social skills

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.


Summer Learning

By | NESCA Notes 2018

By: Amity Kulis, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

As the warm days are here and summer vacation is either upon us or close by, our minds are shifting away from education: homework, studying for tests, and general stress. However, it is important to keep in mind that while summer vacation should be fun, it also provides an opportunity to build on learning.

Summer learning loss or summer slide is a real phenomenon for most children, even those without learning disabilities. Now, I am not advocating that every child needs to be in summer school to prevent this loss, but I am suggesting that we should be mindful and think about ways to promote learning over the summer. The areas of most concern include regression in reading and math skills, physical fitness, and social skills. These challenges are easy to overcome with some thoughtful planning of activities.

Reading: Studies suggest that just four to five books over the summer help to prevent summer learning loss in reading. Now not every child is going to be excited to read, even if they get to pick out their own books over the summer. However, we can find ways to make it more interesting.

  • Perhaps everyone in the family reads the same book and there are opportunities to read together or talk about the book at night. By reading out loud this would allow for even the youngest family member to be included.
  • Maybe a child is encouraged to pick a book about an upcoming family vacation. For example, a tour guide or the history of the area and they can relate that information when they are actually on vacation.
  • Graphic novels and other books that integrate words and pictures can be more exciting for some children.
  • Visit local museums. Without your children even realizing it they will be reading as they explore the exhibits at the Science Museum or the Aquarium. Boston and New England have many wonderful museums and summer is a great time to explore them with the added benefit of your children being exposed to printed text at each exhibit. It can be expensive to visit all the museums but most public libraries offer free or discounted prices to many museums.

Math: Many studies point to the most concern for regression in math skills. It seems easier to find ways to address reading skills over the summer and more difficult to find fun ways to continue to support math development. The good news is there are fun ways to incorporate math into everyday life.

  • While most of us are trying to limit technology and screen time in our children’s lives, the reality is that most children want it. Make screen time more educational by downloading games that involve math activities that are appropriate for your child’s educational skills.
  • Get cooking! Over the summer have your child help you in preparing a meal or a favorite treat. There is so much math involved in cooking. For young children it can simply be counting out the number of carrots needed for the soup and for older children you can learn about fractions or doubling or even tripling the recipe. You’ll be helping to make math more functional and applicable to real life, plus you’ll have fun and a tasty treat afterwards.
  • Another great way to involve numbers in everyday activities is including your child in planning the schedule for the day. Planning for the amount of travel time, whether it be by car or public transportation, accounting for the amount of time at the various activities and planning in meals can be a great exercise in time management and using numbers.

Physical activity and Social Skills: In addition to the academic aspects of summer slide it is also important to consider the physical and social aspects of an unstructured summer vacation. During the school year children have daily recess and regular gym class where they are presented with opportunities to interact with peers and get their bodies moving. During the summer there are endless opportunities to continue to promote these skills:

  • Sign your child up for a camp. Almost all summer camps have a social component and many also involve regular physical activity.
  • If your child is not doing summer camp there are also plenty of activities happening on a weekly basis throughout the summer. Check out your local recreation department/community center for free or discounted activities.
  • Walk or ride instead of driving the car. In the warm weather over the summer there are so many opportunities to get outside. Ride your bike or walk to the local ice cream parlor or even just around the block.
  • It can also be a great opportunity to learn a new sport like swimming or tennis.
  • Playgrounds, the beach, water parks, among others, are excellent places to meet up with old friends or meet new friends.

The important thing for the summer is to have fun and to never stop learning!

About the Author:

Dr. Amity Kulis joined NESCA in 2012 after earning her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, with a concentration in Children, Adolescents and Families (CAF). She completed post-doctoral training in pediatric neuropsychology with an emphasis on treating children with developmental, intellectual, learning and executive functioning challenges. She also has extensive training psychological (projective) testing and has conducted individual and group therapies for children of all ages. Before joining NESCA, Dr. Kulis worked in private practices, clinics, and schools, conducting comprehensive assessments on children ranging from toddlers through young adults. In addition, Dr. Kulis has had the opportunity to consult with various school systems, conducting observations of programs, and providing in-service trainings for staff. Dr. Kulis currently conducts neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for school aged children through young adulthood. She regularly participates in transition assessments (focusing on the needs of adolescents as they emerge into adulthood) and has a special interest in working with complex learners that may also struggle with emotional challenges and psychiatric conditions. In addition to administering comprehensive and data driven evaluations, Dr. Kulis regularly conducts school-based observations and participates in school meetings to help share her findings and consultation with a student’s TEAM.


