By: Erin Gibbons, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
The short answer to this question is YES. As a neuropsychologist, I enjoy evaluating students who have complex profiles, including intellectual/developmental disabilities, genetic conditions, and medical complexities. In many cases, these students have been deemed “untestable” and have never had a comprehensive evaluation.
This is problematic for two major reasons.
- First, we cannot understand a student’s potential if we have no data or assessments available. Following from this, it is very hard to develop realistic and measurable goals without using the student’s innate potential to guide those goals.
- Second, lack of testing causes practical and logistical problems later in the student’s life. As a child approaches adulthood at 18, it is necessary to have documentation of their cognitive and adaptive skills as well as diagnoses in order to seek adult services. More specifically, the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) requires documentation of intellectual disabilities prior to age 18.
Having assessed thousands of children and adolescents over the years, I’ve learned that I can ALWAYS gather important information from a neuropsychological evaluation. I have evaluated students who are nonverbal, students with severe intellectual disabilities, students with limited to no motor abilities, students with vision and hearing impairments, students with severely challenging behaviors…. In every case, a neuropsychological evaluation has been meaningful and useful in terms of A) understanding the student’s capabilities, and B) developing educational and treatment goals.
It is important to understand that a neuropsychological evaluation with a more developmentally complex student will look different than an evaluation with a neurotypical student. There are standardized tests that I will not be able to administer based on the student’s language skills, motor abilities, and academic knowledge. Some students can only tolerate 20 or 30 minutes of testing at a time, so the evaluation is broken into 9 or 10 sessions. Some students provide their responses using a communication device. Some students need to be supported by a behavior therapist to help them maintain a safe body.
In some cases, students cannot engage in any standardized tests due to multiple disabilities. However, I still have them come into my office at least once so that I can meet them in person and gather information about their communication skills, social interest, and activity levels. I will then spend time observing the student at their educational program, interviewing school-based staff, and gathering information from the student’s caregivers about their skills at home. With all of these data points, I can then provide a thorough set of recommendations for school-, community-, and home-based goals – even though I might not have “valid” standard scores.
For all of the families who think that a neuropsychological evaluation cannot be done with their child for one reason or another, I urge you to reconsider your perception of the purpose of an evaluation. In these cases, the emphasis of the evaluation is not on test scores, but on developing a better understanding of the student’s strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, the evaluation should be used as a reference to guide treatment goals to help the student achieve the highest level of independence of which they are capable based on their potential.
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.
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