The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • Marriage Patterns and Autism Diagnoses
    Aug. 22, 2011 Caroline Miller

    In a provocative piece in this week's Time magazine, Judith Warner reports on what's called the "assertive-mating theory"—the proposition that the explosion in diagnoses of autism over the last couple of decades could be the result of many more couples who both have some autism spectrum traits, but not a full-blown disorder, getting together and having children. The proponent is Simon Baron-Cohen, Britain's leading autism researcher, an outspoken iconoclast who is something of a pop-science hero and, incidentally, the cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen.

    The theory goes like this: As more women began getting math and science degrees in the 1970s and 1980s, and more people starting meeting their mates at school or work, and the dot-com boom made people who are "high systematizers" more attractive, even if they had limited social skills, it follows that more people with some autistic traits are connecting with others who are "not only like-minded but like-brained."  Ergo their offspring may show a higher incidence of full-blown autism spectrum disorder.

    There is, of course, serious skepticism about whether there are enough couples made up of two "strong systematizers" to account for the boom in diagnoses, and there is a risk in blaming parents for "causing" their kids' condition. But Baron-Cohen's theory got a boost, Warner reports, from a Dutch study reported in June that found four times more autism diagnoses in an area known as the Dutch Silicon Alley than another without the concentration of high-tech industries.

    Could this kind of social change be a contributing factor to the autism boom? The story is worth looking at—unfortunately, you can read it here only if you have a Time subscription. Otherwise, it's at the newsstand.

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  • The Power of a Baby's Cries
    Aug. 19, 2011 Caroline Miller

    I ran across an excellent piece by Jennifer Byde Myers, the mother of a boy with autism, who writes in her blog on Salon about how tempting it can be to abandon science when something you experience—in her case her baby's screams—makes an emotionally compelling case. She tells the story of taking her younger child, her 4-month-old daughter Lucy, to the pediatrician for routine vaccinations. At home, several hours later, she picked Lucy up to nurse her and the baby began to wail inconsolably. 

    When holding her tight didn't comfort her, Jenny was sure Lucy was having an adverse reaction to the vaccine, and rushed back to the doctor's office in a panic. "Oh my God," she remembers thinking. "My child had her shots two hours ago, and now she is a different child. This is how it is, one minute the child is there, then they're gone; that's what I've heard. My daughter has autism. Oh my God." Later she sums up: "I broke the baby."

    She tells the rest of the story better than I can here, and she makes two important points: First, how terribly painful it is for parents when they feel—and often they are led to feel—that something they did caused a child's psychiatric disorder. And second, how important it is not only to put our trust in science, rather than celebrities, but to speak up for science "when pseudo-, or non-science is being given equal weight."

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  • On Being Strong and Needing Help
    Aug. 16, 2011 Caroline Miller

    An African American woman named Ruth White has a terrific piece on the Huffington Post about how she lives with bipolar disorder. Okay, she brags a bit about all the things she's done, including getting two graduate degrees, raising a child, mountain climbing, kayaking the White Nile, winning tenure, starting a maternal and child health project in Africa—you get the idea. But she also talks about how long she hid her disorder and avoided getting help. "I tried running, acupuncture, yoga, Chinese herbs, meditation—anything but "mainstream" medical attention. I did not want to go to a psychiatrist, because 'nothing is wrong with me. I'm not crazy!' "  

    Finally she decided that being strong does not exclude getting help. "Superhero status is not required. I cannot save the world, and sometimes I'm the one who needs saving." She acknowledges that she will probably need professional help, and take medication, for the rest of her life.

    Her brave and insightful piece is addressed to African Americans, who she thinks are particularly prone to stigmatize mental illness as weakness and refuse to accept that it's a "real" problem. "Instead, to deal with our psychic pain we eat our way into life-threatening obesity, excessively use alcohol and drugs and act out violently through word and deed." She encourages others to "come out" about their disorders, and to support their friends by urging them to get help rather than hide their struggles. We couldn't agree more. 

