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The Myth of The Post-Racial Society

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Many in our nation are heartbroken and enraged at the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18 year old black youth who was shot to death in Ferguson, MO by a white police officer.

Unfortunately, according to Dr. George Yancy, this week’s guest on my blogtalk radio show, this tragedy will occur again, and again, and again. Young, innocent, black males like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin – (whom Dr. Yancy and I discussed on my show over a year ago) – will continue to die until American society confronts its systemic racism.

We have a long road to walk. Dr. Yancy is a profoundly accomplished scholar on the critical philosophy of race with a PhD from Duquesne University as well as M.A’s from Yale and NYU; according to him, racism is embedded in our culture in a way that the majority of our white citizenry does not – and perhaps cannot – perceive. Many of us view the Michael Brown case as an isolated moment, an aberrant incident rather than a symptom of systemic violence. After all, we elected a black President, didn’t we? We are all saddened by this child’s death, aren’t we? And what if it was an honest mistake? There is video evidence of Michael Brown potentially shoplifting…

Dr. Yancy gives us the ideas and language needed to debunk the above reasoning, but it can be difficult to digest. First of all, the idea that Michael Brown’s killing is linked to potential shoplifting illustrates what Dr. Yancy calls the “niggerization” of the black body. Only a society that views the black body as sub-human, as an automatic and hyper-aggressive threat, could even entertain the justification of a child’s killing with petty thievery. But can we go so far as to say that mainstream, American society dehumanizes black people? Do we truly approach all black bodies with unnecessary aggression? Dr. Yancy gave us some historical and psychological context to process this.

We all know about slavery of course. But have you ever heard of Mary Turner, a pregnant black woman who identified her husband’s lynchers in 1918? She was tied to a tree, upside down, and burned to death. Her stomach was sliced open and, when the fetus fell to the ground, a white man smashed its skull with his boot. What about Claude Neal who, in 1932, was accused of rape? He had his genitals removed and stuffed in his mouth, was made to say he enjoyed it, and then his fingers were cut off and he was burned all over with a hot iron. Let’s use some modern examples: in 1999, Amaduo Diallo was shot 41 times while reaching for his wallet; Jordan Davis was shot for listening to music – in 2012. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are victims of the continuous brutality toward African Americans by white people in power. White racism is a fact. And it asserts itself even in our most basic neurological patterning.

Ever heard of neuronal mirroring? Dr. Yancy referenced studies done with MRI machines that recorded the activity of mirror neurons.  If a human (or a monkey) observes another human performing an activity, her mirror neurons will fire in a way that mimics the brain of the person performing the activity.  When white people were hooked up to the machine and shown a black person performing a task, no mirror neurons fired: it was as if the person was staring at a blank wall.

If you are interested in learning more, Dr. Yancy recommends a few of his books. One that profoundly affected me was: Black Bodies, White Gazes. There’s also: “Look, a White!”: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness and Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms, which Dr. Yancy edited with his colleague Janine Jones. Dr. Yancy also invites us to email him at: georgeandsusany@aol.com .

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Gifted Children: Their Strengths and Struggles

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Everyone is looking for their tribe.

Programs for academically gifted students do exist, but they are ancillary, at most. Ms. Gallagher’s daughter, for example, is pulled out of class for a few hours a week to receive special instruction. According to her mother, she lives for those hours– so much in fact, that Ms. Gallagher cannot move out of her town for fear that her daughter will lose this crucial intellectual nourishment. As for the rest of the week, Ms. Gallagher admits that it is challenging for her daughter to feel engaged. It is hard for her to take instruction from a teacher whose spelling skills are not up to par with than her own. She feels frustrated when the teacher gives her piles of extra work instead of offering her more interesting and in-depth material.

This is not an unusual problem. Many teachers and parents who are not academically gifted them selves have a difficult time understanding what these children need and how to communicate with them. Even institutions who claim to cater to gifted children often miss the point: Ms. Gallagher sent her daughter to a summer camp for “gifted children” which turned out to be no more than a middle school curriculum served to eight year olds. Gifted children do not just need more advanced material. They need teachers who will assist them in carving out an individualized learning path that nurtures and challenges them. This is not an easy thing to do – it certainly requires specialized training – but this issue affects us all: if we cannot nurture our gifted, how will we solve our most complex problems?

