Researchers, advocates rush to aid autistic Ukrainians

by Laura Dattaro

Starting over: A child who fled Ukraine with her family attends school in Romania. The war in Ukraine has displaced millions of children, including those with autism, who now need services in unfamiliar countries. Andreea Campeanu / Getty Images

Two months ago, a two-story peach-colored building with a playground housed a kindergarten for 30 autistic children in Kyiv, Ukraine. But since Russia attacked the country on 24 February, the structure has served instead as a shelter, with the families who once received therapy and an education there — and the therapists themselves — now taking advantage of its secure basement, kitchen and food storage. All autism-related services, save for a few online sessions, have stopped. (For the group’s safety, Spectrum is not naming the center.)

The director of the foundation that runs the center, Iryna Sergiyenko, has pivoted too: Instead of running a school, she’s fielding requests from dozens of families with autistic children who need help and have, in many cases, fled Ukraine, as she has. Through messaging apps and a Facebook group she set up called ‘Ukraine autism HELP,’ Sergiyenko — who has an autistic younger brother — responds to a litany of common pleas: Will there be autism services where I am going? How do I explain why we left, and why my child’s father stayed behind? Are there any therapists who speak Ukrainian where I am?

She is one of many autism professionals scrambling to address the needs of Ukrainian autistic people whose lives have been upended. Across Europe and elsewhere, many have opened up their schools, connected families with therapists who speak Ukrainian, and collected medications and autism-friendly toys. They are raising money to support families or, like Sergiyenko, keep the lights on somewhere. One of the mothers Sergiyenko helped left for Bulgaria, noticed a lack of autism services there and immediately started organizing providers, with Sergiyenko’s support.

“That’s what we do,” Sergiyenko says. “We don’t like to sit still.”

“The biggest concern is that our kids really have fewer resources to cope, and in some cases lesser ability to understand what’s happening,” she says. Read more

Null and Noteworthy: Autism and aging, anorexia overlaps, pregnancy effects

by Lauren Dattaro

 

Fortunately, many replications and null findings are making their way into journals — so many, in fact, that this newsletter will now be published monthly, rather than every other month. So keep an eye out for the next edition in March. In the meantime, thanks, as always, for your feedback, and please continue to send your thoughts, ideas, interesting studies and cat photos to laura@spectrumnews.org.

Aging up:
Though much autism research focuses on early development, scientists are increasingly working to understand how the brain may age differently in autistic and non-autistic people. A new study set out to replicate a pair of findings from 2015 and 2016. Both found that autistic adults lost many cognitive faculties at the same rate as non-autistic adults but retained more of their working and visual memory and ability to intuit others’ feelings, suggesting that autism has a ‘protective effect’ on aging.

Not so, according to the new study, which looked at 88 autistic and 88 non-autistic people between 30 and 89 years of age and was led by one of the co-investigators of the 2015 work. The team replicated nearly all of the previous findings — suggesting that autistic adults are not at any increased risk for cognitive difficulties as they age — but saw no evidence of the previously observed protective effect.

The work was published in Autism Research in December.