Tag Archives: research

RESISTANCE: Scientists go rogue on Twitter in defiance of Trump

Employees from more than a dozen U.S. government agencies have established a network of unofficial “rogue” Twitter feeds in defiance of what they see as attempts by President Donald Trump to muzzle federal climate change research and other science.

Seizing on Trump’s favorite mode of discourse, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and other bureaus have privately launched Twitter accounts — borrowing names and logos of their agencies — to protest restrictions they view as censorship and provide unfettered platforms for information the new administration has curtailed.

“Can’t wait for President Trump to call us FAKE NEWS,” one anonymous National Park Service employee posted on the newly opened Twitter account @AltNatParkService.

“You can take our official twitter, but you’ll never take our free time!”

The @RogueNASA account displayed an introductory disclaimer describing it as “The unofficial ‘Resistance’ team of NASA. Not an official NASA account.”

It beckoned readers to follow its feed “for science and climate news and facts. REAL NEWS, REAL FACTS.”

The swift proliferation of such tweets by government rank-and-file followed internal directives several agencies involved in environmental issues have received since Trump’s inauguration requiring them to curb their dissemination of information to the public.

Last week, Interior Department staff were told to stop posting on Twitter after an employee re-tweeted posts about relatively low attendance at Trump’s swearing-in, and about how material on climate change and civil rights had disappeared from the official White House website.

Employees at the EPA and the departments of Interior, Agriculture and Health and Human Services have since confirmed seeing notices from the new administration either instructing them to remove web pages or limit how they communicate to the public, including through social media.

The restrictions have reinforced concerns that Trump, a climate change skeptic, is out to squelch federally backed research showing that emissions from fossil fuel combustion and other human activities are contributing to global warming.

The resistance movement gained steam on Tuesday when a series of climate change-related tweets were posted to the official Twitter account of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, administered under the Interior Department, but were soon deleted.

A Park Service official later said those tweets came from a former employee no longer authorized to use the official account and that the agency was being encouraged to use Twitter to post public safety and park information only, and to avoid national policy issues.

Within hours, unofficial “resistance” or “rogue” Twitter accounts began sprouting up, emblazoned with the government logos of the agencies where they worked, the list growing to at least 14 such sites by Wednesday afternoon.

An account dubbed @ungaggedEPA invited followers to visit its feeds of “ungagged news, links, tips and conversation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unable to tell you,” adding that it was “Not directly affiliated with @EPA.”

U.S. environmental employees were soon joined by similar “alternative” Twitter accounts originating from various science and health agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Weather Service.

Many of their messages carried Twitter hashtags #resist or #resistance.

An unofficial Badlands National Park account called @BadHombreNPS also emerged (a reference to one of Trump’s more memorable campaign remarks about Mexican immigrants) to post material that had been scrubbed from the official site earlier.

Because the Twitter feeds were set up and posted to anonymously as private accounts, they are beyond the control of the government.

(By Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Cheetah in danger of extinction due to habitat loss

The world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah, is in danger of extinction because it is running out of space, research led by the Zoological Society of London has found.

After a sharp decline in numbers there are now just 7,100 cheetahs in the world, or 9 percent of the historic range, the ZSL, Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera study found.

In Zimbabwe, the study found, these pressures have seen the cheetah population plummet 85 percent from 1,200 to at most 170 animals in just 16 years.

Wildlife experts are calling for the big cat to be rated “endangered,” up from “vulnerable” among threatened species, to give it greater environmental protection.

Capable of sprinting up to 75 miles per hour in short bursts, the cheetah is notoriously secretive and information on its status had been difficult to gather, meaning its predicament had been overlooked, the study said.

“Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought,” said Dr Sarah Durant, who is leading the cheetah conservation programme.

The study said that cheetahs were vulnerable to several dangers such as prey loss due to overhunting, habitat loss and illegal trafficking. Added to that, more than three-quarters of cheetahs live outside protected wildlife areas and, because they roam wide, are more vulnerable.

Brexit uncertainties threaten brain drain for UK science

Like many foreign scientists in Britain, Joanna Bagniewska was devastated when Britons voted to leave the European Union. The biology lecturer, a Polish migrant who found Britain a welcoming place to build her academic career over a decade, is suddenly seeing her job security and research prospects up in the air.

“I’m worried that after my current contract finishes, one of the prerequisites could be a permanent residence card,” she said. “I’d like to apply for EU grant money, but how much longer will it be available for?”

