Friday 14 March 2014

Finding an Outlet for your Negative Energy

Positive psychology is on a rise and becoming more and more popular. It is a good thing, right? Unfortunately, many people interpret the main idea of positive psychology as that negative feelings are bad and need to be avoided. Well, if you can avoid them entirely then you are very lucky and very unique. Regrettably, most of us cannot. Can we still be happy? Here’s a secret that many happy people already know – everyone deals with negative feelings from time to time (or a lot of the time).  Okay, so maybe that’s not so secret.  But what do happy people know that unhappy people seem to forget?  We all need an outlet in which to channel those unhappy feelings.  Because we are never (and I mean never, no matter how hard you try) going to avoid negativity, we need to find an effective way to deal with it in order to truly be happy. 

One of the best ways to channel that negative energy is to find something positive to engage in.  And depending on who you are and what you like, this can be a variety of different things.  There is no need to fret or worry about what you choose for an outlet – so long as what you choose makes you happy and does not harm anyone else.  For example, maybe your best friend loves to indulge in a hot cup of tea and a good book when she is faced with stress and adversity; however, maybe the idea of reading a book makes you even more stressed out.  No big deal – you can still be best friends and have very different outlets.

Maybe you are still trying to figure out what might relieve your stress, worry, anxiety or negative energy… are a few suggestions:

Yoga – This is my go-to activity for stress relief and relaxation.  No matter how bad of a day I’ve had, no matter how many worries are running through my head, by the time I lay on my mat for the last pose of the session (known as savasana), I literally feel the tension ooze out of my body.  My head is clear, my heart is full, and I leave class with a new outlook on life.  Even if you don’t have the time for a formal class, take 10 or 15 minutes to do a few poses in your living room.  The stretching and breathing is likely to have a calming effect on you, making it easier to forget your troubles and go about your day.

Meditation – This is another great way to focus your mind and energy onto something positive.  The practice of quiet breathing has an amazing calming effect on the mind and body.  You can enhance the experience even further by burning essential oils during a meditation session; some great choices for a relaxing effect are lavender, rosemary or chamomile. 

Gardening – There is something soothing about becoming one with and using the Earth around us.  The art of tilling the ground, preparing the soil and sowing the seeds can be so peaceful for some people.  Tending to the garden and nurturing the plants can provide focus and balance to an otherwise chaotic life.  And reaping the benefits of the garden can provide ultimate satisfaction.  If you have access to a plot of land that can be used for gardening, give it a try.  If you live in a city or apartment, you still have options.  Join a community garden in your area (if there is one), which allows you to cultivate a small plot of land in a shared garden.  If nothing such as that exists in your area, try growing a small herb garden or tending to a plant you can keep in your home or apartment. 

Volunteering – Helping people who are less fortunate than you can help you better appreciate your own life.  When the going gets tough for you, reach out to someone who has bigger problems.  Spend time at a local shelter, talking with people or simply lending a listening ear.  Offer to serve food at your Church’s soup kitchen or ask your local hospital if they need donations or assistance in any way.  When you see life in a different way, through the eyes of someone who is struggling more than you are, it can have a way of bringing your own problems into perspective. 

The above list is an extremely small list of ideas that can help you channel negative energy into positive.  Other suggestions include any type of exercise, listening to your favourite music, calling a friend or talking a long (or short) walk.  Remember, the outlet itself does not matter as much as the feeling you get from it.  Find your inner passion and work it – you’ll be glad you did.  

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Saturday 22 February 2014

Autism Research on Detecting Emotions

Reprint of my article published by on January 28, 2014.

More often than not, when people see others yawning, they find themselves yawning as well. This phenomenon is known as social yawning and it involves a deeper set of emotions. Yawning in this scenario reflects a person’s empathy for another. Such instinctual display of empathy usually strengthens the social group and the relationship among individuals. However, recent research shows that contagiousyawning is not always the case for people on ASD spectrum.
Research offers many explanations for the deficiency to perceive emotions typical for ASD population. Most dominant one is that autistic children tend to confuse the expressions being displayed and therefore find it difficult to interpret them successfully. 

