When autism hits home

September 13, 2011 By Laura Rico
Wendy Goldberg, professor of psychology & social behavior and education, will speak Sept. 17 at the Summit on Autism at the Bren Events Center, as will former first lady Rosalynn Carter. Credit: School of Social Ecology

About one in 110 American children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. It’s a sobering statistic to developmental psychologist Wendy Goldberg, who studies such youngsters and their families.

“It’s hard to disentangle the reasons behind the high rates of autism, but it’s almost an axiom of psychology to say it never boils down to just the environment or just genes but is rather a combination of the two,” she says. “These rates aren’t explained by greater awareness or diagnostic tools; they suggest interplay among environmental factors, social changes and biology.”

A UC Irvine professor of psychology & social behavior and education, Goldberg will speak Saturday, Sept. 17, at the Kids Institute for Development & Advancement’s Summit on Autism at the Bren Events Center. Former first lady Rosalynn Carter will deliver a keynote address.

Goldberg’s talk, titled “Autism: A Family Affair,” will focus on the challenges faced by families of children with autism spectrum disorders and offer research-based solutions, with a focus on marital, parent, grandparent and sibling relationships. She’ll also stress the importance of early identification of autism symptoms.

In 2005, Goldberg published one of the first studies to compare the social and communication skills of autistic children’s younger siblings to those of kids with autism and typically developing kids. The brothers and sisters fell somewhere in between the two groups.

“Younger siblings of children with autism are at higher risk for autism and developmental delays,” Goldberg says. “Genetic vulnerability and shared environments may explain this elevated risk, and it’s important that parents be attuned to their younger child’s behavior and development.”

Early intervention makes a big difference in youngsters’ lives, she says, as those diagnosed with symptoms of autism can start intensive treatment right away. Although there are no reliable screenings for babies under a year old, parents should monitor certain developmental milestones.

“They should alert their pediatrician if their year-old infant does not smile, use gestures, make eye contact or babble,” Goldberg says. “Parents should be concerned even earlier if their son or daughter doesn’t show any pleasure in social interaction or make sounds.”

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of a child’s life and is marked by social impairment, communication difficulties and repetitive patterns of behavior. Boys are four times more likely to be autistic than girls, for reasons that are not entirely known.

Goldberg is working with doctoral graduate student Kara Thorsen in the UCI Family Lab and with colleagues at UCI and UC Irvine Medical Center to devise and implement an online video program for identifying autism during infancy. They hope to make this accessible to parents and medical students.

“The purpose is to convey in everyday language important findings from our lab and field research,” Goldberg says. “Pediatricians are situated prominently in the first line of identification, but they don’t usually get extensive training on early signs of autism.”

Moms and dads, she notes, are not always reliable witnesses to their children’s behavior, as shown in a study she conducted on kids whose parents had reported late-onset symptoms of autism – maintaining that their children were developing normally during infancy and toddlerhood but then lost skills such as eye contact and talking.

Goldberg and a group of graduate students looked into this phenomenon, viewing home videos from the first two years of the youngsters’ lives.

“We started this research around the time that camcorders were becoming really popular, capturing key events such as birthday parties and family vacations,” she says.

“Part of our goal was to see if kids were really functioning at a typical level in terms of language and social behaviors, and we found that many of them were not.”

The fact that these children hadn’t been on a standard trajectory to begin with, Goldberg says, underscores the importance of recognizing initial signs of autism. Early intervention and rigorous treatment – speech therapy, for example – are the best tools parents have to foster the social development of autistic kids.

is a mystifying disorder with a wide range of severity that can be managed, but not cured, with behavioral and speech therapies,” she says. “Early intervention and intensive treatment can help children lead more productive and independent lives.”

Explore further: Autism breakthrough could lead to new treatments

Related Stories

Autism breakthrough could lead to new treatments

September 8, 2011
US researchers say they have identified at least two distinct types of autism, paving the way for new and more targeted treatments.

Siblings play key role in child development

April 8, 2011
University of Queensland researchers are exploring the influence siblings may have on the social behaviour of autistic children.

Recommended for you

Researchers developing new tool to distinguish between viral, bacterial infections

July 28, 2017
Antibiotics are lifesaving drugs, but overuse is leading to one of the world's most pressing health threats: antibiotic resistance. Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center are developing a tool to help physicians ...

Finish your antibiotics course? Maybe not, experts say

July 27, 2017
British disease experts on Thursday suggested doing away with the "incorrect" advice to always finish a course of antibiotics, saying the approach was fuelling the spread of drug resistance.

Co-infection with two common gut pathogens worsens malnutrition in mice

July 27, 2017
Two gut pathogens commonly found in malnourished children combine to worsen malnutrition and impair growth in laboratory mice, according to new research published in PLOS Pathogens.

Phase 3 trial confirms superiority of tocilizumab to steroids for giant cell arteritis

July 26, 2017
A phase 3 clinical trial has confirmed that regular treatment with tocilizumab, an inhibitor of interleukin-6, successfully reduced both symptoms of and the need for high-dose steroid treatment for giant cell arteritis, the ...

A large-scale 'germ trap' solution for hospitals

July 26, 2017
When an infectious airborne illness strikes, some hospitals use negative pressure rooms to isolate and treat patients. These rooms use ventilation controls to keep germ-filled air contained rather than letting it circulate ...

Researchers report new system to study chronic hepatitis B

July 25, 2017
Scientists from Princeton University's Department of Molecular Biology have successfully tested a cell-culture system that will allow researchers to perform laboratory-based studies of long-term hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections. ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.