The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • Toy Marketing for Girls: Then and Now
    Jan. 20, 2014 Rachel Ehmke

    We keep hearing that men and women are more equal than they've ever been, but the way toys are marketed to kids seems weirdly out of step. In fact, a recent story on the Huffington Post comparing modern ads with those from the 80s and 90s shows that advertising is actually becoming more stereotyped.

    The post begins with a refreshing Lego ad from 1981 that is simple and gender neutral—just a girl playing with an ordinary set of Legos. It's contrasted with the feminized "Lego Friends" set that came out in 2011.

    Some of the ads are for toys that have always been targeted to girls; others are for toys that used to be gender-free. All of them have changed radically. Hollie Hobbie has gone from pioneer patchwork to mall-ready shrunken tee and Strawberry Shortcake has gotten a hair, face, and body transplant. Troll dolls have turned into teenage vixens. Even My Little Pony has gotten flirty. The examples go on—Et tu, Lisa Frank? The oddest is perhaps a new version of Candyland featuring the character who used to be called Queen Frostine—she was demoted to Princess Frostine after 2002—wearing fishnet stockings with swirly clouds that accentuate her bust.

    The earlier ads are definitely a lot more childlike. The characters have baby fat and aren't sexy—at all. In contrast, the newer ads have a sexual precociousness that's being marketed directly to the young girls who are going to be most vulnerable to them. What kid doesn't want to be more grown up? Who doesn't want to be sexier?

    Gender dynamics aside, it's also worth pointing out that the old Lego ad was for a universal building set of blocks that kids could use to make whatever they dreamed up. The new ad is for kits to build specific things that were designed by adults. Kids get to follow the directions—if they can. One mother in the comments section of the article writes that she misses the creativity and lack of expectations that Lego used to come with. Kids like the kits, but they're intimidating for them, she says. In her experience parents end up doing the actual building. "Trust me I have fun doing it, just wish it was her doing it and having the fun," she wrote.  

    Like the bizarrely sexy Candyland game, this seems like just another example of kids not really being ready for the things that are marketed to them. Wouldn't it be better for kids to be learning and playing with toys actually designed for their developmental stage? Unfortunately I think it's going to be a tough sell.

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  • Speech Out of Sync for Autistics
    Jan. 16, 2014 Beth Arky

    A new autism study out of Vanderbilt University is getting a ringing endorsement both from parents and those on the spectrum. For the first time, researchers have found that autistic children seem to have trouble integrating sight and sound information.  

    While a speaker's mouth movements and words go together for a typically developing person, the researchers found in many autistics there's a delay between what they see and what they hear. "It's as if they're watching a badly dubbed movie where the words and the pictures don't match up," according to a report on The CBS Evening News.

    Mark Wallace, lead author of the study, told ScienceDaily, "one of the classic pictures of children with autism is they have their hands over their ears. We believe that one reason for this may be that they are trying to compensate for their changes in sensory function by simply looking at one sense at a time. This may be a strategy to minimize the confusion between the senses."

    Wallace's team has developed a video game aimed at helping autistic kids practice putting sight and sound together by speeding up delayed auditory processing. Perhaps the researcher's most startling suggestion is that not only is sensory integration a real issue with autistic kids—it is perhaps the central core deficit that gives rise to classic autism symptoms like impaired language and social communication.

    Wallace notes that while "there is a huge amount of effort and energy going into the treatment of children with autism, virtually none of it is based on a strong empirical foundation tied to sensory function. If we can fix this deficit in early sensory function, then maybe we can see benefits in language and communication and social interactions."

    Blogger Rachel Kenyon, who was diagnosed on the spectrum as an adult and has a 7-year-old daughter also on the spectrum, says the study is on-target.

    While she was thought to be typically developing growing up, Kenyon says, "It seemed that I was always a step behind socially or conversationally." She now watches TV with closed captioning, finding that "I can keep up much more easily with processing the events, emotions, and actions taking place on the screen."

