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The Power of a List

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

For so many children, adolescents, and young adults, I find myself recommending something that seems too simple to be of much use – a list. The power of lists has been identified and described in depth by several experts, such as Atul Gawande (The Checklist Manifesto – an excellent read). These books often discuss efficiency in the workplace, health and safety practices, and maintaining consistency in products or services. As adults, these are the things we often care about – ensuring that we are efficient, consistent, and getting things done.

In my practice, I recommend lists for different reasons. I recommend lists to teach executive functioning skills, such as planning, task initiation, organization, and task monitoring. Lists are also incredibly helpful for children who struggle to hold on to information. These children often miss information that is stated aloud, such as a parent giving directions or a teacher explaining instructions. Their brains often struggle to “keep up” with the pace of information presented in the world. Having the information written down in an organized manner, such a list, can help them access the information without time constraints.

Here is a quick example:

On a typical weekday morning, parents alternate checking on their 8-year-old as he gets ready for school. They give reminders of all the things left to do – “Brush your teeth!” “Get dressed!” “Put your homework in your backpack!” Time before the bus becomes shorter and shorter, as does everyone’s patience. Parents think, “We do the same things every single morning! Why is it so hard for him to remember?” Child thinks, “Why can’t they just leave me alone!” Voice volumes increase, tone shifts, and before anyone knows it or means to, there is a shouting match as the bus is pulling up.

Of course, a list won’t stop hurt feelings or eliminate frustration. However, if the child’s “morning routine” is posted somewhere easy to see, he may need far fewer reminders from his parents of all the tasks he has left to do. Frustration may be reduced, and the child can feel successful completing tasks with greater independence.

A list may be steps in a routine, as illustrated above. A list could also be of materials the child needs for baseball practice, the chores that should be done each week, or the limits and expectations around “screen time.” I often spend time with parents discussing the contents of a list, where the list should be placed, and the format it might take. For example, do you want checkboxes next to each item? Do you want the steps to be numbered? Maybe you love arts and crafts, and you want to laminate the list and have Velcro tabs with a “checkmark” that can be placed next to each completed task. The format and purpose vary, but lists are infinitely useful.

For many children, practice using lists is not only helping them to build skills in the moment, but is excellent practice for later life. Developing comfort with the tools and strategies that work best for you is an invaluable aspect of raising our children to become independent adults who can achieve their goals.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Rating Scales/Questionnaires – Why Do We Give Them and Why Do They Matter?

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

When you request a neuropsychological evaluation, you are undoubtably inundated with paperwork. Consent forms, confidentiality forms, COVID forms, and credit card forms. Then, to your surprise, you bring your child to their first appointment, and the neuropsychologist hands you…more forms! Why? What are these forms for, and what will you do with the information? These are great questions, and always feel free to ask your neuropsychologist. Here are some answers I give when I am asked:

Why do you need so many forms?

Our goal in completing a neuropsychological evaluation is to have as comprehensive picture of a child as possible. This means gathering information from many sources, including what you and/or others are noticing that is raising concerns (what we discuss in the intake appointment), prior evaluations and documentation (e.g., their IEP, testing done at school), your child’s performance on our assessment measures (what they do when they come to the office), and important people’s perceptions of your child’s functioning in daily settings – this is what we assess through the rating scales (also called questionnaires). The parent/teacher rating scales are an important source of information because they not only capture your concerns, but also show us how your concerns may be similar to or different from parents (or teachers) of same-age children. For example, concerns with “attention and focus” are common for us to hear. Attentional skills develop gradually over time, and having a standardized rating scale that evaluates your concerns (or your child’s teacher’s concerns) with attention helps us understand how far off your child’s skills are from what is expected for their age.

What do the forms ask about?

This depends on why your child is being referred for a neuropsychological evaluation. For example, if your child is referred for a question around autism, you will likely be given forms that ask about their social functioning, such as how they do at playdates, birthday parties, the playground, or other community spaces with peers. Your child’s teacher would also likely be given forms to evaluate how your child interacts with peers at school, such as how they do during lunch, snack, and recess; how well they work in groups; and if they have been successful in forming strong friendships. If the concerns are more related to mental health, you may be given forms that ask about their symptoms of anxiety, depression, etc.

