NESCA has unexpected availability for Neuropsychological Evaluations and ASD Diagnostic Clinic assessments in the Plainville, MA office in the next several weeks! Our expert pediatric neuropsychologists in Plainville specialize in children ages 18 months to 26 years, with attentional, communication, learning, or developmental differences, including those with a history or signs of ADHD, ASD, Intellectual Disability, and complex medical histories. To book an evaluation or inquire about our services in Plainville (approx.45 minutes from NESCA Newton), complete our Intake Form.

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neuropsychological testing

10 Facts about the Rorschach Inkblot Test

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

As an evaluator, I receive a number of questions about the usefulness of the Rorschach Inkblot Test. The following “10 facts” are designed to answer some common questions and also incorporate some new and fresh scientific research findings related to the Rorschach.

The Rorschach Inkblot Test is a diagnostic tool that should always be incorporated within a comprehensive evaluation which includes projective or “performance-based” testing. If you are considering if your child or teen would benefit from projective testing, please refer to one of my earlier NESCA blog posts: More Than An Inkblot: Measuring Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking Skills with Projective Tests.”

  1. The Rorschach Inkblot Test is a test that provides data and information about how a child or teen problem-solves situations “in the moment.”
  2. Research indicates that the Rorschach is a valid assessment tool (with validity akin to other personality measures, as well as measures of IQ).
  3. Recent fMRI studies show high levels of brain activation in brain regions associated with emotion, emotion memories, perception, attention and visual processing.
  4. After the Rorschach Inkblot Test is administered, an experienced evaluator uses an evidence-based scoring system to compare a child’s responses to a normative sample to evaluate their performance. RPAS (Rorschach Performance Assessment System) is the most evidence-based scoring system to date and has strong empirical evidence.
  5. The Rorschach evaluates and detects psychotic symptoms.
  6. The Rorschach is helpful for evaluating trauma, including dissociation and intrusive symptoms.
  7. The Rorschach assesses both trait (stable characteristics or patterns) and state (a temporary way of being) variables. For example, the Rorschach tells us about how a person is coping with everyday stressors (e.g. from bullying to family loss to lack of sleep). The Rorschach also tells us if a person has a more pervasive habit of “bottling up” emotions or behaving rashly or impulsively when overwhelmed.
  8. The Rorschach quantifies a child or teen’s strengths, such as capacity for insight and adaptability, or resiliency to stress.
  9. The Rorschach Inkblot Test is not for everyone. More research is needed about the utility of the Rorschach for individuals with expressive language communication impairments or visual-spatial processing deficits.
  10. Not every evaluator is equipped to administer and interpret the Rorschach Inkblot Test. The Rorschach is a powerful diagnostic tool when interpreted in conjunction with observation and other test results by a skilled, experienced practitioner with extensive training in Rorschach administration and interpretation.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant 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.

 

Yoga Therapy for Children and Adolescents

By | NESCA Notes 2022

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

As a pediatric neuropsychologist, I often recommend yoga therapy for children with anxiety, impulse control, and/or motor/coordination/sensory issues, as well as issues that alienate them from their body (e.g., eating disorders and trauma). Another group for which a body-focused therapy like yoga would be helpful is children with language challenges who are not equipped to manage the challenge of “talking” therapy.

Yoga is a 4,000-year-old practice that originated in what is now known as India. The word means “yoke” or “union,” and the practice of yoga aims to quiet the mind in order to find the unity within ourselves and with the world around us. This ancient practice was developed to facilitate development and integration of the human body, mind, and breath to produce a strong and flexible body free of pain, a balanced autonomic nervous system with all physiological systems functioning optimally, and a calm, clear, and tranquil mind (1). As we make this transformation in ourselves, we hope to affect the larger world. This is done through a variety of elements, but the western world tends to focus on movement (asanas), breathwork (pranayamas), and meditation (dhyanas).

