The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • Avonte’s Brother Thanks New York City
    March 24, 2014 Beth Arky

    During the desperate search for Avonte Oquendo, the nonverbal autistic teen who went missing after running out of his Queens school last October, his older brother, Danny, emerged as a leader in the unprecedented citywide effort to find him.

    Now, two months after his brother's remains were found in the East River, Danny has written a blog thanking the city on the Autism Speaks website.

    Unable to remain on the sidelines while they hoped the police would find Avonte, the family went public. Avonte's mother, Vanessa Fontaine, and the family lawyer appealed to traditional media, while Danny took to twitter, Instagram and Facebook. At first, there was only a small band of volunteers, but then something surprising happened.

    "We went from a small family searching night and day for our loved one," he writes, "to a large operation with thousands of volunteers ready and willing to help in every possible way."

    Danny says in the blog that while New Yorkers have a reputation for being "rude, impatient, aggressive and unsympathetic," the city showed its true compassionate colors, much as it had in the aftermath of 9/11. "His disappearance sparked a city-wide search and an autism awareness campaign came right along with it."

    Danny explains that his brother engaged in running or bolting, a common autistic trait that too often ends in drowning, requiring constant supervision on the part of whoever's responsible for the child. In the aftermath of the 14-year-old's death, Senator Charles Schumer introduced a bill called Avonte's Law to fund the voluntary distribution of tracking devices to parents of autistic and other special-needs children. The Justice Department responded that it would make grants available for the devices.

    Danny, who aims to go to law school so that he might represent special needs students, expresses the hope that his brother's death will focus efforts to improve security in schools for kids like him. "The city was behind us when we were attempting to find Avonte,' he writes, "and now the city is behind us as we make efforts to reform our school system's security protocols." 

    The family has also taken steps toward a lawsuit against the city.

    Blogger Jill Smo has set up a virtual candlelight vigil on April 1, the first day of Autism Awareness Month, to honor and respect the memories of children like Avonte who have lost their lives to wandering.

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  • The Ravitz Report: 'The Lunchbox'
    March 21, 2014 Alan Ravitz

    Dr. Alan Ravitz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute, is an avid movie watcher who has a keen eye for the pleasures and insights to be found in all genres, from action flicks to intimate character studies. Each week Dr. Ravitz recommends here a film for weekend viewing. Expect surprises, psychological twists, and a taste for emotional subtlety.

    In The Lunchbox, a wife who feels neglected by her husband sends him special meals in the hope of winning back his love and affection. Instead, her meal is delivered to a somewhat misanthropic, socially isolated man, who is on the verge of retiring and moving away from Mumbai, where the story takes place. The two of them develop a relationship with each other via the notes they send back and forth with the meals. At the same time, the man also develops a relationship with his soon-to-be job replacement. This movie is funny and sad and true, without a hint of artificial sentimentality. It has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and 8/10 on IMDb. Those are very high marks for an exceptionally good film, one of my very favorites in the last six months. Go see it.

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  • The Ravitz Report: 'Marwencol'
    March 14, 2014 Alan Ravitz

    Dr. Alan Ravitz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute, is an avid movie watcher who has a keen eye for the pleasures and insights to be found in all genres, from action flicks to intimate character studies. Each week Dr. Ravitz recommends here a film for weekend viewing. Expect surprises, psychological twists, and a taste for emotional subtlety.

    I discovered Marwencol by accident, surfing through Netflix. It's a 2010 documentary available as a download, about a man who suffered a brain injury and then invented a world, which he shared with friends and photographed. As layer upon layer of his fantasy world unfolds, the viewer discovers how incredibly mysterious even the most seemingly uninteresting lives can be.

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  • Static Over Smartphones and Parenting
    March 11, 2014 Beth Arky

    Electronic devices seem to be on everyone's minds, as well as in everyone's hands.

    Today's New York Times features an article titled "Parents, Wired to Distraction" by Dr. Perri Klass, in which she cites a new study in yesterday's Pediatrics. The object was to observe caregivers eating with children in Boston-area fast-food restaurants to see how much they were engaged with their charges vs. their smartphones and tablets. While the researchers had no way of knowing if the caregivers were parents, as Klass writes, the adults' behavior does help pinpoint "what kinds of questions we should be asking about how digital devices relate to parenting."