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.



Meet Abigael Gray, NESCA’s Speech-Language Pathologist & Feeding Specialist

By | NESCA Notes 2020

This Fall, NESCA debuted its new feeding, speech and language and direct sensory/motor occupational therapy services. Leading NESCA’s feeding and speech and language therapy is Abigael Gray, MS, CCC-SLP. In today’s blog, we sat down with Abbey to learn about her role as a Feeding Specialist; Speech-Language Pathologist.

What led you to your interest in speech and language and feeding, in particular?

I received an undergraduate degree in psychology from Syracuse University. After graduating, I worked in a preschool for children with autism and developmental delays. This is really what made me interested in speech and language pathology (SLP), since all of the children there were receiving speech-language therapy. While I was working there, I observed quite a bit and decided I wanted to learn and do more in this area. After five years of working there, I enrolled at Emerson College to earn my Master’s in Communications Sciences and Disorders. While there, I discovered that Emerson has a great program for feeding. Many schools don’t have a focus on swallowing and feeding in pediatrics, like Emerson does. I had a placement with one of my professors at her practice in Needham. I eventually took a position with this clinic and received great training in pediatric feeding therapy there during my clinical fellowship. This is where I became passionate about feeding therapy. I eventually moved into a multidisciplinary practice for two more years and then joined the team at NESCA.

Why were you attracted to NESCA?

I saw this as a great opportunity to bring speech-language pathology and feeding therapy to NESCA. I loved the  multidisciplinary aspect to the practice and thought I could strengthen what NESCA already offers by adding feeding and SLP to it. I like how all of the various services are built into one practice right here. Many of the  kids being seen at NESCA can also benefit from the therapies that I offer. Having those services available to parents and children right in the same location is a huge plus for them.

After meeting Ann Helmus, Ph.D., NESCA’s founder and director, I knew that it was the right cultural fit for me, being so collaborative. It also gave me the opportunity to continue to work with Julie Robinson, OT, who oversees this new clinical offering. It’s great to be able to continue with my working relationships with the occupational therapists who also joined when I did. The seamless communication between all of us in the clinical therapy practice makes for really well-rounded therapy for the children we treat as well as more convenient for their parents/caregivers.

What are the most exciting and the most challenging parts of your role?

The most exciting part of my new role at NESCA is being able to offer speech-language and feeding  services in-house. Often the recommendations from neuropsychologists through their assessment is to have some SLP support, whether it’s having to do with reading, writing, social skills, expression or comprehension. Being able to offer that right in the same practice allows for continuity of care among clinicians on behalf of the child. It’s exciting for me because I can go back to the neuropsychologist or other clinician at NESCA who referred the client with any new observations or questions I may have. This makes the process much smoother for the parents and our clinicians. There’s just a lot less “red tape” to go through to be able to communicate and collaborate.

It’s also exciting to build this service offering from the ground up. I can take all of the experiences I have had and knowledge I’ve gained through my years in various positions and make our services our own at NESCA.

As far as challenges go, right now as we build out this new service, I am currently the only SLP on board. While that is the case for now, I have a great network of past colleagues and friends who are SLPs to bounce thoughts off of. Our plan is to have other SLPs join our team as we grow the practice.

What are your clinical interests?

Feeding is my big passion area. Within feeding, I am currently completing a lactation counseling training to become a certified lactation counselor. Babies can struggle with breast feeding, then can have even more difficulties transitioning from the breast to solid foods. I love working with infants and toddlers, and having this certification will round out my knowledge about feeding for this age range.

Within speech, I love working on articulation with kids who have speech sound disorders, phonological disorders and childhood apraxia of speech. Within language, I really enjoy working on social pragmatic communication with kids who are on the higher functioning side of the autism spectrum, or Asperger’s, or those who have social pragmatics difficulties.

I also really enjoy working on early literacy skills, sound letters, identification, rhyming and phonological awareness. When it comes to kids who may be in their older elementary school or early middle school years, I love to work on writing skills with them.

One characteristic among NESCA clinicians is that they are all lifelong learners. In what ways are you a lifelong learner?