Yoga was introduced to the west in the 19th century and has become a popular form of physical fitness and injury rehabilitation. More recently, we have begun to investigate its impact on physiological function, specifically the autonomic nervous system which controls vital life functions and regulates our stress response and return to equilibrium. Research has shown that chronic activation of the stress response (“fight/flight/freeze”) is strongly associated with increased risk of cardiovascular problems and autoimmune disorders (including diabetes), as well as psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Yoga has been found to be effective in damping the stress response and allowing the body to return to equilibrium (“rest and digest”), resulting in lower heart rate and blood pressure, improved hormone regulation and gastrointestinal processes, lowered levels of anxiety, and better emotional and behavioral control. It is now included in cardiac rehabilitation programs, chronic pain programs, and psychotherapeutic treatment modalities.

Recently, I became curious with what exactly happens in yoga therapy and decided to talk with the new yoga therapist at NESCA, Danielle Sugrue, M.S. An athlete throughout high school and college, Danielle became involved with yoga about 15 years ago because she was looking for something that “would get me back into movement.” She quickly fell in love with yoga and completed her 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. In the meantime, she also completed her master’s degree in Marriage and Family Studies at Salem State University. With this combination of expertise, she is able to help children and adolescents become more in touch with their bodies and find their words through movement, breathing, and relaxation.

I asked Danielle what a yoga therapy session with a child would look like. She quickly assured me that interventions with young children hold little resemblance to adult yoga classes. Danielle described her sessions with children as a playful movement exercise to learn to come to their breathing when things get challenging. If a child becomes dysregulated, she helps them tap into their senses to ground them and begin to put words on the feelings. A session may start by spreading cards with animals doing various poses out on the floor and asking the child to pick the card that looks like how s/he is feeling. Based on the cards selected, Danielle may develop a flow of postures based on those selections. The poses and concepts are taught through stories and games using mythical characters, like Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god who clears obstacles and paves the way for us to move forward in life.

The sessions for adolescents tend to take a more direct approach to the issues of concern as described by the teenager. Learning breathing techniques tends to be a key element; because of body issues, many teenage girls don’t breathe deeply (belly breathing) because it makes their stomach stick out. This kind of shallow breathing activates the stress response, making the person feel more anxious, while deep breathing “turns on” the rest and relax function. Moving freely without self-consciousness is another big challenge for teens—and developing a flow that allows them to feel themselves moving with ease but also makes them feel capable of holding a pose just a little longer than they thought they could—helps with developing self-confidence. Directly addressing mindset (self-love and self-compassion) also tends to be an important focus of work with teens and may involve activities such as a mirror challenge of looking at oneself and identifying what s/he likes about themselves.

Yoga therapy usually involves purchasing a 10-session package of once weekly meetings of an hour’s length. If you are interested in having your child work with Danielle, please contact her directly at: dsugrue@nesca-newton.com or complete an online Intake Form at: https://hipaa.jotform.com/220393954666062.

In addition to her work at NESCA, Danielle also teaches yoga at Power Yoga Evolution in North Andover. Dr. Monaghan-Blout is in the process of completing her own 200-hour yoga teacher training.

  1. Kayley-Isley, L., Peterson , J, Fischer, C, and Peterson, E. Yoga as a Complementary Therapy for Children and Adolescents, Psychiatry 2010; 7(8): 20-32.
  2. Nourollahimoghadam, E., Gorji, S., Ghadiri M., Therapeutic Role of Yoga in Neuropsychological Disorders., World Journal of Psychiatry 2021, October 19; 11 (10): 754-773
  3. Permission to Unplug: the Health Benefits of Yoga for Kids. https://www.healthychildren.org, the American Academy of Pediatrics
  4. Barkataki, Susanna. Embrace Yoga’s Roots; Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice 2020, Orlando, FLA, Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute

 

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 one of our many 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.

ASD Diagnosis Disclosure with Children

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

All brains are different. Thus, there is no “one way” to disclose a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to a child. The when, where, and how of diagnosis disclosure depends on the child and family’s preferences, values, and experiences. In addition, families do not have to feel alone in this process. Many families find it helpful to consult with parent support groups and professionals (e.g., therapist, neuropsychologist, speech and language pathologist, in-home ABA provider) to collaborate and discuss how to best approach diagnosis disclosure based on an individual child’s needs.