What will you do with the forms?

We will take your ratings (or your child’s teacher’s ratings) and compare them to normative data. This is a fancy way of saying “we will see how your child compares to kids their age.” Then, we will take that information to help us form a more comprehensive picture of your child’s profile and our recommendations for how to best help and support them. For example, something I see often is a concern with kids following directions, remembering what they are told to do, and finishing all the steps necessary for a task or project (e.g., getting ready for school or bed). This can be (though certainly isn’t always) a difficulty with working memory or, holding information in mind. We assess working memory in many ways during testing. However, we can’t always see the deficits that parents and teachers see, because testing is inherently different from “real life.” So, rating scales serve as an important source of information in understanding what is going on day-to-day, which helps us to make more comprehensive recommendations.

How do I fill these out?

Please, please, please – read the directions carefully! Each form is meant to evaluate something different. For example, some ask you about your child’s emotional state “in general,” others ask about how they have been behaving over the last two weeks, and others ask about how well they can complete tasks independently (i.e., without any help or guidance). Do your best to complete each question – skipping questions that seem “irrelevant” or “inappropriate” may impact how well we can use the information later on. We realize that not every question will apply to every child – we are using the best tools we have, and some are designed to assess a wide range of children. If you have questions about the wording or phrasing, please ask your neuropsychologist – we really don’t mind!

I have a teenager. Why don’t you just ask them about how they are feeling?

If your child is old enough, we will absolutely talk to them about their perceptions of what is going on, what their concerns are, and what has been helpful for them. Many rating scales have a “child” or “self-report” version, and we may have them complete those, in addition to talking more conversationally about how they are doing.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Cyberbullying and Autism Spectrum Disorders

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

I recently had the opportunity to attend a webinar by Justin Patchin, Ph.D., one of the foremost cyberbullying researchers. I have used his work myself in designing both my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation research, so it was wonderful to hear him speak. He began with a story about his childhood and some of the rules he was taught – don’t meet up with strangers that you meet online, don’t get into anyone’s car if you don’t know them well – lessons I was also taught as a child. These are the kind of rules that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often crave – black and white, clear, no middle ground. The online world, he argued, does not allow for such stark and rigid rules. Rather, he says, it calls for “guidelines.” Working with children with ASD, when I hear “guidelines,” I think, “grey,” “fuzzy,” and “it depends.” These can be some of the toughest situations for an individual who is not neurotypical.

I think he’s right. The online world is fast, fluid, ever-changing, and highly dependent on specific circumstances. It calls for the kind of flexible thinking and evaluation of context that kids with ASD are so often challenged by. Yet, as the adults parenting, educating, and supporting these young people, these are exactly the skills that they need. The online world is not going anywhere anytime soon, and it is not likely to slow down either.

Cyberbullying is one of the difficult online phenomena to manage, as youth who are bullied online are most frequently also bullied in “real life,” usually at school. The bullies are often peers they know and must see on a regular basis. For children with social challenges, navigating bullying that is occurring across settings is an especially difficult task. And the solution is not to take away technology. Now more than ever, children need access to technology for homework, classwork, enjoyable peer activities, and hobbies. Where does that leave us?

Unfortunately, Dr. Patchin did not give any practical advice for how to support individuals with autism around cyberbullying. I think that one important starting point is to help these individuals learn to check in with themselves. Time and time again, I hear from students, “I’m not really sure what was going on, but I think they were being mean.” (In fact, I hear this from children who are decidedly not on the autism spectrum, especially when bullying is occurring by older peers.) Bullying is hurtful (intentionally so), and recognizing that hurt is an important first step. Once children and adolescents identify that something is hurtful, adults can help and support them in navigating through the situation.

