Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Genes’ Influence On Social Behaviors Shifts With Age


 Genes’ Influence On Social Behaviors Shifts With Age

Reciprocal social behavior — the give and take of information or objects during interactions with others — is strongly heritable, according to an analysis of twins.

Some social behaviors associated with autism are heritable, according to a new study. But the extent to which genes and the environment influence these behaviors changes as a child grows, the results show.

The researchers examined toddlers’ so-called reciprocal social behavior, or the ability to engage in interactions such as sharing toys or conversing. Reciprocity skills vary in the general population, and prominent difficulties in this area can be a sign of autism. To estimate the heritability of these behaviors, the team measured them in a group of twins — including identical twins, who share nearly all of their DNA, and fraternal twins, who share about half.

Identical twins tend to have more similar scores on measures of their social behaviors than fraternal twins do, the researchers found, suggesting a strong genetic component. But the degree of heritability changed as the twins developed, suggesting that the influence of genetics and the environment on behavior is not stable, says lead investigator Natasha Marrus, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Development doesn’t look static when we watch it, and I don’t think the biology underneath it is static either,” she says.

Because differences in social reciprocity are observable before the age at which autism is usually diagnosed, understanding how it develops could help researchers chart the condition’s early trajectory, Marrus says.

The paper is an important first step toward creating measures of behavioral dimensions that appear in early development in autistic children, says Peter Mundy, professor of education at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the work. And it solidifies the idea that genetics influences these behaviors.

“That’s unassailable,” Mundy says. “It’s a good contribution.”

Social factors:

The researchers analyzed data from the parents of 1,563 18-month-olds. The parents watched a video of a typically developing 19-month-old interacting with an adult, rated how their child compared with the girl in the video on 13 items, and answered 31 additional questions about their child’s social behaviors, such as whether the child understands verbal requests or tries to play with other people. They repeated both tests when the children were 24 months old.

An analysis revealed that the children’s scores on some survey items tended to be correlated. A child who responds to her name, for example, is also likely to be interested in what others are doing, the researchers found. Based on these correlations, they identified five ‘dimensions’ of reciprocal social behavior: social motivation; functional communication; restricted interests and repetitive behaviors; social avoidance; and social orienting.

The team repeated the tests in a group of 134 identical twin pairs and 205 fraternal pairs, also at 18 and 24 months of age, and measured how similarly the twins scored on each of the five dimensions. They did additional modeling to differentiate the effects of genetics and shared and unshared environmental factors.

At both ages and for all five dimensions, identical twins had stronger similarities than fraternal twins, indicating that reciprocal behaviors are strongly heritable.

But the heritability of each dimension changed as the children grew. The influence of genetics on social motivation and functional communication waned from 18 to 24 months. By contrast, its influence on social orienting nearly doubled between screenings; it also increased, although to a lesser extent, for social avoidance and repetitive behaviors.

The results suggest that the interplay between genetics and environmental factors changes over time, Marrus says, with the environment playing a stronger role at some points than at others.

“Just because something is heritable, it doesn’t mean that exact same level of genetic influence operates over the entire course of your life,” Marrus says.

New measures:

The apparent change in genetic influence may actually reflect decreasing errors in the measures used, Mundy says. A child’s language abilities, for example, would play a key part in the parent’s assessment of the child’s social skills, and language development is more varied in 18-month-olds than in 24-month-olds.

“I interpret this as consolidation of true score over time,” Mundy says. “I would think it’s not reflecting a major biological change.”

Dividing the broad category of ‘social behavior’ into specific dimensions could ultimately help researchers assess which interventions are effective, when and for whom, says Giacomo Vivanti, associate professor in the Early Detection and Intervention program at the Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the work.

“The boundaries between these constructs are really fuzzy,” Vivanti says. “We need a more fine-grained understanding of, ‘What are we talking about when we talk about social behavior?’

The findings could help clinicians identify behaviors that may indicate autism in children too young to be diagnosed, Marrus says. A child with difficulties in several categories of reciprocal social behavior, for example, may have more underlying genetics linked to autism and be more likely to have the condition than a child with difficulties in only one category.

“Being able to understand how to weigh all of those dimensions within an individual could be very important, especially early in life, to figuring out what is this child’s level of risk,” Marrus says.