I loved that having the curiosity to continue to learn is a draw here at NESCA! That’s really important to me. Right now, I’m currently working my way through three different courses:

  • The lactation counseling certification that I mentioned previously
  • A “Feed the Peds” course, which is a refresher course on feeding therapy with some new approaches in the areas of tethered oral tissues (i.e., tongue ties, lip ties) and how those impact feeding. The course covers how to assess and treat these issues. What’s interesting is that these new approaches are appropriate for people across the lifespan – not just for young children. There is also a module on treating those with medical complexities. Often times, medically complex patients have issues with feeding and/or are tube-fed, and can then go on to have challenges progressing through age-appropriate feeding skills or transitioning off of tube-feeding.
  • The third area I am currently in training for is with orofacial myofunctional disorders, including tethered oral tissues and the impact on speech and feeding. This covers anything that structurally or functionally impairs speech, the airway or feeding. This is a growing area in our field, so it’s important to be current and well-informed on this topic.

How has Covid-19 impacted the way you treat patients and families?

Right now, we are delivering speech-language and feeding therapy via teletherapy. While it’s always great to work with a child and/or family in-person, the plus side of teletherapy is that we get to see the child in their natural home environment as well as how the child communicates with family members. Sometimes, when we see the child in this setting, we can detect and observe a feeding or speech-language issue as the family sees it on a regular basis. It’s also nice to be able to work with parents in their own setting. We can better understand their priorities for therapy since we are talking directly with them. It also allows the child to generalize the skills they would normally learn in the clinic setting right into their home. As therapists, we can see what a typical meal at home looks like, which is obviously a more natural setting than the clinic. We used to have to ask parents to send us videos of mealtimes. Now, it’s like we are at a meal with them over Zoom!

Covid-19 was the catalyst for us to offer teletherapy, which has helped parents who work and have to travel to get to therapy tremendously. They are now able to be more hands-on in the therapy sessions. Also, for some medically complex kids, it’s just hard to get out of the house and drive to therapy. And, parents don’t have to cancel appointments if a sibling is home sick or even quarantining. And, we can stay on track with therapy via telehealth even in inclement weather that makes it challenging to drive to the clinic.

Covid-19 has certainly had its drawbacks, but we’re seeing some of the upsides in teletherapy as well.


About the Author

Abigael Gray has over six years of experience in assessment and treatment of a variety of disorders, including dysphagia, childhood apraxia of speech, speech sound disorder, receptive and expressive language disorder, autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She has a special interest and experience in working with children with feeding and swallowing disorders, including transitioning infants to solid foods, weaning from tube feeding, improving sensory tolerance, developing chewing skills, increasing variety and volume of nutritional intake and reducing avoidance behaviors during mealtimes.





If you are interested in learning more about NESCA’s speech-language therapy or feeding therapy, please complete our online intake form, or email NESCA’s Director of Clinical Services Julie Robinson at jrobinson@nesca-newton.com.


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.


What Does Autism Look Like? Exploring the Differences among Girls and Boys

By | NESCA Notes 2019


By: Erin Gibbons, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Boys are still four times more likely be diagnosed with ASD; however, research indicates that the diagnosis is often missed in girls, especially those who have average intelligence and “milder” forms of ASD. To understand why ASD is more often missed in girls, let’s explore the differences between boys and girls with ASD. This discussion will focus on children with average to above average intelligence (about 50% of all children diagnosed with ASD).


Boys Girls
Poor impulse control, more acting out Likely to be quiet and withdrawn
Disruptive behaviors in the classroom setting Tend to be reserved and cooperative at school
Frequent repetitive motor behaviors that are directly observable Lower frequency of these motor behaviors
Lack of interest in imaginary play Very much engaged in imaginary play
Restricted interests may seem unusual – e.g., train schedules, maps, windmills Restricted interests may seem “age appropriate” – e.g., horses, unicorns, ballet
Trouble making friends Might have a few friends
Likely to exhibit angry outbursts when frustrated/anxious Likely to engage in self-harm or other behaviors that are not observed by others when frustrated/anxious
Lack of awareness of being different or not fitting in More motivated to fit in and “hide” social difficulties – might try to imitate the behavior of a peer that is perceived as popular


Due to these differences, the diagnosis of ASD is often missed in young girls. Adults might agree that a girl is “odd” or “quirky,” but dismiss these concerns because she has good eye contact, has some friends, and does not engage in hand flapping or other unusual behaviors. Unfortunately, other girls might be misdiagnosed, which could lead to ineffective or inappropriate treatment interventions. Most commonly, they might be misdiagnosed with ADHD or Anxiety Disorder.