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Many of us who are extraordinarily gifted in one area, struggle in another. Ms. Gallagher worries about her daughter’s ability to interact with her peers. She saw her own brothers, both of whom are academically gifted, struggle to connect with others, and so she encourages her daughter to go outside and play, even if she has to learn to play within parameters less advanced than her own. It is an important skill to meet people where they are at, and to be comfortable in many different situations. Ms. Gallagher also worries that her daughter hasn’t experienced failure, nor has she ever had to push herself. Will these patterns come back to haunt her in high school? Ms. Gallagher admits that she worries about this, and that, as a parent, she doesn’t know the answers, and takes it one step at a time. That’s all that any of us can do.

If you have a gifted child, don’t be afraid to vocalize his or her needs, and to encourage self-advocacy. All of us deserve the support we need to thrive!

For more information go to: National Association for Gifted Children

www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/definitions-giftedness

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What Is Love?

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Romantic love is no longer a mystery. Thanks to new technologies, we can see what romantic love looks like inside the brain. We can therefore learn to construct, maintain, and repair romantic relationships. For those of us who hope to enjoy lasting, healthy partnerships, –that is to say, most of us — this is a very exciting development indeed! I was thrilled to invite a distinguished expert onto my podcast show to discuss it.

Dr. Sue Johnson is the developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), which has demonstrated its effectiveness in over 25 years of peer-reviewed clinical research. Dr. Johnson is also the founding Director of the International Centr for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, a distinguished research professor, and the author of many books, including the best-seller Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, a self-help version of her groundbreaking research.

My discussion with Dr. Johnson was so rich that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the most important takeaway from our discussion was the importance of emotional support and responsiveness: it is the very essence of a secure bond. But in our society, we have developed this idea that adulthood equals independence. Self-reliance is a strength, while needing others is considered a sign of weakness. To illustrate this misperception, Dr. Johnson brought up the often misquoted Darwinian principal: “Survival of the fittest.” Darwin never actually said that. And if you look at the research, you discover that those who perform the best are those that are most nurtured. People who enjoy deep, trusting relationships live longer, healthier lives. To illustrate this point, Dr. Johnson cited one study of people who were in the vicinity of the World Trade Centers on September 11th, 2001. Eighteen months later, those who reported having at least one person to turn to for comfort were doing quite well. Those without that bond were much worse off: many battled depression, PTSD, and other trauma-related difficulties. According to the research, solitude does not equal strength- quite the opposite. Those who can be vulnerable with their loved ones are more resilient and live happier lives.

So how does this translate to a specific therapy “method” for couples? Well, according to Dr. Johnson, she can predict the outcome of a relationship with one very simple question: can they have the “hold me tight” conversation? If they can, they will fight less, feel happier, and develop the ability to really reach each other, which will sustain their relationship over the long term.

Okay, so what exactly is the “hold me tight” conversation? Well, as an example, let’s use a classic disconnect pattern that Dr. Johnson sees a lot. One partner is angry, which makes another partner withdraw, which of course makes the first partner angrier, which in turn makes the second withdraw further. Usually the one who is screaming the loudest – about childrearing, sex, career or whatever – is really screaming about the fact that she feels disconnected and alone. She cannot tell if her partner cares about her anymore, so she gets angry and yells. When she yells, her partner feels criticized. The criticized person feels pain and moves away. (Fact: when you are criticized by someone you love, it is processed in your brain in the same place that physical pain is processed). And so the cycle continues.

In EST therapy, the therapist does not offer advice or pry into personal histories. Instead, the therapist helps each partner identify how he or she feels and what he or she needs. This process takes weeks, not years, but it can be surprisingly difficult to express to your partner exactly what you need. Our culture has taught us to feel such shame about it. But, if the couple can learn to look at each other and say something like: “I see that I got angry, and I see that you were shattered by that. What I need is reassurance. I’m scared that you don’t love me anymore, that you didn’t choose me, that I don’t matter to you. I need you to reassure me.” If a couple can do that, their brains will physically respond.

To really drive this point home, Dr. Johnson described an amazing study that she did using MRI technology: When a person in a distressed relationship was told that he would be shocked on the ankle, his brain lit up with agitation, and he was likely to report experiencing pain when he was shocked. (This was true whether he was alone, holding the hand of a stranger, or holding his partner’s hand). When someone in a secure relationship was presented with this same scenario, while holding their partner’s hand, his brain did not light up at all! And after the shock, he reported feeling no pain – merely discomfort.