Whether bullying, cyberbullying, or a misunderstanding, it is important for adults to listen carefully when children come to us with social concerns. In addition, we must have a solid understanding of the online world in which students are living, learning, and engaging. Social media shifts rapidly, with new platforms becoming wildly popular in a matter of weeks. Working with youth requires us to keep as current as we can, making certain that we understand the “ins and outs” of each platform. It is also incumbent upon us to ensure that all children and adolescents (not just those with an autism diagnosis) learn guidelines that will allow them to safely make their way through a constantly evolving world of platforms, apps, and services. Safety online is as critical as safety in person.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Helping Your Anxious Child through COVID-19

By | NESCA Notes 2020

 

Almost a year into Covid-19, many of us can use this blog as a reminder when our children exhibit signs of anxiety from learning of new developments with the pandemic; friends, family or others testing positive for Covid-19; or returning to school. The guidance shared in this blog still holds true, nearly one year since many of us went into lockdown and schools shuttered. 

 

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

A recent New York Times article by Jessica Grose discusses ways to support your child, specifically helping them to feel less anxious, during the COVID-19 situation. Their “top 4” suggestions are great ones – validate their feelings, manage your own anxiety, aim for some kind of predictable routine and try mindfulness or progressive muscle relaxation activities.

The larger consideration in this case is this: anxiety, particularly in the current situation, is normal. We can label it with clinical words, give you our best clinical tools and recommend that you seek help (and please do!). At the same time, if we take a large step back, being anxious right now is exactly how we are meant to feel. We are social beings, designed to live in the community and support one another through face-to-face social interactions. When something threatens our safety, or the safety of our families, it is normal to respond with fear, worry and hypervigilance. Everyday interactions that would typically result in no response, like hearing someone nearby cough or sneeze, all of a sudden have become indicators of a threat. Even having others in close proximity to us is now a threat, meaning that the social communities in which we are supposed to thrive have now become potentially dangerous places. In this new environment, our bodies, well-attuned and primed to handle threats, are doing what they should do – they are putting us on “hyper-alert mode,” keeping us exceedingly sensitive to these threats so that we can avoid them and preserve our safety.

Children are in this mode, too, albeit with far fewer resources to help mitigate their fear and worry. As adults, we have far more lived experience with threats, anxiety, fear and worry, and we can use this experience to manage our responses to this novel situation. For children, this may be the first time they are struggling with persistent worry and fear. Or, they may have struggled to cope with other fears and worries for a long time, and this new stressor has overwhelmed their system. In either case, it is important to normalize fear and anxiety, in addition to the myriad of other emotions that children may be experiencing.

The key is balance. We have to balance validating and normalizing feelings with reinforcing unhealthy habits. What does that look like? One dimension to consider is time – validating and normalizing feelings is a short acknowledgement that the child is heard, understood and believed. On the other hand, repeatedly discussing the same questions or topics, engaging in persistent conversations about the threats and explaining “adult” information to children (especially dire predictions, long-term impacts, etc.) is not healthy. These behaviors may appear to decrease anxiety in the short-term, but over time, can be detrimental.

Another important consideration is space – focusing on what is happening in the present is important to help children process and understand the radical changes that are impacting their day-to-day lives. However, if you find that your conversations linger on the past or the future, try to shift back to the present. Your mind may be filled with regrets from the past (e.g., “I knew we should have stocked up on their favorite snack last time we were at the store”) or fears for the future (e.g., “My parents are elderly and at high risk”), and these thoughts are entirely normal. At the same time, when talking with children, it is important to try as much as possible to focus on the here and now. Of course, it is important to give children the space to express their fears for the future, and we can and should acknowledge and validate these fears. We can also, simultaneously, bring children’s focus back to the present and back to tangible, concrete things that they can do (e.g., “I know you are really worried about grandma, and it’s sad that we can’t see her right now. Everyone is working hard to keep her safe, and we are going to call and talk to her later today”).

For some children, advanced intellectual abilities may allow them to understand (at least, in some sense) a great deal of the information that is portrayed on the television and news media. However, it is important to remember that, while their cognitive abilities are years ahead of their peers, their emotional development is not. It may be necessary to closely monitor their online activity, as they may be seeking out information (which is a normal response to fears, especially fear of the unknown) without having the critical thinking abilities to understand the source or potential biases in the way the information is presented. On the other hand, some children may struggle to understand the situation, either because of their young age, learning disability or other developmental delays. If this describes your child, consider putting together a story, with pictures and words, to help them understand some basic information (e.g., why we can’t go to school right now, why we can’t go play with friends). This is often referred to as a “social story,” and clinicians at NESCA can help you create one specifically for your child.

