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Rutgers researcher discuss symptoms, complexities of autism

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Autism Awareness Month seeks to promote the science and societal implications behind autism which are important to understanding the neurodevelopmental disorder and the people it affects.

Elizabeth Torres, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, researches the sensory-motor symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and develops treatments used during early stages of development.

“We put sensors on the skin and detect these irregularities amplified by the motion patterns and their statistics, we read out those statistics and can ‘see’ it all unfolding as they move around,” Torres said.

These quantitative measurements of the patterns in movement of people with ASD are more accurate than clinical observation techniques, which are more biased, she said.

The issue behind this neurodevelopmental disorder is that the channel that organizes sensory information is broken. The brain continuously receives feedback from your motions, and "noisy code" prevents that information from being integrated, she said.

“It’s like having your cell phone with no bars. With all the bars you get great reception,” she said. "(Without all the bars) they don’t know how to respond properly, and therefore they don’t have proper social skills. How would you?”

People with autism many times “cannot feel their bodies,” and they sometimes take actions to rectify that. Torres said she saw one child walk on their toes and another carried 50 pounds in their backpack so that they can feel the pressure on their bodies.

Just as people with ASD may have a distorted perception of the world, others may have a distorted perception of ASD. The misperception that they have a choice to act the way they do leads to the popular idea that autism is a deficiency in social skills, not sensory-motor capabilities, she said.

Children with autism are often put in settings where they are expected to be “normal,” and subsequently get bullied and are severely lonely, she said.

“The media is not portraying autism the way it should be, and it's being diagnosed inappropriately,” she said.

As a result, people with ASD are heavily medicated for depression and other issues, which worsens their condition, she said.

This improper medication is a facet of the “financial conflict of interest” that exists, which is when pharmaceutical companies pay doctors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to prescribe expensive <g>brand-name</g> medications, according to PLOS Medicine.

This practice may exacerbate behavioral issues in patients and cause financial and sometimes marital distress for their parents, while still being funded by taxpayers, Torres said.

Lara Delmolino, director of Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center is a practitioner of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy, the most prevalent treatment for people with autism, which is widely covered by insurance. 

“(Practitioners) look at each individual person and try to understand what their sensory challenges are and what other learning challenges they have,” she said.

They then modify the patient's environment accordingly to these specific hypotheses. ABA therapy is often used to increase communication skills as well as the abilities of children with autism to function in society, she said.

Torres believes that other therapies can be additive or replacements to current therapies by accounting for the underlying sensory-motor issues of autism that she researches and not just its symptoms, such as aggression and tantrums, she said. These alternative treatments include neurological music, occupational <g>therapy</g> and equestrian therapy, among others.

She hopes that her instrumental method of using sensory technology to collect data of people’s <g>motions</g> will validate the effectiveness of these treatment methods and will lead to these expensive therapies to be covered by insurance companies, she said.

Keshav Patel, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, believes that tolerance toward autism is on an upward trend.

“There has been a lot of integration of autistic patients into society and work," he said.

Namrata Pandya is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.

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