In my experience, I have found that disclosing a diagnosis of ASD to a young child is helpful when a child’s support network is integrated and involved in the process. As a family therapist, I see diagnosis disclosure as a family process and a potential to create and develop a conversation for the child and family that does not focus on identification and labeling of deficits but rather a conversation that is focused on understanding how each individual in the family thinks, feels, regulates, and relates to the world. The narratives we tell ourselves influence our well-being, and it is thus very important that children and families have a narrative or story to help guide their personal understanding and meaning of an ASD diagnosis.

Following a neuropsychological evaluation, I often provide child and family feedbacks to children and their caregivers to discuss the diagnosis. These meetings are designed to be “therapeutic feedbacks.” Here are key components of my “therapeutic feedback” sessions for “making meaning” of the diagnosis of ASD which may be helpful for some parents and providers:

  1. Normalize that all family members have unique learning styles and brains. Encourage parents and siblings to share what they know about their own learning styles of strengths and challenges. For example, a caregiver might say, “All brains are different, and I can’t wait to learn about how your brain works, how your sister’s brain works, and how my brain works.”
  2. Create a story about how the child thinks, feels, regulates, and relates to the world. Assist your child in developing a strength-based individualized narrative or story of their diagnosis, a narrative which also validates and acknowledges challenges. This can help the child and family see and understand how strengths can be used to meet challenges. The diagnosis of ASD becomes secondary to the process of describing the child’s perspective and experience – or describing their learning style. This idea stems from narrative therapy – a therapeutic treatment which helps individuals and families “edit and re-author” the stories we tell about ourselves, others, and our environment to increase well-being. It is important to remember that all stories are unique to the child and depend on the child’s experience and learning style. Examples that children and families have developed include, understanding ASD as “superpower,” “awesome awe-sism,” “data brain,” “legomaster,” “detective,” and “Ms. Feel Big.”
  3. Recognize the child as the “expert” of their experience. Many children with ASD experience heightened feelings of “being misunderstood” which can produce stress and significant emotional difficulties. It is thus very important to connect with the child’s own point of view, language, play themes, and description of their experience. Therefore, think developmentally – use play, videos/movies, books, art, or a written/visual outline (e.g., one column of “superpower” strengths and one column of “superpower” challenges). Here is an example of a book, which has been used in therapeutic feedbacks for diagnosis disclosure for some children depending on the child’s learning profile and special interests.
  4. Externalize the challenges that children experience and identify themselves. Do this by separating “problems” from the child. For example, a child I was working with identified that their “superpower” (ASD) makes them “just do it,” which in diagnostic terms reflects “impulsivity.” The family and I talked about “just do it” to create a story in which the child had a “jumpy monkey” (this child loved monkeys). This “jumpy monkey” needed “help” from the child’s “superpower” to “stop and think,” which in clinical terms means developing the child’s “impulse control.” This is a good example of how a child and family identified an ASD strength that could be used to meet a challenge.
  5. Review and revisit the conversation. Keep the conversation open and accessible to the child in every-day life. Practice normalizing and discussing every family member’s story of strengths and challenges at dinnertime, in the car, and during therapies (speech therapy, occupational therapy, psychotherapy, etc.).

These therapeutic feedback tips are just some of many. For an additional list of tips, please visit the University of Washington Autism Center’s Dr. Sarah Woods’ “Tips for Talking to Your Child About Their Autism Diagnosis.”

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant 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.

 

Assessing Social Skills Challenges: A Developmental Perspective

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

As parents and teachers, we want the world for our children, and one of the biggest worries is around social development and friendships. This worry is particularly acute when our child has a learning, emotional, or behavioral challenge that affects their functioning in school, the community, and at home. Knowing more about the developmental process and developmental expectations can help to identify challenges and develop appropriate interventions to support growth.

Human Development: A Dynamic Interactional Process

Human development is a dynamic and ongoing process between three factors:

  • the “hard-wired” general road map that governs the emergence and refinement of brain and body systems for all humans
  • the environment in which that development occurs, including relational components, such as availability of consistent attachment figures, threats to physical safety—including war, toxins in the water, etc., and access to resources, such as food, housing, education, and supportive family and friends
  • Unique constellation of the individual learning, temperament, and emotional style that provides resources as well as vulnerabilities

The ways in which these three factors interact can be hard to predict—just look at the difference between siblings who grow up in the same home. Some children are more vulnerable than others by virtue of a temperamental that “runs anxious,” in the words of one of my parents, which causes them to perceive unexpected events as threatening. Another’s vulnerability comes from their difficulties with understanding how social interactions actually work. How much difficulty each one encounters is likely to be calibrated by other elements, such as a consistent, predictable learning and social environment that makes developmentally appropriate demands and provides clear, reasonable (for the child) expectations. This can be a little trickier because vulnerable children are often delayed in their social-emotional development. For this reason, it is important to know more about the stages of friendship to know where your child is and how to help them grow.