Last, and most certainly not least, seek help and support for yourself, your child or anyone in your family who is struggling. While experiencing anxiety during these times is normal, when these thoughts and feelings are taking over your child’s daily life (or your own), it may be time to look for assistance. Many clinicians, including here at NESCA, are available via phone or videoconferencing, and we can assist with a range of concerns. Whether you want a brief consultation to help you respond to persistent questions from your child or whether your child has a pre-existing anxiety disorder that is exacerbated by these challenging times, we are here to help.

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Yvonne Asher:

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Teens Online: Participation vs. Observation

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

As we enter the beginning of 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape our world. More and more, events, activities and interactions are pushed online – onto videoconferencing apps, social media and academic learning  platforms. Online social interactions are not new, and they won’t disappear anytime soon. With this, how do we, as adults, understand and navigate these oddly draining electronically-mediated gatherings, and how do we help our teens do the same?

One unique characteristic of online interaction is the ability to be present without being visible. In traditional social settings, to be present with the group is to be seen and, often times, noticed. Joining a Zoom or Google Meet offers one the ability to listen, watch and take the information presented without offering anything of yourself – no one has to see you, hear you, know where you are or know what you are doing. As many adults have noticed, this gives incredible freedom to the multi-taskers – listen to your meetings while getting the dishes done or the laundry folded.

For some adolescents, though, this is an opportunity to bypass many of the core tasks of social development, while still engaging with the material needed to accomplish one’s academic goals. A high schooler, acutely aware of how they are perceived and what others think of them, can sit silently, invisibly in social studies class. They can hone in on the economic impacts of World War I without the crushing anxiety of worrying about being teased or ostracized. However, that same high schooler may never have to confront the developmentally-expected challenges of venturing out of their “comfort zone” socially. They may not learn to ask someone out on a date, explore a new friendship or show up to the first meeting of a club.

How can we help our teens learn to take the best from online interactions while also pushing them to fully engage with others? There is no one, clear-cut answer – no “10 things…” or similar checklist. In any situation, we must look holistically at the teen, the context and the goals, and, from there, determine the best path forward. Sometimes, the anonymity of the online world is a welcome respite for teens looking to explore a new facet of their identity. Other times, it undercuts the core tasks of adolescence – building deep bonds with peers, taking responsibility for one’s social relationships and developing independence. Having direct, open conversations with our teens helps them understand and begin to own the challenges of the online world. If cameras are always off and microphones are always on mute, maybe it is time for a chat about participation versus observation.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Helping Your Anxious Child through COVID-19

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 

Pediatric Neuropsychologist

A recent New York Times article by Jessica Grose discusses ways to support your child, specifically helping them to feel less anxious, during the COVID-19 situation. Their “top 4” suggestions are great ones – validate their feelings, manage your own anxiety, aim for some kind of predictable routine and try mindfulness or progressive muscle relaxation activities.

The larger consideration in this case is this: anxiety, particularly in the current situation, is normal. We can label it with clinical words, give you our best clinical tools and recommend that you seek help (and please do!). At the same time, if we take a large step back, being anxious right now is exactly how we are meant to feel. We are social beings, designed to live in the community and support one another through face-to-face social interactions. When something threatens our safety, or the safety of our families, it is normal to respond with fear, worry and hypervigilance. Everyday interactions that would typically result in no response, like hearing someone nearby cough or sneeze, all of a sudden have become indicators of a threat. Even having others in close proximity to us is now a threat, meaning that the social communities in which we are supposed to thrive have now become potentially dangerous places. In this new environment, our bodies, well-attuned and primed to handle threats, are doing what they should do – they are putting us on “hyper-alert mode,” keeping us exceedingly sensitive to these threats so that we can avoid them and preserve our safety.

