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Finding solutions for people with autism and their families

Stanford Neurosciences Institute, Autism

By Erin Digitale

More than 1 in 68 children are living with some form of autism, and each diagnosis has a ripple effect on families, schools and medical professionals who support those individuals. Stanford experts have been part of the teams not only diagnosing and treating the condition, but also trying to understand its causes and helping people with autism and their families live full lives.

Recent Stanford advances in understanding autism have come, in part, through scientists working across disciplinary boundaries. Clinicians, neuroscientists, engineers and educators have been collaborating to help people with autism and their families.

Diagnosing and treating autism

Autism emerges gradually and its signs run across a spectrum from mild to severe, making it a challenge to diagnose. Without this accurate information, parents can’t start accessing treatment for their children. Making it faster and easier to diagnose the condition, new tools aim to speed the process of getting kids started in therapy.

Those therapies are also getting better, with drugs under development that target cardinal features of autism, and apps that teach people with autism to communicate and interact. Speeding the rate at which children start getting treatment, these advances improve their chances of receiving help.

Home videos could help diagnose autism

Brief training enabled people to accurately detect autistic-type behaviors in children who appeared in short videos posted online.

New research offers hope for faster autism diagnosis

A long wait is often the first step in getting help for a child who may have autism. A new approach could help kids be diagnosed more quickly.

Study shows which children with autism respond best to oxytocin treatment

The brain hormone may help treat social impairments in children with autism whose baseline oxytocin levels are low before treatment, according to new Stanford findings.


Stanford students create apps to tackle learning challenges

Students in the Learning, Design, and Technology program at the Graduate School of Education analyze learning problems and then design solutions in yearlong master's projects.


Autism services

Autism is a complex disorder of communication, thinking, relating to others and participating fully in the community. We recognize that it will take many different disciplines working together to understand the condition and ultimately provide effective treatments to children and their families.

GSE startup offers autism therapies on iPad

A company hatched by recent graduates is winning kudos for its games to augment behavioral therapies for kids on the autism spectrum.


Understanding autism

Despite the number of people diagnosed with autism each year and the high personal and financial cost of supporting those individuals, very little is known about what disruption in the brain’s intricate wiring causes the condition.

Stanford scientists are now beginning to unravel the brain differences that underlie autism, and also tease apart how those changes alter the way autistic brains process and respond to the world. These discoveries have come, in part, through advances in technologies for imaging the brain at work and for probing the neurons’ inner workings, and in some cases through a very personal quest to understand this devastating disease.

Autism may reflect excitation-inhibition imbalance in the brain

Stanford researchers used advanced lab technologies to show, in mice, that symptoms of autism can be countered by reducing the ratio of excitatory to inhibitory neuronal firing in the forebrain.

On genetics, immunology and autism: Q&A with Stanford’s Theo Palmer

Stanford researcher Theo Palmer, PhD, has long sought to understand how genetic and environmental factors shape brain function.

Tracking autism: A social neuroscientists’ hunt for autism biomarkers

Karen Parker explores the biological underpinnings of how animals and people behave in social situations and is also testing promising new medications to improve social functioning in people with autism.

Do the brain’s intricate folds hold clues to autism?

Ellen Kuhl has created computer models of the physical forces that push the outer portion of the brain to bend and flex into complex folds. The team hopes these same models can help explain what lies behind misfolded brain regions in kids with autism or other diseases.

Low levels of hormone linked to social deficit in autism

In children with autism, low levels of the hormone vasopressin predict a social deficit that affects their ability to empathize with others.

Less repetitive behavior seen in autistic girls

A study of about 800 children with autism found gender differences in a core feature of the disorder, as well as in the youngsters’ brain structures.

Newly identified molecular network in brain implicated in autism

Some cases of autism may be caused by a dysfunctional corpus callosum, resulting in poor communication between brain hemispheres, a new study suggests.

Blood oxytocin levels in normal range in children with autism

Blood levels of oxytocin correlate with social performance regardless of whether children have autism, according to a new study.

Stanford study reveals why human voices are less rewarding for kids with autism

Functional MRI scans showed that in kids with autism, brain regions specialized to respond to speech are poorly connected to the brain centers that process rewards and interpret emotions.

Autistic brain less flexible at taking on tasks

Certain brain networks in children with autism do not appear to change much when switching from a resting state to engagement with a task, a new study finds.

Voices may not trigger brain’s reward centers in children with autism, study shows

In autism, brain regions tailored to respond to voices are poorly connected to reward-processing circuits, according to a new study by scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Hyperconnectivity found in brains of children with autism

The study's results may contribute to the development of a brain-based test that could be used to diagnose autism at an early stage.


Breaking through

Autism’s origins lie hidden in a perplexing maze of behaviors and biology. Step by step, researchers are finding their way inside.

Autistic kids who best peers at math show different brain organization

Children with autism and average IQs consistently demonstrated superior math skills compared with nonautistic children in the same IQ range.

Scientists rethink autism's roots

A surprising twist from the autism research front: Non-genetic factors may play a larger role in the development of the disorder than previously believed.

Distinct features of autistic brain revealed in novel analysis of MRI scans

A novel method for analyzing brain-scan data can distinguish children with autism from typically developing children.


Living with autism

People’s daily interactions rely on subtle social clues and facial expressions that are critical for communication but indecipherable to those with autism. Deficits in social and emotional skills can range from challenging to completely disabling, and put an incredible burden on those who care for people with autism.

Stanford researchers have created a number of tools to help people with autism navigate their daily lives and to support families in accessing resources. These include classes to help families understand and participate in autism therapy and apps to connect families with resources. There are even engineering courses at Stanford that teach students how to design for people with conditions including autism.

Scientists crowdsource autism data

Many areas across the globe have few autism experts, leading to delayed care for kids who live there. Stanford scientists have launched a crowdsourcing project to pinpoint such geographic gaps and find ways to fill them.

Tips for creating quality family time when a child has autism spectrum disorder

To learn more about the key components of fulfilling family time, BeWell@Stanford chatted with child psychologists and autism experts Jennifer Phillips, PhD, and Grace Gengoux, PhD, BCBA-D.

Google Glass may help kids with autism recognize emotions

Many children with autism struggle to form friendships, in part because they have difficulty with social skills such as recognizing facial expressions. Now, a Stanford research team is using Google Glass to help.


Group classes teach parents effective autism therapy

Parents who learned an autism therapy in group classes helped their children with the disorder improve their language skills, a new study has found.


Early support program for autism connects families to resources

The Early Support Program for Autism gives parents someone to call for up-to-date information about doctors, therapists, treatment programs and other community resources.

Stanford hosts Rolston String Quartet

The quartet performed as part of the Azure Family Concert series. Specifically crafted for children and young adults on the autism spectrum, these concerts are set in an environment where the listeners’ physical movements or vocalizations are not only accepted but embraced.

Building robots – and confidence

Steven Paley founded a program that brings robotics and engineering courses to students with autism, Down’s syndrome or other developmental disabilities.

Autism answers: Parents run experiments to see what works

Three Stanford programs teach parents of autistic children how to be involved in their child's therapy.