What Does Autism Look Like? Exploring the Differences among Girls and Boys

By | NESCA Notes 2019


By: Erin Gibbons, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Boys are still four times more likely be diagnosed with ASD; however, research indicates that the diagnosis is often missed in girls, especially those who have average intelligence and “milder” forms of ASD. To understand why ASD is more often missed in girls, let’s explore the differences between boys and girls with ASD. This discussion will focus on children with average to above average intelligence (about 50% of all children diagnosed with ASD).


Boys Girls
Poor impulse control, more acting out Likely to be quiet and withdrawn
Disruptive behaviors in the classroom setting Tend to be reserved and cooperative at school
Frequent repetitive motor behaviors that are directly observable Lower frequency of these motor behaviors
Lack of interest in imaginary play Very much engaged in imaginary play
Restricted interests may seem unusual – e.g., train schedules, maps, windmills Restricted interests may seem “age appropriate” – e.g., horses, unicorns, ballet
Trouble making friends Might have a few friends
Likely to exhibit angry outbursts when frustrated/anxious Likely to engage in self-harm or other behaviors that are not observed by others when frustrated/anxious
Lack of awareness of being different or not fitting in More motivated to fit in and “hide” social difficulties – might try to imitate the behavior of a peer that is perceived as popular


Due to these differences, the diagnosis of ASD is often missed in young girls. Adults might agree that a girl is “odd” or “quirky,” but dismiss these concerns because she has good eye contact, has some friends, and does not engage in hand flapping or other unusual behaviors. Unfortunately, other girls might be misdiagnosed, which could lead to ineffective or inappropriate treatment interventions. Most commonly, they might be misdiagnosed with ADHD or Anxiety Disorder.

In many cases, girls with ASD have increasing difficulties with social interactions as they get older and demands get higher. A young girl with ASD might be able to “get by” in social interactions but by the time she reaches adolescence, she is not able to navigate the intricacies of the social milieu. This can lead to social isolation and high risk of being bullied or rejected by peers.

Unfortunately, a missed diagnosis of ASD for a young girl can have long-reaching ramifications. She might experience depression, anxiety and/or low self-esteem, wondering why she doesn’t “fit in” and “feels different” from other girls. She might start to struggle in school or disconnect from activities that she used to enjoy. Moreover, missing the diagnosis in childhood means that she did not receive services to support her social and peer interaction skills during her formative years.

As always, when parents or other caregivers have concerns about a child’s development, it is important to seek an evaluation from a professional. And if the findings do not feel quite right, parents should never feel uncomfortable about seeking a second opinion.


About the Author: 

Erin Gibbons, Ph.D. is a pediatric neuropsychologist with expertise in neurodevelopmental and neuropsychological assessment of infants,

children, and adolescents presenting with developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. She has a particular interest in assessing students with complex medical histories and/or neurological impairments, including those who are cognitively delayed, nonverbal, or physically disabled. Dr. Gibbons joined NESCA in 2011 after completing a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. She particularly enjoys working with young children, especially those who are transitioning from Early Intervention into preschool. Having been trained in administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), Dr. Gibbons has experience diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in children aged 12 months and above.


If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Gibbons or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Transition Planning for Adulthood—It Starts at Birth

By | NESCA Notes 2019


By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist

There are many transitions throughout a person’s life, but as a transition specialist working at a pediatric neuropsychology practice, my focus is most often on helping students who have struggled with learning, social and/or emotional difficulties to plan for and successfully navigate the transition from secondary school to whatever comes next in life (e.g., employment, transition program, community college, apprenticeship, etc.). I focus on helping young people envision their future selves and set short- and long-term goals for themselves—putting them into the driver’s seat for their own lives and helping them manage the risks and responsibilities that come with making choices for themselves.

When a family walks into my office for the first time, it is common for one parent or caretaker to worry aloud that they are starting transition planning for their child “too late.” I consistently respond that it is never too late to start planning and to begin transferring responsibility from one generation to the next. But today, I also want to emphasize that “it’s never too early” to start to plan for your child to be a more independent and competent adult—the best transition planning starts at birth.

Some common examples of transitions that start at a very early age that many parents and caregivers can relate to are: a child sleeping through the night for the first time unsupported, holding a cup and drinking without spilling, feeding oneself with a spoon, and/or riding a bicycle. Each of these activities is an example of a child building competence and independence while their parents simultaneously relinquish some amount of control. Often times, mistakes, messes and even pain are a natural part of the process.

