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This could be life-changing!

A new study has found that children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) may have an easier time switching between tasks if they learn a second language.

Published in Child Development, the study has found new reasons to believe that Autistic children who are bilingual have increased cognitive flexibility compared to children that are monolingual.

According to Professor Aparna Nadig, the senior author of the paper, from McGill University, this research has been a long time in the making.

She said: “Over the past 15 years there has been a significant debate in the field about where there is a ‘bilingual advantage’ in terms of executive functions.”

She continued: “Some researchers have argued convincingly that living as a bilingual person and having to switch languages unconsciously to respond to the linguistic context in which the communication is taking place increases cognitive flexibility.”

However, previous research did not consider the effect bilingual ability had on autism - until now.

Comparing 40 children between the ages of six and nine, with or without ASD, and bilingual or monolingual, the study focused on computer-generated tests.

Through sorting objects on a screen, the researchers found “that bilingual children with ASD performed significantly better when it came to the more complex part of the task-shifting test relative to children with ASD who were unilingual,” according to the study.

The conclusion is huge - and could change the way parents of children with ASD decide to teach their children.

Because it was previously thought that learning a second language would only make it harder for ASD children to learn a language, or worsen their existing language difficulties, the new research is a turning point in how children with ASD are educated - especially in countries where knowing multiple languages is commonplace.

The research is especially significant in Montreal, where it took place, because as Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barerro, the paper’s first author explained: “in bilingual societies such as ours in Montreal, speaking only one language can be a significant obstacle in adulthood for employment, educational, and community opportunities.”

Although the initial study was relatively small, the researchers believe the implications of their findings are huge and plan to continue the study by following the children over the next three to five years to see how they develop.

The lack of ability to “smell fear” may reveal clues about behaviour and brain development in people with autism, according to a new study. 

We may not be aware of it, but research suggests many people are able to smell fear.

In fact, the ability to subliminally detect and respond to odours may relate to a variety of emotions we feel, ranging from happiness to aggression.

But in a new study published in Nature Neuroscience, Professor Noam Sobel and collaborators at the Weizmann Institute of Science suggest this ability might be disrupted in people with autism.

People with autism often have difficulty processing sensory information.

Research into sensory differences is “a real priority for the autism community,” according to Dr James Cusack of medical research charity Autistica, making this kind of research vital.

Having first established that there was no significant difference in sense of smell between groups of autistic and non-autistic participants, the scientists set out to test their response to the “smell of fear”.

That smell came in the form of sweat collected from people taking skydiving classes.

Response to this odour was compared with sweat collected from non-fearful people during normal exercise.

When non-autistic participants were presented with the skydiver sweat, their bodies reacted with a classic fear response – increased electrical conductivity in their skin.

However, the opposite took place in autistic participants – skydiver sweat actually lowered their fear response. Moreover, exposure to “calm sweat” from exercise increased their fear level.

Next the researchers asked the participants to complete tasks under the instruction of mannequins that emitted the same sweat-based odours as in the previous experiment. 

Again, they found that the response to the smells was reversed in autistic participants. They appeared to place more trust in the “fear smell” mannequin, and less in the “calm smell”.

The results suggest that autistic people misread odour, or “olfactory” cues. This could provide clues about the way the brain of an autistic person develops.

"We are still speculating at this point, but we are hoping that further research in our lab and others will clarify both the function of these unconscious olfactory social cues and their roots in such social disorders as autism," said Professor Sobel.

Dr Cusack notes that while the study is “very well-designed, and asks a really interesting experimental question,” replicating results like this is very important given the diversity of characteristics associated with autism.

 “We’ve known for some time that sensory perception is altered in people with autism, and so understanding more about why that is the case – even if it’s in a small subgroup of people – is very valuable,” said Dr Cusack.

Scientists have developed a blood and urine test that can detect autism in children.

Researchers at the University of Warwick said the test, believed to be the first of its kind, could lead to earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in children who could then be given appropriate treatment much earlier in their lives.

ASDs mainly affect a person’s social interaction and communication, with symptoms that can include speech disturbances, repetitive and/or compulsive behaviour, hyperactivity, anxiety, and difficulty adapting to new environments.

As there is a wide range of ASD symptoms, diagnosis can be difficult and uncertain, particularly at the early stages of development.

It is estimated that around one in every 100 people in the UK has ASD, with more boys diagnosed with the condition than girls.

Scientists said their research found a link between ASD and damage to proteins in blood plasma.

They found the most reliable of the tests they developed was examining protein in blood plasma, which found children with ASD had higher levels of the oxidation marker dityrosine (DT) and certain sugar-modified compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs).

Genetic causes are thought to be responsible for around a third of cases of ASD, while the rest are believed to be caused by a combination of environmental factors, mutations, and rare genetic variants.

But researchers believe their new tests could reveal yet to be identified causes of ASD.

They also confirmed the previously held belief that mutations of amino acid transporters are a genetic variant associated with ASD.

The Warwick team worked with collaborators at the University of Bologna in Italy, who recruited 38 children who were diagnosed with ASD along with a control group of 31 other children between the ages of five and 12. Blood and urine samples were taken from the children for analysis.

The team discovered there were chemical differences between the two groups. Working with a further collaborator at the University of Birmingham, the changes in multiple compounds were combined together using artificial intelligence algorithm techniques to develop a mathematical equation to distinguish between ASD and healthy controls. The outcome was a diagnostic test better than any method currently available.

They said the next steps are to repeat the study with further groups of children to confirm the good diagnostic performance and to assess if the test can identify ASD at very early stages, indicate how the ASD is likely to develop further to more severe disease and assess if treatments are working.

The research was led by Dr Naila Rabbani, reader of experimental systems biology at the University of Warwick, who said: “Our discovery could lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention.

“We hope the tests will also reveal new causative factors.

“With further testing we may reveal specific plasma and urinary profiles or ‘fingerprints’ of compounds with damaging modifications. This may help us improve the diagnosis of ASD and point the way to new causes of ASD.”

The research has been published in the journal Molecular Autism

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