Britain’s top universities have long been among the world’s most sought-after destinations for study and research, drawing the brightest minds from all corners of the globe. But since Britons voted in June to leave the 28-nation EU, many in the science community say the U.K. risks losing the money, the international influence — and crucially, the talent — to sustain that enviable position.

More than one-tenth of research funding at British universities has come from the EU in recent years. Some fields — such as nanotechnology and cancer research — are more dependent on EU funding than others, according to a report by technology firm Digital Science. From 2007 to 2013, Britain received 8.8 billion euros ($9.4 billion) in direct EU investment in research.

Bagniewska is not just anxious about herself — she’s upset for her students’ future too, for the opportunities that both Britons and foreigners will likely miss out on when unfettered mobility between Britain and Europe can no longer be taken for granted.

“They were just getting excited about doing their masters and Ph.Ds in other countries. And then Brexit happened and they just got trampled,” she said.

Scientists and researchers argue that being part of the EU has given British science a huge boost because it allows Britain to recruit the best talent across Europe and take part in important research collaborations and student exchanges without being constrained by national boundaries. The bloc’s freedom of movement means its 500 million people can live and work visa-free in any member state.

No one knows yet what form Britain’s exit from the EU — commonly known as Brexit — is going to take, but immigration was a key issue for “Leave” voters. Many believe some limit should be put on the number of EU citizens moving to Britain.

Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to reassert control over British borders. She has offered no firm guarantees for the rights of Europeans already living in Britain, an uncertainty that weighs heavily over the 32,000 Europeans who make up 16 percent of the academic workforce in British universities. Many universities say the rhetoric over immigration control is also jeopardizing recruitment of researchers and students from further afield.

Scientists for EU, an advocacy group, says it has received over 400 letters from researchers describing how Brexit has already impacted their life and work. Some are losing doctoral students who pulled out of studentships and job offers. Academics are putting plans to relocate to Britain on hold. One said their employer, a London university, immediately imposed a temporary hiring freeze, citing uncertainties about student recruitment and research income.

Adam Durrant, a British entrepreneur who founded an aerospace startup supplying climate data to airlines and aircraft manufacturers, says he’s now considering moving some of his business to a EU country outside of Britain. Part of the reason, he says, is that Brexit will likely make hiring the right people much harder than before.

“In the future, it probably means that people would be less interested to come to the U.K. to work,” said Durrant. “There’s a huge question mark over my company and my own personal future. I will certainly retain a U.K. presence, but my company’s focus of gravity may shift elsewhere.”

Scientists say some U.K.-based researchers are already being excluded from joint bids for EU funding to minimize the risks for their colleagues.

Paul Crowther, head of physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield, said a researcher from his department was dropped from an EU grant proposal as a precaution following the Brexit referendum. The vote “put the U.K.-based researchers in a very awkward position” and their participation in EU-funded programs could “compromise the project,” he was told.

“The erosion of U.K. involvement in EU networks has already begun, with both the U.K. and EU science worse off,” Crowther said.

Apart from a loss of grant money, Brexit will likely cause British scientists and research centers to miss out on shared databases and infrastructure.

“Large-scale efforts like studies of rare genetic diseases, the building of large facilities, are areas that multinational collaborations do much better,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist and president of Britain’s prestigious Royal Society.

The EU is an important source of research funding for Britain, which lags behind many developed countries in state investment in science. In 2014, Britain’s government spent under 0.5 percent of its GDP on research — below the European average, and half that of South Korea.

May’s government is clearly aware of the jitters. She has promised to increase annual investment in research by 2 billion pounds ($2.4 billion) by 2020, in hopes her country can remain a world leader in science and innovation.

Durrant is doubtful that’s enough to make a big difference.

“Two billion a year spread across everything isn’t going to go very far,” he said.

Similar anxieties are being felt at the undergraduate level. The 125,000 European students studying at British universities now pay the same fees as locals and have access to the same government loans. Officials have promised this will not change for those applying next year — but no one knows what will happen after that.

Fewer European students appeared to be applying for some of Britain’s most competitive university courses, including medicine and places at Oxford and Cambridge. In September, the admission service UCAS reported a 9 percent drop in EU applications for British undergraduate courses starting in 2017.

Some argue that Britain could become like Switzerland, an “associate” EU state that is opting out of free movement of people while still taking part in limited European science projects.