From a young age, there are many skills that children can learn that will make a big difference for them later in life. Some examples include:

  • Picking out clothes for the next morning
  • Putting dirty clothes in a hamper
  • Loading the washing machine
  • Putting clean clothes away in drawers
  • Washing hands before eating, after using the bathroom and after playing outside
  • Setting the table (maybe not plates or glasses, but perhaps napkins, forks and spoons)
  • Carrying dishes to the counter and placing them next to the sink after dinner—or even in the dishwasher
  • Putting their own garbage in the trash
  • Collecting small trash bins to dump into a larger bin/bag on trash day
  • Helping to pack their own lunch
  • Helping to prep a meal (e.g., washing veggies, pouring ingredients, etc.)
  • Getting condiments from the refrigerator and putting them away after dinner
  • Getting a snack for self or a sibling from the refrigerator or pantry
  • Wiping down the table after a meal
  • Feeding/providing water for pets
  • Weeding
  • Raking leaves
  • Shoveling snow
  • Helping to get the mail
  • Brainstorming for/making a shopping list
  • Finding assigned items at the grocery store
  • Carrying light grocery bags
  • Helping to pack belongings for a family trip
  • Making gifts/cards for a celebration
  • Budgeting a few dollars to buy inexpensive but thoughtful gifts for family members

Some of these will apply to your child and some of them will not. And some of these may require adding time to your schedule, allowing a child to complete tasks at their own pace, or doing some household reorganization, allowing a child to access items necessary to complete tasks. Finally, a lot of deep breathing and patience—for both you and your child—will be required!

At any point in time, you can identify a task  you regularly do for your child and consider where there are pieces they can do for themselves. If your only role in the task is to prompt your child, consider whether there might be a low-technology tool (post-it, photograph) or high-technology tool (alarm, phone reminder) that could take the place of your prompt. If you are not sure how to make a change, it may be a good time to get help from a teacher, pediatrician, behavioral therapist, special educator, etc.

The important thing is that you are starting to think about where there is a potential for increasing competence, independence, confidence and self-esteem for your child. You are starting to plan for your own obsolescence in your child’s life, or at least in their carrying out every day self-care activities and chores. While that is a scary thing, it is also a beautiful and empowering thing!


If you are interested in working with a transition specialist at NESCA for consultation, planning or evaluation, please complete our online intake form: https://nesca-newton.com/intake-form/.


About the Author:

Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Back to School 101: How to Support your Child

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Reva Tankle, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist


When should I start transitioning back to the “school routine?”

The summer break should be a time for kids to have fun playing with their friends and family and enjoying new adventures and experiences. As the new school year looms, however, parents start to think about how to transition from the flexible downtime of summer to the more structured and rigid schedule of the school year. As such, they often wonder when to start the process of getting back to the school routine. Of course, it will be different for each child but, for most children, a slow transition is the best plan. Things to consider are:

  • Probably the most important routine to get back into is the bedtime and morning schedule. Parents should consider a slow transition starting 1–2 weeks before the first day of school. Move the bedtime by 10–15 minutes earlier every few days; inching closer to the school night bedtime. By the time it is the night before the 1st day of school, your child should be back to their regular bedtime. After allowing for an adequate number of hours of sleep, parents might consider waking their child up earlier in the morning, again, inching closer to the wake-up time on school days.
  • During the summer months, some children’s access to screen time might increase. Parents should consider reducing screen time during the day and especially in the evening; closer to their family’s rules for access to screens during the school year. Since many children have summertime reading to do, this might be a good time to get your kids off the screens and focused on completing their summer reading.
  • Regardless of your best intentions to transition smoothly to the school year routine, the beginning of school can be challenging for many children. Giving children, especially younger children, adequate time after school for play and ensuring the right amount of sleep will help children make the transition from summer to school.

What can I do to help this year’s teachers, specialists and therapists get to know my child as well as what’s in their IEP or 504 Plan?

If you child is in elementary school, your child will likely have one or at most two new teachers. It is a good idea to make sure the teachers are prepared to meet your child’s educational needs from the first day of school. But it is also important to recognize that it will take time for the teacher to get to know your child, and you want to make sure that you don’t overload the teachers with more information than they can handle. They will read the IEP, but that can be very overwhelming. To help them get started, you can send an email on the teachers’ first day back at school. Keep it short. Write a few sentences describing your child’s strengths and weaknesses. And then write the 2 or 3 things in the classroom that you think will be most important for your child to be successful in the upcoming year. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be short and to the point in this note. If you keep it focused on the most important information, it is more likely that the teachers will remember what you have shared.

If your child is in middle or high school, you could use a similar approach and write a short note about your child. You may choose to send it to all their content teachers or specifically to their Special Education teacher/liaison.

Finally, if your child is on a 504 Plan, it is definitely worthwhile to send a note to all your child’s teachers that informs them of the 504 Plan, listing the accommodations that are in your child’s 504 Plan. If, however, it is a very long list, you might consider writing the most important accommodations and request that they refer to the official 504 Plan for the comprehensive list. If you have a scanned copy, you could attach it to the email and make it easier for them to have access to it.

