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The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • What's Next for 'Parenthood's' Max?
    Sept. 18, 2011 Beth Arky

    When NBC's Parenthood returned last week for its third season, many fans in the autism community were disappointed. They'd been waiting all summer to see how Max Braverman, the boy with Asperger's, was faring after transitioning back to a "mainstream" school in a move deemed premature by many.

    Instead, the debut offered "very little Maxpergers," noted Landon Bryce on his thautcast facebook page, opening up a debate as to whether Max is being stereotyped as a fact-spewing automaton. But a new writers' roundtable on Parenthood's site counters that argument, featuring clips that show a bright, gleeful, loving child who can also be rigid, anxious and explosive, exhibiting the syndrome's "strengths and weaknesses." 

    As for what's in store for Max, the Parenthood site promises that his mainstreaming will be a key plot line on Tuesday night. Creator Jason Katims, whose teenage son has Asperger's, teased to TVLine a "really nice story" between Max and his cousin Jabbar, who already attends Max's new school. At first, the boys will "connect." But the relationship will falter, affecting family dynamics.

    Meanwhile, some wonder whether Max's parents, Kristina and Adam, will have concerns over whether their third child, due to arrive any day now, judging by the looks of things, will also have autism spectrum disorder. A recent study shows that almost 19 percent of infants with siblings with ASD also end up being diagnosed—a number higher than previously thought. When TVLine asked Katims if the newest Braverman will be happy and healthy—"no complications?"—the show runner offered a cagey reply. "In terms of the birth," he said, "yeah, absolutely."

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  • Study: Outdoor Play Good for Kids With ADHD
    Sept. 16, 2011 Harry Kimball

    Thanks, study! A new paper, out of the University of Illinois and published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, concludes that parents whose kids enjoy "chronic exposure" to parks, expansive backyards, and playfields report fewer and less severe symptoms in kids with ADHD. For kids with many hyperactive symptoms, ScienceDaily reports, "green and open" space is more beneficial than a "built outdoor setting" or one with "lots of trees."

    Well, duh. We have no doubt that access to clean, natural outdoor spaces can have great benefits for children with ADHD—and, for all children. In fact, if kids spent most of their time free-ranging it outdoors, a lot fewer would be diagnosed with the disorder. Kids 200 years ago, who didn't need to get an education to become functional adults, and spent most of their childhood and adolescence helping their folks on the farm, could have the neurological makeup that comes with ADHD without major consequence.

    But today kids need to make it through school, jobs involve less sweating under the noonday sun than sitting at a computer, and behaviors that once might have been quirky or even beneficial are now impairing. Frustration, conflict and failure can ensue, if it's not treated.

    The study asserts that the effect of "green time" is the same regardless of gender or socioeconomic status. Duh again. But who do you think is likely to have more access to acres of open space—not to speak of other forms of treatment: A poor child from the inner city or a middle-class kid from the suburbs? 

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  • Can Reality Television Teach an Anti-Bullying Lesson?
    Sept. 14, 2011 Harry Kimball

    A new reality TV show on CW, H8R (read: "hater") premieres tonight, and some—its creators at least—have high hopes for the program vis a vis its anti-bullying prospects. The premise is this: An unwitting civilian with a poor opinion of some celebrity is filmed carping about the object of his or her ire. The celebrity is shown the video to and exhibits shock and dismay, whereupon he or she surprises the regular Joe and berates them for being an anonymous bully, or "hater." Then they spend some times together and the hater is invited to revise his or her opinion, which is improved in 60% of cases, the producers tell the New York Times.

    This sounds incredibly clunky and contrived, and it strains credulity when one of the co-creators swears that "you can see that the celebrities are wounded by hearing this stuff come directly out of somebody's lips, and those become really powerful TV moments." Apparently Snooki from Jersey Shore carefully reminds the man who thinks she is a "drunken donkey" that "you have no idea who I am as a person." Turns out he was wrong and she was right after she has dinner with his family. "An important anti-bullying, anti-hate message," as the creator calls it? Well...

    Who's to say? If it takes the improbable stars of various reality TV shows—and some higher-wattage ones: Eva Longoria, Charles Barkley—showing that they have emotions that can be hurt just like everyone else to teach some young people the consequences of anonymous venom, then so be it. We're not holding our breath, and real, focused attempts to curb bullying and cyberbullying are incredibly necessary. Or as an expert puts it to the Times, "a CW reality show probably isn't the best way to address this, just as Grey's Anatomy shouldn't be relied on to teach medicine."

    But we'll take what we can get. "If it helps start a discussion," the expert says, "then that is really valuable."

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  • When Adults Use the 'N' Word
    Sept. 13, 2011 Caroline Miller

    "Normal" is a word kids often use as a weapon: Defining children who don't share the same ethnic background or religion or sexual orientation as not "normal" is a powerful way to hurt other kids, especially in early adolescence, when not being like everyone else can feel devastating.