Bottom line: safe, emotional bonding is the best recipe for physical and emotional happiness. If society could recognize vulnerability as a strength and encourage deep, emotional bonding, just imagine the kind of world we could create!

For those interested in exploring EFT, there is much information to be found on Dr. Johnson’s website: Www.drsuejohnson.com

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A Revolutionary Approach To Learning Disabilities

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Learning Disabilities, unlike physical ones, can be very difficult to spot. A child whot experiences excruciating difficulty when learning to read will often appear “normal” in every other way. In the past, this child might have been called stupid or lazy by his teacher, his peers, even his family. But thanks to new technologies, we are experiencing a revolution in the way we understand LD’s. We now have neuroimaging that proves what this ostracized child has always experienced: he doesn’t read the way most of his friends do. When he reads, his brain works in a completely different way.

This new research has affected educators on all levels. To talk to us about these exciting developments, Ben Powers joined us on my podcast. Mr. Powers is the headmaster of Eagle Hill-Southport, an independent day school in Connecticut for students with learning disabilities. Prior to joining the school in 2012, he served as headmaster of The Kildonan School. He is a passionate member of and advocate in the field of dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD and is on the board of directors of Headstrong Nation and Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities.

Mr. Powers was quick to trace the origins of this revolution back to Dr. Samuel Orton, who was the first to study learning disabilities about one hundred years ago. He worked with a pyschologist named Anna Gillingham, who created a systematic approach to teaching through phonemes. The Orton-Gillingham approach remains a widely implemented method – one that Mr. Powers adamantly endorses. This method stimulates all senses at the same time, and breaks down langauge in a way that caters to the intelligence of kids with dyslexia and other kind of LD’s. Instead of memorizing thousands of words, students will learn that “de” means down and “cap” means head. So they can deduce – rather than recall- the meaning of the word “decapitate.”

One of the reasons that dyslexia is such a debilitating disability is that it hinders content absorption in every subject. If a student cannot decode text, they cannot access the learning materials. To prevent this scenario – and the frustration, shame, and alienation that accompanies it – Mr. Powers cited research pointing to the efficacy of early intervention. He encourages a huge focus on remediation in first and second grade, or before. The earlier teachers can identify LD’s and modify their teaching accordingly, the better off the students.

In conjunction with new teaching methods, Mr. Powers recommends the use of new technologies that allow students to absorb information in alternative ways. Students with dyslexia can read much faster with their ears than their eyes, so all students at Eagle Hill-Southport have ipads with embedded assistant technology that can dictate text and receive dictation. Students also have access to word-prediction software that the teacher can customize. Programs like Learning Ally and Bookshare allow students to download texts that they can listen to at home. The goal here, says Mr. Powers, is to empower students with LD’s to navigate the realms of higher learning. If they have the right technology, they can absorb War and Peace just as effectively as their peers.

Our discussion of technology made me take pause. I couldn’t help but share with Mr. Powers my opinion that too much screentime can be deeply debilitating for children who need to spend time connecting with others. They need to build the emotional and psychological foundations upon which all future academic progress depends. To do this, they need to get away from screens. Mr. Powers couldn’t agree more: he cited the school system in Finland, the best in the world, and how much emphasis they place on free play. Here in the United States, our focus on curriculum is spreading to younger and younger grades. On the other hand, he made the point that time spent with a pencil and a white piece of paper is not too different from time spent with an ipad. For a kid that struggles to read and write, that ipad changes everything.

Any advice for parents whose child has an LD? Absolutely! First, try to eliminate the shame and stigma that you yourself experience surrounding your child’s LD. Create or join a community of families in similar situations. Share your story. There are so many resources out there, so reach out and connect. Next, help your child do the same thing. Teach your child about her learning .profile. Encourage her to tell her story, to become a self-advocate. This will not only empower your child, but it will raise awareness in your community. With time, the alienation that used to be so common among children with LD’s will become a thing of the past..

For more information, please go to Mr Powers blog: http://dyslexictendencies.blogspot.com/ where you can find resources and description of the most up to date technologies and research in the field.  Or go to the Eagle Hill Southport website: http://www.eaglehillsouthport.org/

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Postpartum Depression and Its Treatment

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Postpartum depression, (PPD), is both much more common and much more severe than many of us realize. According to Postpartum Support International, 1 in 8 women suffer from PPD. Some experts think it is more like 1 in 5. To help us better understand postpartum, and to debunk some of the misinformation surrounding the illness, I invited expert Carly Snyder, M.D, onto my radio show this week. Dr. Snyder is a psychiatrist in New York City with a focus in Reproductive Psychiatry.