    Unfortunately, the results don't surprise me in the least. Of the 55 caregivers observed by researchers eating with one or more young kids, 40 used devices during the meal, with a high degree of absorption. Even more troubling was the study's finding that "Highly absorbed caregivers often responded harshly to child misbehavior."

    Klass's piece comes on the heels of a controversial blog in The Huffington Post, in which pediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan serves up "10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12."

    She claims that children's use of technology, including cell phones, tablets and electronic games, can cause everything from delayed development to aggression to mental illness. While most of the connections are a stretch, it's true that too much technology can be bad for kids. But calling for a total ban is a pretty extreme (and extremely unrealistic) move.  

    Our gadgets are here to stay, and thankfully they can do a lot of good, too. Blogger Jo Ashline was eager to point out that handheld devices like iPads actually assist special-needs kids like her nonverbal autistic son in their communication efforts (something an OT ought to be familiar with).

    Dealing with encroaching technology might feel new, but it isn't really. I grew up in a family that watched TV at dinnertime, which didn't allow for much engagement, either. I suppose that's at least subconsciously why I don't allow devices at the dinner table.

    These two stories do share one common theme: We need to be mindful of the fact that by plugging in, we're in danger of plugging out of family life. When it comes to electronics, there is no doubt that some parents and kids know no limits. I myself have been guilty of checking in on Facebook and email while my son is in the room.

    But there's no putting the genie back in the bottle. It seems to me it's a question of moderation and making smart choices. And isn't that what parenting is about?

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  • What Kids Actually Think About Sheryl Sandberg, Leaning In, and 'Ban Bossy'
    March 9, 2014 Harold S. Koplewicz, MD

    Most of us have heard of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" campaign to encourage women in all professions to follow their ambitions and transform the idea of a woman's character and capabilities. Now, with the Girl Scouts, she has launched a new initiative: "Ban Bossy." The aim? Correcting a common (and false) dichotomy: when a man acts like an assertive leader, he's the boss; when a woman does, she's "bossy."

    Sandberg wants to eradicate the word from boardrooms and on the playground, because it's toxic to girls and forces them to step back, rather than lean in and get branded as "bossy." I was interested in what kids actually think about "bossy," and what they actually think about each other. So ABC Nightline anchor Cynthia McFadden and I took a trip to New York's Hunter College Elementary School and sat down with 1st and 6th grade boys and girls, in 4 groups.

    Everyone agreed: "bossy" isn't a great word, and it is used more often to refer to girls. The girls disliked the word bossy more than the boys did, sure. But here's what's interesting: when we asked the 1st-graders about the word "leader"—"You're a leader, Harry, how does that make you feel?"—they were more positive but not overwhelmingly so. There's a feeling of wanting to be friends and wanting people to like you, not be a leader. And there was a great equality between the sexes in terms of this.

    Things change in 6th grade, but maybe not how you would think. Who are the clear leaders? The girls. The 6th grade boys reported them as much more enthusiastic about student leadership and academic-more ambitious and more interested in being the best. They saw the girls as equals but did admit that they were more likely to call a girl bossy than a boy.

    The girls could care less about that. Bossy was a bad word, but not a terrible word, and it meant nothing from a boy. It meant nothing from someone they didn't know. But: if someone they cared about called them bossy they'd try very hard to change their behavior, meaning that they didn't want to hurt someone else's feelings. In terms of socialization, girls are more concerned about how people feel, and have more collaboration, and are more socially minded. Boys at this age have a totem pole hierarchy; they don't really care how other people are doing, as long as they can yank the one above them down and pull themselves up.

    What does this mean? I think it means that a pivotal time in development—entering adolescence—we have a great model of successful, social, high-achieving young women. At the very same time, we have relatively under-achieving boys, who even admit this, testing out the sort of dog-eat-dog hierarchy that we often see at the top of any profession. Are these things incompatible in adult life—and is "bossy" the reason?

