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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Spotted: Bioethics backlash; screening strife

by  /  7 August 2015

August 3rd

Social boost

There are shockingly few behavioral interventions for adults with autism — a group that grows by about50,000 people each year in the U.S. That’s why the results of a recent trial caught our attention.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that a 16-week training program significantly improved social functioning in young adults with autism. For example, the study participants became more engaged and cooperative during social interactions. What’s more, the benefits persisted for 16 weeks after the training ended.

The study was small, but it’s a necessary step toward treatments for adults on the spectrum.

“There is still a misconception that autism is a childhood disorder,” lead researcher Elizabeth Laugeson, director of the UCLA Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, said in a media statement. “It’s as if we’ve forgotten that these children grow up to be adults with their own unique challenges that very often affect their ability to be gainfully employed or establish meaningful friendships and romantic relationships.”

Bioethics backlash

We’ve covered the dangers of gene editing on several occasions. Some bioethicists fear that tools such as CRISPR could lead to ‘designer babies’ with tailor-made genomes. But Harvard psychologist Steven Pinkersays the people raising these somewhat real but utterly remote possibilities need to “get out of the way.”

Bioethicists “should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution,” Pinker wrote in an op-ed in last week’s Boston Globe. Nor should they “thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.”

Pinker argues that biomedical research is more like pushing a boulder up a hill than a runaway train. “The last thing we need is a lobby of so-called ethicists helping to push the rock down the hill.”.

Lab tales

Every grad student has a few bad habits. (You’re supposed to hoard food from departmental seminars, right?) But an article in last week’s Science titled “Grad students behaving badly” puts these mostly harmless quirks in perspective.

Adam Ruben, author of “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School,” reached out to professors for their grad student horror stories. The anecdotes cover everything from absenteeism to lab safety lapses, to “pretending they understand when they don’t.” There’s also a hilarious story about flatulence.

But Ruben writes that these shocking tales are few and far between. “Though it’s fun to think of students as irresponsible oafs who gleefully mess up your experiments, most are simply scientists-in-training — wet behind the ears, but basically well-intentioned and competent.”

Screening strife

Most autism researchers agree that early autism screening is a good thing. Spotting signs of autism in toddlers, they say, can lead to an earlier diagnosis, which opens the door for early intervention.

But on Monday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of clinicians and scientists that make healthcare recommendations to Congress, said it would withhold support for routine screening of toddlers, citing insufficient evidence for its benefits.

We asked three autism experts to weigh in on the draft decision. Click here to see what they had to say.