First off, what is postpartum depression? According to Dr. Snyder, it is a far broader phenomenon , and much more multifaceted, than originally thought. Now, the medical community uses the term perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, which encompass depression, anxiety, bipolar diroder, ODC, PTDS, and panic disorders. Many of these disorders interact and overlap – for example, 2/3 of women with depression also suffer from anxiety, and 25% of women diagnosed with PPD will eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

So how do we identify and treat women who are at risk of – or are already suffering from – perinatal mood and anxiety disorders? Because of the public misunderstanding of the illness, there are many obstacles a woman must overcome to recognize that she needs help and seek it out. Probably the largest obstacle is the shame and guilt that arise when a woman does not become the happy, glowing mother she expected to be. All women experience a great shock to their systems when they become moms. As Dr. Snyder put it, new motherhood is like jumping into freezing water that no one warned you was cold. Many women find themselves asking: Why did I do this? What was I thinking? Some women fantasize about getting rid of their baby, about running away, about somehow escaping. This experience is so very common, but rarely verbalized. I had an overwhelmingly positive experience of new motherhood, and still it took me many years to open up about the darker thoughts that went through my head at that time. Having fleeting dark thoughts is not PPD.  If only we could normalize these experiences, so women would know that they are not alone, that we all experience this, we’d be in a much better position to diagnose those women suffering from PPD.

Another obstacle to diagnosing PPD is that pregnant women and brand new moms are expected to have mood swings, so a woman and her loved ones might write off her symptoms as “normal” even when she is suffering severely. Most people think that PPD occurs right after birth, but that’s not true. Symptoms occur as early as pregnancy and as late as four months or even a year after the baby is born. When women experience symptoms either earlier or later than expected, they often don’t recognize what’s happening. And, as Dr. Snyder pointed out, some women don’t seek help simply because they do not have the motivation: they are just too sick and exhausted. Some women suffer so deeply from PPD that they no longer believe that help is a possibility.

But help is out there! 85-90% of women who seek treatment for PPD get better. And there are many resources women can use to get help. You can always talk to your OBGYN, or your baby’s pediatrician: there is a growing awareness of perinatal anxiety and mood disorders in that field. Postpartum Support International, (PSI), is dedicated to helping women who suffer from mood anxiety disorders and offers a wealth of resources. There’s a hotline that ensures you will receive a call back within 24 hours. There are monthly conference calls with experts and other women, as well as a conference call for dads. PSI can connect you with a local coordinator that can help you find support and let your voice be heard. Visit their website, postpartum.net, or call 800 944 8766 to learn more.

If you are suffering from a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, you are not alone. But social support is crucial to your and your baby’s wellbeing. As hard as it may be, try your best to reach out. A close and trusted friend is often a good way to start. But remember you need medical help as well. And for those of us with loved ones who are experiencing new motherhood, lend an ear, keep an eye out, and know that if you or your loved one is suffering, there are people waiting to help!

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What is Surrogacy?

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

If I learned one thing during my talk radio show this week, it is that surrogacy is a deeply complex issue. It is also an extremely important one. As gay marriage sweeps the nation, gay and lesbian couples are starting families in record numbers. Overseas adoption has all but come to a halt, so more heterosexual couples are looking for alternative ways to have children. I wanted to host an expert that would be able to give us a timeline of surrogacy law and offer a nuanced perspective about its legal and philosophical implications.

Michele Zavos gave us that and more. A pioneer in the field of legal rights for the LBGT community, and a premiere representative for gay and lesbian couples who want to have children, Ms. Zavos is a partner in the Zavos Juncker Law Group, PLLC. She is also a selected member of the National Family Law Advisory Council for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys and of the American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys.

According to Michele, the science of pregnancy has grown exponentially over the last thirty five years, and with it, significant shift in the cultural attitude concerning surrogacy. Michele explained that there are two types of surrogacy. The traditional model, which is hardly used anymore, is when the carrier’s own DNA helps create the child (along with the sperm of a donor, the carrier’s husband, or the intended father). The newer model, termed gestational surrogacy, or gestational pregnancy, does not involve the carrier’s genetic material. Instead, a fetus is created from the genetic material of the intended parents and is implanted in the carrier’s womb.