Children are in this mode, too, albeit with far fewer resources to help mitigate their fear and worry. As adults, we have far more lived experience with threats, anxiety, fear and worry, and we can use this experience to manage our responses to this novel situation. For children, this may be the first time they are struggling with persistent worry and fear. Or, they may have struggled to cope with other fears and worries for a long time, and this new stressor has overwhelmed their system. In either case, it is important to normalize fear and anxiety, in addition to the myriad of other emotions that children may be experiencing.

The key is balance. We have to balance validating and normalizing feelings with reinforcing unhealthy habits. What does that look like? One dimension to consider is time – validating and normalizing feelings is a short acknowledgement that the child is heard, understood and believed. On the other hand, repeatedly discussing the same questions or topics, engaging in persistent conversations about the threats and explaining “adult” information to children (especially dire predictions, long-term impacts, etc.) is not healthy. These behaviors may appear to decrease anxiety in the short-term, but over time, can be detrimental.

Another important consideration is space – focusing on what is happening in the present is important to help children process and understand the radical changes that are impacting their day-to-day lives. However, if you find that your conversations linger on the past or the future, try to shift back to the present. Your mind may be filled with regrets from the past (e.g., “I knew we should have stocked up on their favorite snack last time we were at the store”) or fears for the future (e.g., “My parents are elderly and at high risk”), and these thoughts are entirely normal. At the same time, when talking with children, it is important to try as much as possible to focus on the here and now. Of course, it is important to give children the space to express their fears for the future, and we can and should acknowledge and validate these fears. We can also, simultaneously, bring children’s focus back to the present and back to tangible, concrete things that they can do (e.g., “I know you are really worried about grandma, and it’s sad that we can’t see her right now. Everyone is working hard to keep her safe, and we are going to call and talk to her later today”).

For some children, advanced intellectual abilities may allow them to understand (at least, in some sense) a great deal of the information that is portrayed on the television and news media. However, it is important to remember that, while their cognitive abilities are years ahead of their peers, their emotional development is not. It may be necessary to closely monitor their online activity, as they may be seeking out information (which is a normal response to fears, especially fear of the unknown) without having the critical thinking abilities to understand the source or potential biases in the way the information is presented. On the other hand, some children may struggle to understand the situation, either because of their young age, learning disability or other developmental delays. If this describes your child, consider putting together a story, with pictures and words, to help them understand some basic information (e.g., why we can’t go to school right now, why we can’t go play with friends). This is often referred to as a “social story,” and clinicians at NESCA can help you create one specifically for your child.

Last, and most certainly not least, seek help and support for yourself, your child or anyone in your family who is struggling. While experiencing anxiety during these times is normal, when these thoughts and feelings are taking over your child’s daily life (or your own), it may be time to look for assistance. Many clinicians, including here at NESCA, are available via phone or videoconferencing, and we can assist with a range of concerns. Whether you want a brief consultation to help you respond to persistent questions from your child or whether your child has a pre-existing anxiety disorder that is exacerbated by these challenging times, we are here to help.

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Yvonne Asher:

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

When Grandparents Become Parents Again

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 

Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Grandparents can hold a special place for any child. For some, though, grandparents play a central role in their day-to-day lives. When grandparents raise a child, it is often related to parental challenges, tragic circumstances or government intervention. This brings inherent, understandable stressors for grandparents. Additionally, grandparents face the more typical challenges of child-rearing, such as managing educational experiences, ensuring emotional well-being and navigating health care.

When concerns with educational achievement, behavior, emotional or social functioning arise, there are many obstacles with which grandparents must wrestle. Feelings of guilt may arise, which can stem from a variety of sources. Grandparents may question their own parenting practices, worrying about past “mistakes” in raising their children. They may be especially sensitive to shielding their grandchildren from exposure to risky situations that their children may have faced without their knowledge. Grandparents may struggle when grandchildren are given diagnoses such as ADHD, autism or learning disabilities, wondering if their children faced these same challenges without formal diagnosis or intervention. Many grandparents express understandable fears around their grandchildren’s future, particularly their level of independence. While many caregivers have concerns with the independence of the children in their care, grandparents are often acutely aware of the limited time they will have to support, counsel and assist their grandchildren through their young adult years.