The Laboratory of Childhood Social Development: Stages of Children’s Friendships (Robert Selman) This is one of many schemas for the meaning of friendship changes as a child grows and develops. Again, remember that there is a wide range of normal development, and that children with other challenges may move more slowly.

Level 0: Momentary Playmates (approximately 3-7 years old) Proximity is key; friends are people who are nearby and with whom you can have fun. The child assumes that “everyone thinks like me” and assumes that if a playmate has a different opinion, “s/he doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.”

Level 1: One Way Assistance (approximately 6-12 years) Friends are people who do nice things for you, like share a snack. Having a friend is very important, more important than someone being nice to you. Friendship can be used as leverage (“I will/won’t be your friend if…”).

Level 2: Two-Way Fair-Weather Cooperation (approximately 6-12 years) The child can take another’s perspective as well as his/her own—but not at the same time. Fairness and reciprocity become really important in a rigid way (“If I do something nice for you, you must do something nice for me”). Children are very judgmental about themselves and assume that others think the same way about them. Fitting in is also really important, and jealousy can become prominent. It is the time for cliques and secret clubs.

Level 3: Intimate, Mutually Shared Relationships (approximately 11-15 years) Friends are people who help you solve problems and will keep your secrets. They do kind things for you and don’t keep track because they care about each other. Best friends become really important and spend all of their time together. They can feel betrayed if their friend spends time with someone else.

Level 4: Mature Friendship (approximately 12 years-adulthood) Friends place a high value on emotional closeness. Trust and support maintain the relationship, not proximity. Friends accept and even appreciate their differences, and for this reason, they are not as threatened by other relationships.

You will notice as you read through these stages that there some key cognitive skills needed for social development. These include:

  • Self-regulation—the ability to inhibit impulses, control emotional reactions and manage behavioral responses . It also includes the ability to respond flexibly to changing demands.
  • Awareness of Others/Theory of Mind—the ability to recognize the difference between self and other; that other people do not share your thoughts and feelings.
  • Understanding of Norms, Rules, and Conventions—these are the agreed upon boundaries of expected behavior.
  • Perspective taking—the ability to not only recognize that other people do not think the way that you do, but to actually try to understand things from their point of view (“stand in their shoes”).
  • Mutuality-shared appreciation of each other and the reciprocal nature of the relationship.

Assessment: Before trying to intervene to help a child be more successful in making friends, it is important to distinguish between social skills and social competence. Social Skills are the discrete techniques for managing specific social interactions. These could range from maintaining eye contact to starting a conversation. Social Competence has to do with the overall ability to manage the variety of social demands in one’s environment. While we teach social skills, we are aiming for social competence. The criteria for social competence changes as children get older and the demands of their environment increase. This means that while a child may do perfectly well in one social environment, their mismatch in another could cause problems. Therefore, getting a general idea of how your child is thinking about friendship in relation to his peers is an important first step.

A second step in helping children become more socially competent is to figure out what the problem is. These problems can be divided into three general categories:

  • Skill Acquisition—Does the child know what to do? For instance, does the child know the steps to take to initiate conversations?
  • Skill Performance—Does the child have the motivation to perform the steps, and do they know when to do so (context)? For instance, does the child want to start a conversation, and do they know when to do so—like on the playground and not when the teacher is talking.
  • Skill Fluency—While they may know what to do to start a conversation and when to do it, how good are they at it? Can they do it in a timely manner without obvious awkwardness? Is there something else, like anxiety, getting in their way?