In many cases, girls with ASD have increasing difficulties with social interactions as they get older and demands get higher. A young girl with ASD might be able to “get by” in social interactions but by the time she reaches adolescence, she is not able to navigate the intricacies of the social milieu. This can lead to social isolation and high risk of being bullied or rejected by peers.

Unfortunately, a missed diagnosis of ASD for a young girl can have long-reaching ramifications. She might experience depression, anxiety and/or low self-esteem, wondering why she doesn’t “fit in” and “feels different” from other girls. She might start to struggle in school or disconnect from activities that she used to enjoy. Moreover, missing the diagnosis in childhood means that she did not receive services to support her social and peer interaction skills during her formative years.

As always, when parents or other caregivers have concerns about a child’s development, it is important to seek an evaluation from a professional. And if the findings do not feel quite right, parents should never feel uncomfortable about seeking a second opinion.


About the Author: 

Erin Gibbons, Ph.D. is a pediatric neuropsychologist with expertise in neurodevelopmental and neuropsychological assessment of infants,

children, and adolescents presenting with developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. She has a particular interest in assessing students with complex medical histories and/or neurological impairments, including those who are cognitively delayed, nonverbal, or physically disabled. Dr. Gibbons joined NESCA in 2011 after completing a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. She particularly enjoys working with young children, especially those who are transitioning from Early Intervention into preschool. Having been trained in administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), Dr. Gibbons has experience diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in children aged 12 months and above.


If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Gibbons 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.

Improving Life Outcomes through Self-awareness, Stress Management and Social Competency

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS

Currently many school districts have social-emotional learning (SEL) goals as part of their mission. They include goals, such as students will: think critically and solve problems; communicate and collaborate effectively; attend to physical, social and emotional health; contribute to and care about their community and world; and, recognize the uniqueness and dignity of individuals of differing religions, classes, ethnicities, sexual orientations, learning abilities and more. These goals are part of what is expected in our workforce and as citizens in general. If children and adults could attain these goals, our world would be a more tolerant and compassionate place.

Given the neurological, psychological, behavioral or cognitive challenges many students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), nonverbal learning disorder (NLD), intellectual disability (ID), anxiety, depression, etc. may have, they will often experience difficulty attaining these goals. Direct teaching as well as embedded instruction of Mindsets, Essential Skills & Habits (MESH) and SEL is imperative for these students to succeed in school, relationships, work and in their own quality of life. In fact, MESH and SEL can help all students with or without special needs. Students of today become the adults of tomorrow. With SEL and MESH instruction, they become mindful, compassionate and socially competent adults – and potentially leaders!

In our consultation work with schools, NESCA focuses on three primary areas that we call the 3-Ss: self-awareness, social competency and stress management. Many adults with learning or developmental challenges have not yet reached their potential because they struggle in one or more of these areas. They do not know who they are and “what makes them tick,” or understand that stress is a part of life that we all deal with. They may struggle to recognize that getting along with and being kind and respectful to others is a necessary part of life, even when we do not agree with others. Some of these adults have advanced degrees but sadly cannot get or keep a job or a relationship. By directly addressing the 3-Ss, we help individuals develop life-long skills to be the best they can be.


Self-awareness is the ability to recognize one’s strengths/challenges, interests, likes/dislikes, learning style, personality and more. It allows us to self-reflect and accurately identify emotions and thoughts and how they influence our behavior. Being optimistic when dealing with life’s setbacks is also central to self-awareness. As we mature, the ability to make responsible decisions – constructive and respectful choices about personal behaviors based on safety concerns, ethical standards and social norms – also falls under self-awareness.

The earlier we begin to help children develop self-awareness, the better off they are in the long run. Teaching them about their personalities earlier allows them to understand themselves better and themselves in relation to others. Through consultation, we normalize the neurodiversity of learners in a classroom. For example, we may have everyone (teachers and students) complete a learning style checklist and discuss the variety of learning profiles in a class. This makes self-awareness more concrete and accessible to all students.

