found it very interesting. A good follow-up story might be looking at the treatments for Autism that are already using brainwave biofeedback called neurofeedback. In particular, the work of Dr. Len Ochs, in California, who has developed the LENS (Low Energy Neurofeedback System) over the past 18 years is extremely exciting. LENS practitioners in this country and around the world are helping people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders to improve their functioning.

    December 7, 2009 at 8:17 pm |
  28. Lisa Madden

    My son has the Autism Spectrum also I hope some day they will have that kind of testing here in Minnnesota.

    December 7, 2009 at 5:47 pm |
  29. Sue

    I have a son with Asperger's syndrome. He does struggle sometimes in social situations, especially before he developed an understanding of humor and sarcasm. He does not know how to make small talk, and conversations with babies are outside of his ability. He used to have difficulty with words with two meanings, like "that's funny.:" He took it literally, like something made us laugh when the speaker might have meant odd rather than humerous. There have also been many habits that keep replacing the last one – pulling his hair, picking at his clothes, whistling unconsciously...many more. We have progressed through many small battles, and some larger ones. He is now almost 17 and has grown in leaps and bounds, but will undoubtedly struggle in social circles all his life. Kudos to all parents out there who are supporting a child with a diagnosis on the Autism spectrum!

    December 7, 2009 at 4:58 pm |
  30. MN Liz

    As a parent with 2 boys on the spectrum, one with Autism and one with Aspergers, I hope that these studies will lead to the understanding by professionals that this not simply a behavioral disorder... and maybe then all of the children affected by this disorder will be able to receive the services they need that very few insurance groups pay for!

    December 7, 2009 at 3:39 pm |
  31. Julie H

    I am so happy to hear that they are finally looking at the brain with these children. I have a little boy that I have had for 3 years he is 10 now and I am still trying to figure out what all is wrong with him. I have been told by many Dr.s that he is autism spectrim, then another says he does not. the waiting list is so long around here that it takes 6 + mths to get tested. I always said that I would love to see his brain under x ray. to see what it looks like,

    December 7, 2009 at 3:15 pm |
  32. Magdalena Fincham

    As a mother of 2 toddler boys, I am deeply concerned about the rise of this condition...as my infant boys were developing, I anxiously watched them for any signs of autism. Although I have not yet had to deal with this condition in my family, two of my friends have small boys that have been diagnosed with autism (2 of the 3 boys very severly), which is very disturbing in such a small data sample of friends.

    One of these friends and parent of a son with autism has developed an app for the i-phone and blackberry devices that I think greatly helps parents communicate with an autistic child: http://specialchildren.about.com/od/developmentalissues/p/HandHoldAdaptive.htm

    December 7, 2009 at 12:10 pm |