In 2011, I was visiting MIT Media Lab and met Dr.Rosalind Picard, an MIT Professor, who leads a number of research projects on assistive technologies for people with autism. Dr. Pickard tells us that many autistic children are brilliant in reading facial expressions if they analyze them on a computer or observe another person from a distance. The distinction, however, arises when we try to measure face-to-face interaction. An autistic child focuses hard on comprehending what we are saying when we talk to them and therefore ignores our facial expressions. 

To help autistic children counter these challenges, Picard and her team at MIT Media Lab are trying to develop special assistive technology for expression analysis. The software uses six affective-cognitive mental states defined by Professor Baron-Cohen from the University of Cambridge: Agreeing, Concentrating, Disagreeing, Interested, Thinking and Unsure. The technology tracks the facial points, monitors face transitions, records the head poses and extracts the facial features. As the facial expressions change, the software keeps recording the degree of each emotion as seen in the different expressions. Professor Picard emphasizes the importance of dynamic analysis for face transitions. The problem is that static face expressions are not always representative of the expressed emotion and it is the history of face transitions that gives us cues to deciphering another person. For example, if someone looks confused as they didn't understand or missed something in our speech, we might mistakenly perceive their facial expression as disagreement with our statements.

"Emotional Intelligence, Technology & Autism", Rosalind Picard, MIT

It turns out that, based on the dynamic analysis of facial transitions, the computer can easily detect what the person is feeling. When tested on different categories of contexts and behaviours, the computer software developed at MIT Media Lab appeared to be more successful in recognizing facial transitions than people in general. This technology is a scientific breakthrough and marks a significant step towards availability of mainstream assistive tools for individuals with Autism.
Dr. Mari Davies and Dr. Susan Bookheimer, neuropsychology researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted a study to compare the brain activity of 16 typically developing children and 16 high-functioning autistic children. These children were subjected to a series of faces showing emotions of anger, fear, happiness and neutral expressions while undergoing Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Half of the faces had their eyes averted, the other half stared directly back at the children. 

It was found that, Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex (VLPFC), the part of the brain which evaluates emotions, became active when the direct-gaze faces came up and quieted down when the averted-gaze faces were displayed to the typically developing children. However, the autistic children showed no reaction to either set of faces. This shows that autistic children do not perceive any difference in emotion whether the face stares back at them or looks away from them.
Emotions are of second nature to the typically developing children; however, for autistic children recognizing emotions is a very difficult process. Yet, autistic children are often able to recognize simple emotions. In a study conducted by Professor Baron-Cohen, it was found that autistic children could make out faces that showed happy or sad emotions but had difficulty identifying faces carrying expressions of surprise or fear. 

According to Dr. Angelique Hendriks from Radboud University, the reason for this deficiency could be a weak central coherence. This term defines the inability of autistic children to combine the parts of information or signals they receive into one whole coherent picture. This is why they treat different parts of information separately and are unable to connect and relate them to the situation at hand.
Dr. Ellie Wilson in her PhD research at Macquarie University tested the hypothesis of whether autistic children can match images onto real life people. The study demonstrated that the key difference with neurotypical children is in the way autistic children move their eyes around the face. It may be possible that training might improve their recognition skills, though the results from a few training studies in the past haven’t been particularly convincing. 

Among many problems faced by autistic children, having no perceptual ability to read facial expressions is the most serious and pressing of them all. Researchers and technologists are working together to develop mechanisms which will aid the learning of autistic children and help them navigate in the social world.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Understanding Learning Disabilities

Understanding Learning Disabilities

Reprint of my article published by on Jan 18th

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2.4 million children in the United States are diagnosed with a learning disability and receiving special education services.  Within this staggering number, you might be wondering if your child’s poor grades, lack of interest in school or other intellectual or emotional problems are something more than poor study habits and boredom.  If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from a learning disability, read on.