My child is anxious – how can I help my child feel more at ease?

Many children feel anxious at the start of a school year. They worry about having a new teacher and being with new classmates. To ease your child’s worries about the first day of school, here are some suggestions:

  • Often teachers start working in the school a few days before the students arrive. Call the teacher and arrange for your child to visit the classroom and have a brief 1:1 meet and greet with the child. If the classroom is set up, the teacher might be able to show your child where their desk will be. Consider taking pictures of the room, desk, locker/cubby and other locations in the school where your child may frequent throughout the school day. As the first day approaches, you can remind your child about how nice the teacher was and possibly, where their desk is, reviewing the photos, if taken. Taking away some of the “unknowns” should reduce your child’s anxiety.
  • Find out from other parents which children from last years’ class are in your child’s new class. Arrange playdates toward the end of summer so you child has some familiar faces to look for.
  • Make sure your child has a “go-to” person in the school with whom they feel comfortable. If they had a counselor the prior year, make sure that person is available to them and remind your child they can go see them if needed.
  • Most importantly, be positive and optimistic about the upcoming year. If you are calm and expect the best, your child will pick up on that and approach the new year with a positive attitude.

New School?

If your child is moving to a new school, many of the suggestions listed above will be helpful in your child’s transition to that school. Most importantly, the opportunity to tour the school and meet teachers should ease their concerns. If they are a middle or high school student, it might be helpful for them to know where their locker is and to “practice” going to their different classrooms. Again, revisit pictures, if  taken during the school visit/meet and greet. The more familiar they are with the environment, the better!

My child doesn’t have an IEP or 504, but I have concerns. What do I do?

If, as the school year begins, you have concerns from the previous year, you should be prepared to act quickly to ensure that your child doesn’t fall further behind. Within the first few days of school, you should send your child’s primary teacher a brief note that outlines your concerns. For example, you might write: “My son didn’t meet the end of the year benchmark in reading last year. I am concerned about his reading development. I would like more information from you about his reading level after you do your beginning of the year benchmark assessment.” It will be important for you to follow up with the teacher within 3–4 weeks and get the information you requested. If you remain concerned because of academic, behavioral or emotional issues you are seeing at home, you should not hesitate to request a Special Education evaluation for your child. Make your request in writing to either the Special Education coordinator at your school or the main Special Education office (find out from your school where to send it or, to be sure, send it to both).

It is critical that you don’t let too much time go by at the beginning of the year to make your request for an evaluation. The school is obligated to evaluate at your request so, don’t be dissuaded from the evaluation if you have concerns about your child’s development and their ability to make progress in school.

I wish you and your family a positive and happy return to school this year!



Reva Tankle, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Combining her experience and training in both pediatric neuropsychology and educational advocacy, Dr. Reva Tankle has particular expertise in working with families who are navigating the IEP process. Having participated in numerous team meetings over the years, Dr. Tankle is especially knowledgeable about the many ways that schools can support and accommodate students with special learning needs, information that she clearly communicates in her evaluation reports and in team meetings, if needed. She also has a great deal of experience in articulating the reasons that a student may need a program outside of the public school.

Dr. Tankle evaluates students with ADHD, learning disabilities, high functioning autism spectrum disorders, and neurological conditions, as well as children with complex profiles that are not easily captured by a single diagnostic category.


To schedule an appointment with Dr. Reva Tankle in Plainville, MA, or any of our expert neuropsychologists, please complete our online intake form


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Identifying and Supporting Twice-exceptional (2e) Children

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Alissa Talamo, PhD
Clinical Neuropsychologist, NESCA

  • Rodney gets decent grades and achieves close to or at grade level in all of his district assessments. When concerns about his reading achievement were raised and an evaluation was conducted, it was found that his IQ is well above average, superior in some areas, but his reading decoding scores are below the average range for students his age. He has a combination of some gifted abilities and other areas that require intensive intervention. Rodney is twice-exceptional. (National Education Association, The Twice Exceptional Dilemma).
  •  Because of his behavioral difficulties, James attends a special program within his school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. His teachers have difficulty seeing him as “gifted” as he is often uncooperative and reluctant to perform academic tasks in class. However, indicators are there. He participates in a weekly community program with students who are not disabled, to design a functioning robot and does so with a tremendous amount of ingenuity. He is also an avid reader outside of school and can offer a very keen oral analysis of the works he has read.  James is twice-exceptional.  (National Education Association, The Twice Exceptional Dilemma).