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  • Hopeful Education Approach to Teen Depression
    Aug. 12, 2011 Harry Kimball

    We haven't read deeply about this, but a new study suggests that an educational approach to adolescent depression called "Surviving the Teens" could have a positive effect. The study, published in the Journal of School Health and summarized by Science Daily, concludes that self-reported suicidal thoughts and behaviors in teens were down up to 65% after the year-long program in school. Of course, we don't know if these structured outreach methods will be shown to consistently produce results or not. One of the coauthors agrees: "We don't claim that Surviving the Teens is the answer to suicidal behavior."

    But, he continues, "we are very encouraged by the research so far indicating how helpful the program might be." And there is one area in particular that we are quite excited about. After the program, the participants filled out a survey, and a whopping 72% said they would now talk more with their parents about their problems. 81% said they'd be more open with friends, and 90% said they'd encourage friends to ask for help if they were worried about them. Regardless of the ultimate accuracy of these numbers, teaching teens that it's ok to reach out for help is admirable, and one of the most important things we can do. Because not getting treatment can be tragic—and getting help can change young lives.

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  • iCarly an iDisappointment
    Aug. 11, 2011 Rachel Ehmke

    Our friends at the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation alerted us to an upcoming episode of the popular Nickelodeon sitcom iCarly unfortunately titled "iLost My Mind." In it one of the stars kisses a boy she likes and then checks herself into a "mental hospital" out of OMG embarrassment. Hijinks ensue when her friends decide to spring her free. Promos for the special episode feature padded cells and dizzy pinwheels, and fans can play the iCarly Escape Game online.  

    The show seems lighthearted and probably means no harm, but we're disappointed to see such a negative and frankly dated depiction of psychiatric illness being introduced to new audiences. Even the silly jokes can hurt. The show appears to pack a double whammy, suggesting that psychiatric illness is a sham and that psychiatric hospitalization, which is of critical and life-saving importance in some cases, has not progressed far past Nurse Ratched.

    May we suggest young viewers be steered towards stars like the former Disney actress Demi Lovato instead? She went public with her bipolar disorder several months ago, and has been a good role model for kids ever since. That's the kind of celebrity we can iLove.

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  • Dark and Bright Sides of Mental Health Post-9/11
    Aug. 10, 2011 Harry Kimball

    Today we read in the New York Times about the staggering impact the September 11 attacks have had on the mental wellbeing of New Yorkers involved in the rescue and recovery attempts, as well as those who lived in the immediate area of the World Trade Center. The article is heartbreaking in many of its details and also in its scope: New York City estimates that at least 10,000 people intimately exposed to the horrors of that day have had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the last 10 years, and maybe 60,000 have been symptomatic.

    But the story also illustrates a fantastic effort to provide care to people who have been truly injured by a terrorist attack-a national disaster-though they may bear no physical scars. The mental health coverage in the federal James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act that funds care for people harmed by the attacks is far from perfect, reflecting a persistent wariness in the halls of power about psychiatric illness. But it is something, and New York City has grabbed ahold and made it available to more than 400,000 people. At the same time, the city and federal governments have made a step towards acknowledging the reality of these wounds.

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  • Fighting Schizophrenia
    Aug. 9, 2011 Harold S. Koplewicz, MD

    A few days ago the New York Times profiled Joe Holt, a 50-year-old man with schizophrenia who was on the brink of suicide—loaded gun in hand—when he began to find a way out of his nightmare of paranoid delusions. What's worked for him, with support from his wife, Patsy, is a self-devised regimen that helps him cope with severe negative feelings and hostile voices that can drive him to the edge some days. He has been medication-free since 2006, Benedict Carey reports in the article, "but considers it a valuable safety net." 

    In the ensuing decade Holt has achieved a successful marriage and a successful career, and has nurtured many foster children in his Missouri home.  It's a compelling, encouraging story, but one that draws conclusions that do a grave disservice to the majority of people with schizophrenia. Holt is able to recognize his delusions and battle them with admirable grit and discipline.  But reporter Benedict Carey notes that "the ability to catch one's own mind straying from reality is no small gift; perhaps half the people with schizophrenia have no such self-awareness."

