Monday, November 29, 2010

Building Blocks A Road to Creativity for Autism

Be creative.  Think outside the box.  Find a new way to do the same thing. Use your imagination.  These are the mantras that I grew up with as a child of Sesame Street, Polka-Dot Door, and various other children's shows from the 70's and 80's.  From an early age we were encouraged to be creative in our approaches.  Sometimes it was successful, and other times these creative methods would fail miserably.  But in the end, life would be varied, and new situations were seen as challenges, not road blocks. 

But for some people, such as those with Autism, creativity is not something that breeds comfort.  In fact, it can be a source of irritation and frustration when things change, because the necessary creativity needed to deal with new situations does not come easily. 

To overcome this problem, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center used a common toy from my child-hood:  lego blocks.  They started with children on the spectrum using the blocks to build their standard structures.  Then using Applied Behavior Analysis, they were able to help these children start using their blocks in more creative ways.  They no longer looked at this same task as a series of memorized steps, but as a process that could be altered for a different outcome. 

The importance in creativity in daily life is clear:  new situations need to be dealt with, and the more creative the solution the easier the stress of the new event can be managed.  Also, tedious tasks can be better handled, adding an enriching level to life. 

So, if you are thinking of a Christmas toy that could be helpful for your child with Austism, think of building blocks.  Then sit down with them and build.  Try making changes, being part of the process, and give lots of praise.  These steps can help your child express creatively, and therefore open new horizons. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Autism and Holiday Travel: Planning Ahead

The holidays are always stressful, particularly during travel.  Add to that a child with Autism, and your travel plans become more complicated.  In the past we have traveled by air with our son, and for a two hour flight it was just manageable.  But that has all changed now with the new TSA screening and enhanced pat-downs. 

I've always been concerned with air travel for families with children on the Autism Spectrum.  Past airlines have removed parents and their children with Autism, or even autistic adults from flights whether or not they are having a melt down.  And while some airlines have reached out to the Autistic community by providing mock flights to help their children get comfortable with the idea of flying (thank you Southwest Airlines), a parent is never sure when they will get an understanding crew or have the trip turn into a nightmare.

But add to that the new invasive TSA regulations that seem to require strip searching children, flying is now nearly impossible for the autistic family.  So that means, for any traveling you may be planning for the coming season, you will need to plan early and find other means of transportation. 

Car travel is probably the most common alternative form of transportation, and is perhaps the easiest to deal with in terms of a child with Autism.  Most often the child is already used to riding in a car, and there are a number of activities and devices that can help make the travel more manageable. 

But traveling by car isn't the only option, depending on where you live.  There are also trains through much of the East coast, some of the West Coast, and through select cities moving East to West across the nation.  Trains tend to be a nice alternative to flying because children can move about freely without needing to be strapped down and restrained.  For those who are not able to drive or take a train, long distance busses can be a great way to travel.

But before I put you off completely to flying, check your options, and call ahead to your departure and arrival airports and see if they have policies in place to make your travel with an autistic child more comfortable.  Often times just taking the initiative can diffuse a lot of trouble, and letting everyone know that your child has autism and therefore needs some options that do not over stimulate the child can help. 

If any of you are traveling with a child on the Spectrum, let us know what your experience is, whether on the train, plane, or automobile. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Making the Effort: Low-key Santa Event at a Mall

In Montgomery County in Florida, they Dayton Mall set aside one day, November 21st, for their Sensitive Santa event, allowing children with disabilities to meet Santa in a sensory-friendly environment.  The event will last from 9 AM to 11 AM, and the kids even get a picture with Santa if they want.

For most children with Autism a visit to the Mall during Christmas time is a sensory overload.  Add to that a long wait in line to meet Santa, and the impatience of others in line can increase the anxiety of a child with Autism, leading very quickly to a meltdown. 

I find it commendable that the Dayton Mall would set aside a day before the hectic shopping season marked by Black Friday to children with Autism.  I hope that others in the community can see this example and duplicate it, making the holiday experience that much more enjoyable for everyone, even those on the spectrum. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Skin Cell Research: Identifying Genetic Proof to Autism

While the argument between environment and genetics wage on in the blogosphere, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have found an interesting way to test genes:  reprogram skin cells into stem cells and regrow them at neurons.  The research is interesting, and is found in the journal Cell.

Essentially, they took skin cell samples from children with Rett syndrome, which is on the Autism Spectrum.  They then reprogrammed the skin cells using pluripotent stem cells to regrow into neurons that were functional.  So, a brain in a dish (and who said cartoons were outrageous!).  They then noticed that the Rett cells grew with fewer neuron synapses and had a reduced spine density, while those from the control group had increased neuron synapses and spine density.  All because of a change in the MeCP2 gene. 

So what does this mean?  It means Rett syndrome is not caused by bad parenting or by environmental stimuli.  It's caused by a gene, one gene, that controls brain neuron growth and spine density.  Environmental causes, vaccines, monosodium glutamate, too much TV, parents who don't care about their kids, it's all been shown as false by this one test. 

And what's even more exciting is that the Rett neurons could be "rescued" by the change of the MeCP2 gene, adding the IGF1 gene, and gentamicin.  That on existing cells, not at the developmental stage.  That means, given time to produce this properly, there could be treatment for Rett syndrome. 

