Tag

pediatric neuropsychologist

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.

 

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

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

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

Why do you need so many forms?

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

What do the forms ask about?

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

What will you do with the forms?

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

How do I fill these out?

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

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

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

 

About the Author

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Neuropsychological Evaluation Results: What, When and How to Share with Children and Teens

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

During intake and feedback meetings with families, I find the same question comes up often from parents: what do I tell my child about all of this? NESCA’s Dr. Erin Gibbons gracefully tackled how to prepare your child for their neuropsychological evaluation. After an evaluation is done, you as a parent now have more than 20 pages of historical information, test descriptions, tables, summaries, and recommendations. How do you translate that information into something a child or teen will actually understand? It does not need to be a secret code or a hidden message. Feedback about a child’s strengths and weakness can be an incredibly powerful intervention.

Let’s take a page from Carol Dweck’s work and use a growth mindset to frame the experience. A growth mindset tells us that skills can be learned and neural connections can be strengthened. I advise parents to tell children and teens that testing is a chance for a “healthy check-up” for our brain and our learning, just the same way that the pediatrician performs a yearly healthy check-up for our bodies. The same way that a doctor pays attention to how all of our systems grow and interact with each other, a neuropsychologist can see how a child or teen is growing and how parts of the brain can talk to each other. I shape the dialogue right away that this kind of evaluation can tell us how strong some of the parts of our learning are, like a super strong muscle that has been exercised and practiced with gusto. The evaluation can also tell us what muscles or parts of our learning are a little weaker and need some more “exercise.” Pulling in a growth mindset, we can set the frame that any weakness can be made stronger if we have the right types of exercise, the right amount of practice, the right coaches, and a willingness to work hard. Most children and teens are pretty savvy and can often predict what their weak muscles are (e.g., “math is so hard!”; “I can’t spell!”; or “I can’t pay attention in school and I’m always in trouble for getting out of my seat!”).

Now, back to those 20-plus pages of dense text. It’s rarely helpful for a child or teen to read each page. There are parts of the normal curve, standard scores, confidence intervals, on and on that children and teens have not even learned yet! Those scores are an incredibly important source of information for schools, pediatricians, psychiatrists, therapists, and other neuropsychologists. They are not nearly as helpful when sharing information with children and teens, so do not stress about trying to translate it for kids. It is also not as helpful to have this conversation with your children when you are late for a meeting or they cannot find a soccer cleat on the way to practice. Plan your conversation for a time when your stress level is low as a parent and your child or teen is also more relaxed.

Your neuropsychologist can help you in your personal feedback meeting to identify a few important strengths to share with your child or teen – from your child’s positive attitude, to their strong decoding of new words, to their memory for things they see, to their ability to make and keep friends. With a sense of confidence about their strengths, I share what the “weaker muscle” is using language like, “I can see that word problems can be harder for you,” or “Keeping your anxious thoughts quiet when you are at school so you can concentrate on schoolwork is really hard.” Most of the time, children and teens find this validating rather than shaming – finally someone sees that their struggle is not their fault, not because their brain is wrong or bad, not because they are not trying hard enough. They just need more of the right kind of practice.

Knowing their strengths and their weaknesses, it is much easier to shape the game plan for the future. I tell children and teens that the good news is that we know what strategies can help make that weaker area even stronger. So choose your metaphor: coaches have different plays or practices, music teachers have different pieces for someone to play, artists can try out a new medium or set of supplies, or gamers practice different strategies and read tips and tricks from other gamers. By choosing a relatable experience for your child or teen in that moment, we can make the information both relevant and accessible. Your neuropsychologist can speak with you about how you as a parent can share this information with your child, or they can arrange a time to share the information directly from neuropsychologist to client. It is helpful for you to listen, too, so you can hear the language used by the neuropsychologist. Be prepared that these meetings are not very long to suit a child or teen’s attention span. Children and teens need time to process the information the same way adults do. You might expect a child to return to you a few days later with questions, or for the topic to more organically arise when your teen faces a challenge. Feedback is a unique chance for your child to feel validated, encouraged, and empowered!

 

About the Author

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

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

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.

 

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.

 

Looking for Answers? Ask the Right Questions.

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Ann Helmus, Ph.D.
NESCA Founder/Director; Clinical Neuropsychologist

Many parents have met with me concerned that, “We had a full evaluation and got a lot of scores and a diagnosis but we still don’t understand why our child has this problem and what we can do about it.” This outcome can be avoided if parents and the evaluator are both clear on why the child is being evaluated, have laid out specific questions to be answered and what kinds of recommendations are being sought. Determining the referral question(s) should be a key goal of the intake session.

