The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • Mister Rogers Goes to Washington. Cue Tears.
    April 9, 2012 Harry Kimball

    I don't recall caring much for Mister Rogers when I was a kid. I watched it, sure, but it was milquetoast compared to the other things on TV that I really liked—GI Joe, He-Man, even Jem. Looking back, all I remember of Rogers is the changing of sweaters, the trains and the puppets—actually, I think Eddie Murphy's impressions on Saturday Night Live come in clearer, and those aired when I was an infant. 

    But boy was I wrong. A new documentary on Rogers is coming out, titled Misters Rogers and Me. I haven't seen it, and the only reason I know about is by half-listening to public radio. But during an exchange between guest and host (I guess I should give credit to Jesse Thorn and Bullseye) the show played an audio clip of Rogers' testimony before Congress in 1969. 

    What? Mister Rogers before Congress? And yes, it goes exactly how you think it would go, and it is one of the most moving things I have seen and heard in my life.

    Rogers is testifying in support of a $20 million grant to the new Public Broadcasting System—you know, PBS. He speaks plainly and simply about what children need from adults, on TV and in person. It starts with what he calls a "meaningful expression of care."

    Rogers reminds the committee of his perennial sign-off: "You've made this day a special day by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world just like you, and I like you just the way you are."

    My wife remembers feeling those words as though they were spoken directly to her. Yesterday, when she heard them again via YouTube, she was in tears.

    And he speaks of the importance of acknowledging real emotion. "We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood. We don't need to have to bop somebody over the head to make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut. Or the feelings between brothers and sisters. And the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively."

    Without a lot of opposition from the panelwho could resist Mister Rogers' level, sonorous delivery?he concludes: "If we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service to mental health. I think it's much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger, much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire." He talks about helping children learn that they can channel and control their own emotions. And then he drops these song lyrics from the show:

    Know that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man. 

    Old-fashioned, yes. But persuasive. "Looks like you just earned your twenty million dollars," says the chair. We second the ovation that followed. Even if kids don't watch Mister Rogers, parents can certainly learn a thing or two from the man. 

    Watch the video here:

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  • ADHD Drug Shortage Should End Soon
    April 6, 2012 Rachel Ehmke

    The FDA is predicting an end to the shortage of ADHD medications that has forced families across the country to scramble to fill their prescriptions since 2011. An FDA spokesperson announced that drug makers will be releasing enough medication to end the shortage this month.

    It is still unclear how the shortage originated. Most ADHD medications require controlled substances, either methylphenidate or amphetamine salts, and the Drug Enforcement Administration tries to minimize abuse by regulating how much of the substances manufactures receive. Drug makers blamed the DEA for the shortage, claiming their drug allotments were too strict. The DEA stood by their quotas, suggesting that manufacturers focused production on expensive branded pills instead of making enough generics to satisfy demand.

    Regardless of how the shortage happened, the children and adults who rely on ADHD medication will be glad things are getting back to normal. Hopefully it will stay that way.

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  • Civil Rights and the Death of Daniel Corby
    April 5, 2012 Rachel Ehmke

    A four-year-old autistic boy named Daniel Corby died earlier this week after being drowned, allegedly by his mother. While local news in California is covering the tragedy, no major media source has picked up the story, which seems surprising, particularly since it comes so soon after the death of 22-year-old George Hodgins, an autistic man who was murdered by his mother last month.

    The details we have are few. Daniel's mother Patricia has pled not guilty, but earlier she confessed to the murder, telling police she thought Daniel "did not have a life or a future without her."

    We don't know whether Patricia thought that statement somehow justified her action—or just explained what she was thinking or feeling when she did it. And again we don't know whether the police representative who described Patricia as a "stay-at-home mother pushed to the edge" meant to justify the act either.  But we do know that the challenges of parenting don't justify denying a child his civil rights.