    And furthermore, the fact is that for the overwhelming majority of people with schizophrenia, the symptoms are severely impairing, whether they are aware of their disorder or not, and a closely monitored regimen of antipsychotic medication has been shown time and again to be the best way to manage this chronic condition. Moreover, disturbingly the decision to drop medication leads to disaster for these patients—relapse, drug abuse, homelessness, incarceration—and their families.

    Patsy Holt's can-do attitude and faith in her husband are admirable, but she's wrong when she tells him his battles are like everyone else's: "I tell him everyone struggles with doubts, with fears—that it's normal. Normal."

    The severe anguish people with schizophrenia experience is not like ordinary doubts and fears, people with schizophrenia are not weaker than other people, they have a very real illness, and getting medication treatment is not only more effective for them, and their families, but significantly less risky than toughing it out on their own. Joe Holt's wife is telling him to be brave, but the bravest thing is to get scientifically sound help when one is ill.

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  • A Desperate Mother Kills Her Son, Herself
    Aug. 8, 2011 Beth Arky

    The news that a respected Maryland psychiatrist last week killed her 13-year-old son, and herself, is doubly tragic. Police say Dr. Margaret F. Jensvold, 54, fatally shot her son, Benjamin Barnhard, before turning the gun on herself. Jensvold was reportedly distraught after her local school district denied tuition assistance for a private treatment program for Ben, who struggled with several issues. Some reports say he had been diagnosed with ADHD, obesity, and PANDAS, an OCD-like disorder, usually short-lived, that is caused by an autoimmune reaction to a strep infection. His father, divorced from his mother, told reporters that Ben was on the autism spectrum.  

    Jensvold, described by all, including her ex-husband, as a doting mother, gave up her private practice to become a salaried psychiatrist for Kaiser Permanente, allowing her more time to manage her son's medical care and educational opportunities.

    Ben's father said "bullying and harassment" in the public schools had led to his son's "tremendous" weight gain; in fact, the teen had recently lost more than 100 pounds after attending a special program featured on cable's Too Fat for 15. Barnhard said his ex-wife had told him on several occasions that the school system was failing to address Ben's needs and that he thought the stress over her son's future "played a significant role" in her desperate act. "She didn't want him to suffer."

    We'll never know how Ben would have done in a public school setting, but we can testify that many parents encounter enormous obstacles while trying to obtain the services their children—and families—need. It's critical that we help them before they spiral into the kind of hopelessness that can lead  to such a tragic ending.

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  • College Sugar Babies
    Aug. 4, 2011 Rachel Ehmke

    We keep hearing about college girls acquiring sugar daddies. In case you haven't caught up with the trend, it seems there are several web sites designed to match up young girls with older, affluent men who are willing to help pay their bills—in exchange for services rendered, of course. And girls are taking the bait, with many citing the burden of tuition, student loans and a bad economy.

    They're specifically targeting college students (or recent graduates)—one rewards girls who register with .edu email addresses by upgrading their accounts and stamping their profiles certified "college sugar baby." Another is called

    The Huffington Post recently interviewed several college sugar babies in an eye-opening expose. From the interviews I was struck by the perplexing "I'm not a prostitute; I went to Sarah Lawrence" attitude that many of the girls shared. Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised. Girls are taught from an early age to see their bodies as an asset that should be maximized (or augmented). The ideal girl is both smart and hot. Enter the college sugar baby industry, where sex work is practically wholesome—these johns are buying text books!

    We've come a long way, but we're also losing ground—now our girls grow up knowing they can be Supreme Court justices, but in a pinch, their bodies are still where the money's at. 

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  • Matt Damon on What Motivates Teachers
    Aug. 3, 2011 Caroline Miller

    Matt Damon was looking incredibly hot at the recent Save Our Schools rally, and not just because of the haircut. When an interviewer asked him a really annoying question about whether doing away with tenure would motivate teachers to teach better, he shot back an irresistible retort. In the YouTube video the reporter posits the idea that actors work hard because they need to get the next job, ergo teachers would work harder if they had less job security. If you have ever been grateful to a wonderful teacher (whether or not you believe in tenure) you should check out his response.

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