Social Competency

Social competency allows self-awareness to be applied in relationships with others. Social competency is the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with others in one’s family, school, community and work. It is what allows us to demonstrate perspective-taking and empathy with others of diverse backgrounds and cultures. It includes knowing the social and cultural norms of behavior and also understanding why demonstrating those matters and helps us to communicate clearly, listen actively, negotiate conflicts, cooperate with others, and ask for help when needed. It can also include nonverbal cues and communication when sharing space with others, which is what makes it possible to ride on public transportation, wait in line, ride in an elevator, watch a movie at a theatre, etc. – all in accordance with unwritten, hidden, yet expected social norms. It is critical to work on social competency from preschool through middle and high school and beyond as the expectations and challenges change throughout our lives – and as we change, too.

Stress Management

No matter how self-aware someone is, stress happens and we need to learn to cope or we will suffer both physically and psychologically. Stress is neither good nor bad – it just is. Therefore, stress management is critical to living a life that is as healthy and satisfying as possible. Stress management is the ability to identify one’s emotions, thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and to regulate them effectively – identifying internal and external triggers, controlling impulses, motivating oneself and developing a toolbox to cope with stress. By teaching stress management skills early on, we help children identify how stress feels in their bodies and how our bodies and emotions are linked. All too often, we tell children to “calm down” without teaching them how and what that actually means. If we teach children and adolescents a variety of ways to calm themselves (breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, exercise, problem solving, etc.), and we offer regular opportunities to practice these skills in a range of settings and activities, our hope is that they will gravitate to those techniques and eventually use them independently and successfully. Teaching children about resilience and optimism is key so they can cope when adversity happens – as we know it will.

By highlighting the 3-Ss in our work, we have witnessed significant growth and a positive impact on students’ learning and ultimately their lives. By directly modeling and teaching these MESH skills, students diagnosed with disabilities improve their understanding of self, others and their ability to manage stress and cope with adversity. We are fostering the development of the adults of tomorrow.

To learn more about NESCA and its consultation services, visit: https://nesca-newton.com/.

To learn more about SEL and MESH, visit:


About the Author:

NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.

Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.


To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.


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.


The Northeast Arc Spotlight Model: Drama-Based Social Skills Intervention using evidence-based Socio-dramatic, affective relational intervention (SDARI)

By | NESCA Notes 2018

Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, NESCA

Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Community-Based Skills Coach, NESCA


This summer, NESCA piloted its first series of social pragmatics groups using the Northeast Arc Spotlight/SDARI model. We are excited to continue offering these groups in the 2018-2019 school year. Please read below to learn more about this model and whether it sounds like to fit for a child or adolescent in your life:

For those of us in the autism community, you may have noticed a lot of buzz recently around drama-based social pragmatic intervention for children on the spectrum. Perhaps this is because they provoke creativity, self-expression of participants, and are often more fun than traditional didactic models. Creating spaces for ASD individuals to practice social interactions in a semi-structured setting while providing fun and interactive activities allow for true, authentic social connection.

The Spotlight Model was originally developed in 2004 at the Northeast Arc under the clinical guidance of Dr. Matthew Lerner and Dr. Karen Levine. Since that time, Dr. Lerner has used the acronym SDARI (Socio-Dramatic Affective Relational Intervention) to describe the model in his past and current research studies. The Northeast Arc Spotlight Model was created in response to children who were not having success in traditional social skills models, and who needed something more engaging and personalized. This method was developed as a way to teach social pragmatics, as opposed to social skills.  While these terms may sound similar, the differences are vast when it comes to developing generalizable skills. Simply put, social skills consist of rote memorization, manners, active listening, and following a basic set of social rules. Social pragmatics focus on finding one’s own unique social style that is intrinsically motivating and fluid. It is the ability to effectively use communication in social situations while maintaining individuality and being able to respond to unpredictable circumstances.

What makes the Northeast Arc Spotlight Model different?

The Spotlight Model/SDARI uses a three-part model to create engaging groups that maximize the potential for ongoing friendships. Groups are formed by taking into account a number of factors, including personality, socialization style, common interests and, to a lesser degree, age and gender.