From a legal perspective, both models of surrogacy spark an important question: who is the parent of this child? Is it the birth mother? The biological mother? The sperm donor? The couple for whom the baby is intended? Michele explained that every state has its own law concerning surrogacy: in some states, it’s a felony; in others, there’s no law at all; still others have very specific statutes concerning the practice. So, legally speaking, there really is no clear answer to this question.

We had two callers join our conversation, and both had very adamant opinions on the matter. The first caller brought up something that troubled her deeply: the child seems to have no legal choice in the matter- no right to be nurtured by the parent that brought them into this world, whether they be a sperm or egg donor, a carrier, or an adoptive parent. The caller brought up divorce law, which makes it very difficult to revoke a child’s right to remain connected to both parents. But what about adoption? Children do not have a right to choose between birth and adoptive parents. What about children raised by relatives other than birth parents? Or children raised in foster care? Ultimately, no child has the right to choose how they are raised or to whom they are born. And yet, one can see how the issue of surrogacy complicates the definition of parenthood and raises the question of a child’s right to stay connected with the people who created him or her.

It is also an extremely polarizing issue in the feminist community. We had another caller phone in who identified herself as a feminist leader with expertise in third party reproduction, who brought an international perspective to the table. She saw surrogacy as the commodification of a woman’s body, compared it to prostitution, and cited the European Parliament, which passed a resolution in 2011 banning surrogacy commodifies women’s bodies.

And yet there are other feminists that would link surrogacy to abortion and say that it is a woman’s right to choose. Surrogacy was recently banned in India, but for a long time, a woman in India who decided to be a surrogate would make enough to buy a home for her family. Should she have this right? There is also the matter of what is termed compassionate surrogacy, which is when the surrogate (usually a family member),  do not ask for payment. Are they commodifying their bodies? There is no clear answer. What is clear is that the issue is complex and multifaceted; there is no one-size-fits all solution.

For anyone who is interested in surrogacy, Michele had one crucial piece of advice: consult a legal professional with extensive experience!

You can reach Ms. Zavos with any questions at: Mzavos@zavosjunckerlawgroup.com

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Honoring Gay Pride Month

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

June is gay pride month. To honor the LGBT community and its continuing struggle for equality, I invited Andy Humm – a long time gay rights activist – to discuss the movement on my radio show. Mr. Humm helped lead the fight for New York City’s gay rights bill that passed in 1986, thanks to the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. As director of education at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBT youth, he fought to get explicit AIDS education into public schools in the 1990s. Since 1985, Mr. Humm has hosted the national, weekly television program “Gay USA.” He writes regularly for the Gay City Newsand and the Gotham Gazette. His work has also appeared in the The New York Times, The Daily News, The Post and numerous other publications

As Mr. Humm pointed out, even Orrin Hatch (Republican Senator from Utah), has publicly admitted that gay marriage will eventually pass, nation-wide. That battle has been won, but we still have a long way to go before we have truly eliminated discrimination. So what’s next?

Transgender rights have certainly gotten a lot of press lately, and Mr. Humm agreed that the gay community is an ally of this movement – (and, he hopes, of all subsequent social justice movements). Mr. Humm pointed one challenge that the transgender movement faces: how to rally its constituency. “Coming out” – for gay and lesbian folks- is a powerful way to claim one’s identity, stand in solidarity with the community, and move forward on the road toward marriage and family. Transgender people, on the other hand, do not want to be recognized as transgender; they want to be acknowledged as the new gender which they have embodied. So “coming out” is not a step that makes sense. Because of this difference, the movement will take a separate shape, but it is certainly coming along. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has already ruled that the transgender community is protected under sex discrimination laws.

Another important battle that we have yet to fight is that of the homeless youth of our nation, over half of whom are LGBT. According to Mr. Humm, there are approximately 150 beds available for homeless kids in New York City – a shockingly inadequate number. In Mr. Humm’s words, we are not taking care of our kids.

Mr. Humm also reminded us that even as we are enjoying real progress here in the states – more kids than ever before are coming out in high school and are accepted by their communities – we cannot forget what is occurring on the International stage. Countries like Russia, Uganda, and Nigeria are passing draconian anti-gay laws that are supported by large majorities of their populations. It is a deeply troubling reality.

