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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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Key Facts about Early Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Early diagnosis is a catalyst for propelling children on positive trajectories. If a family and child identify and focus on areas of growth earlier rather than later, there is more time and more possibility of change and improvement. This tenant is particularly critical for diagnosing ASD in toddlerhood and early childhood.

Here are critical facts about the diagnosis of ASD in early childhood and the positive impact of early diagnosis on youngsters as they age into adulthood.

  1. Most children with ASD are not diagnosed until approximately 4 years-old, yet ASD can be reliably identified by the age of 2. There is also expanding research on early identification of infants who may be at risk for ASD. Early detection is possible.
  2. Genes play an important role in ASD. A child’s odds of having an ASD diagnosis increases if he/she has a sibling or parent with ASD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disability, schizophreniadepression, bipolar disorder or anxiety. Family medical history is an important factor for families considering a diagnostic evaluation.
  3. Co-occurring disorders (such as anxiety and depression) are more likely in individuals with ASD than the general population. Identifying emotion regulation issues in early childhood is thus essential.
  4. Neuroplasticity matters. Because ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, early treatment improves neuroplastic brain functioning and subsequent behavior. As a child develops, his/her brain becomes less plastic.
  5. Interventions geared at a child’s “first relationships” with their caregivers may exert a strong positive effect on the developmental trajectories of toddlers at high-risk of ASD and also have a positive impact on a child’s social skills with peers as they age.
  6. Research indicates that parent-child interactions in early childhood predict long-term gains in language skills into adulthood for individuals with diagnoses of ASD. Acquiring communicative, pragmatic and useful language by kindergarten has also been identified as a strong predictor of adaptive or functional “real life” skills, which are needed to navigate the environment in adolescence and adulthood.
  7. Social skills instruction in a child’s early years increases competency with peers in school. This social competency is associated with greater adaptive independence in children with ASD.
  8. Working with a “diagnostic navigator” early in your child’s life improves outcomes. Research clearly indicates that social support is vital to relieve stress associated with caregiving for a child with ASD and that a positive parent–professional relationship is helpful in alleviating family stress.

If you suspect your child has or is at higher risk for ASD and you are looking for a “diagnostic navigator” for your child, consider an evaluation with NESCA.  While early diagnosis of ASD can make a positive impact on a child’s trajectory, obtaining the accurate diagnosis and recommendations for interventions at any age is critical.

 

References:

Elder JH, Kreider CM, Brasher SN, Ansell M. Clinical impact of early diagnosis of autism on the prognosis and parent-child relationships. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2017;10:283-292. Published 2017 Aug 24. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S117499.

Dawson G, Jones EJ, Merkle K, Venema K, Lowy R, Faja S, Kamara D, Murias M, Greenson J, Winter J, Smith M, Rogers SJ, Webb SJ. Early behavioral intervention is associated with normalized brain activity in young children with autism. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012 Nov;51(11):1150-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2012.08.018. PMID: 23101741; PMCID: PMC3607427.

Jokiranta-Olkoniemi E, Cheslack-Postava K, Sucksdorff D, Suominen A, Gyllenberg D, Chudal R, Leivonen S, Gissler M, Brown AS, Sourander A. Risk of Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Among Siblings of Probands With Autism Spectrum Disorders. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Jun 1;73(6):622-9. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.0495. PMID: 27145529.

Kasari C, Siller M, Huynh LN, Shih W, Swanson M, Hellemann GS, Sugar CA. Randomized controlled trial of parental responsiveness intervention for toddlers at high risk for autism. Infant Behav Dev. 2014 Nov;37(4):711-21. doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2014.08.007. Epub 2014 Sep 26. PMID: 25260191; PMCID: PMC4355997.

Mayo, J., Chlebowski, C., Fein, D.A. et al. Age of First Words Predicts Cognitive Ability and Adaptive Skills in Children with ASD. J Autism Dev Disord 43, 253–264 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1558-0.

Siller, M., Swanson, M., Gerber, A., Hutman, T., & Sigman, M. (2014). A parent-mediated intervention that targets responsive parental behaviors increases attachment behaviors in children with ASD: results from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(7), 1720-1732.

Xie S, Karlsson H, Dalman C, Widman L, Rai D, Gardner RM, Magnusson C, Schendel DE, Newschaffer CJ, Lee BK. Family History of Mental and Neurological Disorders and Risk of Autism. JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Mar 1;2(3):e190154. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.0154. PMID: 30821823; PMCID: PMC6484646.

 

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.