    Self-advocates and parents in the autism community, already wounded by the tendency to blame autism for George Hodgins's murder instead of the person who pulled the trigger, are noting a pattern of misplaced sympathy in the media. Instead of speaking up for the victims, people speculate on how they must have frustrated their caretakers, driving them to murder. Lydia Brown, who blogs Autisic Hoya, notes, "This is the same thing as blaming a woman for her rape because she wore a short skirt or had a low neckline on her shirt."

    April has been dubbed Autism Acceptance Month by many in the autism community who are set on recognizing the humanity and civil rights of people who have autism spectrum disorder. Not blaming Daniel Corby and George Hodgins for their own murders would be a step in the right direction.

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  • Autism Tied to Gene Mutations
    April 5, 2012 Caroline Miller

    In three new studies published yesterday in Nature, researchers at three different institutions identified gene mutations that are tied to autism.

    The studies focused on children on the autism spectrum whose parents do not have autism. Researchers were looking for mutations that occur spontaneously in egg and sperm cells in genes that affect brain development. These mutations, called de novo, are said to occur more frequently as parents age.

    What's the takeaway from this breakthrough? 

    Obviously it helps researchers learn more about how autism develops. But it also strengthens our understanding that autism, like cancer, comes in many different forms. And identifying a specific gene mutation that is linked to some children with autism helps identify a subset of people on the spectrum.

    As Dr. Evan Eichler, a professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington and one of the study authors, tells Bloomberg, "We've identified a subset to study more intensely, and we could apply therapies if there are any down the road." Since kids on the spectrum vary so dramatically in their symptoms, he notes, it could be helpful for parents to connect with others whose children share a similar pattern of developmental delays.

    And Dr. Matthew State, a Yale neurogeneticist and psychiatrist and the author of another of the studies, underscored how big a breakthrough this is: In 200 children with autism diagnoses, his researchers found two unrelated children with autism who had de novo mutations in the same gene—and nothing similar in those without a diagnosis.

    "That is like throwing a dart at a dart board with 21,000 spots and hitting the same one twice," Dr. State told the New York Times. "The chances that this gene is related to autism risk is something like 99.9999 percent." 

    It's also significant that more mutations were found in children with older parents, especially fathers, who, Dr. State said, contributed four times the mutations that mothers did.

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  • New Short-Term Therapy Helps Kids Deal With Trauma
    April 3, 2012 Caroline Miller

    There's good news for children who have had a traumatic experience (and for the caregivers who watch over them). A study released today found that a brief therapeutic intervention greatly diminished the symptoms of post-traumatic stress kids often develop after experiencing abuse or violence or witnessing something deeply disturbing. 

    After just four to six structured sessions with a trained clinician—one with parents or caregivers, one with the child, then two sessions with them together—children who had suffered sexual abuse or violence were 73 percent less likely than those in a control group to have later developed partial or full-blown PTSD.

    During each session, a trained counselor offered reassurance and support, and measured progress. Dr. Steven R. Marans, professor of psychiatry at Yale and director of the Childhood Violent Trauma Center at Yale University, explains how the new approach works, and why it's so important to include caregivers, not a traditional part of trauma treatment:

    When children are alone with and don't have words to describe their traumatic reactions, symptoms and symptomatic behaviors are their only means of expression. And caregivers are often unable to understand the connection between the traumatic event and their children's symptoms and behaviors. To heal, children need recognition and understanding from their caregivers.

    The current study, which included nearly 500 children, corroborated the results of an earlier study of 176 kids. Evaluated three months later after the treatment, those who received the intervention were 54 percent less likely to develop symptoms of PTSD in children, including sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts, depression, anxiety, tantrums or feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.

    Click here for a story by Dr. Steven Berkowitz, one of the coauthors of the earlier study, about what makes an experience traumatic for a child.

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  • Autism Month: Awareness to Acceptance
    April 2, 2012 Caroline Miller

    Today is the start of the fifth annual Autism Awareness Month, packed with events and publicity about autism. But for some activists who've been on the front lines for some time, the frontier has moved beyond "awareness" to "acceptance." In fact there's an alternate Autism Acceptance Month movement.