During the intake meeting, the evaluator can help the parent to shape their concerns into a specific referral question that can be addressed effectively through the process of neuropsychological evaluation. The evaluator can manage parental expectations in this process so there is not disappointment with evaluation results that don’t answer the parents’ questions. For example, I’ve had parents request an evaluation because they want to know if their fifth grader will get into Harvard or their child with high-functioning ASD (autism spectrum disorder) will get married. These questions can’t be addressed through a neuropsychological evaluation, but they can be re-worked into answerable questions. A neuropsychological evaluation can tell us if a child’s cognitive and academic skills are in the range of students who attend the most competitive colleges. However, there are many other factors that influence the college acceptance process. In this case, the referral question might be revised into “assess the child’s potential for academic success in a rigorous academic setting.” Similarly, it is beyond the scope of a neuropsychologist to determine if anyone will get married, but through the evaluation process we can assess the child’s current social and emotional functioning and offer some predictions about their likely developmental trajectory in the social domain.

While the previous examples of referral questions are too broad or abstract, I am also often confronted with referral questions that are too narrow, such as, “Does this child have ADHD?”.  In this case, I would work with the parents to reframe the referral question to, “Why does this child appear to have difficulty paying attention in school?” This referral question recognizes the fact that there are many reasons that a child may have difficulty concentrating or appear distractible – ADHD being only one of the possibilities.

When I train neuropsychologists, I emphasize the importance of understanding “Why now?”. What is it that motivated the parent or school team to seek evaluation at this point in time as they work to frame the referral question with parents? Common reasons include: concern about how the child will manage an upcoming transition (e.g., to middle school), sudden appearance of a problem, obvious widening of the gap between a child and peers, inability to meet increased developmental demands, lack of response to interventions, change in emotional status, or deterioration in academic performance.

It is extremely helpful when parents and/or school teams prepare for the intake meeting by brainstorming what they are seeking from the evaluation, questions they hope will be answered, issues to be assessed, and specific guidance that is being requested. The evaluator can then work with the parents or school team to fashion these into a referral question that is specific and relevant to the child so that all parties are “on the same page” as they undertake the evaluation process.

 

About the Author
NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the  Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.

Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.

To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, 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, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

How to Not Worry Alone: Signs Your Teen May Need More Help

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

As we reach nearly a year since children and teens in Massachusetts were sent home from school, many of us are experiencing the sadness and disappointment that comes from chronic stress. Combined with colder weather keeping us indoors and more limited daylight, it’s certainly harder for us to stay positive and upbeat. Children and teens have experienced tremendous and immeasurable loss over the last year – loss of normalcy, of freedom, of rites of passage like graduations, of competition and sport, of friendships, to name a few. Some have lost loved ones to illness and death, and others to separation and distance. They have experienced large doses of social deprivation and far less interaction with the world. And, while most children and teens will weather this storm, there are some whose resilience is very much at risk.

The evidence strongly suggests that there are increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidal ideation in children and teens. Some changes in your child or teen since the “good old days” pre-pandemic are expected, just as ebbs and flows in our mood throughout the day or week are. So how is one to know when the situation is going from “normal adjustment” to the completely abnormal pandemic to a more dire and urgent need for help?  Here are few signs to keep alert to:

  • If you see your child withdrawing from activities they enjoy – even those around the house – pay attention. This might mean that a teen has stopped showing interest in baking projects, in connecting with friends over gaming, in watching movies with the family, etc. The shift from limited social interactions to total isolation is important.
  • If you see your child persistently struggling with daily living activities that used to be somewhat easy, keep a close eye on sleep and hygiene. Depressed children and teens tend to sleep much more or even much less than their peers with a sense of being tired and lethargic. Be alert for newer changes in hygiene and bathing that may have not been an issue before.
  • If you are noticing a persistent low or sad mood, pay attention to how your child talks about the future. A sense of hopelessness or difficulty articulating anything they look forward to about the future (for a family trip, for a chance to see a friend again, for a new season of a favorite show) is a sign that emotional health is precarious.
  • If you notice behavioral outbursts that happen more often and seem to grow more intense, your child or teen may be showing the irritability and anger that is common in depression in children and teens.
  • If your child had signs of anxiety or depression before the pandemic, the increased stress is likely to hit harder.