 

Supporting Your Child’s Reading Development – Even During a Pandemic

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Alissa Talamo, PhD
Clinical Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Aside from allowing children to access school instruction, the ability to read provides a child with the opportunity to read for pleasure. Reading for pleasure has been shown to support a child’s cognitive development, improve concentration, increase a child’s vocabulary, expand a child’s level of creativity and imagination, improve empathy and provide the child with a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Here are some ideas to support reading for children of all ages:

Pre-school Years:

  • Develop awareness of different sounds
    • For example, have your child look for things around the home that start with a certain letter sound.
    • Play rhyming games.
    • Sing songs.
  • Read the same book to them daily for several days
    • Point out and talk about different vocabulary words each time.
    • Repetition helps build vocabulary and comprehension.

Early School Years:

  • Practice rhyming
    • Say a word and have your child see how many real or made-up words they can say that rhyme with that word.
  • Practice reading
    • Have your child read a page of a “just right” book aloud. Be sure it’s a page they can read with fewer than two or three reading mistakes.
    • Have your student use their finger to ensure they stop and look at every word rather than guess or skip words.
    • Another goal may be to pause whenever they see a period, since many struggling readers miss punctuation.

For All School Grades/Ages:

  • Read books of interest aloud to your child that they may not yet be able to read independently. This will allow your child to enjoy more sophisticated stories and increase their exposure to complex syntax and new vocabulary.
  • Continue to introduce a wide range of books.
  • Let your child’s areas of interest(s) help determine the books you choose.
  • Provide your child with experiences that help increase their background knowledge before reading about a topic, as this will then help with reading comprehension.
  • Ask your child questions about what you’re reading as you go. For younger children, this may involve them retelling the story. Ask older students to identify the key points in the text.

Finally, here is a list of apps and websites that can provide activities and books for you to enjoy as a family.

 

If you suspect your child may have reading challenges, join Dr. Talamo for a webinar on how to spot those early signs on October 15, 2020, from 2:00-3:00 PM ET.

Register in advance for this webinar: https://nesca-newton.zoom.us/…/WN_4XOoaw4IS-e8xEkHt6ev_A

References

https://www.childrensmn.org/2020/05/13/help-kids-keep-reading-stay-home-order-distance-learning/

https://www.eschoolnews.com/2020/06/30/how-to-effectively-support-struggling-readers-during-distance-learning

https://hr.uw.edu/coronavirus/caring-for-self-and-family/child-care/at-home-learning-resources/

www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/reading-apps-games-and-websites

 

About the Author:

With NESCA since its inception in 2007, Dr. Talamo had previously practiced for many years as a child and adolescent clinical psychologist before completing postdoctoral re-training in pediatric neuropsychology at the Children’s Evaluation Center.

After receiving her undergraduate degree from Columbia University, Dr. Talamo earned her doctorate in clinical health psychology from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University.

She has given a number of presentations, most recently on “How to Recognize a Struggling Reader,” “Supporting Students with Working Memory Limitations,” (with Bonnie Singer, Ph.D., CCC-SLP of Architects for Learning), and “Executive Function in Elementary and Middle School Students.”

Dr. Talamo specializes in working with children and adolescents with language-based learning disabilities including dyslexia, attentional disorders, and emotional issues. She is also interested in working with highly gifted children.

Her professional memberships include MAGE (Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education), IDA (International Dyslexia Association), MABIDA (the Massachusetts division of IDA) and MNS (the Massachusetts Neuropsychological Society).

She is the mother of one teenage girl.

 

To book a consultation with Dr. Talamo 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, 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.

Encouraging Your Child to Read

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Alissa Talamo, PhD
Clinical Neuropsychologist, NESCA

According to Sally Shaywitz M.D., (Audrey G. Ratner Professor of Pediatrics-Neurology; Co-Director, Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity), dyslexia is highly prevalent, affecting one in five people, and it represents over 80% of all learning disabilities.

Even when a child does not meet the criteria for dyslexia, they may be a reluctant reader. Children who do not practice reading perform poorly on reading tests relative to children who do read on a regular basis. In addition, reduced reading time results in exposure to fewer words. In general, people use limited vocabulary during conversation compared to the language one is exposed to while reading. As such, a reluctant reader is at risk to have poorly developed vocabulary knowledge compared to same-age peers. They are also less likely to improve their reading skills over time. In her book, Overcoming Dyslexia (2003), Dr. Shaywitz shared the following information:

Through reading, a child is introduced to new concepts and information. In addition, the more a child is exposed to literature, the more likely reading will become an integral part of their daily life. However, how does a parent encourage a reluctant reader? Here are some ideas:

1.  Read a story to your child. Then ask them to talk about their favorite parts of the story.

2. Be ready to read or listen to books over and over again – this is how children learn. FYI – Did you know you can listen to the audio version of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (a series of children’s books by Betty MacDonald originally published in 1947) four times in a row on a drive from Boston to Maryland and four times in a row on the way back? I did this with my daughter when she was 4-years-old (she is now 16) and I do believe that, to this day, I can still quote parts of the book!