    She has also come to realize that she developed compensatory skills so she could understand conversations: One involves finding a visual point to focus on other than the person's mouth while they are speaking. "For instance," she says, "I might choose to stare at a speaker's freckle or piece of jewelry so that I can use the remaining mental focus on listening, interpreting and constructing appropriate responses." It's easy to see how this could be viewed as the lack of of eye contact common in kids and adults on the spectrum.

    Kenyon says of the study, "Any time we can broadly share and explain just one aspect of autism in plainly understood language, such as this study does, is a step closer to acceptance. As we move closer to acceptance and understanding, we move proportionally closer to developing educational approaches and technological advances that can help autistics such as my daughter and even myself improve quality of life."

    Joslyn Gray, another autism mom who blogs at stark. raving. mad. mommy., agrees. "I'm so excited about this research," she says. "I'll be following this to learn more about therapies that help kids learn to close that gap that makes audio and visual input out of sync for them. But more importantly, I'm excited about helping neurotypical people understand my daughter's experience."

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  • Do MTV Reality Shows Reduce Teen Pregnancies?
    Jan. 14, 2014 Caroline Miller

    A surprising study, reported in the New York Times this week, suggests that those MTV reality series about teen moms, much criticized for glamorizing teenage parenthood, may have actually helped reduce the teen pregnancy rates in areas where they were watched.

    A lot of people are scratching their heads at the notion that shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom could really dissuade other girls from following in the footsteps of their protagonists. Yes, they show how tough it can be to have a child when you're not yet out of high school, but they've also made tabloid stars of their young moms. Isn't the message that pregnancy can get you on a very popular MTV show counter-productive in itself?

    Perhaps not. Researchers correlated birth records and Nielsen television ratings after 16 and Pregnant debuted in 2009, and found the rate of teenage pregnancy dropping faster in areas where teenagers were watching more MTV programming. They calculated that the programs reduced the teenage birthrate by nearly 6 percent.

    Whether or not the science holds up it reminds me of the most important thing I learned as the editor in chief of Seventeen magazine many years ago—that girls are more open to learning from other girls than from adults, who they often feel just don't understand what it's like to be them. The best way to communicate information, we found, was to have girls tell their stories.

    And the power of those stories is now amplified by social media, where a story can start a conversation. The researchers on this study also found that postings and Internet searches about contraception rose sharply when the show was broadcast.

    As one Washington teenager tells the Times, it can be more powerful than sex ed, because it's more personal. "Watching 'Teen Mom,' you're close to the characters. You're watching them go through their day. You're seeing what different aspects of life are like with a child. I don't know how else you could get to know something like that."

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  • Against 'Competitive Mindfulness'
    Jan. 13, 2014 Caroline Miller

    There's a good piece on mindful parenting over at Slate today—not about how to be a mindful parent, but about how annoying it is when the notion of mindfulness is turned into another thing "good" parents are supposed to aspire to. Mindfulness has become so trendy that anxious parents are basically adding it to the list of attributes they need to instill in their children.

    Practicing mindfulness, Hannah Rosin writes, can be great, if it really means stepping off the treadmill more often and giving the kids a break, too. But she doesn't see that happening. And if parental perfectionism and overscheduling are what's causing the stress, does it really help much to add yoga class?

    Rosin warns against competitive mindfulnessthe idea that to be truly successful your kids need to become not only scholars and athletes and entrepreneurs-in-the-making but fully grounded human beings, in touch with their feelings, and expert at letting stress roll off their backs. And to be successful parents, you need to be able to model the kind of calm you want them to achieve. Who can live up to that?

    "The last thing American parents need are more goals that they are failing to meet," she writes. Then "'breathe' and 'live in the moment' are just two more things you didn't get to that day."