Twice exceptional—or “2e”—students are those who possess outstanding gifts or talents and are capable of high performance, but who also have a disability that affects some aspect of learning (Brody & Mills, 1997).  The largest group of twice exceptional children are those students who are academically gifted but who also have a disability (e.g., learning, physical, social/emotional or behavioral).

Some common characteristics of gifted students who also have a disability include:

  • Demonstrates a high verbal ability, but displays extreme difficulties in written language (reading, written expression)
  • Has strong observation skills but difficulty with memory skills
  • Shows attention deficit problems, even though they demonstrate special talents that consume their attention
  • Understands concepts at a high level, but struggles with basic skills (e.g., reading decoding, math fact fluency).

As a result, these students are at risk of facing challenges, such as:

  • Asynchronous development (the child is far ahead intellectually, but far behind socially and emotionally)
  • Underperforming academically
  • Frustration
  • Argumentative personality
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Poor study habits and organizational skills
  • Difficulty in social situations
  • Because they are clearly bright but performing poorly, they may be perceived as “lazy,” which, in turn, puts them at risk for criticism that can negatively impact self-esteem, which can also put them  at risk for depression.

Unfortunately, in the states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, there is currently no gifted education legislation. As a result, schools are not required to identify gifted students.  Even if a specific school system does choose to identify these students, there is no mandate to create a program for those identified, and there is no gifted funding.  Massachusetts and New Hampshire are two of only eight U.S. states that do not have a gifted and talented mandate. And while Rhode Island has mandated identification of gifted students and requires programs to serve those students, it does not provide the schools with any government funding.

Since Massachusetts and New Hampshire are not yet mandating screenings for giftedness, nor mandating programs for these students (although some schools do so independent of the lack of mandate), it is important for parents to be informed of their child’s learning profile to advocate for needed services as well as to encourage their child’s areas of strengths and interests. The best way to determine if a child meets criteria for twice exceptionality is through a neuropsychological evaluation. A thorough neuropsychological evaluation will help a parent and school understand a child’s cognitive, academic and social/emotional strengths and weaknesses, helping to identify what supports or programming that specific child truly needs.

In addition, there are supports out there, as many giftedness programs and extra-curricular opportunities exist. Some helpful websites include:

  • davidsongifted.org – along with a strong (and easily searchable) database, the Davidson Institute and Davidson Academy are dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted students in the United States, including summer programs, scholarships and an accredited online school.
  • massgifted.org – The Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education’s (MAGE) mission is to support and advance the understanding of high potential/gifted children and their special needs, to promote the establishment of programs, services and opportunities for high ability/gifted students, and to encourage the exchange of information pertaining to gifted individuals among educators, parents, policy-makers and students on the national, state and local levels.

Additional sources used for this article:

childmind.org/article/twice-exceptional kids both gifted and challenged


www.understood.org/myths about twice exceptional 2e students




About the Author:

With NESCA since its inception in 2007,  Dr. Talamo had previously practiced for many years as a child and adolescent clinical psychologist before completing postdoctoral re-training in pediatric neuropsychology at the Children’s Evaluation Center. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Columbia University, Dr. Talamo earned her doctorate in clinical health psychology from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. She has given a number of presentations, most recently on “How to Recognize a Struggling Reader,” “Supporting Students with Working Memory Limitations,” (with Bonnie Singer, Ph.D., CCC-SLP of Architects for Learning ), and “Executive Function in Elementary and Middle School StudentsDr. Talamo specializes in working with children and adolescents with language-based learning disabilities including dyslexia, attentional disorders and emotional issues. She is also interested in working with highly gifted children.


To book a neuropsychological evaluation or consultation  with Dr. Talamo or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate that you would like to see “Dr. Talamo” in the referral line.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Summer Reflections and Growth: A Director’s Update

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Ann Helmus, Ph.D.
NESCA Founder/Director

The final months of the school year always feel intense at NESCA as the clinical staff works diligently to get reports out on shorter timelines, squeeze in extra meetings and school observations, and ride the waves of joy and disappointment with parents who are seeking different educational placements for their child in the fall.  And somehow, every year, it all gets done, and then I can feel everyone let their breath out.  The halls of NESCA are a bit quieter now with staff taking well-deserved time off to be with their families and friends, relaxing and renewing in their favorite places.  I’ve just come back from a week of hiking in Norway, feeling rejuvenated by the time in nature and physical challenge—something we all need.

Even with the quieter summer months upon us, we continue to improve and expand NESCA’s services to meet the needs of the children and families we serve.