3.  Surround your children with reading material – this can be comprised of books, graphic novels, or magazines, anything that is of interest to your child.

4.  Let your child take out their own library card and go with you to the library to pick out their own reading material. Allowing a child to read for pleasure is the best way to create a more engaged reader. However, it is also important to make sure the child is choosing an age-appropriate book. A librarian can be very helpful in providing recommendations based on a child’s age and areas of interest.

 5.  Have your children practice reading whenever possible. Baking a cake? Ask them to help you read the instructions (perhaps your hands are too messy to turn the page!). Ordering food? Let them read the menu aloud to a younger sibling.

6. Use technology to your advantage. For example, I worked with a 14-year old boy with dyslexia who was intimidated by the size of the first Harry Potter book. However, I mentioned to him that, on the iPad, the book is no bigger than the iPad itself. He was more willing to carry an I-pad around and read at his own pace. Another advantage is that with an e-reader the child can place as much or as little text on a page as they wish, another way to reduce reading stress.

 7. Take advantage of audiobooks. This technology is a huge benefit for students who struggle to access books that are written for children their age but beyond their current independent reading level. The child can simply listen along, or they can hold the book and follow along with the text while listening. There are several ways to access audiobooks, including downloading them from your library for free!

8. Finally, model good reading habits. If your child never sees you reading, but you insist that they read, they will see reading as a chore rather than a pleasure. If you are not a strong reader, that is ok, you, too, can listen to audiobooks!

While these recommendations will hopefully help your child experience increased reading pleasure and exposure to literature, it is still important to find out the reason why your child is struggling to read. If your child has not had a thorough reading evaluation, you can ask your child’s school to complete such an assessment. In addition, you may wish to have your child evaluated by an independent evaluator.

 

This blog was previously published in NESCA Notes. 

 

About the Author:

With NESCA since its inception in 2007, Dr. Talamo had previously practiced for many years as a child and adolescent clinical psychologist before completing postdoctoral re-training in pediatric neuropsychology at the Children’s Evaluation Center.

After receiving her undergraduate degree from Columbia University, Dr. Talamo earned her doctorate in clinical health psychology from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University.

She has given a number of presentations, most recently on “How to Recognize a Struggling Reader,” “Supporting Students with Working Memory Limitations,” (with Bonnie Singer, Ph.D., CCC-SLP of Architects for Learning), and “Executive Function in Elementary and Middle School Students.”

Dr. Talamo specializes in working with children and adolescents with language-based learning disabilities including dyslexia, attentional disorders, and emotional issues. She is also interested in working with highly gifted children.

Her professional memberships include MAGE (Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education), IDA (International Dyslexia Association), MABIDA (the Massachusetts division of IDA) and MNS (the Massachusetts Neuropsychological Society).

She is the mother of one teenage girl.

 

To book a consultation with Dr. Talamo 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, 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.

Interoception: Helping Children Develop their “Hidden Sense”

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach

In our last OT Tuesday, we reviewed the sense of interoception, the ability to perceive information coming from inside the body. From basic human experiences, such as hunger and fatigue, to more complex internal emotions, such as anxiety and fear, interoception allows us to perceive and understand the sensations coming from our own bodies. As with other senses, this sense develops as children grow and, like the rest of us, will all have varied abilities. Some of our kids are naturally in tune with their bodies – they take to potty training without a hitch, recognize when they need a snack or a drink of water, and intuitively understand what their bodies are trying to tell them. Unsurprising, these exceptionally well regulated kids are not the majority, and most of our children benefit from some guidance, modelling and direct education on how to interpret the signals and sensations they are experiencing. Let’s discuss some tips and strategies for helping children to perceive, understand and appropriately respond to this internal information. Many of these tips are simple ideas to build into daily life and ways to take advantage of naturally occurring teachable moments.

Language – Incorporating language that teaches children to acknowledge internal cues and body sensations helps them to naturally and consistently notice the clues they are receiving from their bodies.

  • Verbally describe the choices that you make based on your own sense of interoception.
    • “I am going to put on a jacket because when I stepped outside this morning, I felt really cold.”
    • “My mouth feels dry and I’m starting to get a bit of a headache, I am going to have some water because my body is telling me that I am thirsty.”
  • Link requests that your child makes to how they may be feeling inside.
    • “You asked me for a snack. Are you hungry? How is your belly telling you that you’re hungry?”
  • Point out physical clues that hint at internal sensations.
    • “I notice you are having a hard time keeping your eyes open. That tells me you are feeling tired.”
    • “You are crossing your legs and dancing around a bit while you are coloring that picture. I think that your body is giving signals that you have to pee. It is important to pay attention to those signals so that you don’t wet your pants.”