  1. Improvisation and dramatic training as social learning. Many of the skills necessary to be a confident social individual are the same skills necessary to become a successful actor. Goals such as Thinking of Your Feet, Body Language, Tone of Voice, and Someone Else’s Perceptive work on both improv and skills, dramatic training, and reciprocal scene work, as well as social competence and confidence. Improvisation’s one and only rule is “yes, and”; meaning that no matter what happens in a game/scene/activity, the participant must say, “yes” to accept what is happening and not block to flow, the “and” to build on that idea with a new one. Improv games allow groups to implicitly work on skills while laughing together, being creative, and forming lasting bonds. After all – laughter is the shortest distance between two people!
  2. Relational reinforcement. Counselors using the Northeast Arc Spotlight Model work to form trust and real relationships with participants. Each group has a head counselor, the individual responsible for creating the flow of the day, overseeing the group as a whole, and maintaining momentum. They are complemented by support counselors who check in with each child, create ways for everyone to be involved, and use strategies to help everyone feel like a contributing group member. Counselors use redirection, side-coaching, playful humor, inside jokes, and even passwords or codes. For example, during the opening meeting, the head counselor asks each participant the “question of the day” – a support counselor may sit next to a participant with slower processing to help them quietly prepare an answer before it is their turn to speak. During improvisation games, a support counselor may have a secret code word with a participant as a reminder to stay focused on the game they are playing. Participation looks different for everyone, and improv games and activities allow for a wide range of abilities and engagement.
  3. Strong use of age-appropriate motivators. The Northeast Arc Spotlight Model incorporates the use of video games, board games, and special interests to promote connection and interaction. During “break time” participants are encouraged to choose a preferred activity, as long as they are working together with a peer. This creates a space for independent conversation and interaction, with active facilitation from staff, and a way to share what they love. In addition, counselors often use a participant’s special interest to keep them engaged and excited. For example, someone who loves trains may play the game, Ask an Expert! to teach his peers about his favorite topic.

Many of our autistic friends and family thrive when their quirky humor is encouraged. Their unique perspective and disinhibited nature often lend itself to a unique and hilarious sense of humor. The Northeast Arc Spotlight Model creates a setting where children can be fully themselves, while simultaneously working to develop their social abilities. The facilitation of positive interactions and collaborative learning builds confidence and successful peer relationships.

Learn more and schedule an intake:

  • For more information about the Northeast Arc Spotlight Model groups being run at NESCA, please contact Rebecca Girard at rgirard@nesca-newton.com.
  • To learn more about the Northeast Arc in Danvers, MA, visit: ne-arc.org
  • To read more about the current efficacy of the SDARI model please visit lernerlab.com.


About the Authors: 

Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in neurodivergent issues, sexual trauma, and international social work. She has worked primarily with children, adolescents, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families for over a decade. Ms. Girard is highly experienced in using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) as well as Socio-dramatic Affective Relational Intervention (SDARI), in addition to a number of other modalities. She provides enhanced psychotherapy to children with ASD at NESCA as well as to provide therapeutic support to youth with a range of mood, anxiety, social and behavioral challenges. Her approach is child-centered, strengths-based, creative and compassionate.


Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L is Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in pediatrics and occupational therapy in the developing world. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as well as social skills coaching as part of NESCA’s transition team.





Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, 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.

Social Creativity and ASD – Challenging the assumption that autistic people are not social

By | NESCA Notes 2018

Photo from the documentary, Autism: The Musical (2007)

By: Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS
Licensed Clinical Social Worker

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece titled, How to Meet Autistic People Halfway, an article that challenges the common belief that people on the autism spectrum are avoidant of social interaction and do not desire social connections. The authors, Vikram K. Jaswal and Nameera Akhtar are psychologists and researchers who study the social lives of people on the autism spectrum. They assert that while core deficits of autism may make social interaction more challenging, it does not mean people on the spectrum do not desire meaningful social connection. For years, many in the ASD community and their allies in the neurodiversity rights movement have attempted to combat this anti-social stereotype, but the notion stubbornly persists. Counter-narratives of the autistic social experience often reflect autistic people as extremely emotionally sensitive, hyper-aware of the feeling states of others, and indeed motivated to experience social success in the form of friendships and social acceptance. Additionally, an increasing number of people believe those on the spectrum may actually display more creative and interesting ways to connect and choose to describe autistic individuals as “socially creative” rather than having “social deficits”.