“It’s not all doom and gloom — but it will be harder,” Ramakrishnan said. “We could make a go of it outside the EU. But for that to happen, we have to attract talent and fund science. And those two things are critical.”

Reason to chirp: Audubon announces annual Christmas Bird Count

For the 117th year, the National Audubon Society is organizing its annual Christmas Bird Count. Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, tens of thousands of bird-loving volunteers — citizen scientists — will participate in counts across the Western Hemisphere.

The data continues to contribute to one of only two large existing pools of information notifying ornithologists and conservation biologists about what conservation action is required to protect birds and the places they need.

The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running wildlife census in the world.

Each individual count takes place in a 15-mile-wide circle and is led by a compiler responsible for organizing volunteers and submitting observations to Audubon.  Within each circle, participants tally all birds seen or heard that day — not just the species but total numbers to provide a clear idea of the health of that particular population.

“It’s never been easier to be a citizen scientist and it’s never been more important to be one,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. “Birds and the people who watch them are noticing changes. Using the data gathered by more than a century of Christmas Bird Counts, Audubon will keep protecting birds and the places they need. I’m incredibly proud of the volunteers that contribute to this tradition.”

Christmas Bird Count data have been used in more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, including Audubon’s landmark Birds and Climate Change Report, which found that more than half of the bird species in North America are threatened by a changing climate.

When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

The long term perspective is vital for conservationists, informing strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.

Last year, the 116th Christmas Bird Count included a record-setting 2,505 count circles, with 1,902 counts in the United States, 471 in Canada and 132 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands.

In total, 76,669 observers in 2015 tallied up 58,878,071 birds representing 2,607 different species — about one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna. About 5 percent of the North American landmass was surveyed by the Christmas Bird Count.

“From Alaska’s Arctic coast to Tierra del Fuego, and from Newfoundland to Los Angeles, the 117th CBC is a tradition that everyone can participate in,” said Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director. “Adding observations to more than a century of data helps scientists and conservationists observe trends that will help make our work more impactful.”

A disturbing finding from last year was the continued decline of the Northern Bobwhite, the only native quail in the eastern United States. Record low numbers of this species were observed from the Midwestern states to the Mid-Atlantic and down to Florida.

Meanwhile the Eurasian Collared-Dove, introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s from its native Europe, was observed in record high numbers from North Carolina throughout the Midwest and northward to the Great Lakes and southern Canada.

These two species are of great concern as Audubon embarks on its 117th count.

Beginning on Christmas Day in 1900, Frank M. Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore — which evolved into Audubon magazine — proposed a new holiday tradition that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

Conservation was in its beginning stages in that era, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. So began the Christmas Bird Count. 117 years later, the tradition continues and still manages to bring out the best in people.

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is a citizen science project organized by the National Audubon Society. There is no fee to participate and the quarterly report, American Birds, is available online.

Counts are open to birders of all skill levels and Audubon’s free Bird Guide app makes it even easier to chip in.

On the Web

For more about the Christmas Bird Count, go online to www.christmasbirdcount.org.

 

Circular temple to god of wind uncovered in Mexico City

Working at the site of a demolished supermarket, archaeologists dug 10 feet down to find a temple built more than 650 years ago, researchers said this week.

The circular platform, about 36 feet in diameter and four feet tall, now sits in the shadow of a shopping mall under construction. The site is believed to have been built to worship the god of wind, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, and the plans to preserve it and make it visible to the public with a large viewing window.

What archaeologists initially found below the old supermarket — shards of pottery and human remains — was expected, said Pedro Francisco Sanchez Nava, national archaeology coordinator for Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute.

But deeper down they were surprised to find the temple, which offers another example of how the Mexica-Tlatelolca people worshipped one of their principal deities, Sanchez said. Offerings found included an infant with no signs of trauma, bird bones, obsidian, maguey cactus spines and ceramic figurines of monkeys and duck bills.

The majority of the temple’s original white stucco remains intact. Archaeologist Salvador Guilliem said similar structures, round on three sides and with a rectangular platform on the fourth, have been found before, including in the same area.

The temple lies within the perimeter of a large ceremonial site in the capital’s Tlatelolco neighborhood, though much of that perimeter is invisible, covered by an urban landscape.

Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, researcher emeritus, said modern day Mexico City covers several different pre-Hispanic cities, including Tlatelolco and its rival Tenochtitlan.

Tenochtitlan was a center of political power while Tlatelolco dedicated itself to commerce, with an important market that was noted even by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. Eventually Tenochtitlan took control of Tlatelolco.

