By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
There can be a great deal of confusion about what kind of testing you want for your child. No wonder when we have so many options – neuropsychological testing, psychoeducational testing, speech and language testing, occupational therapy testing, personality testing, and psychological testing. The part that can be incredibly challenging is that these labels often involve overlapping test measures, meaning that the assessor may choose the same specific tasks that might fall into most or all of these categories. Take cognitive assessment using IQ tests which can be used by a psychologist conducting psychological, neuropsychological, or psychoeducational testing. Another layer of confusion is added for parents when one considers that many professionals in schools or medical practices are also confused and interchangeably use these labels. In an effort to demystify the process, I want to tackle a common question: what is projective testing and why might my child need it?
Projective testing provides psychologists with very specific and unique insight about a person’s thinking habits and processing. Unlike cognitive or academic tests, projective tests do not have a “right answer.” So, projective testing is not going to ask a child to solve a math problem or define a word. It is not going to test how quickly they can name vegetables or see how skilled they are at shifting between sets of the rules. The overall goal of projective testing is to figure out how a child, teen, or adult responds to an ambiguous situation. This means, we ask people to project their brain habits (thinking style, way of interpreting the world, way of processing emotions, way of viewing self and others) onto a situation when it is not clear that there is a “right” or “wrong” answer. A person must use their problem-solving and emotion regulation skills in action. Examples of projective tests include the Rorschach inkblot test, story-telling tasks (e.g., the Thematic Apperception Test or the Roberts Apperception Test), drawings, and incomplete sentences. Projective tests take additional time to administer and usually longer to score, so they are scheduled as separate visits at NESCA.
Why might you use a projective test? There are some situations where projective testing is incredibly useful, such as when a diagnosis of a thought disorder (e.g., psychosis) is in question. It is also very useful for questions of trauma, attachment, anxiety, or mood disorder. Projective testing is also incredibly useful when psychiatric symptoms are confusing. Take the example of someone who is a perfectionistic or very guarded about their symptoms. A person with this profile is very likely to read a question that says, “I am very anxious,” and answer no. However, projective testing can see if there are themes of anxiety by considering how a person responds to an ambiguous situation. Take another example of someone who leans in the other direction and reports many symptoms that overlap with many diagnoses. In this case, many symptoms are endorsed as “yes.” Projective testing can help to provide clarity to narrow down the list, especially without an obvious answer. In both of these cases, it is helpful to access a person’s unconscious brain habits as a key to understanding a person’s functioning.
When would you not use projective testing? I do not use projective testing when my referral question does not need it. For example, a question of a learning disability or ADHD does not require projective testing. Using projective measures would be inappropriate, time consuming, and potentially stressful for a person when it is not needed. Similarly, projective testing is not often used in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder as there is little research about how neurodivergent populations respond to the ambiguous stimuli. I also do not use projective testing if neuropsychological testing suggests that a person has an intellectual disability or struggles in their visual processing skills (e.g., NVLD) since many of the projective measures (e.g., Rorschach, story-telling, drawings) use a visual stimulus card. In those cases, it would be inappropriate to assume that a response reflects a person’s emotional processing when it would really be about their visual processing.
Projective testing is incredibly informative and, like other neuropsychological tools, should only be utilized by professionals who are trained to administer and interpret these tests. Since it is not as simple as a correct single answer on an answer key, it is critical that these procedures are administered by psychologists with the advanced training to use and interpret the information. And, like all of our measures, the results gathered using projective measures are data points that are combined with other data points. The performance on one test or demand does not dictate the entire conclusion. A strong and comprehensive assessment will use projective test data as part of a larger understanding of your child. Information gathered in projective testing can highlight important strengths for your child and contribute helpful information to drive treatment.
NESCA has several clinicians who are highly trained and skilled at administering projective testing. If you have questions about projective testing and whether your child needs it, let us know by filling out our online Intake Form.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.