After taking a week off due to the holidays, we’re back for 2016 with a trio of recent autism-related news stories that shine light on two potential causal factors behind autism and the creation of a new “social robot” designed to help children with autism learn new skills.
Starting with the robot first, at the Consumer Electronics Show 2016 in Las Vegas this year, a company unveiled a new robot that will essentially act like a real-life BB-8 (for all you Star Wars fans out there) who is committed to helping your child develop his or her social skills. While our discussions of technology and autism have mostly focused on apps, this robot, called Leka, is the first of its kind in that it is a mass-market robot designed exclusively for children with autism or other developmental disorders.
Its makers created Leka—a white-and-blue ball with eyes and facial expressions that can speak and show emotions—to help stimulate children with autism. Designed as a tool for both parents and teachers to use during play, Leka was developed around the concept of gamification, in which typical elements of gaming, like scoring, are applied to learning tasks to make them more attractive. According to chief executive and founder of Leka, Ladislas de Toldi, “As a robot, Leka is both predictable and stable in its interactions, which is very important for the child’s sense of safety and serenity.”
Moving on to a somewhat more serious topics, a major new study has drawn a possible link between taking antidepressants while pregnant with the increased likelihood of birthing a child with autism. The study, which was conducted at the University of Montreal, discovered that women who take antidepressants while pregnant have an astounding 87% increased chance of having a kid with autism. This rate actually increased up to 200% when women were found to take the most common form of antidepressants, SSRIs like Zoloft and Paxil.
According to researchers, while they were expecting to find a correlation between antidepressants and autism, they were not expecting at how strong of a link there appears to be. However, the researchers have been quick to add that they are not trying to problematize antidepressants or make women feel guilty for taking them. Rather, they believe this information will empower women as more information is always better.
Finally, another new study that was published recently in Current Biology alleges that people with autism tend to display deficits in inhibitory activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which correlates with autistic behaviors demonstrated on key perceptual tests.
According to the authors of the study, “Our findings provide evidence for an empirical link between a specific neurotransmitter measured in the brains of individuals with autism and an autistic behavioral symptom.” While the immediate applications of this study remain unclear, its authors believe the study suggests a concept that can serve as the basis for understanding and helping patients with autism.