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, Rett syndrome isn't Aspergers, or PPD, or any of the other conditions on the Autism Spectrum.  It's just one condition of many.  Remember that Autism in and of itself is not a medical definition (meaning that it is caused by one thing, like say the flu), but rather a psychological definition applied based on a string of behaviors.  While this treatment would work for Rett syndrome, I wouldn't expect it to work for Fragile-X syndrome (which also has Autism-like behaviors). 

Instead, I see this as a positive sign, and yet another reason why insurance companies need to start covering Autism as both a diagnosis, and provide support for treatment.  Because there could soon be a medical treatment that will assist individuals on the Autism Spectrum, and they need to get behind it. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Near Field Communication on the iPhone: Is It Really Such A Good Idea?

Recently the Cult of Mac (and other Apple rumor sites) have mentioned the recent patents made by Apple to include Near Field Communication (NFC) in the next iPhone for security and remote computing options for coming Macintosh computers.  On the surface, this sounds like a great idea.  All you have to do is have your iPhone near your computer, or any Macintosh for that matter, and you would instantly be able to log into your computer with all your preferences and settings available.  Who wouldn't want to avoid having to log into their computer constantly?

But there is a problem:  security.  Near Field Communication uses a high-frequency RFID token, which is easily picked up by various devices.  This is called eavesdropping, and makes NFC an insecure method of transmitting personal information, such as login tokens.  The only way to guarantee security would be to utilize an authentication method like Kerberos, where keys are generated and expire after short periods of time, and you have a token that can decrypt the information.  This means an extensive Directory system running in the background. 

Of course, Apple is building a huge data center.  And it's possible to add the layer into the Apple ID system, which would guarantee anyone with an iTunes account would have access.  This may be why Apple is working so hard in the background, and why we haven't heard anything like this before. 

But other suppositions to the NFC technology has been remote banking and payment using RFID.  There are some credit and debit cards that have this capability, but due to the relative ease of eavesdropping, I do not own one nor intend to own one.  They are not very secure, and I would prefer that information not be available.

Other applications would be remote access to physical space.  When I worked for eBay, we used an RFID card to access the building.  I've also thought of using the same technology for access to my house.  Having an RFID transmitter in my iPhone, which I am never without, would be convenient.  But there is still that issue with eavesdropping.

So where does this leave us?  I don't think it's impossible for Apple to make this plunge, or to do it well.  But I do think that Apple has a lot of security concerns to overcome before this can be a reality.  And if I do end up with an iPhone in the distant future that has NFC capabilities, I would definitely not use it for remote payment from a bank account.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Discontinued Xserve: What Could It Mean?

Just last week Apple announced their intention to discontinue the Apple Xserve, the one Enterprise-class server that Apple developed.  While Xserves were not exactly selling off the shelves, it did come as a shock for those of us who have been working with Enterprise deployments of the Mac into a network.  Many Apple Certified Trainers were upset, because Mac OS X Server represents a significant focus for the Information Technology classes.  But is it really that serious?

In October of 2008 Tom Krazit from CNET news notes the hiring of Mark Papermaster, an IBM chip designer and Blade Server specialist, as a sign that Apple could be developing a blade server.  Apple has been focusing on small, low power computing devices quite a lot recently, and these devices have high processing output with minimal power consumption.  It would be ideal for blade servers, if applied in that direction.

But there are other suppositions that Tom Krazit threw out, such as a focus on better cloud technologies for the Mac platform.  This would also be ideal, as devices like the iPad have proven that, given the proper app, a tablet can do almost everything a workstation can, and is by far more portable. 

But where does that leave Apple and the Servers they currently have?  Well, assuming Apple does not create a reasonable replacement for the Xserve, something like a blade server, they will always have the Mac Mini Server and the Mac Pro Server.  Both would be considered more like a small business or home server, but the technologies built in (OpenLDAP, Kerberos, RADIUS, etc.) all have Enterprise applications. 

So while it's a little concerning that Apple had gotten rid of the Xserve, I'm not fretting too much.  Instead, I'm looking to the future with expectant announcements on more enterprise level support, and in the mean time like to point out that six Mac Mini Servers can fit in the same space as the Xserve did. 

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

They Are Just Wired That Way: Autism Risk and the CNTNAP2 Gene

Reuters has run a story about an article published in Science Translational Medicine, regarding the CNTNAP2 gene and the related brain growth patterns that result from it.  The study took  32 children and scanned them with an MRI while doing learning related tasks.  Half had autism, and the other half did not.  They found children with the CNTNAP2 gene had stronger brain connections in the frontal lobe, and weaker connections to the rest of the brain or and almost no connections throughout the brain.  So, essentially, the frontal lobe did a lot of talking, but just to itself. 

What is really interesting about this gene is that over 1/3 of the population carries this gene, and have similar brain wiring as those with Autism.  So the gene itself did not cause Autism, but it does identify one particular key to the Autistic mind:  all the children with Autism had this gene variant.  So the gene has been labeled a risk gene, and not necessarily an Autism gene.

But if it's not a cause for Autism, why is it so important?  Because it gives scientists a glimpse at how the brain wires itself, and how genes affect the wiring process.  By working with genes like CNTNAP2 and other potential Autism genes, scientists are able to better identify cause and effect.  It's possible that targeted genetic treatments can be used to both identify autism at an early age, and perhaps treat more severe forms of Autism. 

So, it's an interesting study, and one that I think has merit.  Let's hope more good work like this is found.