  • NESCA is very fortunate to have Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS, join us as the Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services. I have worked with Dot many times over the last 30 years and am thrilled to have her as part of our team. She now brings her vast experience with the meaningful inclusion of children with special needs and her exceptional ability to work with school systems effectively to our NESCA families.
  • We also recently welcomed a new pediatric neuropsychologist, Dr. Yvonne Asher, who is splitting her time between the Newton and Londonderry offices. While she sees a wide range of children, Dr. Asher specializes in the evaluation of preschoolers and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  • We are sad to be saying farewell to Holly Pelletier, our acupuncturist, who will be practicing full time in Maine, but welcome Meghan Meade, who will be taking her place starting today, today, July 15.
  • In September, Dr. Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L, will be joining us full time as a member of the Transition Planning Team under the leadership of Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS.

I hope you and your children enjoy the different pace and energy of the summer months and that this is a time of growth as well as reflection for all of you.


About the Author: 

NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the  Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.

Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.



Epigenetics—Redefining Nature and Nurture

By | NESCA Notes 2019


By:  Stephanie Monaghan-Blout, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Parents often wonder why their children are contending with learning problems or attentional issues, or suffer from emotional difficulties, and if they could have done something different in their parenting to have spared their child. Alternatively, they assume their own genes are condemning their child to these difficulties and challenges. This is the nature-nurture debate, but beyond contributing to parental sleepless nights, this either-or construction is overly simplistic—and overly deterministic. A  better way to think about this problem is provided by the study of epigenetics, or the  interaction between genetics and environment (genetics x environment).

The word “epigenetic” refers to  any process that alters gene activity (“turning on“ or “turning off” genes) without changing the underlying DNA sequence. These changes are sometimes referred to as “mutations.”  Some of these mutations will be “reset” in the next generation, but some continue to influence gene expression for several generations. Nessa Carey, author of “Epigenetics Revolution,”  uses the analogy of a movie to help understand this process. If a person’s life were a movie, their DNA would be the script, and certain blocks of the DNA sequence (genes) would instruct key actions or events to take place. The concept of genetics could be compared to screen writing, while epigenetics  would be like directing. The script may stay the same, but the director can choose to eliminate or accentuate certain scenes or dialogues, thus changing the course of the story.

Epigenetic effects may occur anytime throughout the life span, from within the womb to old age. Epigenetic influences include what you eat, how you sleep, who you interact with and whether you exercise. They also include environmental factors, such as the quality of the air you breathe and how safe you feel in your home and in your community. For instance, children whose pregnancies occurred during the Dutch famine of 1944-45 have been found to have increased rates of coronary heart disease, obesity and schizophrenia in comparison to the children of mothers who were not exposed to famine.  Other research has shown that children who had experienced stressful events during the pregnancy or during childhood were more likely to experience depression if they have mutations on a small number of genes, including those affecting neurotransmitter serotonin.

The really exciting element of the new research on epigenetics involves the  possibility that lifestyle factors can reverse or mitigate the negative elements of gene mutations. For instance, there is intense interest in the impact of diet on ADHD symptoms. At this point, the findings from the analysis of a large number of studies indicate that Omega-3 (fish oil) can have a small but measurable effect in reducing symptoms, and food additives and allergens can cause or worsen  symptoms in children who are sensitive to these triggers. Exercise has been proven to improve cognition and brain plasticity, the effects of which can be felt for a long time. We are just at the beginning of these investigations, with more exciting findings to come.

References and Resources:

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2018 Sep 1.

Published in final edited form as: Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2017 Sep; 80: 443–456. Published online 2017 Jun 27. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.06

Weinhold, Bob. Epigenetices: The Science of Change. Environmental Perspectives 2006 Mar: 114 (3): 160-167

A Super Brief and Basic Explanation of Epigenetics for Total Beginner: Epigenetics Simplified. https://www.whatis epigenetics.com/what-is-epigenetics

Epigenetics: Fundamentals: Epigenetics Simplified. https://www.whatis epigenetics.com/what-is-epigenetics

Nigg, Joel (2017) Getting Ahead of ADHD. New York. Guilford Press


About the Author:

Formerly an adolescent and family therapist, Dr. Stephanie Monaghan-Blout is a senior clinician who joined NESCA at its inception in 2007. Dr. Monaghan-Blout specializes in the assessment of clients with complex learning and emotional issues. She is proficient in the administration of psychological (projective) tests, as well as in neuropsychological testing. Her responsibilities at NESCA also include acting as Clinical Coordinator, overseeing psycho-educational and therapeutic services. She has a particular interest in working with adopted children and their families, as well as those impacted by traumatic experiences. She is a member of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) associated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law Clinic, and is working with that group on an interdisciplinary guide to trauma sensitive evaluations.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Monaghan-Blout or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists and transition specialists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


School to Summer Transitions

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Ann-Noelle McCowan, M.S, RYT
Guidance Counselor; Yoga Specialist

For many children and adults, the end of the school year and the start of summer is an eagerly awaited transition. In schools the days are counted down, final assignments handed in, lockers cleaned out and yearbooks signed. Kids imagine the freedom of more sleep and play, and a reduction in work and stress. During the school year, kids operate under routines and schedules that dictate many aspects of their life. What time to rest and what time to rise, predictability with where they will be each day, who they might encounter, and what their afternoons and evenings will entail. Kids of all ages feel safe and secure when they have clear routines and expectations. With some simple tips, families can help kids of all ages have an enjoyable summer and a smooth transition between school and summer and back into the school.