When the Spanish and their indigenous allies began conquering Tenochtitlan, residents of that city withdrew to Tlatelolco to continue the fight and Tlatelolco became the last site of resistance against the Spanish in the area.

The site of the recently uncovered temple is just yards away from where Mexican soldiers massacred protesting students in 1968.

Invasive snail blamed for hundreds of bird deaths on the Mississippi

An invasive snail is being blamed for the deaths of hundreds of waterfowl on the Mississippi River.

Close to 1,000 dead coot and lesser scaup have been found washed up on the shores near Genoa since October.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the birds are believed to have an intestinal parasite found in faucet snails, which are a food source for waterfowl.

The parasite, called trematodes, can infect the birds and cause death within three to eight days, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

“They basically came in and basically out-competed native snails,” said Roger Haro, associate dean of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s College of Science and Health. “They’ve been around for a while but they never caused a detectable problem with waterfowl.”

Since the arrival of the snail, the bird deaths have been occurring annually for the past 15 years.

Faucet snails were first discovered in the early 2000s in Lake Onalaska, and are now growing on the river between La Crescent and McGregor, Iowa.

The National Wildlife Health Center said there are no reported health risks from handling or consuming the infected waterfowl, however hunters are still advised to wear gloves. Haro said the infected birds don’t appear to threaten other species.

“It’s kind of a jolting thing for people to see all these dead birds,” Haro said. He added that he and other university scientists continue to study the snails’ behavior and the effects of temperature variations on their growth.

A scientific search for the perfect yeast for the perfect brew

Belgium famously produces hundreds of different beers, but that is nothing compared to the varieties of yeast used to make it — around 30,000 are kept on ice at just one laboratory by scientists seeking the perfect ingredient for the perfect brew.

A team from the University of Leuven and life sciences research institute VIB are examining and cross-breeding yeast strains, adding modern genetics to a search for brewing perfection that dates back centuries.

“We’re … using robots to cross different yeast like farmers have been doing with cattle and livestock for centuries,” genetics professor Kevin Verstrepen told Reuters.

“We’re now doing the same with yeast on a massive scale, making millions of new strains or variants of yeast and testing which are the better ones.”

By analyzing the chemical and genetic basis of a beer’s flavor and aroma, the scientists say they are breeding yeast strains that promote the best characteristics for a good beer.

Their work has caught the attention of commercial brewers keen to tweak their recipes to eliminate, for example, a certain smell or to speed up the fermentation process.

“We take their yeast and try to keep as much as possible of the good things and then try and make it better,” Verstrepen said.

As well as its yeast research, the lab is working on a beer database. In twice-weekly meetings, Verstrepen and his students sip and promptly spit out beers in a “technical tasting” to detect minute subtleties and differences between the taste and aroma of each brew.

Each drink, served in unmarked, identical black glasses, is evaluated and subjected to chemical analyses.

Their aim is to characterize some 250 commercially available Belgian beers, creating what Verstrepen calls a “scientific map” of beer to help drinkers select their next tipple. They plan to publish their findings in a book in the coming months.

Study: Sexist men more likely to have mental health problems

Men who behave like promiscuous playboys or feel powerful over women are more likely to have mental health problems than men with less sexist attitudes, according to a study released this week.

The analysis found links between sexist behavior and mental health issues such as depression and substance abuse, said the study which appeared in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.

“Some of these sexist masculine norms, like being a playboy and power over women, aren’t just a social injustice but they are also potentially bad for your mental health,” said Joel Wong, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University Bloomington and lead author of the study.

Its release comes on the heels of the election to the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, whose comments about women that emerged during the election campaign were condemned by many as sexist and misogynist.

The research synthesized results of more than 70 U.S.-based studies involving more than 19,000 men over 11 years.

This involved looking at 11 norms generally considered by experts to reflect society’s expectations of traditional masculinity including a desire to win, risk-taking and pursuit of status, Wong said.

The traits, or norms, most closely linked to mental health problems were playboy behavior, or sexual promiscuity, power over women and self-reliance, he said.

“Men who have trouble asking for directions when they’re lost, that’s a classic example of self-reliance,” Wong said.

Also, men who exhibited those attitudes were also less likely to seek mental health treatment, the study said.

The researchers said there was one dimension for which they were unable to find any significant effects.

“Primacy of work was not significantly associated with any of the mental health-related outcomes,” said Wong in a statement.