Activities

  • Check Your Pulse! – Have your child sit quietly and teach them how to feel their pulse or heartbeat. Ask them to describe it – is it slow, fast, moving, hitting their fingers, etc.? Then have them run in place and do the same thing. How has it changed? Have them describe it now. Once children understand how their heartrate may be affected by physical activity, a next step would be pointing out that strong emotions, such as anger or excitement, can also affect one’s heartrate. This is a simple activity that provides some biofeedback and teaches children how their actions can affect their bodies.
  • Mindfulness – Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh defines mindfulness by stating, “Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world.” While not all mindfulness activities focus on interoception, many of the principles and activities build this skill. If you are looking for some resources to work on mindfulness with your child, explore these sites: org, susankaisergreenland.org, mindful.org, and drchristopherwillard.com. Additionally, consider some apps to use with your child: Mindful Powers, Smiling Mind, Breathe Think Do with Sesame and Headspace.
  • Breathing exercises – Breathing exercises are common in mindfulness and can help children to relax. If apps are not for you, consider researching breathing exercises, such as: five-finger breathing, lazy 8 breathing or bumblebee breathing.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – This practice involves alternating tension and relaxation in different muscle groups in the body. Dr. Monica Fitzgerald provides an excellent script to use with children working to relax here. If you are interested in exploring this practice with children with disabilities, many resources can be found at org.
  • Yoga – Yoga focuses on intentionally moving the body, pairing body movement and breathing, and increasing the mind-body connection. There are many apps and online videos that make yoga accessible to children. Some options include Simply Yoga, Gaia.com and Cosmic Kids Yoga. For some of our children who may need yoga broken down and presented differently, consider com or childlightyoga.com.

 

About the Author

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

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

 

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

 

Interoception: The “Hidden Sense”

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach

Conventionally, children are taught that there are five different senses, and that these senses help them to experience and understand the world around them. These five senses are sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Clinically, we refer to these sensory systems as the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile systems. Each system provides unique information and works to alert the brain about the environment around them. Children all develop these systems differently, and all have unique preferences, strengths and interpretations of the world around them. As adults, a sommelier likely has an incredibly refined gustatory system, while a classical musician’s strength lies in their auditory system.

As knowledge about the human body continues to expand, two additional sensory systems have started to make their way into the common lexicon—the vestibular system and the proprioceptive system—both of which describe body awareness. The vestibular system gathers information from the inner ear and tells us where our body is in space. It monitors movement, acceleration and deceleration, balance and any changes in position. A gymnast uses this sense constantly as they flip across a mat or balance on the beam. The proprioceptive system gathers information from our muscles and joints and tells our brains about our position in space and any strength or force that we are using. Proprioception allows us to touch our noses with our eyes closed! These seven senses are all generally acknowledged and frequently assessed by occupational therapists. But what is interoception? And why is it referred to as the hidden sense?

Interoception refers to the perception of information coming from inside the body. Organ systems and the autonomic nervous system provide information about heart rate, hunger, thirst, temperature, respiration and even emotion (Vaitl, 1996). This sense of interoception helps us meet our most basic needs, such as knowing when we need food and water, realizing that it is time to use the restroom and putting on a jacket if it is cold outside. It also helps us to gain a more nuanced understanding of ourselves, such as realizing that an activity is making us anxious by acknowledging heightened heart rate and perspiration. This sensory system is often referred to as the “hidden sense,” because it is completely unique to each individual and no one knows exactly what someone else is feeling internally.

Children develop this sense slowly, with the most basic cues, such as hunger being recognized first. As they continue to grow, different internal signals are more easily understood and start to impact behavior. For example, around the age of two or three, most children start the process of potty training when they begin to recognize what it feels like to have a full bladder. As children continue to grow through their elementary, middle and high school years, this sense continues to be refined. As is expected, this is easier for some children than others.

Recent research shows that there is a strong connection between interoception and emotional/self-regulation. Individuals with low interoception often have more difficulty with both understanding and regulating their bodies and emotions (Zamariola et al., 2019). It appears that the ability to truly understand our body allows us to more intentionally control our responses. Luckily, as with other sensory systems, there are ways to increase interoceptive awareness and help children to notice the information that their bodies are feeding to their brains. In our next OT Tuesday blog, we will discuss some tips and strategies for helping children to perceive, understand and appropriately respond to this internal information.

 

References

Vaitl D. (1996). Interoception. Biol. Psychol. 42 1–27. 10.1016/0301-0511(95)05144-9

Zamariola G., Frost N., Van Oost A., Corneille O., Luminet O. (2019). Relationship between interoception and emotion regulation: new evidence from mixed methods. J Affect Disord  246:480–5. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.12.101

About the Author

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

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

 

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