    Steve Silverman, a Wired reporter who has a blog called NeuroTribes, explains the shift from "awareness" to "acceptance" this way: "The lion's share of the money raised by star-studded "awareness" campaigns goes into researching potential genetic and environmental risk factors—not to improving the quality of life for the millions of autistic adults who are already here, struggling to get by."

    Noting the recent CDC report that one in 88 children in a sample of 8-year-olds were found to have autism spectrum disorder, he writes, "When kids on the spectrum graduate from high school, they and their families are often cut adrift—left to fend for themselves in the face of dwindling social services and even less than the meager level of accommodations available to those with other disabilities."

    For other passionate explanations of why advocates think it's important to "take back" April, check out a site called Autism Acceptance Day. Paula Durbin-Wesby, an autistic adult, explains what it means to her this way: "Acceptance means accepting yourself as you are, even in the face of persistent attempts throughout your life to get you to be what you are not. Especially in the face of persistent attempts throughout your life to get you to be what you are not."

    In her essay she hints at something that is becoming a movement in itself, to see neurodiversity as a civil rights issue.

    You have the right, or should, to grow in ways that are good for you, that you think are good for you. You have the right to make changes in your life that you think are the correct ones for you. If stimming helps you get through the day, you have the right to do it. If making eye contact is a goal of yours, go for it! You get to choose. When others choose for you (in the case of children or in some support roles) let it be not in the vain attempt to "normalize" you, but to help you be your best, Autistic, self.

    We'll be hearing a lot more about this in the days and weeks ahead, and we'll feature here some of the excellent pieces that are on offer as the month progresses.

    For starters, check out the piece by Beth Arky on about parents of autistic children struggling to find, or invent, independent but supported living situations for their children "aging out" of educational services. With an estimated 200,000 coming of age in the next 5 years, we see it as the next big frontier in autism.

    With this in mind, Thinking Person's Guide to Autism today posted the first of a series of "Slice of Life" conversations with "autistics of all ages" that will be running all month. First up is Aisling Alley, a budding anime creator and Nintendo fan. "We'd like to help our non-autistic readers get to know autistics as people who have interesting, complicated lives," writes Shannon Des Roches Rosa, "and who are as diverse and varied as any other random population united by a label."

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  • 1 in 88 Kids Found to Be on Autism Spectrum
    March 29, 2012 Caroline Miller

    Stunning new figures released today by the Centers for Disease Control show the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in a sample population of eight-year-old children in 2008 soaring 23% over the prevalence in the same sample in 2006, and a whopping 78% over the number found in 2002. In the new report, one in 88 children was estimated to meet the diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum disorder in 2008, compared to one in 110 in 2006 and one in 155 in 2002.

    The report was based on a survey of medical and other records of children in 14 sites across the United States, whether or not they had received a diagnosis of an ASD.  The CDC stressed that the sample was not nationally representative.  And it's not known, the CDC writes, whether these increases reflect increased awareness and better assessment or true increases in the prevalence of ASD symptoms. We asked two of the Child Mind Institute's psychiatrists to weigh in on what it means.

    "It would be a misinterpretation to say that this study shows the number of new cases of autism are on the rise," says Dr. Michael Milham.  "What it highlights is that we were obviously missing kids, and underestimating the magnitude of the problem. It shows the need for a continued focus on better monitoring. We need to be looking deeper for cases that are falling through the cracks."

    There are many limits to this kind of surveillance study—they're highly dependent on what doctors and other experts decide to include in their charts. But it shows, as does the preponderance of evidence over the last few years, that there are a lot more children than we thought there were somewhere on the spectrum, adds Dr. Ron Steingard.  

    It's no surprise that within the sample, two of the groups that showed the largest increase were black and Hispanic children. "Obviously no one was looking carefully enough at these populations," notes Dr. Steingard.

    Another group that showed a particularly large increase was children who meet the criteria for an ASD without also exhibiting cognitive impairment.  "A generation ago the only kids who would be diagnosed with autism had what I call autism plusthey also had significant cognitive impairment," says Dr. Steingard. "Once we understood that you could have the core symptoms of autism without mental retardation, it opened the door to a larger population who still had very important social and interpretive impairment."