    So it's especially disappointing to hear parents use that word in the context of the debate over anti-bullying campaigns. Efforts to combat bullying in Minnesota—and to respond to a rash of student suicides—have provoked opposition to any curriculum that fosters acceptance of homosexuality.  "Saying that you should accept two moms as a normal family—that would be advocacy," Tom Prichard, the president of the Minnesota Family Council, tells the New York Times. Minnesota teachers are not allowed to advocate.

    Prichard also says bullying shouldn't be tolerated. But the fact is that when parents communicate to children that a particular sexual orientation is not "normal" or "natural"—both words he used—they're putting a bull's eye on the back of these kids.

    Hearing adults stigmatizing them—even as they say they oppose harassment—can't make gay teenagers in Minnesota feel, or be, any safer. 

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  • A Child's Illness, a Family's Crisis
    Sept. 12, 2011 Caroline Miller

    "My two hopes for Jani are very simple: I want her to be alive, and I want her to be able to find moments of happiness in the day, even if every day isn't happy, that she can find some happiness. That's it. That's all I want for her."

    It may sound shockingly modest, but the speaker is Michael Schofield, the exhausted father of January, a bright, beautiful 9-year-old girl whose psychiatric disorder, which prompts violent, uncontrollable moods, including efforts to kill herself, has made it impossible for her to play with other children, go to school, or live together safely with her younger brother.  After a lot of trial and error, medication has helped some with the symptoms of what has been diagnosed as child-onset schizophrenia, but her nightmarish imaginary friends still hold sway.

    The reason to read this story, in the Los Angeles Times, is not just to understand this rare but debilitating disorder—"I don't think I've seen anything more devastating in all of medicine," says one neurologist leading a study—but to witness the extraordinary lengths Jani's parents have had to go to get help for her, and a solution for their family.  The most extraordinary: After Jani spent four months in a hospital psychiatric ward, and no residential facility would take her, Michael and Susan gave up their two-bedroom apartment and rented two one-bedrooms in the same complex, so that one parent could live with Jani and the other with her younger brother. They take turns. They're broke and, not surprisingly, the marriage is fraying. They deserve better, and so does Jani. See them all on video here.

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  • 'Idol' Fave James Durbin's Debut Set for Nov.
    Sept. 7, 2011 Beth Arky

    James Durbin, the American Idol Season 10 finalist with Asperger's and Tourette's who became both a fan favorite and champion to the special-needs community, has announced that his much-anticipated debut CD will be released in November. He let the world know in a very Durbin-like manner, on Twitter: "FINALLY!!!!! THE DURB HAS BEEN SIGNED TO WIND UP RECORDS!!!!!"

    The 22-year-old rocker—noted for his talent, showmanship, and conviction to bring heavy metal to the hit show—quickly emerged as a role model for the autism, Asperger's and Tourette's communities when he shared his diagnoses and the years of bullying he overcame, thanks in large part to his participation in music and drama programs while growing up in Santa Cruz.

    Durbin also shattered stereotypes that those on the autism spectrum lack emotion and the ability to form strong, loving relationships. From the start, he cried easily on the show, especially when talking about how much he missed his fiancée Heidi and their young son, Hunter. Durbin has named fellow Idol contestants Stefano Langone and Paul McDonald as his best man and groomsman, respectively.

    At New York's Wind-up Records Durbin joins top-selling acts like Evanescence and Creed. "We loved James on Idol," said Wind-up Entertainment CEO Edward Vetri. "We thought he was the standout performer from this season. His passion for rock music made him a natural fit."

    Right after Durbin's shocking fourth-round elimination, Daughtry producer Howard Benson advised the singer to step back from his plans to do a metal album and tap into his huge built-in Idol audience. It would seem Durbin is following the path laid out by fellow rocker and fourth-place Idol finisher Chris Daughtry. His band has gone on to huge commercial success, proving that you don't have win Idol to win big—or, in Durbin's case, to be a hero.

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  • When "Back to School" Means Back to Homeschool
    Sept. 6, 2011 Caroline Miller

    Sarah MacLeod is a mother of two who blogs about her adventures in homeschooling her two boys, who she describes as "twice-exceptional"—they are both gifted and learning challenged. Her blog is terrific because she's a good storyteller and she's honest about how tough it can be to stay out in front of boys with such extreme strengths and weaknesses—issues many parents will find familiar, even if home schooling sounds like your worst nightmare. Now 14 and 10, MacLeod's boys are capable of learning at amazing speed, she notes, but also of losing their way just as fast. Of last year she writes:

    "Both boys were plagued with executive function challenges, with my older revealing how much he really needs assistance with planning and scheduling and my younger struggling with compliance and anxiety (he's poor at the compliance and good at the anxiety)."

