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ScienceIamA a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University (Helen Tager-Flusberg). I have been doing research on autism for over 40 years..... AMA!

Apr 14th 2017 by Tager-Flusberg • 26 Questions • 169 Points

My short bio: I’m Helen Tager-Flusberg, Director of the Center for Autism Research Excellence at Boston University. I do research on development, brains and behavioral impairments (especially language and communication) in autism and I’m here today, during Autism Awareness Month, to talk about it. For more on my work, check out my lab’s website: http://www.bu.edu/autism/. Ask me anything!

My Proof: https://www.bu.edu/autism/home/center-director/

http://imgur.com/a/xfvPd

**** Leaving again for dinner but will check in again tomorrow.****

Q:

I'm very appreciative of your reply but I am not sure if by 'handle social situations' you mean that we simply find 'a different way' to be social as compared to neurotypicals or just that whatever reason causes us to have difficulties in the first place are gone?

Please don't take this as a personal attack because this following point is not aimed towards you at all, but I always feel insulted when people tell me that 'i find a way to deal with it' where in my opinion, I found a way to solve the problem. I'm always unclear whether or not people (experts on the subject) tell mean that I have solved whatever underlying cause there was in the first place or simply found a way to work around it. Because I really see no difference with how I function socially as compared to other people.

Perhaps you could clarify.

A:

There is some brain imaging evidence to suggest that people with autism solve social problems using alternative brain systems - but the real truth is that we don't know how much variability there is in the social systems (behavioral or brain) used by the general population. Even if you (or others with autism) use a 'different way' - I know many people with autism who handle social situations extremely well. I use the analogy of finding my way somewhere. I personally find it easier to follow directions to find my way to a new location (written/verbal - turn left, go straight etc.) whereas other people prefer to look at a map because they have far better visual-spatial skills than me. We can all find the place but have used different cognitive approaches for getting there.


Q:

What research projects do you have going on right now? What affects will they have in practice and treatment?

A:

please check my website for details - my current projects include: identifying early signs of autism in infants at risk; developing new measures for expressive language that could be used in treatment studies; research on minimally verbal children and adolescents with autism; and on the so-called mirror neuron system in toddlers with autism. See https://www.bu.edu/autism/current-research/


Q:

What are some of the early indicators of autism and how early do these start to manifest?

A:

At the behavioral level we don't see signs until close to the end of the first year. Then we might notice subtle delays in language and gestural communication (e.g., not yet pointing), poorer visual attention and subtle motor differences. Only in the second year of life do the symptoms begin to show - with reduced social smiling, eye contact and speech and perhaps an unusually strong interest in objects.


Q:

I heard before that people with autism don't actually have a lack emotions but instead feel too much emotions. Can you expand on this?

Does your work revolve around children? I am asking this because as someone with high function autism we seem to be ignored when we are older, thoughts?

A:

I agree that people with autism do experience emotions - exactly how probably varies.

We study children and adolescents but have also included adults in our earlier brain imaging studies. I completely agree with you that there is far too little work focusing on autistic adults.


Q:

What are the biggest risk factors that predict autism in a child?

A:

So far we have good evidence to suggest that genes play a significant role - both ones inherited from parents and also gene mutations that are not inherited. Additional risk factors include age of parents (a small increase in risk for older parents, especially fathers), infection in mothers during pregnancy (especially in the second trimester) and other non genetic factors.


Q:

How much does environment play a role?

A:

We can't really quantify this but infections are one type of environmental factor. There is also evidence for increased risk (small) related to living very close to traffic pollution or to fields treated with pesticides - but only if you are living in very close proximity.


Q:

Where is the research on autism headed?

A:

There is potential now for the research to go in many exciting and important directions all of which will lead to greater understanding of autism itself and how to provide the best services, supports and treatments to those who need them. Unfortunately there isn't enough funding available to support even the very best projects! We will see in the coming years more on what causes autism and, I hope, more on novel treatments, especially for people who have the most severe problems not just with autism itself but with many co-occurring condition such as lack of speech, medical problems, sleep difficulties, anxiety, depression etc.