If we then acknowledge the desire to connect is present, how can we best facilitate social learning and promote social success? First, we can acknowledge that a person on the spectrum will have a myriad of ASD-related challenges that will likely make socializing difficult. These include trouble reading and interpreting social cues (eye contact, body language, facial expressions), attending to and managing sensory challenges during interaction, and repetitive and inflexible thinking (getting “stuck”, echolalia), all of which can lead to preemptive social rejection by peers and a lack of social opportunities to practice and improve upon their social interaction skills. These challenges require multi-disciplinary supports, including (but not limited to) occupational therapy, speech therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Second, we can provide positive social learning interventions that address and ameliorate the impact of these factors, while providing opportunities to explore and understand the social world.

A popular method of intervention is that of “social knowledge”, or didactic social skills training. This entails imparting concrete social skills, in the effort to explicitly teach what a person may not know about socializing. Think – programming a social computer with many algorithms; if a person does A, you do B. While this may be great at teaching the basics, it often does not adequately prepare ASD individuals for the unpredictability and fluidity of everyday interactions. Another approach is that of “social performance”, a dynamic method of encouraging social pragmatic development by providing semi-structured socialization opportunities in small group settings with immediate, in vivo feedback on what’s working or not. Think – flexing a social muscle. Drama-based social pragmatic groups are gaining in popularity as a method for not only promoting social connections but as a fun way to create an encouraging and supportive space to finds one’s own intrinsically motivating social style.

But enhancing individual social skills and providing adequate social opportunities is admittedly a one-sided approach. Equally important is challenging the stigma and bias that plague the ASD community. We need to be allies to this community by promoting greater acceptance of a wide-range of social styles and approaches to social engagement. To honor the neurodiversity mission, which “rejects the idea that autism should be cured, advocating instead for celebrating autistic forms of communication and self-expression, and for promoting support systems that allow autistic people to live as autistic people.” (What is Neurodiversity? [Website]. (2011).  National Symposium on Neurodiversity at Syracuse University)

As a therapist who has worked with ASD individuals across the lifespan since 2004, I know firsthand that autistic people feel the same loneliness and isolation when chronically socially disconnected, and feel the same anxiety and unease when experiencing social rejection. I have also had the pleasure of witnessing individuals find their own distinctive social style and the joy of connecting with others who appreciate what is different as interesting and exceptional, rather than off-putting or strange. The autistic people in my life, both professionally and personally, have challenged me to rethink narrow and strictly defined social expectations, and have made all my relationships richer as a result. Autistic people are often credited with “out of the box” thinking and innovation, which can be applied to their social lives as well, as they are uninhibited by social convention. For example, Asperger’s are Us are the first all-autistic sketch comedy troupe, and their performances reflect their original and offbeat sense of humor, as well as their deep connection to one another as friends. A great example of what is possible.

The New York Times article said it best in its conclusion, “improving the social lives of autistic people will require putting aside assumptions about how social interest is expressed and recognizing that it can be shown in unexpected ways.” As parents, professionals, and allies, let’s commit to challenging this very basic and long-held assumption and appreciate and embrace the unique and creative ways autistic people chose to engage the world around them.


About the Author: 

Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in neurodivergent issues, sexual trauma, and international social work. She has worked primarily with children, adolescents, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families for over a decade. Ms. Girard is highly experienced in using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) as well as Socio-dramatic Affective Relational Intervention (SDARI), in addition to a number of other modalities. She provides enhanced psychotherapy to children with ASD at NESCA as well as to provide therapeutic support to youth with a range of mood, anxiety, social and behavioral challenges. Her approach is child-centered, strengths-based, creative and compassionate.

Reach out if you would like to work with Rebecca: Email rgirard@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9825





Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, 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.