Learning disabilities encompass a number of specific conditions, ranging from mild to severe.  Learning disabilities are different from other disabilities, such as intellectual disability (also known as mental retardation), autism and sensory (vision/hearing) problems.  Most people who are diagnosed with a learning disability have average (or even above-average) intelligence, but they struggle with certain skills in particular areas. 

The main sign of a learning disability is a disconnect between a person’s level of ability versus his or her level of achievement.  For example, a child may be perfectly capable of learning the alphabet, yet he or she struggles to say the letters in order.  Or a person might be on the developmental level of learning to read, but for some unexplained reason, he or she cannot seem to get through a paragraph.  Learning disabilities tend to affect abilities in one (or more) of the following areas:

Deductive reasoning
Executive Function

Many times learning disabilities are hereditary; if a family member (such as a parent or sibling) has LD, the child is more likely to suffer from one.  Other causes of LD include problems during pregnancy (i.e. drug/alcohol use during pregnancy, premature birth or low birth weight and prolonged labor, which could lead to a lack of oxygen), head trauma and poor nutrition. 

If you notice changes in your child’s school performance or behavior, you may want to consider having your child tested for a learning disability.  Even a mild learning disability can have a major impact on your child’s education and self-esteem.  The sooner the problem is discovered, the sooner a plan (often known as an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or Individualized Service Plan (ISP)) can be developed and implemented. 

Start by keeping a log of your child’s behavior and school performance.  This helps you (and your doctor) determine if there are any patterns in his or her behavior/performance and what could be triggering them.  You can also schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher(s) to discuss any problems or concerns they may have.  Getting everyone in your child’s life on the same page is an important first step towards determining if your child does indeed have a learning disability. 

Prior to any formal testing being completed, you and your child’s teacher(s) might be able to devise and implement interventions to assist your child academically, behaviorally, or both, if necessary.  Just because your child is struggling in some areas of learning does not necessarily mean a diagnosis of LD is inevitable.  However, if after the implementation of a plan your child still struggles, you might want to consider more formalized testing to determine the nature of the problem. 

There is not one specific test to determine if your child does indeed have a learning disability.  In fact, your child may require several screenings, tests and/or diagnostic interviews to determine the cause, type and extent of the problem.  Most testing starts with some form of intelligence testing, such as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale or the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children.  An intelligence test helps educators and psychologists determine your child’s intellectual functioning; it can also provide clues as to what areas your child may struggle or have a deficiency in.  After intelligence testing is complete, your child may be given other, more specific screening tools/tests to assess his or her ability in a particular area. 

Once the area of deficiency is identified and your child’s level of functioning is determined, you will sit down with a team – who usually consists of you, your child (if old enough), your child’s teachers, a psychologist and anyone else who will be working with your child – to develop a plan of action to assist your child.  This might include modifications to your child’s education (such as being given more time during a test or using visual aids to help your child learn more effectively), as well as perhaps a teacher’s aide or tutor to help keep your child on task and focused.  These modifications might start off rather heavy-handed to help your child reach his or her potential, and they can be gradually tapered off as your child gets older or learns more skills. 

Remember, you are your child’s best advocate.  If the school does not seem to believe there is a problem or refuse to test your child, you can always seek a second opinion.  Speak with your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns that are not being addressed.  He or she can usually write out a referral for formalized testing; you can then show the results of this testing to the school for further action. 

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Tuesday 21 January 2014

Researchers suggest few strategies to improve self-control

few strategies to improve self-control

Reprint of my article published by "Live Bold and Bloom" on Jan 7th

So you have a goal in mind, but you can’t seem to meet it.

No matter how hard you try, you keep getting sidetracked.

Maybe you’re trying to get a project for work completed, but the incessant “ping!” of a new email or text message arriving to your phone has you glancing away from the task. Or maybe you’re working toward a healthy weight target, but those cupcakes in the kitchen are calling your name. The diversions of self-control are all around us, tempting us to forgo our intentions and goals.

Are some people more predisposed at pushing those deterrents to the background?