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  • Open Science and Big Data in Brain Research Hit the Front Page
    Jan. 9, 2014 Michael P. Milham, MD, PhD

    The recent article by James Gorman in the New York Times draws attention to an exciting new era of neuroscience and the increasingly bold efforts of scientists to unravel the mysteries of the brain with technological, methodological, and analytic advances. Clearly appreciating the enthusiasm of the field, Gorman also does an excellent job of tempering ambitions and expectations with sobering realities. The task at hand—mapping the human brain in high detail—is massive, and not one that any single scientist, laboratory, institution or discipline can take on single-handedly. The neuroscience of the 21st century is emerging as a "team science," encompassing a broad array of disciplines (e.g., psychology, psychiatry, engineering, mathematics, statistics) and necessitating active, open collaboration.

    In this regard, the Child Mind Institute, along with the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, have worked and will continue to work to foster global collaboration. Our sponsorship and support of open data-sharing efforts such as the 1000 Functional Connectomes Project and its International Neuroimaging Data-sharing Initiative (INDI), has encouraged the aggregation and open sharing of brain images from more than 5,000 individuals independently collected from 50+ sites around the world. Attracting engaged interest from scientists in more than 80 countries and 2000 cities, these efforts have provided the global scientific community with the data necessary to rapidly make leaps forward in our understanding of disorders such as ADHD, autism and schizophrenia, and how to better diagnose them using brain imaging.

    Equally important, these two institutions have partnered in an effort funded by the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) to image the human connectome in clinical and non-clinical populations across the lifespan (ages 6-85), openly sharing the data with scientists around the world as it is collected. It is our hope that other institutions around the world will follow this example, and openly share the data as it is generated—not years after collection and publication.

    Importantly, as highlighted by the recent NIH Brain Initiative, open data-sharing is not enough to unravel the mysteries of the brain or the debilitating effects of mental illness on healthy brain function. The field requires tools capable of bringing down the barriers to entry for studies of the human connectome, and supporting the processing of large-scale, 'Big Data' samples. In this regard, the Child Mind Institute, in collaboration with the Nathan Klein Institute, is actively working to develop and share analytic tools for the examination of the human connectome.

    We are proud to be in the company of pioneers like those discussed in Gorman's article. One of his subjects, Dr. Deanna Barch, sums up our shared ethos pretty well. She is quoted: "The amount of time and energy we're spending collecting this data, there's no possible way any one research group could ever use it to the extent that justifies the cost. But letting everybody use it—great!"

    Michael P. Milham, MD, PhD, is director of the Center for the Developing Brain at the Child Mind Institute and a research psychiatrist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research.

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  • Dyslexic Jamie Oliver Struggled With Stigma
    Jan. 6, 2014 Beth Arky

    Boyish TV chef Jamie Oliver is slicing and dicing his British grammar school, saying he was labeled, stigmatized and teased for needing extra help with his dyslexia.

    Both Oliver and Jimmy Doherty, a friend and organic farmer who shares the bill on his new TV show, Jamie And Jimmy's Friday Night Feast, were in the special-needs program at their school in Newport, Essex.

    Oliver, now 38, recalls, "While we were at school, I struggled. Imagine a boys' school. Thirty boys in the middle of English, bang bang bang on the door, 'Can we have Jimmy and Jamie for special needs?' Just us two out of our class."

    Cue the other children, who would sing "Special Needs" to the tune of "Let it Be" as the pair left the room.

    The experience left a scar. Oliver says he's "not a good reader. I've always tried to read a book and given up after the first page." In fact, it was only last year that he completed his first novel, Catching Fire in The Hunger Games trilogy, after he'd seen the film and because his daughter had "probably read 2,000 books in her lifetime. "I read this book and got completely hooked. I understood for the first time that it could be a joy."

    Oliver credits his success to something other than book learning. "I was rubbish in school but I was always very physical. That's what it's about. Get up and do something. Go out and set up a stall making the best cappuccinos, if that's what you want to do." At a time when schools are having kids sit more and move less when many need the exact opposite, Oliver's words take on particular import.

    We'd like to think things have improved for special-needs students since Oliver's school days. At least in the United States, inclusion allows for a large number of special-needs students to remain in class with dedicated special-needs teachers, while therapists and learning specialists often "push in"­—meaning they come into the classroom to work with kids, rather than pull them out.