    MacLeod is an ambitious and thoughtful and determined home-schooler, retooling her strategies and her thinking constantly to work better with the boys, who between them have been diagnosed with Asperger's, ADHD and dysgraphia. What she's undertaken is more intense than a lot of us could handle, but it's also very familiar—the flexibility and improvising and correcting course as you go along that's necessary to do well by (and live well with) children with psychiatric and learning disorders. She's starting the home-schooling year today, and we wish her and the boys our best.

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  • Why So Quick to Blame Video Games?
    Sept. 3, 2011 Matthew McGowan

     "No one at any major news outlet understands the third variable problem." This is Erin Robinson, a neuroscience researcher turned independent game developer, explaining why news coverage that ties video games to acts of violence by adolescents is chronically flawed. For us non-statisticians, what she's saying is: "Just because two events are correlated, one does not necessarily cause the other."

    In her fun and fascinating article, "The Top 10 Weird Children Of Video Games and Neuroscience," Robinson argues that most media sources that link video games to attention problems and/or violent behavior are going for the sensational headline and not the truth of (or at least the latest research on) the matter.

    Take the widespread vandalism and looting in the UK last month:  News sources quoted everyone from police constables to pop stars (including former Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher) blaming it, at least in part, on the likes of Grand Theft Auto.

    So, too, with coverage of Gevin Prince, a 15-year-old boy from Georgia recently charged with killing his great-grandmother, and injuring his grandmother, with a sword. A typical local newspaper headline read: "Authorities: Video Game Dispute Motive for Great-Grandmother's Death." As it turned out, video games had nothing to do with this horrible event. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution took a closer look, the paper found out that Gevin has a history of mental illness, and his family had attempted repeatedly to get him the care he—and they—obviously needed, as he gradually spiraled out of control.

    I don't consider myself anything like an apologist for video games. Despite the fact that I've been playing them for 30-plus years now (or maybe because of it), I've got my own ambivalences.  But when news sources choose to go the sensational route with these stories, they're doing more than failing to grasp the third variable problem. Ultimately, they're lazily and cynically scapegoating a form of entertainment at the expense of addressing an alarming and urgent reality—the truly tragic state of mental health care for children and adolescents in one of the most developed countries in the world.

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  • 'Lion King' Caters to Autism Community
    Sept. 1, 2011 Harry Kimball

    In what appears to be a first, a Broadway show is setting aside a performance and tweaking sound levels, special effects, and the theater lobby to accommodate a sold-out crowd of families with children on the autism spectrum. The performance of "The Lion King" on October 2 has been orchestrated by the Theater Development Fund, a New York nonprofit.

    Disney and the TDF have made some guesses that they hope will make the show more enjoyable for people with autism, like toning down sound cues and providing bean bag chairs. "But no one has been able to tell us what the effect will be of having around 600 children and adults on the autism spectrum in the theater at the same time," a TDF executive tells the New York Times. Another advocate and watcher was a little more optimistic when speaking with the AP. "Maybe they're not ready for this," she says. "But that doesn't mean we stop trying."

    And even if no one knows what will happen when the curtain comes up, there is evidence that quite a bit of thought has been put into this trial run. For instance, as the AP points out, the TDF worked with Autism Speaks to develop a Social Story to post to their website. These are like first-person run-throughs that allow children with autism to get accustomed to new experiences and routines ahead of the actual thing, and have proven tremendously helpful in expanding kids' horizons.

    "If I want to clap, I can," reads one section. "I don't have to clap if I don't want to.  If the clapping is too loud, I can cover my ears, wear my headphones, or hold my Mommy or Daddy's hand." 

    Click here to read more about autism in all areas of society: in entertainment, at school, at home, and in the news.

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  • New Jersey Gets Super-Tough on Bullying
    Aug. 31, 2011 Harry Kimball

    Tomorrow is the deadline for New Jersey public schools to comply with the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a new law that "is considered the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation," according to the New York Times. Among other requirements (the list runs to 18 pages) schools must have designated "anti-bullying specialists," employees must promptly investigate and write reports about every instance of suspected bullying at or after school, and every school will report results to the state government.

    Reaction has been mixed, to say the least. "Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day," an administrator complains to the Times. "Where are the people and the resources to do this?" What's more, many teachers and other school employees are afraid that failing to live up to the letter of the law could now result in lawsuits. These appear to be legitimate complaints, and we hope educators don't look at the new initiative and think, "I need to cover my back or I'll get sued." Because the real impetus behind this move is kids who are in distress and deserve help.

    As many people have commented online, bullying has always been there, but teachers and even other students have too often turned a blind eye. The new law makes it a requirement that teachers become involved, and stresses to students that doing nothing is as bad as being a bully yourself. A science teacher puts the new requirements in admirable perspective. Whether an incident that's investigated turns out to be bullying  or not, when you take a chance to look into it, "you're communicating with the kids," he tells the Philadelphia Inquirer. "If you're wrong and you overreacted, it will still be a positive outcome."

    We don't know if the new staffing requirements will work out, or if the statewide reporting system will produce results, or if this will result in a flurry of litigation. But a valuable message has already been sent: Don't turn away.

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