    The girls I spoke to had the same question, and were unsure if Sandberg was right. "Maybe that was old times," they said. Their career choices: Scientist, actress, lawyer, doctor. The major problem I saw was a distinct lack of successful female role models in this country, and around the world. And that's where I think Sandberg is really making waves, encouraging women to "lean in," be assertive, engage their professions and their leadership drives. Hopefully our successful adult role models can help our children build a different world.

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  • Therapy Goes Bananas
    March 4, 2014 Rachel Ehmke

    When most people hear the word "therapy" they still picture someone lying on a couch talking while their mostly silent therapist takes notes. While this kind of therapy still happens, the science and art of therapy has evolved a lot since the days of Freud. It's moved so far away, in fact, that one psychologist takes patients out to the street, where the task is to walk a banana on a leash.

    In a piece for Scientific American Mind, that psychologist, Jerry Bubrick, who works at the Child Mind Institute, describes the kind of work he does with severely anxious children. It's a form of cognitive-behavior therapy, and Dr. Bubrick gives an interesting history of it, going back to the 1950s, when the first psychologist made the move away from psychoanalysis towards a more active and goal-oriented treatment.

    Instead of trying to resolve past childhood issues—how traditional psychotherapists explained anxiety disorders—CBT therapists focus on changing the negative thoughts and behaviors that accompany anxiety. So while anxious kids want to avoid the things that make them anxious, Dr. Bubrick helps them learn to habituate to their anxiety. Enter the pet banana.

    For the severely anxious boy Dr. Bubrick was working with, who had been paralyzed by fear of looking foolish around other people, such a thing would have been unimaginable before treatment. But he and Dr. Bubrick worked up to it, getting used to feeling anxious during more mundane things—asking strangers questions, asking strangers questions while in a ridiculous wig, ordering coffee at Starbucks in the wig, and so on.

    Dr. Bubrick goes into more detail in the story, explaining how the therapy works and giving several patient case histories. It's a must-read for people who want to know more about what really great therapy—especially for kids—can look like. It's behind a pay wall at Scientific American Mind, but you can read it for free if you use this link

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  • John Travolta, Dyslexia and the Oscars
    March 4, 2014 Beth Arky

    Two days after the Oscars, people are still buzzing about the way John Travolta mispronounced Idina Menzel's name—only now, dyslexia is part of the quickly moving story. We live in a time when social media has made mockery a national pastime, so it's no surprise that the internet was quick to pounce on Travolta's introduction of "Adele Dazim" before Menzel was about to perform the nominated song "Let It Go" from Frozen.

    A Twitter account with the mangled name popped up (it's since been suspended) and it wasn't long before Slate had posted a "handy widget" that allowed users to "Travoltify" their own names. (In the name of full disclosure, I am embarrassed to admit that I tried it.)

    But now it's Day 2 and the internet is deep into debate over whether Travolta has dyslexia and, if he does, whether the learning disorder caused the gaffe.

    If one good thing has come out in the midst of conflicting reports about possible dyslexia and Travolta's claims that Scientology "cured" him, it's this: The brouhaha has brought the common learning disorder front and center.

    As Zanthe Taylor wrote for Psychology Today, while Travolta doesn't need her sympathy, "What about all the dyslexics who aren't rich and famous, who have to stand up in front of a classroom, in front of coworkers, in front of professors and bosses, and suffer the fear of knowing they may screw up just the way he did?"

    And screwing up has consequences, even if you're not on stage at the Oscars, she notes: "It's extremely common for a child who can't read, write, or speak correctly in public to be labeled as dumb, while he or she may have normal or even extraordinary intelligence by any other measure."

    Taylor points out that one of the most insidious problems with learning disorders is their invisibility. "Would we have made fun of Michael J. Fox for mangling an introduction?" she asks. "Would someone with a physical disability be laughed at for stumbling on stage?"

    It's because dyslexics appear "perfectly sound in body and mind," she writes, that "their errors are not met with similar empathy."

    According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, about one out of five, or 20 percent of all people, suffers from dyslexia, the most common reading disorder, yet many remain undiagnosed and untreated. And learning disorders like dyslexia can lead to  impairing anxiety in children, according to Dr. Matthew Cruger of the Child Mind Institute. This anxiety can, in turn, lead to disruptive behavior and depression.