“Perhaps this is a reflection of the complexity of work and its implications for well-being. An excessive focus on work can be harmful to one’s health and interpersonal relationships, but work is also a source of meaning for many individuals.”

 Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Published via  Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org.

Pop consumption falls beyond expectations after soda tax

As voters consider soda taxes in four cities, a new study finds that some Berkeley neighborhoods slashed sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by more than one-fifth after the Northern California city enacted the nation’s first soda tax.

Berkeley voters in 2014 levied a penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks to try to curb consumption and stem the rising tide of diabetes and obesity.

After the tax took effect in March 2015, residents of at least two neighborhoods reported drinking 21 percent less of all sugar-sweetened beverages and 26 percent less soda than they had the year before, according to the report in the October American Journal of Public Health.

“From a public health perspective, that is a huge impact. That is an intervention that’s more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen aimed at changing someone’s dietary behavior,” senior author Dr. Kristine Madsen said in a telephone interview.

Madsen, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley, said the drop in sugary drink consumption surpassed her expectations, though it was consistent with consumption declines in low-income neighborhoods in Mexico after it imposed a nationwide tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The Berkeley results also pleasantly surprised Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

“I hadn’t expected the effects to be so dramatic,” she said in an email. “This is substantial evidence that soda taxes work.”

The soda industry has spent millions of dollars defeating taxes on sugary drinks in dozens of U.S. cities. But the tax passed easily — with 76 percent of the vote — in Berkeley. In addition to soda, the measure covers sweetened fruit-flavored drinks, energy drinks like Red Bull and caffeinated drinks like Frappuccino iced coffee. Diet beverages are exempt.

In June, the Philadelphia City Council enacted its own tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax is set to take effect in January, although soda trade groups have sued to try to block the measure.

Meanwhile, voters in Boulder, Colorado and the Bay Area cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Albany will vote on whether to tax their sugary beverages on Nov. 8.

San Francisco voters also considered a soda tax in 2014, but it failed to garner a two-thirds majority needed for approval.

Public health officials and politicians point to the Berkeley study as proof of the power of an excise tax to wean people off sweetened drinks.

“The study is another tool highlighting how effective a tax on sugary beverages will be on changing the consumption rate,” San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen told Reuters Health.

“Just like tobacco, these are commodities we can live without that are killing us,” she said. Cohen wrote the San Francisco ballot measure.

Researchers surveyed 873 adults in Berkeley and 1,806 adults in nearby San Francisco and Oakland before and a few months after imposition of the soda tax.

Sweetened beverage consumption increased slightly in San Francisco and Oakland at the same time it dropped in Berkeley, the study showed. In Berkeley, water consumption spiked 63 percent, compared to 19 percent in San Francisco and Oakland, after the tax took effect.

The researchers attributed the surge in water consumption to a heat wave. But the American Beverage Association saw it as example of the study’s flaws.

In a statement, Brad Williams, an economist working for the trade group, criticized the research for using “unreliable and imprecise methodology” and producing “implausible” results.

The association’s criticism may hold grains of truth, Nestle said. But she largely dismissed it. “Obviously, the ABA is going to attack the results. That’s rule number one in the playbook: cast doubt on the science,” she said.

Public health experts believe soda helped drive American obesity rates to among the highest in the world. The U.S. spent an estimated $190 billion treating obesity-related conditions in 2012.

Diabetes rates have almost tripled over the past three decades, while sugary beverage consumption doubled.

Studying autism in girls may help reveal the disorder’s secrets

Think autism and an image of an awkward boy typically emerges, but the way autism strikes girls — or doesn’t — may help reveal some of the developmental disorder’s frustrating secrets.

Autism is at least four times more common in boys, but scientists taking a closer look are finding some gender-based surprises: Many girls with autism have social skills that can mask the condition. And some girls do not show symptoms of autism even when they have the same genetic mutations seen in boys with the condition.

“Autism may not be the same thing in boys and girls,” said Kevin Pelphrey, an autism researcher at George Washington University.

The causes of autism aren’t known. Genetic mutations are thought to play a role, and outside factors including older parents and premature birth also may be factors. But the gender effect is now a hot topic in autism research and one that could lead to new ways of diagnosing and treating a condition that affects at least 1 in 68 U.S. children.

 

WHAT SCIENCE SHOWS

Brain imaging suggests there may be an additional explanation for why many girls with autism have more subtle symptoms than boys, Pelphrey said. Even in girls who clearly have autism, he said, brain regions involved in social behavior that are normally affected are less severely impaired.