Q:

Also, I've read a theory, most likely BS as it was just an internet theory from some joe schmoe, interesting nonetheless. They theorized that autism could be a natural progression in human evolution. Have you come across this in any real publications in your field?

A:

Theories are theories --- what we need is for 'joe schmoe' to think about how we could test this theory!

I have come across papers that make the argument that autistic traits have value for our society and this is why they have persisted and not become extinct. I can sympathize with this line of thinking but don't have any evidence.


Q:

How do you involve autistic people across the research you do? Not just as participants but as researchers, consultants, or employees?

As an autistic adult slowly getting more involved in the research field, this is a question of personal curiosity. On another note, I have referenced your work many times during my Masters so I feel I owe you a thank you.

A:

I'm glad my work has been helpful to you. We haven't had that much opportunity to involve people with autism in our work - but we learn a great deal from all the people with autism and their families to guide our questions and approaches.


Q:

Hi there - I'm HF female with atypical autism and I'm finishing up my PhD in structural biochemistry. I've been going through the primary literature and, wow, over 40 years you must have seen the research landscape change quite a bit. Sensory gating/sensory processing is one of the main biological components of ASD that appears to get overlooked (funding) in favor of social deficit research. Why is this? I feel like the focus on the social aspect is more a symptom of problems we have with sensory integration and the complex neuronal processing associated with social reward (namely endocannabinoid-mediated oxytocin release). Do you think research funding is guided by the neurotypical (NT) population's desire for people with ASD to assimilate because assimilation has the outward appearance of happiness/functionality? Also, how do you feel about selection criteria for the ASD population - should we be more general or should we take intersectionality into account? How has this changed over the years? Lastly, what is your opinion of ABA therapy? Thanks so much for doing this - perhaps we will brush shoulders somewhere in Boston soon!

A:

You're asking lots of really good questions and I don't really have much time now to address them all...my personal view is that autism is complex and we should be studying all the different facets (social, sensory, etc.) - but I don't think NTs guide the research toward assimilation ( so many NTs I know are neither happy nor so functional!). ABA has been extremely important for many people with autism.


Q:

Does autism happen by degrees? Can you be somewhat autistic? Have autistic moments? It's not all or nothing, is it?

A:

It is likely that the characteristics of autism (social communication skills, very focused interests etc.) are normally distributed traits - so they vary across the population even among non-autistic people. Definitely not all or nothing!


Q:

That sounds cool! I have autism myself, actually! Do you like your job?

A:

If this is for me - yes I love my job!


Q:

How long would a PhD in neuroscience take to get?

A:

Depends on your starting point. If you have some background from a Bachelors degree then a typical PhD program is 5 years.


Q:

So what's with all of the vitamin D stories? I've seen reports there's a heavy correlation.

A:

Studies have found small correlations between vitamin D deficiency and many medical conditions - if there are studies on autism showing this I don't really know what this means. It might be that autism itself leads to lower levels of vitamin D rather than the other around. We know for example that some people with autism have limited diets; others may not spend as much time outdoors. Low levels of vitamin D don't really tell us much.


Q:

Hello! So I'm an adult (29) woman and I'm fairly sure I'm somewhere on the spectrum. I was mostly nonverbal till I was 5, toe walked so bad that my gait is still messed up & causes pain, (probably mis)diagnosed with tourettes (instead of being recognized as stimming), sensory issues, along with many of the other standard issue problems of autism, some to the point of being debilitating. However, I don't have a formal diagnosis. From what I've heard from others, a dx is expensive, takes months to get, women are often still misdiagnosed, and it usually doesn't help much unless you're trying to get disability benefits or are facing discrimination.

My question for you is, if I can't get a formal dx and possibly help that way, what would you advise as another option for help? I've heard that neuropsychologists are good, but psychologists aren't. Is this true? Most of my difficulties seem to come from sensory issues. Should I just seek out an occupational therapist?