    However, we know stigma remains, especially when special-needs students are in segregated programs and schools. Parents, educators and students all need to do their part to understand and accept differences so that everyone has a good shot at a positive school experience­.

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  • Another 'Parenthood' Character Is Autistic
    Jan. 3, 2014 Beth Arky

    Last night's Parenthood confirmed many fans' speculation about Hank, the photographer who took Aspie Max under his wing last season. As happens with many adults on the spectrum, he discovered his own autism trying to understand the boy he dubbed "Mad Max."

    It all started when Max felt Hank had broken a promise to him and had a full-fledged meltdown in the studio, flinging equipment as he ran out. Some might have written Max off after such an outburst, but Hank has always seemed to "get" the boy. Unfazed, Hank followed him home and expressed his concern to Max's parents, Kristina and Adam.

    Later, Adam gave Hank a book about Asperger's, hoping it might help him better understand Max. The book did much more than that. In a heart-wrenching scene, an increasingly agitated Hank is seen circling and marking countless passages and pages in the book.

    This leads him to former girlfriend Sarah—who also happens to be Max's aunt. He starts grilling her: "Listen, do I not pick up on cues? ... social cues, like Max?" She's confused. 

     "I was reading this book... for the kid and all of a sudden, I'm not reading about the kid anymore—I'm reading about me," Hank explains. "This book is describing me. Difficulty expressing emotions, insensitive to nonverbal cues of others, taking directions literally, trouble reading between the lines, uncomfortable with eye contact. I'm seeing my life here, I'm seeing my life!" He starts to wonder if his autism isn't behind his divorce, the loss of big jobs, problems with his daughter, and even his failed relationship with Sarah.

    Often, one or both parents of an autistic child realize that they, too, are on the spectrum, either by self-diagnosis or an official Dx. (While researchers have yet to nail down a genetic component to autism, it is seen running in families.)

    Hank's epiphany also says a lot about how adults like Dan Aykroyd and Susan Boyle are being diagnosed late. Asperger's wasn't even a standardized diagnosis until the late 1990s, only to be eradicated from the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the U.S. psychiatrists' bible.

    By the end of the episode, it seemed that Hank was coming to terms with his autism as he and Max made peace. Hank may have learned more social graces and self-control over the years, but he still has much in common with his prodigy.

    It was a heartwarming moment. Everyone needs friends who "get" them. Who better to get Max than a fellow Aspie?

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  • A Mom Turns a Holiday Mess Into a Memorable Escape
    Jan. 3, 2014 Caroline Miller

    We spend a lot of time thinking about how to foster resilience in children, but we don't talk as much as we should about resilience in parents. With that in mind I can't resist sharing a lovely piece by our friend and writer Beth Arky about her recent holidays.

    Beth was planning to take her 10-year-old son to visit her family in St. Louis for the holidays, but just before the trip she injured her ankle. Like most of us would, she tried to ignore it until the pain finally drove her to the doctor, where she learned she had a fracture. Hobbling from one doctor's office to the other was bad enough—why does it start raining and all the cabs disappear just when you need one desperately?—but then her aging relatives thought better of hosting a very active boy with his mom not 100 percent, and the trip was postponed.

    So Beth, worried about how disappointed her son would be, came up with a Plan B that she could manage with little mobility and would delight a child who adores nothing more than a swimming pool and room service. Let's just say it wasn't the Ritz Carlton, but it afforded a lot of fun and unexpected encounters.

    I'm not going to give away the details, but Beth, who writes with candor and humor on a blog called The Water Is Wide, rebounded from her disaster with awesome ingenuity, and the result was memorable for both mother and son.

