The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • Disney Approach Excites Autism Researchers
    April 8, 2014 Beth Arky

    Ron Suskind was able to reach his autistic son, Owen, through the boy's fixation on Disney movies. Now scientists want to see if there are larger applications.

    Researchers from Yale and Cambridge looking to get inside the mind of an autistic child are taking a page from Suskind's new book, Life, Animated, which tells the story of how the family was able to harness Owen's affinity for animated characters to draw him out into more social engagement and interaction.

    Suskind says he invented the term "affinity therapy" to describe how he, wife Cornelia and older son Walt spent countless hours inhabiting characters from movies like "The Jungle Book" and "The Little Mermaid" to connect with Owen, who has gone from a nonverbal 3-year-old to a 23-year-old student with a girlfriend.

    Suskind says there are probably about 12 affinities that parents could use to reach their children; they include Thomas the Tank Engine and anime. According to the New York Times, he approached the researchers to put together a clinical trial based on the idea that "some children can develop social and emotional instincts through the characters they love."

    The researchers have written a proposal to study the approach, which calls for a 16-week trial involving 68 autistic children, ages 4 to 6. The scientists plan to submit their proposal to the National Institute of Mental Health for funding. We'd love to see those results.

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  • All 'Big Data' Is Not Created Equal
    April 7, 2014 Harry Kimball

    Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed taking the faddish obsession with "Big Data" to task. Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis rightly point out that not every pattern revealed by supercomputers crunching numbers is significant. They are worried that, because we are historically quick to attach meaning to coincidence, that "the risk of too many correlations" posed by huge data sets already has and will continue to lead us astray.

    "A big data analysis might reveal," they write, "that from 2006 to 2011 the United States murder rate was well correlated with the market share of Internet Explorer: Both went down sharply. But it's hard to imagine there is any causal relationship."

    Well put. But the authors also understate a crucial distinction and threaten to sour readers on a valuable new approach to scientific observation. They allow that "big data can work well as an adjunct to scientific inquiry but rarely succeeds as a wholesale replacement." Of course it is a tool, and not a magical answer machine. Just as we shouldn't blindly accept computer-generated correlations as truly connected phenomena, we should not confuse what big data analysis is—a new and powerful observational toolwith what it isn't: an end in itself.

    If data analysis reveals a correlation that intrigues a researcher, that is when a hypothesis is formed and tested, as always. Big data is a new lens with which to view the world, but we still don't need to believe everything we see.

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  • The Case for Risky Play
    April 1, 2014 Caroline Miller

    The Atlantic has a terrific, provocative piece by Hannah Rosin about the negative effects of parenting that tries to take all the risks out of childhood. Rosin takes us on a visit to a British playground that looks more like a junkyard: Kids are busy building structures with old tires and wooden pallets, jumping on dirty mattresses, starting a fire in a tin drum, and sliding down a muddy hill—into a creek if they get going too fast. Grade-school age kids. Without their parents.

    It's a startling scene, reminiscent (for those of us of a certain age) of the many unsupervised hours we spent as kids, poking around outdoors, while our parents were inside doing whatever parents did back in the day when they didn't spend most of their free time taking kids places and supervising their activities. 

    The larger point is that kids who don't get a chance to take riskswhat feels like risks to themdon't learn to tolerate and manage fear in a healthy way. Our fear of their being harmed makes them more fearful. And it's backed up with a lot of interesting data that despite our perception of living in more dangerous times, actual risks to children have not increased.

    Risky play, Rosen notes, is essentially what psychologists do with anxious children when they use what's called exposure therapythey face fears in tolerable doses in order to learn to manage those feelings. As Steven Kurtz, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, puts it, "helping kids get comfortable with being uncomfortable." 

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  • CDC: Kids With Autism Up 30%
    March 27, 2014 Caroline Miller

    The Centers for Disease Control released a new survey today finding that one in 68 children in the US has autism, up from one in 88, which the agency reported two years ago. The new prevalence figure, which is based on a sample of 8-year-olds taken in 2010, is a 29 percent increase over the figure for 2008, and a 123 percent increase in the figure for 2002.