The final impediment to learning and using social skills to achieve social competency is the interference caused by anxiety. Anxiety is the experience of feeling unsafe and helpless to control a situation. It sparks a cascade of physiological changes that facilitate the process of escape by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system—when the danger is over, a complementary system takes over (parasympathetic nervous system) to calm things down and return to equilibrium. However, when a child is continuously stressed by, say, an unfriendly school environment, their system never calms down. They become stuck in “threat alert” where any unexpected stimuli is given a negative interpretation and the survival reflexes of “fight/flight/freeze” take over. How to “turn off” the threat alert? Make a child feel safe through a supportive relationship and then teach them the skills they will need to gain more mastery over the situation.

 

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.

Anxiety Reducers for Children and Teens with ASD

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Research indicates that children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are more sensitive to heightened physiological sympathetic arousal (the “fight or flight” response), including increased heart rate, breathing rate, feeling “on edge” and body-based tenseness. Heightened physiological arousal is neurologically connected to sensory processing and emotional responses. This is why some children with ASD have “high startle responses” or sensitivities to specific sensations, such as touch or sounds. This is also why some children and teens with ASD are vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, particularly within social situations and settings.

There is growing research focusing on possible strategies and interventions that reduce anxiety and “buffer” the “fight or flight” response that can be activated for many children and teens with ASD.

5 Research-driven Anxiety Reducers:

Animals: Include companion or therapy animals in social groups or social outings (particularly new social events). In one study, children with ASD showed a 43% decrease in skin conductance responses during free play with peers in the presence of animals, as compared to toys (O’Haire, McKenzie, Beck, & Slaughter, 2015).

Exercise: Make a plan to engage in a “warm up” body-based activity right before a social event when anxiety levels are increasing (e.g., jumping jacks, burpees, squats). Research indicates that exercise calms the amygdala and decreases physiological arousal.

Relax or Distract: Practice progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Recent research has indicated that regular and routine engagement in PMR sessions can be a useful strategy for individuals with ASD. Distract yourself from the anxiety-producing situation for the short term (e.g., count by 3s, name three things you can see and hear in the room, repeat words from your favorite song in your head).

Plan to Take a Break: Children and teens can benefit from having a healthy “escape plan” to take a break from socially-demanding and sensory-demanding settings (e.g., a large event like a play or concert, a college lecture, an interview for a job). Research indicates that “rest breaks” during mentally demanding tasks result in increased alertness, decreased fatigue and heightened relaxation.

Social Stories: Social stories provide the opportunity to practice and prepare for stressful situations, decreasing “fight or flight” responses. Read more about examples and applications of social stories in my colleague, Dr. Erin Gibbons’ previous blog post.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Click here to learn more about NESCA’s ASD Diagnostic Clinic.

 

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.

 

Myth Busters: Bilingualism and Language Delays in Young Children

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Bilingual and multilingual children are often diagnosed with both language disorders and autism spectrum disorders later in development than monolingual children. There are a variety of reasons for later diagnosis, such as disparities in service access or structural inequities in society which limit diagnostic or treatment services for bilingual and multilingual families as well as disparities in the availability of providers and experts capable of diagnosing communication disabilities and language delays in bilingual and multilingual children. Another main factor I often see in practice as a neuropsychologist is a “myth” related to language development in bilingual/multilingual children. The myth is that “bilingualism or multilingualism causes language delay.” This is not accurate and not concordant with the scientific research. If a parent, educator, pediatrician, or therapist raises concern about a bilingual or multilingual child’s language development, do not delay an evaluation to consider the presence of a language delay, communication disability, autism spectrum disorder, or a neurological or cognitive disability. It is likewise critical to not delay access to helpful interventions for language development (e.g., speech/language therapy, early literacy/phonics interventions, social skills/play interventions). Early detection of language delays improves outcomes for monolingual and bilingual/multilingual children.

Here are important key facts about language delay and bilingual/multilingual children which can be helpful for parents, educators, therapists, and other professionals:

  • While there are some differences in bilingual and multilingual language development from monolingual development in the brain, those differences do not produce speech delays.
  • Bilingual/multilingual children and monolingual children develop expressive language skills and reach early speech and language milestones at similar times in early development. For example, single-word vocabulary size of bilingual/multilingual children is equitable to vocabulary size of monolingual children.
  • Language regression (a “red flag” for autism spectrum disorders) occurs regardless of language status and is not dependent on a child’s monolingual or multilingual abilities.
  • There is much scientific research indicating that bilingualism/multilingualism enhances social communication skills (including children with autism spectrum disorders). Likewise, bilingualism/multilingualism does not in itself produce or explain social communication challenges for children.

