We will end this week’s news with two really interesting reports about some old topics. The first, from Medical News Today, reports that certain minority children with autism may experience even more severe delays in language and gross motor skills. As we strive to find ways to detect autism earlier on, these differences may play and important role in differentiated diagnosis and treatment. Next, we revisit the idea of handwriting and, more specifically, penmanship. A report from Florida International University’s Laura Dinehart to be published in the Journal of Early Childhood Education and Development looks that the penmanship of 1,000 2nd graders in Miami-Dade County’s Public Schools. Dinehart found that those children who had an ease about their writing performed better in both reading and math assessments. In an era of iPads for all, some back-to-basics curriculum elements such as handwriting may prove more beneficial than we first thought. Minority Toddlers with Autism May Be More Delayed than Affected Caucasian Peers From Medical News Today The first prospective study of ethnic differences in the symptoms of autism in toddlers shows that children from a minority background have more delayed language, communication and gross motor skills than Caucasian children with the disorder. Researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute concluded that subtle developmental delays may be going unaddressed in minority toddlers until more severe symptoms develop. While the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) does not differ across racial and ethnic groups, some studies have shown that children of African American, Hispanic and Asian descent are less likely to receive an early diagnosis of autism than Caucasian children. In this new study, Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, investigated whether the symptoms of autism in toddlers play a role in this disparity in diagnosis as part of her work to improve access, education and outreach to minority communities. "We found the toddlers in the minority group were significantly further behind than the non-minority group in development of language and motor skills and showed more severe autism symptoms in their communication abilities," says Landa, whose study included children and parents of African American, Asian and Hispanic descent. "It's really troubling when we look at these data alongside diagnosis statistics because they suggest that children in need of early detection and intervention are not getting it." (Visit this online discussion with Dr. Landa for more in-depth information.) The study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Epub ahead of print), examined development in 84 toddlers with ASD at an average 26-28 months of age using three standardized instruments that evaluate child development. Children were evaluated by their caregivers using the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales Developmental Caregiver Questionnaire (CSBS-DP CQ) and by research clinicians using the Mullen Scales of Early Learning and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Generic (ADOS). After controlling for participants' socioeconomic status, all three tools indicated a significant difference between minority and non-minority children. Previous studies published by Dr. Landa and her colleagues at Kennedy Krieger show that detection of ASD is possible at as early as 14 months of age. While early diagnosis is crucial for accessing intervention services, studies examining children from minority groups suggest considerable delays in the diagnosis of ASD in these children relative to their Caucasian peers. Dr. Landa points to cultural differences in what communities perceive as typical and atypical development in young children, the relationships between families and respected community physicians, and the stigma that some cultures place on disability as areas where education and awareness could have meaningful impact. "Addressing cultural influences gives us a clear target to improve service delivery to minority children, but these findings may also suggest biological and other culturally-related differences between Caucasian and minority children with autism," says Landa. "There are other complex diseases that present differently in different ethnic groups and more research is needed to investigate this possibility." The findings of this research prompted Dr. Landa and her team to begin a study that will document the age at which minority parents first noticed signs of developmental disruption in their children, the specific nature of the behavior that concerned them, and the children's intervention history. Additional research is also needed to study group-specific differences in the presentation of autism symptoms between a variety of minority groups. "Although questions remain on why these differences exist, by taking steps to develop more culturally-sensitive screening and assessment practices, with a special focus on educating parents, clinicians and health educators, I believe we can empower parents to identify early warning signs and ensure minority children have the same access to services as their Caucasian peers," says Landa. Good Handwriting and Good Grades: FIU Researcher Finds New Link By J. Prenaud, writing for FIU News Who cares about handwriting, anyway? It’s the 21st century, after all. We have iPads and iPhones, computers that spell check and fonts that go from French script to Freestyle and back to Times New Roman. But to Laura Dinehart, an assistant professor at Florida International University’s College of Education, handwriting matters. A lot. In research funded by the Children’s Trust and soon to be published in the Journal of Early Childhood Education and Development, Dinehart discovered that 4-year-olds who demonstrate strong handwriting skills are more likely to excel academically in elementary school. Research on the importance of handwriting is just beginning to emerge, and Dinehart’s findings establish a new link in understanding how penmanship plays a role in a child’s academic development. We talk about reading, we talk about math, but no one talks about handwriting,” Dinehart said. “It’s not even a subject area in many classrooms anymore. We don’t ask kids to spend time on their handwriting, when in fact, the research is clear that kids who have greater ease in writing have better academic skills in 2nd grade in both reading and math.” Dinehart took a sample of 1,000 2nd grade students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and linked their grades and academic scores back to the information gathered from them when they were still in pre-kindergarten. Students who received good grades on fine motor writing tasks in pre-k had an average GPA of 3.02 in math and 2.84 in reading – B averages. Those who did poorly on the fine motor writing tasks in pre-k had an average GPA of 2.30 in math and 2.12 in Reading – C averages. More impressively, those who did well on the fine motor writing tasks in pre-k scored in the 59th percentile on the Reading SAT in second grade (just above average) and in the 62nd percentile on the Math SAT. Kids who did poorly on the fine motor writing tasks in pre-k scored in the 38th percentile on the Reading SAT in second grade and in the 37nd percentile on the Math SAT. There is still much research to be done, and many questions to answer. What exactly is happening when a child’s academic performance improves when his or her handwriting is practiced? Exactly how much practice is necessary before results are seen? Dinehart will attempt to answer those questions in the second part of her research. However, one thing is clear. “People should take a second look at how important handwriting might actually be,” she said. “And public schools should rethink how much they focus on handwriting in the classroom and how those skills can really improve reading and math.”
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