Thank you for doing this and your work :)

A:

This is a really hard question to address ---a diagnosis itself isn't that meaningful (and as you say, it is often different for women) without knowing why you'd want it. You seem to suffer most from the sensory difficulties so yes, perhaps a sensitive OT is the way to go (but it will depend on how informed the therapist is about autism - or autism symptoms - in adults).


Q:

A simple question here.

What is your favorite book or one book you think everyone should read?

A:

Hard to choose - but the one that I found the most insightful was written by Clara Claiborne Park about her daughter Jessie. She also wrote a follow up book.


Q:

What do you think of the movie "Rain Man"?

A:

I thought it was a brilliant movie - which changed many people's ideas about autism. That said, we are fortunate that we have so many more diverse representations of autism now in movies, books, art and even TV (witness Julia, the newest muppet to join Sesame Street).


Q:

Being on the spectrum myself, I have noticed something I want to ask you about what some people cal speaking in aspie. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to when two or more people with high-functioning autism with a similar level of intelligence and interests start talking, and then nobody can follow the conversation.

My specific question is, is this a quantifiable or autism specific phenomenon?

A:

Here's what I really wanted to respond to your original question: Well I still have my job but she doesn't!!


Q:

I currently live in Iraq, and there are no specialized centers for autism diagnosis, are there any way I could get a diagnosis somewhere online? Thank you very much for your time.

A:

I don't know of any on-line services but if you are able to travel there are some very good centers in other parts of the Middle East such as Jordan.


Q:

I see you use "people with autism" rather than "autistic people".

Do you think that this is suitable? Do you think that people can be "with" autism? That they can "have" it? Not that they ARE it, so to speak, that it is intrinsically them?

For example, I am a white person, not a person with whiteness.

Do you not think that by saying they have it, that they can, at some point, not have it?

A:

I will use both expressions - I prefer not to get embroiled in the 'language wars'!


Q:

What are the top 3 reasons we know vaccines dont cause autism?

A:
  1. There is now very good evidence showing that there are differences in the brains of infants as early as 6 months which foreshadow a later diagnosis of autism.

  2. Multiple well conducted epidemiological studies have found NO link between the onset of autism symptoms and receiving vaccines.

  3. Millions of children around the world receive vaccines which keep them from getting ill or dying ---99% don't have autism.


Q:

What are your thought on an existential humanistic approach to treating individuals with autism?

A:

I don't know much about these approaches as methods for intervention - but I will say that all people with autism deserve to be treated in a humanistic way - as wonderful individuals who deserve our respect!


Q:

First off, thank you so much for taking the time to do an AMA. My son is almost 5 years old. He is non-verbal, not potty-trained and is starting kindergarten in about 4 months. My wife and I have no idea how to get him out of diapers. We've talked to his pediatrician and read countless articles online but so far nothing seems to work. Any advice for us?

A:

I don't know where you live but your son would be an excellent candidate for autism-specialty interventions including applied behavioral analysis (ABA). I urge you to ask your pediatrician for a referral to specialists.


Q:

[deleted]

A:

Sorry I don't know what this is....


Q:

Hello! First, thank you for taking time to answer questions! I have a question regarding neuroscience and graduate school. I am starting a Neurochemistry PhD program in the fall and would like your advice. I have a B.S. in chemistry and have done some neuroscience coursework and research, but I'd like to know how I should best prepare for the neuroscience portion of my program. Can you recommend any resources I can use to familiarize myself with current research and trends in the field? I have my old textbooks and notes from college, although I'm worried my current material may be a bit dated. Any advice you can provide would be most appreciated. Thank you!

A:

I recommend that you sit down with an advisor in your current program (or ask your advisor to refer you to someone in neuroscience at your university) to review your background and provide you with good feedback and readings.


Q:

Do you have any crazy stories from your experience with working with the population? If so, what was the most crazy one?

A:

I probably have more crazy stories about working with non-autistic people!!