Is there a way to boost our ability to control ourselves and strengthen our willpower?

How can we keep distractions from bogging us down?

There are, in fact, scientists working to answer these questions, and we can use their findings to benefit our pursuits. Recent evidence suggests that the ability to resist temptation is stronger in some people than others. According to survey conducted by American Psychological Association, only about 15% of people have impenetrable willpower, focus and control over their actions, and about just as many give in to almost anything that crosses their path.

The remaining two thirds are about equally prone to straying from the control we seek to have over ourselves, sometimes resisting temptation, other times not. Despite this statistic, it is a worthwhile pursuit to try to become better at resisting temptation and have more willpower.

The positive outcomes of self-control

Studies have shown that self-control is often associated with other positive traits. In the April, 2004 issue of the Journal of Personality, Tangney, Baumeister and Boone found that young people with higher scores on their measure of self-control had higher grade point averages, higher self-esteem and confidence, less psychopathological problems, less eating problems, and lower ratio of drug and alcohol addictions.

They also had better relationships and interpersonal skills and more optimal emotional responses.  It is important to keep in mind when reading these correlations that they do not imply simple causation. In other words, these positive traits were associated with self-control, but they were not necessarily caused by it.

So what can we do to boost our willpower and ability to lean away from instant gratification?

Evidence suggests that keeping your focus on concepts rather than details can help. Research findings of Dr. Kentaro Fujita, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Ohio State University, suggest that using self-control to do something difficult or undesirable now (for benefits in the long run) can be made easier by keeping in mind WHY we’re doing it, rather than focusing on the details.

A global perspective

That is to say, taking a long-term perspective or viewing the goal from a distance can help. This is referred to as high-level construal. It allows us to think about the ends rather than the means. In his study, participants were asked to take this approach by reminding themselves of the reasons that they chose to maintain good physical health.

This is in contrast to what psychologists call low-level construal. This approach forces us to look at the means rather than the ends of our goals that require self-control. Such an approach is not beneficial to self-control as it has us bogged down in the minutiae. Fujita’s participants in this condition of his experiments were told to think about how they maintain good physical health.

Fujita’s findings offer additional suggestions on ways to increase self-control. In a 2008 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he advises global processing, abstract reasoning and high-level categorization.

Global processing suggests that we should see the whole forest (not the trees) and consider each choice as part of a long-term goal.

Abstract reasoning means thinking philosophically – avoiding the details and focusing on how everything fits into the larger scheme of things. So when you want to maintain a regular gym regime, for instance, you may imagine your ideal self or how exercise connects mind and body.

High-level categorization helps self-control because it encourages us to categorize components that need to be achieved in order to maintain self-discipline and stay on track with our objectives.

Each of these strategies instructs an individual to think more globally and abstractly so as not to get easily side-tracked.  In this way, one does not get deterred or put off a goal and self-control becomes more manageable. As you learn to delay gratification, improve your willpower, and exhibit more self-control, you’ll accomplish more and feel better about yourself. Your confidence and self-esteem will improve dramatically as a result.

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Wednesday 11 December 2013

MIT Researchers Aim to Help People with Autism

MIT Researchers Aim to Help People with Autism

Reprint of my article published by on Nov 1st.

Autism refers to a set of diagnoses given to people who show some atypical patterns of behavior in social interactions and communications, as well as compulsive repetition of behavior. People with autism often have difficulty with both verbal and non-verbal  communication (such as facial expressions). Because of this, what they seem to feel and what they actually feel may be entirely different. In fact, this is the cause of many of the sudden outbursts that many autistic individuals experience. While it appears that they go from calm to out of control in a matter of seconds,  their stress level has been building over time. Researchers from the Affective Computing Group at MIT Media Lab, lead by Prof. Rosalind Picard, are working to both understand these autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses in autistic individuals and help autistic individuals and those they are close to understand what is going  on beneath the surface.