Also, recent studies on autism-linked genes have found that girls can have the same kinds of genetic mutations seen in boys with autism, but not show symptoms. They “even need to have twice as many mutations on average to actually manifest with autism,” said Joseph Buxbaum, director of an autism center at Mount Sinai medical school in New York.

He is among researchers trying to identify a “protective factor” that may explain how some girls at genetic risk remain unaffected — perhaps a protein or other biological marker that could be turned into a drug or other therapy to treat or even prevent autism.

That possibility is likely a long way off, but Pelphrey said this line of research has prompted excitement among autism scientists.

 

AUTISM SISTERS PROJECT

Buxbaum is involved in the Autism Sisters Project, which is seeking to enroll hundreds of families with autistic sons but unaffected daughters. The project began last year with the goal of building a big database that scientists can use to look for genetic clues and protective factors. Girls and their families visit the New York lab to give saliva samples for DNA analysis and efforts are underway to expand DNA collection to other sites.

Evee Bak, 15, hopes her samples will eventually benefit her older brother Tommy. The suburban Philadelphia siblings are just a year apart. They play in a garage band — Evee on drums, Tommy on guitar and vocals. He’s a masterful musician, but has trouble reading social cues and doing things that come easy to other teens, like shopping alone or using public transportation.

Her focus is “taking care of Tommy and making sure he’s happy and healthy,” Evee said.

Tommy was diagnosed at age 3, after he stopped using words he’d learned months earlier and showed unusual behavior including repetitively lining up toys instead of playing with them.

“He’s a wonderful person and I don’t think that we’d ever want to change him,” said his mother, Erin Lopes. But they’d welcome anything that could help him function as independently as possible “because I think that’s what he really wants, is to be independent.”

 

MAKING A DIAGNOSIS

Autism is diagnosed by observing behavior, there’s no blood test for it. Some experts say gender-based differences highlight a need to develop different ways to evaluate boys and girls.

Autism screening, recommended for kids starting at 18 months, uses tools based on research in autistic boys, said Rachel Loftin, clinical director of an autism center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

One widely used screening questionnaire for parents includes questions like “Does your child play make-believe, make eye contact, seek praise, show interest in other children?” Girls with autism, especially mild cases, often don’t show obvious problems in those categories _ they’re more likely than affected boys to play pretend with toys rather than lining them up by size or shape. Loftin said they’re also more likely to show concern for another person’s feelings.

Government data show that all forms of autism, mild to severe, are more common in boys and that the average age at diagnosis is 4 years in boys and girls. But Loftin said anecdotal evidence suggests a two-year lag time in diagnosis for girls, especially those with mild cases. And she suspects many cases are missed or misdiagnosed. That means a delay in early intensive behavior therapy that is the main treatment for autism.

Some girls manage to camouflage symptoms until pressures to fit in at school become overwhelming, delaying diagnosis until around age 8 or 9, said Alycia Halladay, chief science officer at the Autism Science Foundation, a nonprofit educational and research-funding group which is paying for the Sisters Project.

The prominent autism advocate, professor and author Temple Grandin wasn’t fully verbal until age 4.ß “It was obvious something was drastically wrong with me,” Grandin said. But she said she learned to adapt, in part because with “1950’s parenting” she was faced with intense encouragement to develop social skills and other talents.

 

PARENTS’ CONCERNS

Allison Klein worried about her daughter, Jillian, for three years before the little girl was finally diagnosed with mild autism. Jillian couldn’t tolerate loud noises, she grew withdrawn around her preschool classmates and she lagged behind academically. She was labeled anxious, not autistic.

“She didn’t meet the stereotypical behaviors of no eye contact, no communication, hand flapping,” Klein said. Teachers and doctors suggested she was just shy and would grow out of it.

A few months ago, just before Jillian turned 6, Loftin confirmed Klein’s concerns.

Even Pelphrey, the autism researcher, had a similar experience. His daughter, Frances, was diagnosed almost four years after her behavior raised concerns. She didn’t walk or talk until she was almost 3 years old. She tried to be “cuddly” and interact with others, but sometimes she did so awkwardly.

“Nobody really wanted to make the call,” Pelphrey said. “Had she been a boy, there would have been much more pressure to look into it.”

 

On the Web

CDC & Autism: http://tinyurl.com/zarznp2