  1. Reflection: With my NESCA clients and school students, I work towards building and strengthening children and teens’ ability to self-reflect. Self-awareness and curiosity are crucial skills to manage life’s ups and downs and be our best selves. Encourage your child to look back over their year and think about something they enjoyed, learned, worked hard on, or experienced. Have them think about issues that were difficult but are no longer triggers for them (such as a friendship struggle or challenging assignment). This can be a verbal discussion, journal writing, drawing, family share or even acted out. Helping kids look back over their successes and struggles, and talking about what occurred, and could have been done differently allows reflection during a safer, less charged time. It also subtly practices executive function skills such as working memory, problem solving, cognitive flexibility, perspective taking, emotional regulation, and holding and shifting focus.
  2. Setting Goals: The longer, sunny days of summer allow different opportunities for goal setting. It may be swimming out to the dock, adding to a sea glass collection, making a new level in a game, getting through a favorite book series or teaching the dog a new trick. This discussion could also explore ways to break down that goal into achievable steps over time, or what the back-up plan may be if there are unforeseen road blocks (e.g. collecting white rocks if no sea glass is found or conducting research on where to find sea glass) and when the goal will be reviewed or if there will be some family competition involved. Optional: talk out loud about these being brain-strengthening practices of building executive function skills in the areas of action, focus and effort.
  3. Routine: While summer is a time to relax many routines, routines are stabilizing and comforting for children. If your family has Taco Tuesdays, FaceTiming with grandparents on Sundays or soccer practice on Thursday, creatively incorporate these familiar routines to help smooth the start and end of summer. Maybe it’s Tacos Tuesdays on the family vacation week, or a family soccer scrimmage or watching World Cup highlights on Thursdays. You might just find a summer routine that could be added to the school year as well (Sundae Sundays anyone?).


About the Author:

Ann-Noelle provides therapeutic yoga-counseling sessions individually designed for each child. NESCA therapeutic yoga establishes a safe space for a child to face their challenges while nourishing their innate strengths using the threefold combination of yoga movement, yoga breath and yoga thinking.

Ann-Noelle has worked with children and adolescents since 2001 and practiced yoga and meditation since 2005. Since 2003 she has been employed full time as a school counselor in a local high performing school district, and prior to that was employed in the San Francisco Public Schools. Ann-Noelle received her dual Masters Degree (MS) in Marriage, Family and Child Therapy (MFCC), and School Counseling from San Francisco State University in 2002, her BA from Union College in New York, and her 200 hour-Registered Yoga Credential (RYT) from Shri Yoga. Ann-Noelle completed additional Yoga training including the Kid Asana Program in 2014, Trauma in Children in 2016 and Adaptive yoga for Parkinson’s in 2014.


If you are interested in therapeutic yoga with Ms. McCowan,  please complete NESCA’s intake form today and indicate interest in “Yoga”


For more information on the therapeutic yoga at NESCA, please visit  https://nesca-newton.com/yoga/

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Exercise Before Medication: How consistent workouts can change your life

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Billy Demiri, CPT
Certified Personal Trainer

Recently I came across an article that highlights what I have believed to be true since I first started exercising regularly myself…a healthy body will foster a healthy mind. The study shows that “lifting weights helps lift depression; cardiovascular activities reduce the effects of anxiety; and any type of movement improves mental health.” Throughout the study, patients were led in a structured exercise program for 60 minutes four times a week. An astounding 95 percent reported feeling better, and 91.8 percent were very pleased with their bodies during each session. With those kinds of results, exercise should be at the forefront of treating mental health issues before psychiatric drugs.

When I started working as a personal trainer and coach, I saw the positive effects that consistent exercise had on all of my clients. Here at NESCA, I have the privilege of working with some amazing kids and young adults—all dealing with different disabilities/mental illness from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Anxiety, Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Muscular Dystrophy, and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). My goal has always been to make exercise fun and challenging, while also trying to identify goals that drive each individual to want to make exercise a regular part of their lifestyle.

Using a variety of equipment, we work on agility, conditioning, strength, coordination and overall better movement mechanics. After six years of being a personal trainer, and working at NESCA the past year, I couldn’t agree more with the findings of the article. I continue to see firsthand that consistent exercise can unlock everyone’s full potential and, in turn, create a lot of joy and self-worth.