    What worries Dr. Steingard is that the study might prompt a backlashthat someone looking to cut funding will use it to make charges of overdiagnosis or misdiagnosis. That would leave people with autism and their families in the lurch. "These kids need intensive interventions to do well, and their families need relief and respite."

    Both doctors note that we need to keep getting better at recognizing autism spectrum disorders, because the earlier the diagnosis and intervention, the better the prognosis.

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  • 'Bully' Film Now Unrated, So Who Will See It?
    March 28, 2012 Harry Kimball

    The documentary Bully comes out on Friday, and after advocates, celebrities, and the Weinstein Company could not convince the MPAA to soften the R rating it received, the company will likely release it without a rating. How theater owners treat the movie now is anyone's guess, but since everyone has heard about the struggle and the rating, there remains the possibility that kids will have a hard time seeing it. The president of a movie theater industry group tells the AP that theaters might decide to treat the unrated Bully like an NC-17 film, meaning that the young people who could have seen it with a parent when it was rated R wouldn't be able to see it at all.

    That is unfortunate, as Dr. Al Ravitz wrote last week, because children have a lot to gain from seeing an unvarnished portrait of what bullying in our schools can do. Katy Butler, the student whose petition to change the rating has garnered more than 475,000 signatures, makes the argument for the movie quite nicely. "The MPAA said they wouldn't drop the R rating unless this language was removed," she tells the Associated Press, referring to a handful of curse words that raised the ire of the rating panel. "But nothing can remove it from the halls and playgrounds of schools where bullied students hear it each day, except education and exposure."

    Meanwhile The Hunger Games, a film which has its own valuable lessons for kids, racks up record profits in part by virtue of its PG-13 rating. That movie, a dystopian fantasy, depicts the murder of several children. But the documentary that shows the (mostly) emotional violence real kids do to each other is considered inappropriate for them to see because it's too realistic about the language teens actually use. With no rating, and the R hovering over it, it will take courage on the part of parents and educators to let kids see it—and, of course, to see it themselves.

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  • Are Kids With ADHD Dangerous Drivers?
    March 27, 2012 Caroline Miller

    The issue of teenagers with ADHD behind the wheel gets the spotlight in the New York Times today. The story corroborates something experts in ADHD have been saying for a long time: that the extreme distraction and impulsivity that are the symptoms of ADHD are a dangerous combination on the road. Kids with ADHD get in more accidents—and more serious accidents—than other teenage drivers.

    The Times story focuses on the challenges these kids face learning to drive and passing the driver's test. Experts suggest that they wait until they are a little older and more mature before becoming a driver. Other recommendations include extra practice, professional instruction, installing a temporary passenger-side brake in the family car, and having the teenager learn "in a car with a manual transmission, which gives the attention less time to wander."

    Curiously, the recommendation that seems to me most important (and obvious) gets only a passing mention more than half way through the story: medication. The writer notes that experts recommend that drivers with ADHD take medication, to help focus attention and rein in impulsivity, and links to a study that shows stimulant meds like Ritalin reduce the risk of accidents. He quotes Dr. Russell Barkeley, the ADHD expert who's done research on teenagers and driving, saying "Medication should not really be optional."

    We're glad to see that the writer included this, because it's fashionable these days to treat ADHD meds as controversial, as if the benefits were not well-documented. And indeed, some commenters immediately attacked the writer for assuming all kids with ADHD are bad drivers and all need medication. Others attacked what they saw as a suggestion that people with ADHD shouldn't be allowed to drive. I don't think anyone is suggesting that. The point is rather that attentiveness and good judgment are key competencies in driving, and if you need medication to muster them, you should take medication to drive—just as you'd take medication to control diabetes if you want to drive, since not being medicated when you have a chronic condition can make you dangerous on the road.

    We'll give the last word to a commenter named Caitlin, who speaks from her own experience: "Thanks for bringing this up. My impression is that many people have never stopped to consider how ADHD affects you when you drive. I personally do not drive without medication. I'd always been a very good, cautious driver...until I took a 6-month drug 'vacation' and had three minor accidents. Lesson learned, but at a cost. No accidents or tickets before or since."