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about bilingualism and language delay, Dr. Brenda Gorman, Associate Professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Elmhurst College, and Dr. Alejandro Brice, Professor in the Department of Education at the University of Florida at St. Petersburg offer an informative YouTube video for parents and clinicians regarding bilingualism, “late talkers,” and language delay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zT0x-EqanGg

This scientific article is also a helpful resource for parents and professionals: “Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says” (Byers-Heinlein and Lew-Williams, 2013): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6168212/

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant 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.

 

The Value of Mulligans

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

Let’s face it – a lot of parenting involves socializing children whose brains are in the process of being built. This means:

  1. They do not yet have the cognitive capacity to understand the moral principles behind such behaviors as “sharing, “being nice” and “using our words.”
  2. They are in the process of learning how to inhibit the impulse to grab, say whatever one thinks and using physical force to get what one wants.

Behavioral reinforcement strategies (rewarding desirable behavior) can be quite effective as a socialization technique – but only if the strategy is keyed to both an understanding of the level of the child’s cognitive/moral development and their capacity for impulse control. All too often, the parent’s efforts to shape their child’s behavior run aground because of problems in assessing either (or both) of these areas. The concept of a “mulligan” can be a very useful in compensating for either child or parent error.

The term “mulligan” comes from the game of golf where it means getting an extra stroke after a poor shot. There are several stories about the origin of the term, but most involve a player named Mulligan who had been so rattled by a variety of events that he made a very poor shot on his first effort and claimed a “correction” – basically a do-over. This fits well with the dilemma presented to parents when a child has not been able to stick to an agreement, like “if you boys can work out your differences without verbal or physical fighting this morning, we will get some ice cream this afternoon.”

The first step in taking a mulligan, or correction do-over, always involves giving everybody involved some time to calm down, thus restoring the capacity for flexible thinking and problem solving. Once this is achieved, it is time to figure out where things broke down: was it overestimating the child’s capacity for controlling their impulses over time, in certain situations, or with certain people? Or was it because the child did not know how or why to take certain actions? If the problem involves impulse control, it will be up to the parent to restructure the situation in order to make it more realistically doable for the child or children – in other words, the parent takes a mulligan. For instance, s/he might say, “Look, this is not working out. I’m going to take a mulligan. Every 15 minutes that you guys can get along and work out your differences, I will give you a point. If you can get 3 points this morning, we will go for ice cream this afternoon.” Notice that this directive leaves some room for inevitable error, but still imposes reasonable expectations.

When the problem falls in the “how” or “why” category, parents also need to consider the child’s developmental status before engaging in problem solving. It is really important to appreciate that a child’s understanding of common conventions, like “sharing” and “fair.” In the egocentric and preconventional thinking of young children, “sharing” is too abstract of a concept and “fair” means “I get my way.” To speak about “taking turns,” make more sense to them. In the more conventional thinking of elementary school children, the key element in sharing is “fairness,” or, is the exchange equal? (In high school or college, some students will begin to struggle with the concept of equity, or how to allocate resources and opportunities in order to ensure an equal outcome, but this is a foreign thought to most children when it applies to their own resources, like candy or access to video games). Once the parent is clear about how the child is viewing the problem and where their strategies broke down, they can offer a chance for a mulligan while teaching more effective strategies than brute force or crying. Concrete aids, such as wind-up timers that show minutes, can help children understand the passing of time. Whimsical strategies, such as “shooting fingers” or “Rock, Paper, Scissors” are fun ways of determining who goes first or who gets to choose the video that also teach tenets of compromise and collaboration.

 

Resources:

https://www.golfdigest.com/story/did-you-know-where-did-the-term-mulligan-originate

 

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.

Executive Function Skills in the Outdoors

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Executive functioning skills are a “family” of skills that operate in a “top-down” process, controlling and regulating brain regions associated with attention, impulse control, emotion regulation, and meta-cognition or “thinking about thinking.” For more information about executive function skills, please refer to my previous NESCA blog “Teenage Stress and Executive Functioning.” As an evaluator, I often emphasize two key points about executive function skills: (1) Developing executive function skills is a combination of brain development and life experience; and (2) These skills are built through interactions (with others and our world) and practice.