The phrase “civil rights” in connection with the LGBT movement makes some people bristle, because it is so tightly connected with “The” civil right movement of the 1960′s. Mr. Humm reminds us that there are many groups of people fighting for civil rights, and at their root, they are the same fight. As the LGBT community gains more ground than ever, we hope that it becomes a powerful ally to other marginalized groups, both globally and here at home. We all have the right to equality and to be respected in our communities regardless of differences. Anything short of this reflects a lack of humanity. As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail on the 16 of April 1963:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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Is Children’s Education Related to Parental Involvement with School?

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

If you are a parent who is deeply involved in every aspect of your child’s life, including school, you are doing exactly what most parents feel obligated– even pressured – to do. But new research indicates that you may be doing more harm than good.

This week on my radio show, I was honored to have Drs. Angel Harris and Keith Robinson discuss their new book “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education.” Their research turns our traditional beliefs about the relationship between parental involvement and academic achievement right on its head: it suggests that parental involvement is not nearly as beneficial as we often assume.

When I started reading their book, I had quite a reaction to it. Their argument seemed to go against everything I’ve learned as a parent and as a therapist. In my experience, parental involvement is of the utmost importance! But then I saw the crucial distinction they make between parenting – that is, helping your child development socially and emotionally – and direct involvement in academic life. Drs. Harris and Robinson are not critiquing parents. Their work is not prescriptive; they are not providing advice as much as sparking a dialogue. Their research shows that more involvement is not always better. So it prompts us, as parents, to look at the quality of our interactions rather than the quantity.

The most important message that we as parents ought to take from this research is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to helping your child succeed. Dr.’s Harris and Robinson monitored 60 different parental behaviors in different racial and socio-economic groups and got a wide range of results. For example, with whites, there was a positive correlation between parent’s participation in school events and academic success. For Mexican families, that correlation did not exist. This is not at all to say that Hispanic families should not join the PTO! This simply demonstrates that school systems affect some communities differently than others, so what might will help one child might hurt another.

One extremely compelling finding held up across all socio-economic backgrounds is that helping your child with her/his homework will not increase her/his achievement: in fact, it may lower it. On my radio show, we speculated as to why this is so. We discussed how we parents often lack the skills necessary to guide our children through their studies. Even if we do understand the material, we may not understand how to teach that material to our children effectively. This finding suggests that the stress that parents and children experience when battle over homework doesn’t necessarily pay off: it might strain not only on the parent-child relationship but also on the child’s ability to succeed.

Drs. Harris and Robinson measured how parents respond to a child’s poor performance by distinguishing between punitive and non-punitive reactions. Punitive reactions – taking away privileges, grounding, shaming – worsened academic performance. However, non-punitive responses – talking to the teachers, talking to the child, providing support and encouragement – increased achievement levels.

How can parents help children succeed in school? The answer is complex. It seems to be more important that we “set the stage” for our children, and then leave it. In other words, we need to provide a framework for success by sending the message that school is important. We need to help our children conceive of a future self and see how success in school builds a bridge to that future. We need to support them, through success and failure. And maybe we can leave the teaching to the teachers.

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The Newest Research on Autism

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

1 in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is an alarming statistic- it’s grown significantly over the past decade, and scientists still don’t understand exactly why.

To learn more about the most up-to-date research on ASD, I turned to Dr. Paul Wang, the SVP and head of medical research at Autism Speaks, a not for profit advocacy organization devoted to understanding autism from all perspectives.

Lot’s of people ask if the spike in ASD is simply due to a rise in a awareness. Dr. Wang says that, at most, about half of the increase in diagnoses could be due to greater awareness, but there are definitely other factors we don’t understand yet. Environmental toxins is one guess; people having children later is another. But we still don’t know.

Okay, so what do we know about autism that we didn’t know before? Well, one extremely important finding is that the early intervention is critical. The earlier a child is diagnosed and treated, the more likely it is that she will grow up to be an independent, active member of society. It used to be assumed that autism cannot be diagnosed until a child displays obvious symptoms, which usually occurs between 10 and 20 months. However, one study recently showed that eye contact in infants as young as two months old could predict whether or not they would develop ASD. This study helps dispels the myth that autism appears when the child begins to lose their language skills: we now know that it begins much earlier.

One important fact is that ASD exists on a very wide spectrum. There is no stereotypical manifestation of autism: symptoms vary widely. Not all people with ASD are intellectually disabled. Those on the lighter end of the spectrum can be completely functional, thriving people, and Dr. Wang made a point to emphasize that no one is trying to “fix them.” The medical community does, however, want to find the best ways to treat those who are severely impaired and need intensive behavioral and medical therapies.