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  • The Vogue Hunger Games
    March 27, 2012 Rachel Ehmke

    If you Google "worst Vogue article ever" right now the first several pages of search results will lead to the story Dara-Lynn Weiss wrote about her daughter Bea's struggle with childhood obesity. Weiss was understandably alarmed when she learned that her seven-year-old daughter was considered obese. She knew something had to be done, so she consulted with a specialist and put her daughter on a diet. So far, so good. With childhood obesity rates booming in America, Weiss's story should have been a sympathetic one. 

    But it turns out that the story in Vogue was about more than just a concerned mom who wanted to help her daughter loose weight. Weiss has serious problems with her own body image and eating habits, and she is upfront about them. She writes:

    I have not ingested any food, looked at a restaurant menu, or been sick to the point of vomiting without silently launching a complicated mental algorithm about how it will affect my weight.

    She's struggled with food all her life, she says, and tried every fad diet around. "Who was I," she asks, "to teach a little girl how to maintain a healthy weight and body image?"

    Unfortunately, being self-aware enough to realize that she isn't the best role model for her daughter didn't stop her from taking charge, projecting her own obsessiveness on Bea, and proudly becoming the Tiger Mom of weight loss. She enrolled Bea in the child obesity program "Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right," but they ignored the rules: While Red Light, Green Light focuses on empowering children and tells parents not to humiliate their kids in public, Weiss describes "heated public discussions" and "awkward moments at parties" when she publicly chastised Bea.

    I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French Heritage Day at school involved nearly 800 calories of Brie, filet mignon, baguette, and chocolate. I stopped letting her enjoy Pizza Fridays when she admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week. I dressed down a Starbucks barista when he professed ignorance of the nutrition content of the kids' hot chocolate whose calories are listed as "120-210" on the menu board: Well, which is it? When he couldn't provide an answer, I dramatically grabbed the drink out of my daughter's hands, poured it into the garbage, and stormed out.

    Weiss complains that everyone around her was non-cooperative if not horrified:  "You're making her crazy!" "You should let her eat what she wants!"  She's still growing!"  But she clearly dismisses her critics as merely too faint of heart to do the right thing for the child. "Everyone supports the mission but no one seems to approve of my methods." That would include Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, the founder of the Red Light, Green Light program Weiss dropped out of, who told an outraged blogger at Jezebel, "The program has to be run by the child, and the truth is that making a child feel bad only causes problems. It's not going to help with weight loss, and it's definitely not going to help the child emotionally."

    What did Bea get out of it? After a year of dieting, Bea lost 16 pounds and grew two inches. As a reward she got several new dresses, a feather hair extension, and the Vogue photo shoot that accompanied her mother's article. Weiss says that her daughter is proud of what she's accomplished, and she likes to think that while Bea will always have to watch her weight, she has built "the foundation to make these choices in an educated and conscious way." Legions of critics, of course, have been quick to note that what she's probably given Bea are the foundations of her own erratic, highly emotional relationship with food. And, after a year of complaining that she was hungry, Bea has likely also learned to equate being starved with being thin, something many weight experts consider a recipe for long-term failure in weight control.  

    It's certainly not unusual for the most well-meaning of parents to inadvertently pass on their struggles to their children. Eating disorders and poor self-esteem are particularly contagious, and modeling good health and comfort in your own skin is essential for mothers of young girls. Of course, modeling a healthy attitude is a lot easier if you actually have a healthy attitude. Obviously having a daughter skinny enough to look good in Vogue is a huge source of pride for Weiss-pride that may have blinded her to the fact that readers far and wide would see this story a train-wreck of ambitious parenting. But the book deal we hear is in the offing may alleviate the pain of the abuse she's getting from all sides.

    We have to give Bea, in her 8-year-old wisdom, the last, sad word: "I'm not a different person just because I lost 16 pounds," she tells her mom. "Just because it's in the past doesn't mean it didn't happen."

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