Many individuals with autism have difficulty with speech, or with communicating effectively through speech. Such individuals may find that typed speech or even hitting pre-set buttons on a portable augmentative communication device can facilitate communication, even if it is as simple as “I’m frustrated”. However, some may not be able to even select and press a button when they are in the state of overload. They would greatly benefit from being able to demonstrate that they are in an extremely high state of arousal without having to deliberately communicate this fact. The MIT Media Lab is working on a type of wristband ANS sensor that addresses many of the issues related to previous ANS sensors, which used to be bulky, uncomfortable, and only usable for short periods in the lab. This new sensor is comfortable, resembling a sweat band that runners wear, but with sensors on the inside, and it can easily be taken off or put on, regardless of the individual’s level of motor skills. It works by measuring the user’s skin conductance at the surface, which is called EDA. This is a good measure of sympathetic arousal changes that mean significant changes in emotion, cognition, and attention. This wearable sensor gives scientists a better picture of what goes on with autistic individuals on a day-to-day basis, and helps the wearer better understand when they are entering a state of high arousal, whether they know it yet or not.

With today’s technology, it is even possible to gain specific emotion-related information from these types of sensors through automated pattern recognition software. A computer can cross-reference physiological features, such as EDA, heart rate, and respiration, with pre-set facial expressions and predict emotions such as pleasure, anxiety, and engagement up to 81% of the time. This is a very high accuracy rate, especially considering that typical humans are not able to accurately read emotion one hundred percent of the time. Of course, the wristband only detects EDA, not facial expressions, heart rate, or respiration, which means that it is less capable of identifying specific emotions than changes in emotion, cognition, or attention. While there is definitely still some ambiguity as to which emotions are being depicted by the spikes in EDA detected by the wristband sensor during a period of high arousal, the researchers at MIT believe that this is protective of the individuals privacy. It would be an invasion of privacy to be able to read a person’s emotions at all time through a sensor on their wrist, especially if they did not or could not give permission for someone to do so. By measuring only significant changes in emotion, the observer only knows that the autistic individual is experiencing strong emotions that may lead to a meltdown, but does not specifically know whether it is anger, fear, embarrassment, or some other emotion.

Many social activities and behaviors can activate the fight or flight response in autistic individuals, which is part of what is picked up by the EDA wristband sensor. These can include eye contact or  the need to integrate speech with facial expressions or other nonverbal cues. The individuals around an autistic person who are monitoring his or her EDA information are able to better notice when trouble is brewing without the autistic person communicating that explicitly. While the lab is not seeking to force these technologies on autistic individuals, these technologies have the capacity to not only help autistic people who choose to better function in a neurotypical world, but also to help science understand autism.

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Thursday 14 November 2013

Research shows that meditation improves your cognitive abilities

meditation improves your cognitive abilities

Reprint of my article published by on Oct 18th

It is a common belief in our society that everything of value must come from outside ourselves. We utilize so much helpful technology in our daily lives, and this can lead us to believe that there is always a product out there which can solve our problems, and all we have to do is buy it. One of the more recent manifestations of this is what I call the Magic Pill Phenomenon.  While medication is often helpful in certain circumstances, it should not be used as a quick fix for difficulties that aren't really mental disorders. It is not a good idea to use drugs as an alternative to simple mental training or discipline.

Another cultural trait in our society is the often automatic assumption that anything worthwhile requires serious effort and sacrifice. Like the previous trait, there is an element of truth in this as well, but only an element. It ignores the fact that those things that are really worthwhile come from within.

Each of us has tremendous gifts that only require training. We often have the capacity, but not the skill set to use that capacity to its full potential.

However, developing a skill set requires concentration and concentration is often lacking. We are told that we must concentrate in order to learn, but we are not taught how to concentrate. We're simply expected to do it.