If a child or teen’s low mood seems to be persistent (around all the time) and pervasive (no matter what they are doing), it’s time to reach out for help. If you have noticed these struggles, who do you call?

  • Start with your child’s pediatrician. Many clinics have social workers on staff who can help to locate service agencies in your area. You can call and request a list of referral agencies or therapists. It may also help to ensure that there are not physical illnesses that are underlying the emotional problem.
  • Contact your child’s school. It’s worthwhile to check out how your child’s teacher perceives their engagement with school since a decline in academic functioning and even motivation to do any school work can be an important sign of a problem. Contact the guidance counselor, school psychologist, or social worker to ask for support. If the staff are unable to arrange therapy at school, they can provide names of therapists in the community.
  • Contact your insurance company either by calling or reviewing information on their website. Most providers are using telehealth platforms to interact with clients. Insurance companies regularly contact providers who are paneled to take insurance to see if they are accepting new patients for telehealth.
  • Ask friends or family for any providers they may have worked with in the past.

Asking for help for your struggling child or teen is a brave and powerful message. It shows your child that you do not ever need to worry alone.

 

For additional resources, please see:

The American Psychological Association at https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/06/covid-suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/stress-coping/young-adults.html

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

 

About the Author

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

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

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.

 

The Intention to Thrive

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Ann Helmus, Ph.D.
NESCA Founder/Director

As I reflect on the year that we have all come through, my overwhelming emotion (aside from exhaustion) is pride in the NESCA team for working together in an extraordinary manner under incredibly challenging circumstances. Just before closing the doors at NESCA in mid-March, I wrote to all staff:

NESCA is going to not only survive through this pandemic but we are going to thrive as an organization and show leadership in the special education community. The needs of our clients have not gone away; in fact, they are likely increasing.  School systems are scrambling to meet their obligations for students with special needs. We will continue to do the work we have always done, albeit in a somewhat modified fashion. 

Each of the NESCA staff—clinical and administrative—immediately rose to the occasion to help me realize this vision for navigating the pandemic. We increased the frequency our blog posts and introduced regular webinars, gearing them towards the needs of parents facing the challenges of the pandemic and increased our social media following from 4,000 to more than 40,000 by offering supportive and helpful content. NESCA clinicians offered multiple, free online support groups for parents and professionals related to topics they were now experiencing due to COVID-19. We acknowledged and addressed the unprecedented COVID-19-related concerns and challenges professionals and educators who support those with autism were experiencing through our free Autism Educator Hangouts.

After a great deal of research and discussion about how to conduct evaluations in a manner that ensured the safety of staff and clients while producing valid results, we settled on our “two office model,” renovating our space with plexiglass panes so that clients and clinicians would be able to work together in separate but adjoining offices. We collaborated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), The Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN) and the Massachusetts Urban Project, Inc., providing information about assessments and other services during the pandemic.

NESCA grew by adding new staff and service offerings this past year. We welcomed Dr. Moira Creedon to our pediatric neuropsychology staff. Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, and Becki Lauzon, M.A., CRC, both joined NESCA’s Transition Services team. Julie Robinson, OT, joined NESCA in September with three occupational therapists to offer insurance-based, sensory-motor therapy. Abigael Gray, MS, CCC-SLP, also joined at that time to offer insurance-based speech/language and feeding therapy at NESCA. These staff have been incredibly innovative in their use of teletherapy to continue providing services to clients remotely.  And, they and their clients have experienced some surprising benefits stemming from the delivery of services via telehealth. 2020 also saw the introduction of NESCA’s ASD Diagnostic Clinic, helping families to diagnose children with Autism Spectrum Disorder as early as possible so they may gain access to critically important interventions.

Over the last decade, NESCA has had a strong commitment to international work, seeing clients for evaluation and consultation in the NESCA offices as well as abroad. With travel severely limited by the pandemic, we have instituted teletherapy for international work and are pleased to continue to assist  families abroad. NESCA was honored to be a Gold Sponsor for the annual SENIA conference (Special Education Network & Inclusion Association) that was held virtually. I was pleased to present about the differences between testing and assessment with professionals from schools all over Asia.

In the midst of the global pandemic, we continued to do the work that we have always done. We continued to support each other and became even more closely bonded as a team. We contributed to the community. No matter how challenging it has been, we are motivated by the knowledge that children with special needs and their parents need our support now more than ever.

 

About the Author: 

NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the  Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.

Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.

To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, 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, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.