Now with more access to New England summer weather, there are plenty of opportunities for children and teens to grow executive function skills in interaction with the natural world. I recommend a “must-download” if you want to review practical, science-based activities and games for children from the ages of six months old through adolescence, “Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence.” This is a wonderful resource that provides a clear list and description of practical activities to strengthen executive function skills based on a child’s age. This resource was developed by The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a multidisciplinary team supporting research, policy, and practice for childhood development. Their website also provides excellent free resources for parents, clinicians, and educators related to topics such as stress, resiliency, play, and brain structure/development.

Here is a short list of outdoor summer executive function activities based on your child’s developmental age:

  1. 6-18 months-old: Peekaboo and Patty-Cake on the grass and other textures, such as dirt, mud, water, or wood (a multi-sensory experience), encourage joint attention and object focus by naming, pointing, and sustaining focus on natural objects at the beach or in the woods.
  2. 18-36 months-old: Match/sort natural objects, such as placing rocks in one bucket and flowers in another bucket, blow bubbles with a variety of wand shapes, pretend play as fishermen, construction workers, or farmers/gardeners.
  3. 3-5 years-old: Pretend to be an outdoor superhero in an obstacle course or race (e.g., running through Hula Hoops or around traffic cones), assist with cooking/preparing an outdoor picnic, or make a nature bracelet.
  4. 5-7 years-old: Play the I-Spy game and participate in scavenger hunts, use strategy board games (e.g., Uno, Concentration) on land or maybe even in the water, go on a sensory walk (name something you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch).
  5. 7-12 years-old: Star-gaze and find/name constellations, create a bird house or other wood structure through woodworking activities, garden one or more plants, play with a super soaker toy or laser/flashlight tag.
  6. Adolescents: Maintain a summer sketching and drawing journal of natural objects, participate in sunrise or sunset yoga or dance classes, outdoor animal-assistant yoga (e.g., Goat Yoga), or sports-oriented camps and activities.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant 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.

 

When the Worry Bug Makes You Mad: Understanding the Importance of Positive Behavior Plans for Anxious Kids

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

“Don’t Feed the Worry Bug,” by Andi Green is a wonderful book for children who are anxious or experience a lot of worrisome thoughts. The story is about a monster who constantly feeds his WorryBug, only to find that as he worries more and more, the WorryBug continues to grow until the monster is totally overwhelmed by the emotion. Eventually, he learns to control it. In my practice, I evaluate a number of children with lots of worries…but they don’t actually look worried. Instead, children may appear defiant, hyperactive and aggressive. Why do children overwhelmed with anxiety sometimes become frustrated and angry or have poor behavioral control at home and in the classroom?

Children with anxiety “on the surface” may appear angry, oppositional and defiant to adults. However, these behaviors oftentimes reflect secondary responses to an underlying cause: anxiety. Responses to anxiety can be categorized as “fight, flight or freeze.” As a classic example, if you run into a grizzly bear on a hike, your body’s natural physiological response is to fight, flee or freeze. Your anxiety about the demands of a situation send your body and brain into a state of “threat alert.” Similarly, when a child is worrying about something, is socially anxious, or is feeling nervous about their ability to handle a task, this “threat alert” system is activated and the child’s ability to make well-thought out decisions is impaired. The child may be labeled a “behavior problem” because of the impulsivity, defiance, disruptiveness or aggression (fight mode). Or the child may appear distractible, silly and immature, or avoidant of challenging tasks (flight mode). An anxious child may also show difficulties shifting gears/transitioning, problems letting go of events, or seem unmotivated or apathetic (freeze mode). It is also not uncommon for children with anxiety to have challenges demonstrating appropriate social skills, such as problems with insight into how their behaviors may affect others. They may also experience challenges reading the nonverbal and verbal cues in their environment because their brain is “soaked” with high arousal, immobilizing their capacity to apply logic to everyday situations. How do we help children manage their anxiety and the resulting behavioral challenges from that anxiety?

