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Spectrum: Autism Research News

February 8th

Pelphrey’s move

Autism researcher Kevin Pelphrey is heading south this spring. He is leaving the Yale Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience, which he helped found, to lead the new Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Pelphrey brings 15 years of experience and $20 million in grant funding to the new institute. The move is more than geographical. Pelphrey plans to widen his focus to autism in teens and adults after studying cognitive neuroscience and developmental disorders in children for most of his career.

“The Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute provides the opportunity for us to take a lifespan perspective and consider the disorder from molecules to minds, looking at everything from the chemical makeup of the disorder to how it manifests in people’s behaviors,” Pelphrey told The GW Hatchet.

He starts the new job on 1 April, but his first order of business is already underway: recruiting five faculty and staff to join the institute’s team of 100 researchers and clinicians.

The GW Hatchet / 03 Feb 2016
Tech support

Microsoft is hiring, and it’s looking for techies on the spectrum. The company launched a pilot program last April to screen job applicants with autism. Instead of interviewing, which can be stressful, Microsoft managers invite top candidates to work shoulder-to-shoulder with employees for two weeks. Candidates get a chance to show off their skills at company workshops, in team collaborations and during one-on-one time with staff.

“There are unique minds being underused and overlooked,” Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft’s vice president of worldwide operations and mother of a young adult with autism, told the technology magazine The Register. “These are people who may not be able to pass an initial interview or screen because their social skills might not be 100 percent in line with what’s expected in a typical interview, but what amazing talent are we missing as a result?”

A growing number of tech firms, including Hewlett Packard Australia, SAP and ULTRA, are looking to recruit people with autism, especially programmers who are quick to recognize data patterns and notice obscure bugs. After hiring more than a dozen people with autism, Microsoft has declared the pilot a success and plans to expand its efforts.

Living space

Building design takes a new turn with blueprints created especially for people with autism.

A therapy center on the outskirts of New York City uses autism-friendly textures, acoustics and lighting to create a welcoming space for newly diagnosed toddlers and preschoolers.

Transforming a 1920s-era gymnasium with concrete walls into New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s new Center for Autism and the Developing Brain wasn’t easy. But director Catherine Lord worked with the firm DaSilva Architects to design an indoor Disney-style village with treatment rooms housed in colorful huts, indoor gardens and familiar features such as streets, walking paths and park benches — all under a canopy that resembles the sky.

The team eliminated as many sensory assaults as possible to create a comfortable and safe space. Flooring materials from carpeting to cork dampen noisy footsteps. Treatment rooms are soundproof, and the building’s ventilation system and boilers are housed in another building to reduce ambient noise. Natural materials such as porcelain, wool and wood offer a range of comforting tactile surfaces, while lighting from floor lamps and raised windows creates a home-like atmosphere.

Meanwhile, a group of parents in East Tennessee are breaking ground on a neighborhood designed especially for adults with autism. Funded by Autism Breakthrough of Knoxville, the neighborhood includes seven houses so far, all offered at affordable rental rates. House managers work with residents to provide recreation, job training and local transportation.

“People think of autism more with little children,” Breakthrough’s executive director, Beth Ritchie, told WBIR News. “But little children grow up, and autism does not go away.”

Fast Company / 05 Feb 2016
Campaigning for epilepsy

Epilepsy kills — but it’s not clear how often, says a group of neurologists who recently sounded the alarm on a surprising gap in public health data.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that epilepsy claims 1,172 lives per year, neurology researchers think the true figure is more than twice that. Many deaths that should be attributed to epilepsy are incorrectly ascribed to drowning, cardiac disorders or other indirect effects of seizures, they say.

The neurologists, led by Orrin Devinsky, director of New York University’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, are calling for a public education campaign to prevent sudden death in epilepsy, a condition that often occurs with autism.

The campaign’s advocates urge affected individuals, families and schools to pay close attention to seizure safety. Helping people stick to a treatment plan and knowing what to do during a seizure can go a long way toward mitigating the harm from epilepsy, the group says.

“We have done too little to prevent epilepsy-related deaths. Everyone with epilepsy and everyone who treats people with epilepsy needs to know that controlling seizures will save lives,” the group stated in a Neurology editorial published Monday.

Family drama

Young actor Max Vento plays a 5-year-old boy with autism in a new television drama, “The A-Word,” set to premiere this spring on BBC One in the U.K., followed by a fall debut on the American network SundanceTV.

In the show, the parents of Vento’s character, Joe, grapple with their son’s autism diagnosis and what it means for parenting. The story also follows Joe’s aunt and uncle as they struggle with infidelity, and Joe’s grandfather, owner of the family brewery, whose wife recently died.

The show is based on an Israeli series called “Yellow Peppers,” which chronicles the life of a young boy with autism in a rural village. “Yellow Peppers” creator and writer, Keren Margalit, is an executive producer on “The A-Word.”

“It’s hopeful, honest and ultimately about the power of family, and the range of issues that families can face together, from autism to aging to adultery,” Joel Stillerman, head of original programming at SundanceTV, said in press release.

Disability Scoop / 28 Jan 2016