Archive for the ‘ Health ’ Category

Genes and Autism: New Challenges Ahead

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

A new twin study of autism suggests that while genetics clearly play a key role , environmental factors are influential too – and in fact may be as important important.

This work – which involved analysis of twins in a large national database in Sweden – partially replicates a recent twin study of autism with US twins sample published in 2011. The only difference is the US study found evidence of “shared environmental” influences on autism – environmental factors that partially explain the similarity of twins (or siblings) independent of genetics. But in both cases, the heritability estimate (a statistical, not biological, metric) suggests that the sum effect of genes on autism is less than estimated in the past.

Overall, the implication is that we need to ramp up efforts to examine environmental contributions to autism – without diluting genetic research. This is easier said than done in a climate in which research funding continues to retract. The reduction of funding makes it harder to pursue the complex issues that require sorting out. Here’s a sampling of issues requiring further intensive investigation:

  • It is likely that there is no one “cause” of autism, such that there may be subtypes that are more strongly effected by genes than others. Testing out this idea would require very large samples – which requires substantial funding.
  • Isolating multiple genes that have “small effects” rather than finding one “disease gene” is still a tricky proposition (akin to looking for multiple needles in a haystack). Researchers continue to evolve biological and statistical approaches to achieve this – but again this work is costly.
  • The same complexities characterize efforts to isolate environmental contributors to autism. Bear in mind that the twin studies don’t identify the sources of the environmental effect – rather, they provide evidence suggesting that environmental factors are critically important and should not be ignored. Again – funding is needed for this.

As the estimated rate of autism continues to climb, and the science keeps telling us that the causes are varied and complex, we need to embrace the idea that funding is critical. Yet we continue to hear that funding for autism research is limited at the national level. Private organizations like Autism Speaks are making great strides but the effort required necessitates a national commitment to increase funding for research on autism. Disseminating that perspective to law makers is one way to try to provide the level of support necessary to examine the roots of a disease that affects more and more children each year.

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Early Signs of Autism
Early Signs of Autism
Early Signs of Autism

Nature and Nurture via Shutterstock.com

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Medicating Young Toddlers For ADHD: A Disturbing New Trend

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided new data suggesting that it is becoming common to not only diagnosis attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 2- and 3-year-olds – but also to prescribe medication to these toddlers. As reported in the New York Times, data collected by the CDC suggested an estimate that 10,000 young toddlers are being given stimulant medication. And, of course, it could be more and the number could be growing.

There are many problems with diagnosing and medicating young toddlers for ADHD. Here are three primary issues:

ADHD is difficult to diagnosis – even in older children. While comprehensive, multidisciplinary clinical teams can offer productive diagnostic assessments of school aged children, ADHD is still difficult to diagnosis with certainty. It’s clear from prior analyses and studies that many school aged children are being given diagnoses of ADHD without such careful clinical evaluation and put on medications that they may not need. Given this, the idea that ADHD can be reliably diagnosed in 2- and 3-year-olds is shaky, to say the least – or simply not advisable.

The effects of stimulant medications in young toddlers have not been studied. Stimulant medications require careful clinical monitoring in school-aged children. It is controversial to administer them to 4- and 5-year olds. Prescribing them to 2- and 3-year-olds is not within the clinical boundaries. There is a reason that drugs are studied and approved for specific conditions and age groups. We don’t know the side effects of stimulants on young toddlers or how they influence the developing brain.

Behavioral management of toddlers is important but can be achieved without medication. Young toddlers need to be socialized. They need to have some structure and learn boundaries. They need to know how to modify their behavior in different settings. These are developmental goals, not the stuff of psychiatric diagnosis. If parents are having difficulties with young toddlers – and as we know, they can be rambunctious, as they should be – it’s certainly worth thinking about getting some advice or even learning behavioral management techniques that can be especially effective with some youngsters. The idea that this process may be circumvented by inappropriate clinical diagnosis and drug treatment is very troubling – especially since there is good evidence that behavioral techniques work and no evidence supporting the use of stimulant medication in young toddlers.

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Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder
Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder
Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder

ADHD via Shutterstock.com

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Why the Arts Matter in Early Education

Friday, May 9th, 2014

At the recent Mom 2.0 Summit, I heard from a lot of moms who described recent debates – at their children’s schools – about the role of the arts in early education. In particular, during a series of roundtable workshops and discussions led by Elmer’s Products, Inc, numerous stories were shared about schools that are reducing – or cutting completely – time for the arts (particularly the visual arts and crafting ) in order to focus exclusively on “academics” (meaning reading and mathematics). As a developmental researcher, this practice is disconcerting to me, as it reflects a fundamentally flawed perspective on cognitive development in the early, formative years of life.