Over the past year, it has been spectacular to see each person progress from session to session—not just physically but mentally. One of my clients was struggling with staying on task and had a hard time completing one exercise at a time before he got frustrated and needed a break. Each session we kept on progressing, and one exercise turned into two, then three, until we built up to doing four-move circuits. Yes, he built up strength and endurance over time, but more Importantly, he gained confidence in himself. He learned that what he originally thought was daunting was actually easy and very doable. Then  he went one step further and wanted to make it even harder. It was amazing seeing his mood change from not wanting to do any exercise to smiling and celebrating after beating his previous time in a four-move circuit. By staying consistent with exercise and seeing himself improve each week, I could see noticeable changes in his self-esteem, on-task behavior and overall mood during workouts—not to mention that he also developed better movement patterns and gained strength, endurance and overall better health.

Based on my experiences, prescribing exercise before medication is a worthwhile approach to continue to look at. Each person needs to be looked at individually, and more research needs to be done to ensure the safety of the patient and others without medication, however it’s clear through research and my own experiences that exercise has positive impact on our overall well-being. It will take some time to change the norm of prescribing patterns, but we are heading in the right direction.


Related Links for Additional Reading:





About the Author:

Certified Personal Trainer Billy Demiri offers Personal and Social Coaching (PSC) at NESCA. Billy has several fitness certifications including: NSCA-CPT (National Strength Condition Association- Certified Personal Trainer) Certified and Autism Fit Certified.


To book sessions with Billy Demiri, complete NESCA’s online intake form and note that you are interested in Personal & Social Coaching.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Taking parents to SPACE! A groundbreaking treatment for parents of children with anxiety

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Ryan Ruth Conway, PsyD
Clinical Psychologist

As a child and adolescent psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety, it is very rare that I work solely with the individual. More commonly, in working with anxious youth, I engage the caregivers in treatment as well, as they serve a unique role in helping children better manage their symptoms. Sometimes I even meet with parents without ever seeing their anxious child, usually in situations where children are either very young or having difficulty participating in treatment.

Anxiety is a universal emotion that we all experience, and it can be quite helpful in alerting us to danger. However, some people experience heightened anxiety related to things or situations that do not actually pose a real threat, even though it truly feels that way. There are three parts of anxiety that impact each other – 1) cognitions (worrisome thoughts), 2) feelings (emotions and physiological sensations e.g., racing heart, stomachaches), and 3) behaviors (fight/flight/freeze response e.g., having tantrums, avoidance of anxiety-provoking stimuli).

Children will go to great lengths to find relief from anxiety. One of the typical ways they do so is by avoiding things they find scary. For instance, a child with separation anxiety may decline invitations for sleepovers and/or refuse to go to school. As their “go to” for support, children oftentimes manage anxiety by eliciting their parents to make them feel better. For a child with social anxiety, parents might step in and speak for the child when confronting strangers. When a teenager is facing persistent and obsessive thoughts about germs and cleanliness, parents might wash and re-wash the child’s clothing. For the individual who worries about a bunch of different things, parents might find themselves providing reassurance by answering a lot of their child’s questions or responding to repeated text messages ensuring the parents’ safety.

Anxiety has an interesting way of entangling family members into its “worry web,” and families fall victim to its demands to maintain peace in the household, largely without even realizing they are doing so! We call this parent accommodation, or any actions caregivers take or deliberately do not take because of their child’s anxiety. Accommodation is incredibly common and understandable. Parents will do anything and everything to protect their children and make them feel better. While accommodation might alleviate anxiety symptoms quickly and reduce anxiety in the short-term, unfortunately it is unhelpful in the long-term. Anxiety is tricky – the more parents accommodate, the more the worry web continues to grow, and children end up relying on their parents to bring relief as opposed to learning to manage anxiety on their own.

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a training for the SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions) program, an innovative, short-term intervention developed at Yale University’s Child Study Center under the leadership of Dr. Eli Lebowitz, a prominent child therapist, researcher and author. As an empirically-supported treatment, SPACE has been well researched and, in a recent study, shown to be just as effective as individual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in treating child and adolescent anxiety (Click here).

SPACE is unique in that the treatment is delivered only to parents. In considering the interpersonal nature of anxiety and different reactions parents can have to their child’s symptoms, it brings caregivers together to send consistent, supportive messages. The aim of SPACE is two-fold. One goal is to help parents respond effectively to their child, in a way that both validates the child’s experience of anxiety and also shows confidence in the child’s ability to tolerate discomfort. Parents also work collaboratively with the therapist to develop a clear plan to take small, gradual steps in reducing accommodations. In addition, parents receive guidance on how to respond to their child’s reactions to these changes. Parents are not viewed as the problem, but rather as part of the solution. The result is a child or teen who can better self-regulate and cope with anxiety independently.

