The Diagnosis, and Afterwards: Two Exciting Projects in Autism

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This week has had two great announcements:  a new Autism diagnosis procedure that will diagnose after a 15 minute brain scan, and a new therapy being developed right now in Pittsburgh. 

First, the diagnosis.  Currently there are several attempts to diagnose autism with a genetic test, and the best accuracy that can be met (to date) is about 9%.  Why?  Because there are so many different genes that can cause autism, it's difficult to identify a particular genetic marker and say "That's autism right there".  Other tests attempt to check for biological changes based on conditions that accompany autism, like intestinal disorders. 

The new thing here is that the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College in London is actually mapping cerebral changes, and the test is only 15 minutes.  Compare that with several hours of evaluation by psychologists, and it becomes extremely cost effective.  And what does that mean?  Perhaps insurance companies will FINALLY identify autism as a diagnosis, and cover said diagnosis. 

The other good news about this test is that it has been found to be 90% accurate in it's diagnosis, which beats 9% clear out of the water.  And for those who are diagnosed, they know it's because of an actual, physical cause, not some form of parental neglect or parental abuse that is causing the condition.  For everyone in the Autism community, this should give them a huge sigh of relief. 

But what happens after the diagnosis?  Sure, it's great to know, and it's great to understand that it's physical instead of something the parents have done, but what now?  Autism doesn't go away, and there is no magic pill that will "make it all better".  Autistic children need to be taught in any way they can.  And one such way is currently being developed at Interbots, Inc, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University Technology Center.  Yesterday they issued a press release on their project in "Character Therapy", or using robots to help children with autism learn to interact. 

The program is very much cutting edge, both in technology and in autism therapy.  It's based on the premise that children with autism prefer interaction with non-human entities, be it animals or robots.  Why?  Because both animals and robots have far less social and emotional baggage to carry around, and therefore an autistic child doesn't have to worry about offending (as we humans tend to be easily offended). 

A good example of this working is the Crush experience at Disneyland's California Adventures in Anaheim, California.  Parents with autistic children, even with low functioning autism, find the children speaking and repeating either sounds or words after having the experience with Crush.  It's a fascinating phenomenon, and I'm looking forward to experiencing it with my son.

So, for the first time in a long time, I find myself wishing I were either in London to work with the psychologists and psychiatrists at King's College, or in Pittsburgh.  The idea of working with such excellent programs, providing feedback, and contributing so such revolutionary ideas is very compelling.  I can't wait to see these two projects come to fruition.