That approach could also help researchers tease apart the heritable dimensions of other autism traits, such as motor skills development, Marrus says. Marrus and others have shown that eye-contact patterns, another indicator of social behavior, are heritable.

                                                              

           This article was published on Spectrumthe leading site for autism research news.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Autism and Improvisational Music Therapy



Autism and Music Therapy

Music therapy has become an integral part of many programs for children with autism. The broad category of music therapy is generally described as interventions that seek to teach individual skills or goals through music. Music therapists use their training as musicians, clinicians, and researchers to effect changes in cognitive, physical, communication, social, and emotional skills.  According to the National Autistic Society, “Music therapy aims to encourage increased self-awareness/self-other awareness, leading to more overt social interactions. The therapy stimulates and develops the communicative use of voice and pre-verbal dialogue with another, establishing meaning and relationship to underpin language development. The client may also benefit from increased tolerance of sound, tolerance of and capacity for two-way communication.” 
Research Autism reports strong positive evidence from peer-reviewed journals that support the effectiveness of music therapy for individuals with autism. Based on the literature to date, music therapy has shown good effects in influencing joint attention, social interaction, verbal and gestural communication and behavior. It is considered to be a useful intervention, particularly with young children, and where language acquisition is either delayed or disordered to a severe degree. Currently, music therapy is identified as an emerging intervention by the National Autism Center (2015) and incorporates many of the identified autism-specific evidence-based practices. Supporters of music therapy emphasize that it can be used to develop social engagement, joint attention, communication abilities, while also addressing emotional needs and quality of life.
A study published in the journal Autism provides further support for the effectiveness of music therapy with autistic children. This randomized controlled exploratory study employed a single subject comparison design in two different conditions (improvisational music therapy versus toy play sessions) and two different parts of a session (an undirected/child-led part versus a more directed/therapist-led part) in each condition.

Improvisational music therapy is an individualized intervention that facilitates moment-by-moment motivational and interpersonal responses in children with autism. Compared with other therapeutic interventions utilizing music as a background or contingent stimulus, improvisational music therapy involves the interactive use of live music for engaging clients to meet their therapeutic needs. It is gaining growing recognition as an effective intervention addressing fundamental levels of spontaneous self-expression, emotional communication and social engagement for individuals with a wide range of developmental disorders.
Results and Discussion
Improvisational music therapy produced markedly more and longer events of joy, emotional synchronicity and initiation of engagement behaviors in the children than toy play sessions. In response to the therapist’s interpersonal demands, ‘compliant (positive) responses’ were observed more in music therapy than in toy play sessions, and ‘no responses’ were twice as frequent in toy play sessions as in music therapy. In the music therapy condition, there were more joy, emotional synchronicity and initiation of engagement events in the undirected part than the directed part, suggesting that children were happier, more able to express their happy emotions and more able to share their affects with the therapist when leading. These results suggest that musical attunement enhances musical-emotional communication together with joy and emotional synchronicity, which results in children’s spontaneous willingness to respond, initiate and engage further.
According to the authors, “The temporal structure of music and the specific use of musical attunement in improvisational music therapy suggests that we can help children with autism experience and develop affective skills in a social context.”  Creating music relates to the child’s expression, interest and focus of attention may evoke responses from the child to a therapist creating such relational music for them. Moreover, improvising music together is an emotionally engaging process. Music can be an attractive medium, allowing the child his/her own space and the choice of objects, at the same time engaging the child with different objects of the therapist’s choice.
Of course, this “exploratory” study has limitations.  For example, the small sample makes any generalizable conclusion premature. The test power is low and should be considered when interpreting the results. Likewise, the small sample limits the relevance of subgroup analyses (language, age, severity) as well as therapists’ effects which would be helpful to understanding how children with different developmental needs respond to this type of intervention different therapists.
Conclusion
The results of this exploratory study found significant evidence supporting the value of music therapy in promoting social, emotional and motivational development in autistic children. The findings highlight the importance of social-motivational aspects of musical interaction between the child and the therapist, the therapeutic potential of such aspects in improvisational music therapy, and the relative value of less directed and more child centered approaches for children with autism. The authors conclude, “Both previous and the current study indicate that we should use music within the child’s focus of attention, behavioral cue and interests, whether it is improvised or precomposed. A future study should perhaps look at the differential effect on response of improvised and precomposed music with young children with autism.”

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