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What is autism?
Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) has a profound effect on the way people interact with others and the world. The severity of ASD can range enormously, and the cause is far from understood. There is, however, consensus that the characteristic changes in behaviour are due to differences in the way brain cells connect and therefore communicate with each other. Imaging studies have shown that the brains of some individuals with ASD show excess connectivity in some places and reduced connectivity in others compared to the general population.
Treatments for ASD can involve intensive occupational, speech and behavioural therapies; dietary and exercise elements may also play a role. There is no one size fits all and unfortunately nobody really understands exactly how these therapies work, if they will work in a specific individual or when exactly is the best time to implement them.
Recent research from Associate Professor Catherine Leamey’s laboratory in the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney has revealed that enhanced levels of sensory, motor, and social experience (or enrichment) from birth can drive an intrinsic cellular repair pathway to prune away inappropriate neural (brain cell) connections and rescue function in specific brain circuits. This discovery is truly novel and remarkable. But we need to know more about this process and whether this repair mechanism could be somehow switched on in individuals with ASD to help alleviate some of the more severe symptoms. If we knew exactly how the repair process worked and exactly when it needed to be switched on, we could revolutionise the treatment and experience of people suffering from the worst effects of ASD.
Our aim is to discover more about the cellular pathway that restores brain connectivity and how it can be turned on. So far, our work suggests that it can be turned on using enhanced experience during specific time points of development: but it has to be at these particular time points or it doesn’t work well. This fits with reports that sensory enrichment therapies are most effective in very young children with ASD. Unfortunately, many individuals with ASD are not diagnosed until later in their development, outside this window of high sensitivity. If we can find out more about the cellular mechanism, we hope to be able to extend the window of sensitivity to sensory enrichment to later stages of development. Knowing more about the process involved would enable the design of more innovative, precise therapies that could harness this repair process and alleviate much of the uncertainty involved in managing ASD.
If our hypotheses prove correct, they could lead us towards improved and more accessible therapies for individuals with ASD, potentially broadening the time-window of the most effective intervention.
Make a gift today
Please support by making a 100% tax-deductible gift today. Your donation will support autism research at the University of Sydney currently led by Associate Professor Catherine Leamey. We are so grateful for your generosity.
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Associate Professor Catherine Leamey leads the team with a PhD in Developmental Neuroscience from UNSW and postdoctoral training at MIT (Cambridge, MA, USA). She has over 20 years experience in probing the mechanisms of brain development and plasticity and is excited to be using this expertise to enhance therapies for ASD
Dr Atomu Sawatari has a PhD in Neuroscience from University of California, San Diego (CA, USA). He will provide important assistance with analysis and experimental design.
Dr Claire Goldsbury has a PhD from the University of Auckland and is an expert on analysis of cellular pathways changes in neural disorders.
Ms Lara Rogerson-Wood has BSc(Hons1) in Neuroscience form the University of Sydney and is completing her PhD under supervision of Assoc. Prof. Leamey and Dr Claire Goldsbury. She will perform detailed analyses of the cellular pathway activated by enrichment.
Our research could make a real difference in many lives. One family shares their story below.
When Dominic was born it was an amazing and beautiful time. He was a big baby, in the top 5% for weight and length, for his age and remains so today.
Dominic is a treasured child. I thought he was the best baby ever! He just ate and slept and happily lay in his cot gazing into space. Unlike his elder sister, he hardly ever cried.
Throughout his first year I was continuously astounded at how different he was to his sister in her first year, but my initial relief of an “easy baby” began to shift increasingly towards concern. Dominic was highly preferential about who could hold him, he was attracted to lights and moving objects but ignored many other things in the world around him that would interest most babies his age. My concerns were continually dismissed with phrases such as “boys are very different to girls” and “you are over-reacting”.
Dominic was very slow to talk or babble. He never said or attempted the word Mum or Dad. By 14 months he had a few single words of expressive language mainly for the few foods he ate which, between 14 and 16 months, disappeared altogether. He made no sounds, shunned contact with most people and hide when people visited the house.
At this point my search for answers really began, but I had to contend with strong opposition from some family members who insisted nothing was wrong. He was tested for deafness (negative) and received traditional speech therapy – which had no effect whatsoever. Dominic was referred to a specialist clinic, where at the age of 3 he received a Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) diagnosis. At around 4 he was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and severe language disorder.
Dominic began a Sensory Integration programme. This programme helped Dominic in many important ways. For example, his sleep pattern, focus and tactile defensiveness all improved. Unfortunately, it was all very late. We had spent over 3 years hunting diagnosis, therapists and medical interventions, frequently waiting 6-12 months for different appointments. We had lost valuable time. It is crushing to consider that if we had been able to start his sensory therapy earlier, Dominic may have benefited much more from the intervention. Unfortunately, I know that our experience with ASD diagnosis is all too common and is still the case today.
It is for this reason I was excited when Associate Professor Catherine Leamey told me about her research. The idea that her work might help to extend the time when children can get high levels of benefit from sensory integration therapy really resonates with me. The team's research might help many children with ASD. So, as a parent of a child with ASD I would ask you to consider supporting her work if you can.