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Appreciating and Responding to The New York Times article, For Some Teens, It’s Been a Year of Anxiety and Trips to the E.R. by Benedict Carey

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach, NESCA

As an occupational therapist working almost exclusively with teenagers and young adults over the past year, the title of Benedict Carey’s article jumped out at me like a tired and worn flag, waving frantically for acknowledgement. Our teens are anxious, tired, and dealing with living through the proverbial “unprecedented times” without the developmental capabilities needed to quickly adapt in this era of remote learning, remote social interaction, and remote extracurriculars. Remote everything!

It is important for me to note that I really enjoy working with teenagers. I find myself in constant awe of their resiliency, their willingness to confront hard truths that many of us shy away from, and their ability to push forward despite having huge questions about who they truly are. All of these things are tough and require immense emotional fortitude, but this year many of these challenges feel impossible.

Carey has taken the time to gather perspectives from multiple stakeholders. He provides a platform for parents, educators, professors, therapists, pediatricians, and directors of hospital programs to explain the struggles of supporting these kids without adequate resources. Parents describe the fear of supporting their children as they struggle with mental health. Doctors discuss the frustration of having inadequate resources and support in emergency rooms around the country. Carey highlights that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the proportion of adolescent emergency admissions for mental problems, like panic and anxiety, is up 31 percent. Some of my clients add to this statistic and are navigating their own path through chaotic hospitalizations and overwhelmed support systems. Carey’s article is absolutely worth taking the time to read, if only to see the ubiquity of these issues and how they are happening all around our country. Simply put, we have a clear problem. Less clear, is the solution.

When meeting with adolescents and young adults themselves, I hear three main fears popping up week after week. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions on how to support these specific fears or feelings.

  1. “I can’t get this done, (and therefore) I am going to completely ruin my future.”

When looking at future success through a transition lens, we consider the areas of independent living, community participation, post-secondary education, and employment. In the school setting, most students’ curricula are focused solely on academic success. Sometimes, we do a poor job of teaching students about multiple intelligences or emphasizing the importance of hard work. While grades are important, they are not everything, and while standardized testing is returning to students’ schedules, they should not serve as students’ measure of self-worth. We know this, but do they? We have to teach our children that if they are hardworking, kind, and truly doing their best, the threat of “ruining their future” is much less likely than they fear. Let’s highlight the undeniably true narrative that everyone’s path can look different and still lead to success.

  1. “I’m so tired. All of the time.”

Many of my clients tell me they are not sleeping. If they are sleeping, they fall asleep late with a phone in their hand, constantly refreshing apps or trying to maintain communication with their peers. In our current remote world, the phone can feel like a lifeline. Sleep is a foundational need for mental and physical health. Students who are 15 or 16 years old often have a limited understanding of how holistic the effects of decreased sleep can be. Sleep is not their priority. Recently, I have seen parents disable the internet or have their teenagers put their phones into a lockbox from midnight until 6:00am. This new boundary is often met with anger or frustration at the beginning, but then these students start to sleep. They are better able to manage their emotions. They have more energy. They start to see the benefits despite their skepticism. If a tech break doesn’t feel quite right for your family, it is still worth opening up a conversation about the need for strong sleep hygiene and modeling a routine that promotes calming down by limiting screens before bed, which can have hugely positive effects.

  1. “This is never going to end.”

In many ways, a year feels much longer to a 17 year-old than it does to an older adult. Working at a job for four years never feels as long or as formative as the four years of high school. And objectively, a year to a 17 year-old is over five percent of their life, while it’s only two percent of 50 year old’s life. Let’s acknowledge that. Let’s verbalize the fact that teenage years are also full of milestones that have been constantly cancelled or changed to fit social distancing recommendations and safety precautions. There is a sense of loss and grief surrounding many events that these students have been looking forward to since elementary school. Encourage students to do their own research into what the next six months may look like as we start to open back up. Help them to understand the vaccine rollout and the pitfalls and successes that we have had as a nation tackling a novel disease.

Adolescent mental health is going to be an on-going challenge that we tackle as a community. As we slowly forge out of isolation, let’s center our conversations around the mental health of our teens and honestly acknowledge the unique position that they have found themselves in.

References

Carey, B. (2021, February 23). For some teens, it’s been a year of anxiety and trips to the e.r. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/23/health/coronavirus-mental-health-teens.html

Leeb, R.T., Radhakrishnan, L., Martinez, P., Njaj, R., Holland, K.M. (2020, October 27). Mental health-related emergency department visits among children aged <18 during the covid-19 pandemic. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2020:1675-1680. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6945a3

 

About the Author

Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

 

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

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.

 

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.