In navigating the special education and mental health care systems, grandparents can face many complex situations. Complexity may be increased if grandparents are in a caregiving role due to parents’ substance use or dependence. Depending on the timing and extent of substance use, there can be long-lasting impacts on grandchildren’s educational, cognitive or emotional health. This can substantially increase the difficulties that grandparents encounter, both in terms of accessing necessary services and supports, as well as coping with the stresses of caregiving.

There are also a number of strengths that grandparents can bring to their time as caregivers. They may be more aware of their rights as caregivers within the educational system, seeking out services and interventions when the “first signs” of difficulty arise. They may have a broader perspective on the school system, potentially having raised children who went through the same schools in the past. With the wisdom that comes in later adulthood, grandparents may be more discerning and skeptical about the opinions of professionals. They may ask more pointed questions, with less reserve or fear. Grandparents may also have built stronger support networks and have deeper connections to community organizations. These strengths can serve grandparents well in managing the complex systems that all caregivers face.

Several states have created advisory councils or legislation specifically designed to support grandparents raising grandchildren. In addition, there are many resources available to grandparents who are caring for and raising grandchildren, including:

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/grandparents-raising-grandchildren.htm

https://www.grandfamilies.org

http://www.massgrg.com/massgrg_2019/index.html

https://sixtyandme.com/resources-for-grandparents-raising-grandchildren/

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Yvonne Asher:

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

When is it Actually Bullying?

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Autumn holds excitement for many students – heading back to school to see old friends, meet new teachers and learn new skills. However, for some, a new school year holds more apprehension than enthusiasm. Students worry that their teacher will be mean, their math homework will be hard or that their recess time cut short by bad weather. One fear that is described more and more often by parents and children is the fear of bullying.

What is bullying?

There is no single definition of bullying, but most researchers describe the following necessary and sufficient characteristics:

  • unwanted, intentionally aggressive behavior that is aimed at harming another person
  • carried out repeatedly
  • in a relationship where there is a power differential

The quintessential example of this is the hulking, five-foot-five elementary schooler who pushes, shoves and steals the lunch money of a short, scrawny younger child every day. Luckily, this kind of aggression is rare; however, the rarity of “classic” bullying requires us to be somewhat more mindful of what childhood behaviors are (and, are not) considered bullying.

First and foremost, behavior must be unwanted and intended to harm. This means that the rambunctious children rough-housing on the playground is generally not a bullying situation. Playful acts, or acts with the intent of friendly, physical play, are not bullying. Certainly, there are times when children may misunderstand the intent of their peers or friends and perceive an action as hurtful. In that case, a frank discussion of intended message versus experienced consequence is required, but there is no immediate concern for bullying. If a child did not intend to hurt their peer, bullying is not the issue.

When researchers use the term “aggressive behavior,” it should be clarified that aggression is not always physical. Aggression comes in three forms: physical, verbal and relational. Physical aggression is exactly what you are imagining – punching, kicking, hitting and similar behaviors. This kind of aggression occurs in very young children (think: toddlers), most often as a means of communication due to their limited verbal skills. By early childhood, kids rarely use physical aggression to communicate, as most children are able to talk and verbalize their wants, needs and feelings.

The second type of aggression is verbal aggression. This can involve things like yelling, screaming, swearing, threatening and name-calling. This kind of aggression occurs throughout childhood and adolescence, with the frequency decreasing as children mature.

The last form of aggression is the most complex. It is called relational aggression. Researcher Nicki Crick defined relational aggression as any act that uses the social relationships, social standing or social experiences of an individual to harm them. The stereotypical examples of relational aggression come from films like Mean Girls. Gossip, social exclusion, humiliation, embarrassment, rumor spreading and intentional ignoring are all examples of behaviors that fall into the category of relational aggression. This frequency of relational aggression generally increases as children develop, as relational aggression requires more sophisticated verbal and social skills to carry out. In addition, relational aggression is rarely noticed by adults and often does not carry the same disciplinary consequences as physical or verbal aggression. Children learn quickly that refusing to play with a peer or spreading a nasty rumor is unlikely to get them “in trouble,” making this type of aggression far more effective for older children and adolescents.