    Other details:

    • Gender differences: The new figure breaks down into one in 42 boys and one in 198 girls. That ratio has remained constant, though it varies among individual states.

    • Ethnic differences: Non-Hispanic white kids were almost 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed than non-Hispanic black children, and 50 percent more likely than Hispanic children.

    • Intellectual disability: The number of children diagnosed with autism who do not have intellectual disability has risen to 46 percent, up from 32 percent in 2002.

    • Age of diagnosis: The median age of the first diagnosis is 4.5 years, not significantly different from the last survey.

    • State breakdown: Prevalence of autism diagnoses varies a great deal among states in the survey—from 5.7 to 21.9 per 1,000 children. The lowest rate is Alabama and the highest is New Jersey.

    The survey is based on a sample of kids in 11 sites around the country who have been identified by records from medical providers or school services as having an autism diagnosis. Records are then scrutinized by professionals to check them against accepted diagnostic criteria for autism.

    Since it's based on the 2010 survey year, this survey reflects diagnostic criteria for autism-related diagnoses from the DSM-IV-TR, rather than the new criteria in DSM-5 that was released in 2013. Included in the prevalence figures are all children diagnosed with autism, PDD-NOS, and Asperger's Syndrome, which have all been combined more recently into ASD.

    The CDC reports that the distribution of children among these subtypes has not changed significantly since 2006.

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  • Depression, Suicide, and Too Much Sharing
    March 25, 2014 Caroline Miller

    In an op ed piece in the New York Times today an anthropologist named TM Luhrmann writes about an increase in reported rates of depression and suicide around the world. She notes that the increase reflects changes in how cultures label feelings: "For example, until recently, most Japanese understood intense fatigue as sacrifice for one's work and suicide as an act of reasoned will." Now many Japanese who find themselves drained of energy and beset by suicidal thoughts would call themselves depressed. That's not a bad thing.

    But of the factors she mentions, one that's particularly interesting is the change in what she calls "our awareness of other people and where we stand in social space." Studies show that Facebook makes people feel less good about themselves. The constant stream of other people's flattering photos and evidence of fun you're not having, not to speak of accomplishments you haven't achieved, is tough on all of us. But I would suggest that it's probably hardest on teenagers, who are acutely sensitive to, and anxious about, comparisons with their peers.

    On a global scale, she's talking about people everywhere knowing, thanks to both television and the internet, how much richer and more powerful others are. On a high school level, it may be addictive to keep up with what everyone is doing and thinking, 24/7, but it's also potentially depressing.

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  • Autism and Sensory Overload
    March 25, 2014 Caroline Miller

    In what's called the "intense world theory," a leading neuroscientist is arguing that autism should be seen as a result not of cognitive deficits but of cognitive overload.

    Henry Markram's radical rethinking stems from observation of his own son, Kai, who is on the Asperger's end of the spectrum. And his research with rats offers evidence, he argues, for the theory the autistic brain is actually hyper-responsive to stimuli. The rigid and repetitive behaviors associated with autism, not to speak of the meltdowns, are explained as attempt to manage bewildering sensory and emotional overload. And social unresponsiveness is seen as a coping mechanism for a "barrage of chaotic, indecipherable input, a cacophony of raw, unfilterable data."

    A story about Markram and his theory on the website Medium is riveting, and it has important implications for treatment. Since children learn social skills in specific windows of development, could it be that "early intervention to reduce or moderate the intensity of an autistic child's environment" might keep kids from shutting down during crucial learning periods and hence protect their development?

    Learn about another theory of sensory issues in autism based on brain imaging here, from Dr. Wendy Chung, who reaches a remarkably similar conclusion concerning tailoring learning environments and experiences for young people on the spectrum.

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  • 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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  • 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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