We’ve known for decades the value of hands-on activities in early childhood. Arts and crafts, as typically practiced in preschool and the early formal school years, have always been recognized as a primary way of promoting the all-important fine motor skills that provide a primary mechanism for cognitive exploration and learning (hence the value of literal “hands-on learning”). Current research has begun to uncover even more benefits. Thus, a central component of these many conversations at Mom 2.0 focused on an emerging paradoxical situation in education: as the research evidence supporting involvement in the arts increases, the opportunities for young children to engage in the arts may be declining.

The argument for “academics rather than arts” is simple – the primary goal of education is to accelerate the development of formal scholastic skills like reading, writing, and mathematics. Of course, children’s cognitive capacities extend far beyond these core “academic” abilities. Initiatives like STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) provide compelling frameworks that integrate the arts with science and mathematics. Developmental researchers have begun to articulate how the arts, in the early years, support the development of core cognitive skills (skills that are applicable to a wide range of academic subjects). For example, research conducted in partnership with Elmer’s Let’s Bond initiative identified, via survey of experts in child development, three such processes fostered by participation in arts and crafts:

  • Visual-spatial skills (e.g., pattern recognition, detection of sequences, spatial rotation)
  • Fine motor support for school readiness (e.g., motor manipulation of writing instruments)
  • Executive functioning abilities (e.g., working memory, selective attention)

Educational research Jennifer S. Groff has provided a compelling theoretical model and rationale for the primary role that the visual arts play in development and education in an influential paper published in the Harvard Educational Review. Consider this summation from the abstract of that paper:

Emerging research on the brain’s cognitive processing systems had led Groff to put forth a new theory of mind, whole-mindedness. Here she presents the evidence and construct for this frame of mind, how it sits in relation to multiple intelligences theory, and how it might redefine the justification for arts education in schools, particularly in our digitally and visually rich world.

The point about our “digitally and visually rich world” deserves a bit of expansion. Groff argues that visual information processing – those core brain processes engaged by the visual arts – are a primary cognitive skill set and primary mechanism for how children learn. As our world becomes more visually driven, we are beginning to understand in greater depth just how important these abilities are for learning and cognitive development. Promoting these critical abilities via the arts do not come at the sacrifice of developing traditional “academic” skills. Rather, the arts not only offer support for later verbal and mathematical fluency, but also provide essential platforms for enhancing and fostering core cognitive skills that are essential for today’s young children.

Kindergarten Craft Activity via Shutterstock.com

 

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9 Tips For Crafting With Kids To Maximize Social And Cognitive Benefits

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Engaging in hands-on activities like arts and crafts should be a part of every child’s life. New research and thinking continues to reveal the many social and cognitive benefits for children at different ages. That said, developmental experts worry that parents and children may not have as many opportunities to craft together for a variety of potential reasons.

Crafting at the Kitchen Table (via Elmer’s Products, Inc.)

To learn more about the benefits of crafting in childhood, and the barriers which can interfere with crafting time, I partnered with Elmer’s Products, Inc., to conduct new survey research that can be used to deliver tips about crafting to parents, which we will be introducing at the Mom 2.0 Summit. We surveyed 300 moms to learn more about the kind of information they receive about crafting, the type of knowledge they would find helpful, and the factors that can make crafting time a challenge in everyday life. We also surveyed 50 experts in child development to learn more about the many social and cognitive benefits of arts and crafts in childhood.

Most importantly, moms told us that they want to hear more about the cognitive and social benefits of crafting, and suggestions for how to get the most out of crafting time. They also sent a strong message that time pressure is the biggest factor that interferes with their desire to craft with their kids. Experts shared with us a number of social and cognitive benefits of crafting, along with tips that can maximize both the fun and the payoffs for children and parents.

I’ve combined all this information to generate 9 tips that may help busy parents and children incorporate arts and crafts into the flow of daily life and cultivate the many cognitive and social benefits:

1.    FIND RESOURCES TO SOLVE THE TIME PRESSURES THAT MAKE CRAFTING HARD TO DO. Parents love to craft with their kids – but they find it hard to make time for it. One solution is to access crafting ideas that don’t take too much time, but provide all the benefits of crafting. You can get tips on activities kids and parents will love to do together that won’t require huge amounts of set up and clean up time.