It is important to note that both boys and girls engage in aggressive behavior. Girls tend to start using relational aggression younger, and use it consistently throughout their lives. Boys tend to start out using physical aggression, and shift to relational aggression as they mature. However, both boys and girls engage in aggressive behavior at all developmental stages.

Back to our definition of bullying – the next element is “happens repeatedly.” Bullying is not a one-time occurrence. The behavior, or harm caused by the behavior, must happen over and over. Two children who are angry and get into a fight in the cafeteria may well be intending to harm one another. However, if the fight is a one-time occurrence, there is no immediate concern for bullying. One challenging aspect of this part of the definition is how we handle online or cyberbullying (i.e., bullying that happens through electronic media such as text or social media). Because posts to social media, texts and images online can be viewed multiple times by multiple people, a single act carried out online may meet the definition of bullying. For example, posting a message that conveys a nasty rumor about a peer to one classmate’s profile can have untold impact on the victim’s social relationships depending on how many times that post is forwarded, tagged, “liked,” discussed or otherwise shared across the social network.

The last part of the definition of bullying is that it occurs “in a relationship where there is a power differential.” Power differentials exist in many relationships – parent/child, teacher/student, employer/employee, landlord/renter, therapist/patient and so on. In children, power differentials may exist when a child is:

  • older
  • physically larger
  • more popular
  • more socially skilled

While this is not an exhaustive list, these are the most common situations where we find power differentials in children. Without a power differential present in the relationship, bullying is not an immediate concern. It is not uncommon for children to have challenges in their friendships, such as teasing, unwanted horseplay, sitting with other friends at lunch and choosing to work with a different partner on a project. However, these challenges typically do not meet the “power differential” criterion of bullying. They are better defined as normal, healthy obstacles in relationships that, when worked through productively, can help children develop more sophisticated social problem-solving skills.

What to do when it is bullying

We’ve discussed many examples of what is not bullying, so what should happen when behaviors are best characterized as bullying? First and foremost, assess your child’s safety. If physical aggression is part of the bullying, consider immediate action, such as talking to your child’s teacher or school administrator. Note that bullying is now a legal matter in many states, including Massachusetts. When talking to your child, remember that bullying comes with plenty of shame and anxiety, so make every effort to ask simple, clear, direct questions with as calm a tone as possible.

If your child’s safety is not a primary concern, ask your child if they want your help to solve the problem. If so, consider helping your child map out the social dynamics of what is happening. Who is saying what? To whom? Is it just you who is the victim, or are the bullies doing the same thing to other children? Does the teacher notice? If so, do the bullies get in trouble? Depending on the answers, help your child work toward a strategy to solve the problem. Younger children may require more adult intervention, such as a parent reaching out to the teacher. Older children and adolescents may be able to try out problem-solving strategies independently, with your support at home.

If your child does not want your help, consider letting them try to solve the problem on their own. Remind them that you love and trust them, and have confidence in their ability to figure out tough situations. Encourage your child to participate in other social activities where they experience more positive interactions, such as martial arts, Girl or Boy Scouts, team sports or clubs outside of school. Having strong, positive friendships is one of the most important resiliency factors when a child is the victim of bullying.

It may help to know that upwards of 90% of adults report having been the victim of bullying at least once in their lifetime. Interestingly, over 70% also report having bullied someone else.

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Yvonne Asher:

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Got Complicated? NESCA’s Newest Pediatric Neuropsychologist Wants to Test Your Child. Find Out Why!

By | NESCA Notes 2019

Pediatric Neuropsychologist Yvonne Asher, Ph.D., joins NESCA on June 3, servicing clients in the Londonderry, New Hampshire and Newton, Massachusetts offices, and is scheduling new clients now. We sat down with Yvonne to learn more about her, what her passions in neuropsychology are and why she joined NESCA.

 

By Jane Hauser
Director of Marketing & Outreach

NESCA has 15 neuropsychologists who test a wide range of individuals. Tell us about your past professional experience and the types of clients you most enjoy serving.