A neuropsychological evaluation can provide insights into your child’s behavioral challenges to determine if there may be an “underlying cause,” such as anxiety, (or other causes such as learning disabilities, depression or poor information processing) which are driving weak emotional and behavior control. Once identified, a neuropsychologist can provide guidance on the most effective interventions for a child at school and at home.

In my experience, one of the most important interventions for a child who experiences anxiety and secondary behavioral challenges is the development of a Positive Behavior Plan at school, which can then be included in a child’s IEP. However, many children with anxiety do not respond well to traditional behavioral reward systems that solely focus on increasing or decreasing behaviors (e.g. follow directions, sit calmly, keep your body safe, etc.), as these systems do not teach the child the self-regulation skills necessary for controlling emotional and behavioral responses. Instead, an effective Positive Behavior Plan for a child with anxiety includes behavioral targets or “goals” that focus on the attempt at coping strategy application. Importantly, a child with anxiety should be rewarded for trying to use a coping strategy, as it will take time, practice and reinforcement before a child develops the capacity to apply coping strategies consistently and successfully.

Sample coping strategies that a child should be taught by a special educator, counselor or other specialist include “taking deep breaths, jumping jacks, taking a break, using words to say how I feel,” or other self-regulation tools. When the goals of a Positive Behavior Plan focus on using a coping strategy before or during moments of distress rather than a plan that is tied to increasing or decreasing specific behaviors after they occur, a child builds independent capacity to appraise and react appropriately to physical and emotional responses in the classroom and the community. Children learn the signs (e.g. in their body, mind and in their environment) that the WorryBug is approaching, and feel better equipped, confident and more in control of their emotions and behaviors. For more information on how to appropriately develop Positive Behavior Plans for children with anxiety, “The Behavior Code” by Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport is an excellent resource for parents and educators.

When the “WorryBug” or anxiety makes kids mad, mean and aggressive, a comprehensive and thorough neuropsychological evaluation can determine how to best tackle the anxiety “beneath the surface” through therapeutic and educational interventions. A neuropsychological evaluation can also direct the development of strategic Positive Behavior Plans that are individualized and appropriate for the child’s home and school environment.

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant 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.

 

Anxiety Reducers for Children and Teens with ASD

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Research indicates that children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are more sensitive to heightened physiological sympathetic arousal (the “fight or flight” response), including increased heart rate, breathing rate, feeling “on edge” and body-based tenseness. Heightened physiological arousal is neurologically connected to sensory processing and emotional responses. This is why some children with ASD have “high startle responses” or sensitivities to specific sensations, such as touch or sounds. This is also why some children and teens with ASD are vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, particularly within social situations and settings.

There is growing research focusing on possible strategies and interventions that reduce anxiety and “buffer” the “fight or flight” response that can be activated for many children and teens with ASD.

5 Research-driven Anxiety Reducers:

Animals: Include companion or therapy animals in social groups or social outings (particularly new social events). In one study, children with ASD showed a 43% decrease in skin conductance responses during free play with peers in the presence of animals, as compared to toys (O’Haire, McKenzie, Beck, & Slaughter, 2015).

Exercise: Make a plan to engage in a “warm up” body-based activity right before a social event when anxiety levels are increasing (e.g., jumping jacks, burpees, squats). Research indicates that exercise calms the amygdala and decreases physiological arousal.

Relax or Distract: Practice progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Recent research has indicated that regular and routine engagement in PMR sessions can be a useful strategy for individuals with ASD. Distract yourself from the anxiety-producing situation for the short term (e.g., count by 3s, name three things you can see and hear in the room, repeat words from your favorite song in your head).

Plan to Take a Break: Children and teens can benefit from having a healthy “escape plan” to take a break from socially-demanding and sensory-demanding settings (e.g., a large event like a play or concert, a college lecture, an interview for a job). Research indicates that “rest breaks” during mentally demanding tasks result in increased alertness, decreased fatigue and heightened relaxation.

Social Stories: Social stories provide the opportunity to practice and prepare for stressful situations, decreasing “fight or flight” responses. Read more about examples and applications of social stories in my colleague, Dr. Erin Gibbons’ previous blog post.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Click here to learn more about NESCA’s ASD Diagnostic Clinic.

 

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.