2.    KEEP IN MIND HOW IMPORTANT CRAFTING IS FOR KIDS AND PARENTS ALIKE (IN RELATION TO COMPETING DEMANDS). Parents and kids have lots of competing demands for their time. It’s helpful to remind ourselves of the many benefits of crafting (social, emotional, cognitive). To the extent that we can control our recreational time, it’s suggested that parents make sure that screen time and time devoted to structured activities outside the home don’t reduce the opportunities for crafting with kids. Just some good quality time with simple ideas, even with items around the house, are all it takes to reap many benefits, all while having fun at the same time.

3.    MAKE IT FUN – CRAFTING IS ABOUT DOING SOMETHING TOGETHER. Don’t worry about the final product – it’s the process that matters. Smiles, laughs, and some silliness keep kids engaged (remember that for kids, play is their work) and their engagement will help them get the cognitive benefits from crafting while getting something equally as important – the bonding experience with parents.

4.    TALK WHILE YOU CRAFT. Parents and kids don’t have as many opportunities for face-to-face interaction these days – and we all know that such interaction is critical for healthy emotional and cognitive development. The simple act of parents and kids having engaged conversations is highly predictive of later cognitive development. Crafting is a terrific platform for kids and parents to talk about the crafting itself – and whatever else comes up.

5.    LET KIDS TAKE THE LEAD. Creativity is promoted when kids take the lead with activities like crafting. Parents can support what their kids are doing and help them by encouraging, lending a hand when necessary, and helping with suggestions. The creative spark is lit when kids try to figure out how to make things work.

6.    PRAISE KIDS FOR THEIR CRAFTING EFFORTS. It’s clear from research that praising kids for their effort, and not the “quality” of their final product, is predictive of their future “mindsets” that underlie success in many domains (academics, sports, arts, etc.). Crafting is a perfect platform for encouraging and reinforcing effort rather than critiquing the outcome.

7.    USE CRAFTING TO COMBAT BOREDOM. Kids will eventually get bored with anything – they always need to find something different to do. So … use crafting projects as that fun tonic to inevitable boredom. Kids will be primed for the creative engagement it provides.

8.    MAKE SURE CRAFTING IS HANDS-ON FOR KIDS. It’s important that kids lead not only with their brains, but also their hands. Crafting is one of the best ways to encourage fine motor development, and the benefits that kids will get from doing the crafting activities themselves are critical for academic readiness.

9.    CREATE HAPPY MEMORIES. Kids will form memories of making crafts with their parents that last a lifetime. Make sure those memories center around the emotional bond you are creating and not so much what the end product looks like. That end product, however it turns out, will carry meaning because it will take kids back to a very special time with their parentsand maybe even evoke your memories of crafting with your parents. Displaying that product will help this process along as well – especially if you all talk about the memories that you created together.

 

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How Older Siblings Lead Younger Siblings Into Trouble

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

A large informative sibling study has shown that older siblings who engage in violent criminal behavior influence younger siblings to do the same – especially if the siblings are close in age. As this work builds on prior work I’ve conducted with my collaborators, I wanted to expand on the findings and the implications for parenting.

Our research group has observed a similar sibling effect on delinquency in adolescence as well as early (illicit) use of tobacco and alcohol. The finding has been replicated by a number of other research groups. Of note is that in some of our studies, we could control for genetic similarity (by studying siblings who varied in their genetic relatedness, like identical twins versus fraternal twins, and full siblings versus half-siblings). While genetic makeup does convey some risk, we’ve found strong evidence that much of this influence is environmental in nature.

It’s especially important to recognize that there is good evidence that the siblings get into trouble together and function as “partners in crime.” We’ve conducted electronic diary studies in which siblings confirmed in real time assessments (known as ecological momentary assessment) that they were together, and doing things they shouldn’t be doing (often with mutual friends).

There is where age becomes a relevant factor. Sibling effects are driven by relationship dynamics – it’s the siblings who are close in age and who like to hang out with each other. Keep in mind that we’ve controlled for genetics in our studies, so this is an environmental affiliation. Siblings that don’t like spending time together typically don’t influence each other much. There is in fact a particular sibling relationship style that underlies the “partners in crime” phenomenon – it’s when the siblings have high levels of both positivity and negativity. They like being with each other – and also spend a lot of their time fighting.

So what should parents do? If you have an older sibling who is getting in trouble, be mindful that if they have a younger sibling (especially one close in age that they hang out with a lot) is at high risk for getting into trouble. It’s time to intervene with the older sibling – not just to help him or her, but also to prevent problems in the younger sibling.

Brothers Playing Video Games Together via Shutterstock.com

 

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