I love working with children with complex profiles where challenges and diagnoses aren’t easily made or identified. This is the group of kids I worked with most often when I was with Mass General Hospital’s Lurie Center for Autism. It’s also incredibly rewarding to work with kids who aren’t able to communicate in a traditional manner—they may be too young, too impaired or potentially non-verbal. Many people think these individuals are too difficult to work with in testing. Using data to better understand their strengths and weaknesses is my passion, and I love to help them tell their stories through the assessment process.

It sounds like you enjoy working with complex kids. Can kids who have limited verbal skills and/or behavior challenges be tested?

Yes! Sometimes these children can be labeled in a punitive or negative way, such as being “uncooperative” or “untestable.” I don’t believe that anyone benefits from these kind of labels. It’s my job as the psychologist to be creative so that we can get the necessary data to understand them. I try to ease parents’ minds by reassuring them that I’ve seen many of these children before. And, if I haven’t frequently seen a particular complex profile, I’m lucky to have wonderful colleagues and resources to collaborate with on such cases.

For example, I worked with one very sweet, four-year-old child who had severe communication issues.  The parents and his pediatrician questioned whether he had autism. Since he had incredibly limited verbal skills, we altered all of the assessment tasks, using some non-verbal assessments and creatively modifying others to complete the testing. We noted that everything in the assessments—aside from his language—was on track developmentally. Prior to testing, everyone was pointing toward autism as the diagnosis, but he actually had a severe expressive/receptive language delay. His parents had figured out some tricks to communicate with him, but the world was a very scary place to him. He didn’t understand what was going on and primarily used gestures and facial expressions to communicate. That, unfortunately, only got him so far. As you can imagine, these challenges and frustrations led to a very stressful environment for the entire family. We recommended intensive speech therapy to help develop his communication skills, providing the family with a clear path forward.

You were a teacher before becoming a neuropsychologist. How do you feel your past experience as an educator enhances your work as a pediatric neuropsychologist?

I have a lot of experience working in public and charter schools. I was also a preschool teacher before graduate school, where I found the children to be endlessly funny, creative and just awesome! This experience is, in part, what fuels my desire to work with younger children who are experiencing challenges.

Having that educational experience is so valuable for the families at NESCA. I’ve been in special education and can help parents understand the process and landscape every step of the way—from an initial concern and assessment to getting an IEP and to thinking about high school placement and transition to adulthood.

The school experience also helps me to relate to the teachers, since I’ve been one and know how to partner with them to help students. We always help our families and push for what’s needed, but it’s helpful to also understand the constraints of the school setting. Knowing the constraints won’t change our recommendations, but it’s helpful in providing recommendations that will be implemented.

Why did you opt to move from the school setting to neuropsychology?

While I loved working in the school setting, I found that I didn’t get the chance to work as closely with families as I wanted. While families were there for school meetings, I’m looking to work with and serve the whole family system. I enjoy taking a close look at why children are having particular challenges, whether there’s a diagnosis that can be identified, and determining what school or path best fits a child and their family. I like taking the time to talk with parents and educators, giving each of them the chance to talk about the child, and to ask questions and make a plan for the child and their family. With really young kids, this is often just a first step, and I am excited to work with families long-term and help them through future hurdles.

What is so special about working with young children and their families?

Being a family’s first introduction to mental health is so meaningful. I tend to work with families who may be noticing that some milestones or behaviors are a bit off, or when they may first be considering a neuropsychological evaluation or other assessments. I like to find those parents who are asking, “What do you think it could be?” I truly enjoy giving these parents insight into their child, and providing exposure to and help along their path in mental healthcare.

Why did you opt to work in a group practice, like NESCA?

During my postdoctoral work, I really came to value the consultation with and supervision from other psychologists. I thought about going back into the school setting, but school psychologists are typically the only ones in that role at their school, or even their district. I appreciate the ability to put heads and knowledge together as colleagues. Doing so, on behalf of our clients, can help us to frame a case or intervention in a different way. Being able to bounce ideas or recommendations off of each other and using the combined experiences, knowledge and referral resources of other neuropsychologists brings so much to clients, families and individuals with challenges. NESCA, in particular, offers a very supportive environment in which to work. That can be felt by co-workers as well as the families we serve.

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Yvonne Asher:

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.