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  • What We Are Missing in the Rush to ADHD Diagnoses
    Dec. 30, 2013 Caroline Miller

    Of all the people worrying in print lately about overdiagnosis of ADHD, I think Daniela Drake, writing on Salon, has the most important thing to say. A doctor and the mother of a son who was wrongly diagnosed with ADHD, she admits to being credulous when she was told that her son had the disorder, and, frankly, seeing a lot of other kids who looked like they had it, too. "I'd see students bouncing off the walls," she writes, "and think, 'They should medicate that kid.' "

    But the medication didn't help her son, and more testing eventually revealed that he had an auditory processing disorder and a severe milk allergy that left him fatigued and unfocused. And she was wrong about the other kids, too. "That child I saw bouncing off the walls had something called a sensory processing disorder. Another had visual developmental problems. Yet another had celiac disease. And all of them were at one point wrongly diagnosed with ADHD."

    What concerns Dr. Drake the most is that kids who are being quickly and sloppily diagnosed with ADHD may have other very real problems that are causing their inattention or acting out in school. She mentions learning disorders, sensory processing issues, visual challenges, food allergies. I would add trauma, problems at home, and anxiety—a common cause of inattention and disruptive behavior.

    Dr. Drake's point is that while ADHD has been widely publicized by the pharma companies, many pediatricians, social workers, teachers, and parents don't know enough about other possible problems that could be causing their children's behaviors. "The only thing we've all ever heard of is ADHD, so these other disorders aren't even considered."

    I would also add that it's in school that the majority kids are flagged for having problems with inattention and hyperactivity, by teachers who are under growing pressure to keep kids from falling behind. Many are diagnosed by overworked pediatricians who see ADHD meds as the only thing they have to offer struggling students whose families don't have the resources for more costly diagnosis and treatment.

    When we see those shocking numbers of kids being diagnosed with ADHD, I think we need to look at why so may kids are having trouble meeting expectations for them in school. ADHD medications help a lot of kids who really have the disorder to live up to their potential, but in other cases they may just forestall recognizing why a child is struggling, and what we need to do about it.

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  • Chiara de Blasio Goes Public About Depression, Substance Abuse
    Dec. 26, 2013 Caroline Miller

    Chiara de Blasio, the lovely, bubbly daughter of New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, likes to wear flowers in her hair. She's one of the reasons New Yorkers elected de Blasio. The family is hugely appealing: unpretentious, comfortable, candid. They seem real. During the campaign her brother Dante got the attention for the afro, but she's the one who charmingly bragged that her dad isn't "some boring white guy."

    On Christmas Eve Chiara became a little more real and a little more candid, releasing a YouTube video about her struggles with substance abuse during her freshman year in college. She acknowledged wrestling with depression through her "entire adolescence," and coming to depend on alcohol and marijuana to be more comfortable socially. She thought she could handle it, she says, until she went away to Santa Clara University in California (a college she chose, by the way, because she got a scholarship, she told New York magazine, and she wanted to avoid the "crazy loans" so many kids are depending on to finance college).

    Chiara highlights one of the reasons freshman year is painful for so many students: She said she wasn't prepared emotionally for the challenges of being in such a different place. And she thought starting over would allow her to leave her old struggles behind. "I thought all of my problems would go away," she said, "if I just got on a plane and flew 3,000 miles away."

    That didn't work—as it often doesn't—and her substance use accelerated. She thanks her therapist for referring her to an outpatient treatment center, where she was able to work, in a group setting, with others her age who are dealing with depression and anxiety.

    She doesn't want to make it sound easy—"It's the hardest thing I've ever done"—but she's very positive about the results of getting sober. "Removing substances from my life has opened so many doors for me," she says. "I was actually able to participate in my dad's campaign. Now I'm doing well in school and actually getting to explore things that aren't just partying."

    She urges more open discussion about alcoholism and drug abuse, because "nobody can do sobriety on their own. You have to keep relying on those that have been there, finding people who have gone through it."

    Political commentators are railing about the slick handling of a potentially troubling issue for the mayor-elect who made his family the center of his campaign—getting it out of the way days before the move into Gracie Mansion. But for those of us who worry about the mental health of teenagers and college students, Chiara's down-to-earth candor trumps political considerations. And as New Yorkers, it's refreshing to have a first family that doesn't pretend to be perfect.

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