    Whatever happened to Travolta at the Dolby Theatre, one thing is clear: More awareness and acceptance of hidden disabilities like dyslexia are needed to improve both learning and the quality of children's lives.

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  • Rosie Perez on PTSD and Her Road to Recovery
    March 4, 2014 Jessica Kashiwabara

    Rosie Perez has been many things in her career —dancer, choreographer, Oscar-nominated actress, and AIDS activist—and now she adds survivor to the list. The Do the Right Thing actress recently spoke candidly with TIME magazine about her difficult childhood and what it felt like to be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In her words, "It sucked," but only at first. Perez gradually accepted her diagnosis and eventually felt relief, a weight lifted off from the years of fighting back.

    In her new memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life, Perez dives into her past and writes about growing up in the rough streets of Brooklyn. Her mother, who struggled with mental illness, first left her with a loving aunt and then abruptly placed Perez (only 2 years old) in a Catholic home for children. There, she was surrounded by vicious fights between girls and abusive counselors. Visits with her mother were not any easier, as she writes, "I was always walking on eggshells, waiting for the insanity to hit. And when it hit, it hit hard and fast—leaving deep emotional and physical scars."

    For Perez, accepting PTSD was a struggle because she wanted to believe she was over her childhood trauma. But it was "a big part of my life," she writes. "And I've hated that fact. I'm a forward-moving and positive-thinking person, and it was hard to have that albatross hanging around my neck."

    Perez's desire to move forward led her to finally seek professional help, something she admits she resisted for years. Dr. Jamie Howard, an expert on PTSD at the Child Mind Institute, says this is common. "A lot of people who experience PTSD are uncomfortable with it because it seems like a weakness," she says. "But you can still be tough and have PTSD—you can be tough by putting one foot in front of the other and living your life with PTSD."

    It is clear writing this memoir has been a huge step in Perez's recovery. "Part of the treatment for PTSD is to face traumatic memories, not to avoid or numb them," explains Dr. Howard. "A lot of people do. When you've had this kind of longterm childhood trauma, the narrative is long."

    Though it wasn't easy to write the book, Perez says she felt it was a responsibility. "The point is to get it out, to validate my feelings, to communicate how good it feels to no longer live in fear of what others may think, and to share my journey and move on," she writes.

    Dr. Howard is glad to see Perez so open about her experiences and believes her story could help change the perception of PTSD. "I think she's really brave and it could really help people," she says, "especially those who grew up in her community, and communities like hers, where it's really valued to be tough."

    Many of us will always see Rosie Perez as that hard-as-nails woman in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing, but now she offers a new view of herself—vulnerable yet fighting back for happiness. Here's how she ends her preface:

    After a couple of years of therapy, and I don't know exactly when or how it happened, I noticed my depression wasn't there and the PTSD subsided considerably. I felt joyful, secure, and empowered. My inner strength and sense of self had never been stronger. I guess I allowed time to play its role, and I did my part by working hard on myself to grow past the pain. Gosh I sound so full of shit there. Let me be more honest: I grew past most of the pain and continue to do the work. Every day it gets better. xo.

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  • The Ravitz Report: '30 for 30: The Price of Gold'
    Feb. 28, 2014 Alan Ravitz

    Dr. Alan Ravitz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute, is an avid movie watcher who has a keen eye for the pleasures and insights to be found in all genres, from action flicks to intimate character studies. Each week Dr. Ravitz recommends here a film for weekend viewing. Expect surprises, psychological twists, and a taste for emotional subtlety.

    I'm not sure how many people watched the winter Olympics a few weeks ago, but the woman's figure skating competition of 1994 had the biggest viewership of any event in the games' history. Why? It was Nancy Kerrigan against Tonya Harding. For those of you not old enough to remember this, it was a clash of two incredible athletes with an amazing, tabloid-worthy backstory: a physical attack, criminal charges, a clash of cultures. 30 for 30: The Price of Gold, a documentary currently available for instant streaming on Netflix, compellingly tells the story. What I found most interesting were the class issues the film raised, but this is a good one for sports fans, those who love a good true crime story, and those who are interested in the complex interaction of biological, familial, economic, and ultimately, psychological forces that forge our characters.

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