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SDSU Study Aims To Shed Light On Adults With Autism

An estimated one in every 68 children has autism. That’s a disorder that hampers one’s ability to socialize and communicate with others. While there’s lots of research about children with autism, there’s very little about how the disorder affects adults. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg says San Diego State researchers are launching a new study that could fill in some of the gaps.

There's a lot of information about children with autism. But there's little known about how autism affects adults.

Mary and Ronin Curras look like happy-go-lucky kids.

They like to play video games, eat Flaming Hot Cheetos and spend time on their cell phones.

Photo credit: Nic McVicker

Five-year-old Ronin Curras is pictured, July 9, 2015.

But their mom, Melissa, said looks can be deceiving.

“To get them looking this way has been this background of doctors, and educational professionals, and three parents, and it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point," Curras said.

Mary is seven and Ronin is five. They both have autism. They were diagnosed early on, and have benefited from intense behavioral therapy.

Curras said managing the kids requires a constant team effort from her, her husband and her mom, who lives with the family.

Curras pointed out her children are socially and developmentally delayed. The bad days are rough.

“Two-hour-long tantrums," she said. "But it’s beyond tantrum, it’s like they’re hysterical. Something didn’t go the way they thought it should go. They get kind of fixated.”

Photo credit: Nic McVicker

Melissa Curras is pictured, July 9, 2015.

It's estimated one in every 68 children has autism. The brain disorder hampers one’s ability to socialize and communicate with others.

San Diego State psychologist Ralph-Axel Müller said while there’s lots of research about children with autism, there’s little about how the disorder affects adults.

“After the age of maybe 40 years or so, we don’t know anything about what happens in people with autism, what happens in their brains, and how their thinking abilities might change," he said.

Müller has been awarded a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study autism in adults.

Over the next five years, Müller’s team will recruit 70 people with autism between the ages of 45 and 65. They’ll recruit an equal number of people who don’t have the disorder.

Photo credit: Nic McVicker

San Diego State psychologist Ralph-Axel Müller is shown, June 30, 2015.

Each participant will undergo a series of tests of their cognitive, language and social skills. Researchers will take MRI scans of their brains, too.

Participants will go through the same regimen two-and-a-half years later. Researchers will compare the results to see if there have been any changes.

Müller said the MRI scans reveal, in extremely fine detail, the nerve fibers that connect different parts of the brain.

“And we can look at the volume of these fiber tracks, and can then study across age whether the fiber track shrinks," he said. "And that’s something that would be expected in an aging brain, to some extent, but you don’t want this to happen too fast.”

The images might also indicate whether these vital connections of the brain work differently in people with autism.

SDSU neuroscientist Ruth Carper, one of the study’s other investigators, said they hope to establish a baseline of what happens in the brains of people with autism ages 45 to 65.

Photo credit: Nic McVicker

San Diego State neuroscientist Ruth Carper is pictured, June 30, 2015.

“We’d like to have a good understanding of what are their abilities over that time period, cognitively speaking, whether or not there are differences in structure of the brain that might explain that and correlate with that, and we’d like to have a baseline of what functional connections are there and how well they operate," Carper explained.

An estimated 500,000 children with autism will become adults over the next decade.

It’s hard for Melissa Curras to think that far ahead. She’s busy getting her kids all of the help they need right now.

Curras hoped it will hold them in good stead when they grow up.

“You don’t really know what’s gonna happen until they become an adult," she said. "They shouldn’t regress necessarily any more. But there’s always a chance that they’re not gonna progress past a certain point.”

Researchers say there’s no indication that people with autism have a shorter lifespan. The new SDSU study hopes to answer whether some of them are at risk for greater neurological decline as they get older.

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