Another important finding is that ASD affects the entire body- not just speech and cognition. For example, many with ASD display gastrointestinal symptoms, which are difficult to monitor when language skills are severely impaired. As Dr. Wang pointed out, pediatricians must be trained to watch out for these “whole body” symptoms; otherwise, they may sedate children with meds without addressing the source of their discomfort. Indeed, Autism Speaks is in collaboration with the American Pediatric Society to spread ASD awareness and to instill more rigorous and regimented screening processes that will help to catch autism earlier. Dr. Wang made an excellent point when he noted that parents have a much better understanding of autism than researchers, so if you think your child is displaying symptoms, visit autismspeaks.org/signs.

Though there are still more questions than answers, Dr. Wang seemed hopeful, particularly in the genetic research that is underway. The same gene that expresses autism can also express ADHD or schizophrenia, depending on the person; so it’s clear that genetics is part of the equation but not the whole story. That being said, Dr. Wang is hopeful that when we figure out what exactly the gene does to cause ASD, we can see what pathway is going awry, and we might discover a definitive treatment.

If you would like to learn more about ASD, read up on current research, or connect with communities of families that are living with autism, visit autismspeaks.org.

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Living With An Autistic Sibling

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Sometimes, fiction offers us a safe lens through which we can examine our own lives. This week on my radio show, I spoke with Stasia Ward Kehoe, author of The Sound of Letting Go, a poignant young adult novel about a teenager named Daisy who lives with and cares for her autistic brother Steven. Ms. Kehoe’s work helps us understand the many challenges faced by families with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Here’s a quick summary of the story. Daisy, a musical prodigy, has been the “perfect” sibling to her brother Steven. In fact, to a large extent, her life is organized around his needs. Not only is she responsible for “baby sitting”, which constricts her teenage schedule; it’s also her “job” to be sensitive to his many special needs. For example, certain tonal sounds – noises too loud or not loud enough — can lead Steven to self-harm, including wringing his hands until they’re bloody. Sometimes he can be physically violent, leaving Daisy and her parents vulnerable to physical harm. At one point in the novel, Daisy decides to give up her trumpet, because she is not able to juggle both her music and the many parent-like responsibilities that fall on her shoulders at home. However, when Daisy’s parents decide to place Steven in an institution without consulting her, she is devastated. The narrative then chronicles how Daisy re-adjusts to a “normal” life – one with more age appropriate concerns, like friendships and her personal interests – while grappling with the guilt and loss of Steven’s institutionalization.

This may sound like a very specific narrative, but Ms. Kehoe and I spoke at length about how Daisy’s experience applies to so many of us. When Ms. Kehoe would mention her autism research to friends and acquaintances, she was shocked at how often she received the response: “Yes, that’s my life.” Developmental and emotional disabilities are quite prevalent in our communities. But we often don’t hear about them. It can be extremely difficult to find safe forums for expressing the frustrations of living with a family member’s disability. I would go even further and suggest that if you live in partnership or raise children, you can deeply relate to the love/hate relationship that Daisy and her brother share. It is impossible to live in intimacy without sometimes experiencing “dark feelings.” Ms. Kehoe’s work is so powerful because it neutralizes and normalizes the shame we feel about the mixed emotions that we all harbor toward the people we love.

I would of course recommend this book to anyone raising a child with ASD, especially if you are considering institutionalizing that child. This is, of course, a very difficult and personal decision. As Ms. Kehoe’s book clearly demonstrates, this decision has nothing to do with how much you love your child and everything to do with what is best for your family. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of safety. When you have a fourteen-year-old boy at home who is larger than you are and cannot control his violent impulses, you simply do not have the resources to keep him, yourself, or your other family members safe.

One silver lining that Ms. Kehoe discovered in the course of her research is that many siblings of people that are diagnosed with ASD grow up to work with people with disabilities. When you are raised with a sibling with a disability, you are gifted a certain perspective – you naturally develop an insight and level of compassion that others have to learn.

It is so powerful to feel like your story is being told, and that is the reaction that Ms. Kehoe has received from many of her readers. However, she took care to emphasize that her book is not prescriptive. It is, after all, a work of fiction. For those who would like more support and information about raising children with ASD, Ms. Kehoe recommends Autism Speaks, which you can visit at http://www.autismspeaks.org.

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