First Recommendation: Take up Golf

By | NESCA Notes 2018


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

A five-year old boy, whom I will call Marcel, was referred by his parents for evaluation to determine if he had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because he isolated himself socially. With a great deal of effort, I got Marcel through the neuropsychological evaluation process and observed him at his pre-school. Results of the evaluation revealed a significant communication disorder but no other symptoms of ASD. He was socially isolated because he didn’t have the language skills to interact easily with others. Although his verbal abilities were limited, Marcel’s visual-spatial skills were superior, based on testing results. During my school observation, I was struck by his ability to focus intently, seemingly immune to distraction, on building an extensive highway system for his cars for more than an hour.In thinking about treatment for Marcel, my top priority was to conceive of a plan for luring him out of his “own world” where he retreated much of the time to avoid the communication demands inherent in engaging his surroundings. Because the language skills of young children develop most rapidly in social contexts, increasing Marcel’s opportunities for interaction with others would be expected to improve both his language skills and his social confidence. Since people can be most readily induced to change by leveraging their strengths, I asked myself, “What activity requires superb visual-spatial skills, and the ability to concentrate for hours on visual stimuli?”, both conspicuous strengths for Marcel. I also wanted an activity that would provide ample opportunities for interactions with others but not demand it.Deciding that Marcel was too young to become a pool shark, I recommended golf to his parents, explaining my reasoning. I told them that, in addition to using Marcel’s natural strengths to build a skill that would enhance his self-esteem, golf would provide a “controlled social arena”. Marcel could get away with socializing primarily about the game, which would require him to use a limited vocabulary (e.g. birdie, bogey, slice) whereas socializing in less controlled environments involves a broader range of topics and associated language demands.Marcel excelled with golf, quickly mastering the game and often playing more than 36 holes during weekends, such that he was interacting with others throughout the day, instead of engaging in solitary pursuits, but still “having a break” from other people while he focused on his game. He and his family were rightfully proud of his tournament trophies and Marcel established relationships with his teammates and coaches. As he spent more time interacting with others, Marcel’s communication skills and self-confidence blossomed.

When I saw him recently for his two-year follow-up evaluation, Marcel told me that he wanted to switch from golf to tennis “because its more social”.

Leveraging a child’s strengths can be one of our most potent tools for remediating weaknesses.


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 a consultation with Dr. Helmus 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.


A Tale of Two Social Styles: Classical and Jazz Socializers

By | NESCA Notes 2017


By:  Jason McCormick, Psy.D.
NESCA Pediatric Neuropsychologist

I work with a number of parents concerned about the quality of their child’s social life.  Lamenting that their child has no true friends, many parents I see note that that their child doesn’t “hang out” with peers.  However, when asked about how their child does spend time with peers, many parents report that their child is involved in several different structured after-school activities, such as a church youth group, scouting, or a gaming club.  In other words, while not getting together with peers in less structured settings, these students often do, despite parent misgivings, have satisfying social lives.

I find it useful to think about socializers as lying in one of two camps: Jazz and Classical.  Jazz socializers are all about improv.  They’ll head downtown with a friend and see where the afternoon takes them, invite a friend over with no particular plan or agenda, or wander the mall in a herd.  They care little about predictability and in fact relish spontaneity and surprise.  Classical socializers, by contrast, are most comfortable with structure.  They crave predictability, wanting to know the specific parameters of a social activity, including the start and end times, the purpose, and the rules of engagement.  Classical socializers, then, tend to do best with organized social activities.

It’s important to note that one type of socializing is not better than the other; it’s about match.  I say that as many parents of Classical socializing children worry that their children will grow up to be friendless and alone.  To those concerns, I observe that there are plenty of socially-satisfied Classical socializing adults: they have their book club the first Monday of every month, poker night every other Thursday, weekly chorus practice, and bar trivia on Wednesdays.

Thus, rather than trying cram to their Classical socializing child into a Jazz paradigm – which in fact runs the risk of leading to more social isolation due to anxiety stemming from the mismatch – I encourage parents to embrace the kind of socializer that their child is.  For parents of Classical socializers, that means supporting their child’s social satisfaction and growth through encouragement of their participation in a variety of structured after school activities (of course without over-scheduling).  In addition to giving their children a chance for a rich and rewarding social life now, participation in such activities serves as important practice and preparation for adult life, as in college and as adults in the working world, that is how Classical socializers will be most socially satisfied.


About the Author:


Dr. Jason McCormick is a senior clinician at NESCA, sees children, adolescents and young adults with a variety of presenting issues, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), dyslexia and non-verbal learning disability. He has expertise in Asperger’s Disorder and has volunteered at the Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE). Dr. McCormick mainly sees individuals ranging from age 10 through the college years, and he has a particular interest in the often difficult transition between high school and college. As part of his work with older students, Dr. McCormick is very familiar with the documentation requirements of standardized testing boards. He also holds an advisory and consultative role with a prestigious local university, assisting in the provision of appropriate academic accommodations to their students with learning disabilities and other issues complicating their education.


To book a consultation with Dr. McCormick 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.