By: Ferne Pinard, Ph.D.
NESCA Pediatric Neuropsychologist
Although typically thought of as an “adult illness,” children and adolescents can get diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Pediatric-onset multiple sclerosis (POMS) occurs when MS is diagnosed before age 18.
Approximately 30% of POMS patients show evidence of cognitive impairment. Problems with attention, working memory, processing speed, and language (including word retrieval) are commonly reported. Poorer verbal expression/vocabulary acquisition have also been reported among patients who were diagnosed at younger ages. Overall IQ, memory, complex attention (i.e., shifting attention between competing stimuli) and visual-motor integration skills may also be impacted. These cognitive deficits as well as absences due to illness and fatigue can undermine the student’s academic performance (i.e., grades), leading to feelings of inadequacy and a sense of not being able to “keep up with” their peers academically.
However, POMS can also affect the child’s/adolescent’s social and emotional functioning. Fatigue, depression, bowel/bladder problems and physical limitations can decrease a child’s/adolescent’s interest in socializing. Heat sensitivity can limit participation in physical activities while in a warm environment, which can make them feel even more isolated. They may also feel embarrassed and have lowered self-esteem because they feel different from peers. Children/adolescents with chronic illnesses are also at an increased risk for teasing and bullying from peers. It is no surprise then that children/adolescents with MS are vulnerable to psychiatric disorders. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder occur more often in the MS population than the general population.
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease. Symptoms can come and go without apparent reason or warning, and no two people experience MS symptoms in exactly the same way. Some symptoms are clearly visible (like weakness, causing walking problems) or less visible (like fatigue or cognitive concerns). It is not possible to predict when symptoms will occur or what parts of the body will be affected. MS symptoms can change from week to week.
It is important that school officials understand that because symptoms come and go without warning, accommodations need to be in place, even when symptoms seem to diminish for a time. Accommodations can include:
- Home tutoring when students are not able to attend school
- Excused absences and a reasonable plan to make up missed work
- Extended time for tests/exams/projects
- Second set of books at home
- Preferential seating for visual, attention, or bladder/bowel issues
- Bathroom pass/extended bathroom time
- Portable air conditioner/fan
- Elevator access
- Psychotherapeutic support
- Plan to manage fatigue:
- Frequent/scheduled breaks
- Modification of class schedule
- Workload modifications
A detailed neuropsychological evaluation is essential for objectively measuring any neurocognitive deficits, tracking them over time, and informing treatment recommendations. Speech/language, audiology, occupational therapy, and physical therapy evaluations may also be warranted depending on the severity of symptoms to determine whether these services are needed. Psychologists, psychiatrists, school guidance counselors, teachers, and school administrators as well as support groups with other patients and families facing this disease should also be part of the child’s/adolescent’s care team.
About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Ferne Pinard, Ph.D.
Dr. Pinard provides comprehensive evaluation services for children, adolescents, and young adults with learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), and psychiatric disorders as well as complex medical histories and neurological conditions. She has expertise in assessing children and adolescents with childhood cancer as well as neuro-immunological disorders, including opsoclonus-myoclonus-ataxia syndrome (“dancing eyes syndrome”), central nervous system vasculitis, Hashimoto’s encephalopathy, lupus, auto-immune encephalitis, multiple sclerosis (MS), acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), and acute transverse myelitis (ATM), and optic neuritis.
To book a neuropsychological evaluation with Dr. Pinard or another expert neuropsychologist at NESCA, 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; Londonderry, New Hampshire; and Coaching and Transition staff in greater Burlington, Vermont, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.