The interested reader can access additional articles about the SPACE program here:



Dr. Conway offers SPACE to parents at NESCA’s Newton location. For caregivers who would like to participate in this treatment or have any questions, feel free to contact Dr. Conway at rconway@nesca-newton.com or 617-658-9831.


About the Author: 

Ryan Ruth Conway, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), behavioral interventions and other evidence-based treatments for children, adolescents and young adults who struggle with mood and anxiety disorders as well as behavioral challenges. She also has extensive experience conducting parent training with caregivers of children who present with disruptive behaviors and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Dr. Conway has been trained in a variety of evidence-based treatments, including Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP). Dr. Conway conducts therapy at NESCA utilizing an individualized approach and tailoring treatments to meet each client’s unique needs and goals. Dr. Conway has a passion for working collaboratively with families and other professionals. She is available for school consultations and provides a collaborative approach for students who engage in school refusal.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

When “Attention Problems” Are Not ADHD

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Jessica Geragosian, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurological disruption of the arousal system in the brain resulting in difficulties regulating attention and activity levels. ADHD can present with or without hyperactivity. Children with ADHD often have trouble engaging in expected tasks and maintaining appropriate behavioral control due to problems with inattention and lack of self-regulation. This can result in problems in the home, at school, and in peer relationships.

When concerns regarding attention or activity level are raised by parents or teachers, common practice is to consult with the child’s pediatrician. Parents and teachers might fill out rating scales asking questions like: Does your child have problems paying attention? Does your child have a hard time sitting still? Is your child having problems with learning? Is your child having difficulty following directions at home? When the answers to these questions are “yes,” a diagnosis of ADHD may seem appropriate.

However, there are many cases where inattention and/or impulsive behavior present as a symptom of another underlying problem and are not attributable to a primary attention disorder (ADHD).

The 5 most common misattributions I have seen in my clinical practice as a pediatric neuropsychologist in New Hampshire and Massachusetts are:

  1. Anxiety—When an individual is in a state of “fight or flight,” the brain lacks appreciation for information from the external environment that isn’t critical. When an individual is in a generalized state of anxiety, it is extremely difficult to remain focused and engaged in expected tasks.
  2. Learning disability—A student may have a disability in a core academic area. For example, a teacher may observe a child as being inattentive, when, in fact, they are several grade levels behind in reading. Thus, they cannot access the materials being distributed to the class.
  3. Communication disorder—If a child’s primary deficit is in the way they process language, you can be sure they look inattentive (e.g., not responding accurately to questions, inability to follow directions, etc.)
  4. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—Some children on the autism spectrum appear quite inattentive. In my experience, many children with ASD are often more tuned in to their internal environment (i.e., their thoughts and interests) at the expense of the external/social environment (i.e., parent, classroom and social expectations). While this can look similar to ADHD, the treatment approach is quite different.
  5. Other neurocognitive disorder (e.g., Processing speed deficit)—Other cognitive deficits can also make a student appear inattentive. If a student has slow processing speed, for example, the individual may not be able to keep up with the pace of instruction, resulting in an inability to absorb all of the lesson.

Other less common issues can also present as inattention, including trauma, absence seizures, hearing impairment, hallucinations, Tourette’s syndrome, among others. Because the root cause of inattention can sometimes be something very specific and complex, it is important to get a thorough evaluation.

It is also not uncommon for ADHD to present alongside the challenges identified above. In this case, effective intervention requires a simultaneous treatment plan addressing all challenges concurrently.

It is important to get a big picture—and accurate—understanding of a child’s neuropsychological profile in planning effective interventions. Our brains are complex, and one symptom can be common to many different origins. Getting the correct diagnosis the first time helps to put the right treatments in place.


About the Author:

Dr. Jessica Geragosian is a Licensed Psychologist in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She has a wide range of clinical experience – in hospital, school and clinic settings – working with children and adolescents presenting with a wide range of cognitive, learning, social and psychological challenges.

Dr. Geragosian operates under the primary belief that all children want to, and can be, successful. The primary goal of her work is to identify the child’s innate strengths and find any underlying vulnerabilities preventing a child from achieving success. Whether the primary problem is an inability to acquire academic skills, maintain friendships, control emotions, or regulate behavior to meet expectations; she takes a holistic approach to understand the complex interplay of developmental, neurological and psychological factors contributing to a child’s presenting challenges.

Dr. Geragosian earned her doctoral degree from William James University, before completing postgraduate training in pediatric neuropsychology at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children at North Shore Medical Center, where a focus of her work was neuropsychological assessment of young children with developmental challenges.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Geragosian or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.