Meditation is a tool which can teach us to concentrate. It allows us to develop a relaxed and deep focus without strain.
A number of studies have shown that certain types of meditation can increase concentration and improve focus, bringing the mind more under the control of the will. Studies have been carried out using what is called “binocular rivalry” tests to determine how well a person can focus their attention. In these tests, different images are presented to the subject’s right and left eye. For example, one eye is presented with vertical lines and another with horizontal lines. The subject's attention usually starts jumping involuntarily from one image to another, sometimes merging them in a random order. People usually find it difficult to focus their gaze on either vertical or horizontal lines for an extended period of time. Psychologists (Carter et al., 2005)wanted to see whether meditation practice affects the “jumpiness” of people’s attention. One study carried out this procedure on Buddhist monks. They took a “rivalry vision” test before and after meditation. The subjects were asked to press a button each time their attention switched from one image to another or merged the images. The results indicated a clear reduction in the number of switches after “one-point” meditation, a type of practice where a person tries to focus attention on one aspect of their sensory experience, such as breathing, for example.

However, the participants in this study were highly experienced meditators who spent many years practicing it. A group of psychologists at Pennsylvania University (Jha, Krompinger & Baime, 2007) wanted to see whether meditation practice will change concentration ability in ordinary people. They studied a group of people who participated in an 8-week mindfulness based stress-reduction course which included mindfulness workshops and 30 minutes of meditation daily. They found that the retreat participants greatly improved their scores on all measures of attention compared to a control group.

Teaching the mind to be still and calm is very useful. Our distant ancestors lived in an environment where rapidly shifting attention mattered. The rustle of the brush, the sudden quietness of birds or their disturbed flight could tell them a lot about what was going on. This meant that their attention couldn't be fixed for a long period of time- they had to keep scanning and picking up new input. This is the exact opposite of our modern world where attention must be focused in order to get the job done. We are not natural concentrators and anything that can improve concentration can help us deal with the demands of the society that we've built for ourselves.

Psychological experiments have also shown that regular meditation can reduce what is known as “attentional blink” (Slagter et al., 2007). It has been observed that our attention blinks for around half a second right after we focus. In experiments, three months of concentrated meditation training has been shown to greatly reduce attentional blink. This means that focusing was faster and information was processed more quickly and accurately.

Because meditation has been shown to be beneficial for improving attention, psychologists wanted to see whether it has benefits for other mental functions. Studies have shown that meditation can improve perception, emotional intelligence, thinking processes, motivation and can even help us control our dreams (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).

As our knowledge of the mind increases, we discover that there are times when the wisdom of the ancients can contribute to a better life today.

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Friday 18 October 2013

On Correlation Between Autism and ADHD

On Correlation Between Autism and ADHD

As a clinical psychologist, I am often faced with a dilemma when diagnosing children who display clusters of symptoms characteristic of both autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Do these children suffer from two separate conditions, or can we view the ADHD symptoms as a byproduct of a more pervasive diagnosis of autism? Young children with autism have triple the rate of ADHD symptoms compared to normally developing children. In one study, researchers asked the parents of four-to-eight-year-old children with autism if they had symptoms of ADHD (e.g. if the children were able to wait their turn, if they interrupted others when they were speaking, if they could slow down when they needed to, etc.).  Of the children with autism, 29% showed signs of comorbid ADHD, all of whom were boys. These symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention can complicate treatment of autism, but the fact that autism and ADHD go hand-in-hand for some children is not surprising. According to Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital ,“Something that’s going to affect the brain and cause one developmental outcome may also cause a second developmental outcome.”

In another study, researchers compared children with high-functioning autism (accompanied or not by ADHD) with non-autistic children who had ADHD. They looked at different types of memory, learning, and behavior. They found that there were remarkable similarities between the children with high-functioning autism and those with ADHD. They had similar levels of working memory and memory in general. The two groups had similar problems in all three areas that were measured. This was surprising: The researchers expected the children with autism to be more impaired when it came to remembering tasks after a delay, and the children with ADHD to be more impaired in actually acquiring new knowledge.  Additionally, they were able to contradict some previous studies that found that only complicated tasks illustrated the working memory issues in high-functioning autistic children. In fact, no significant differences between the children with autism, those with ADHD, and neurotypical children were found when it came to visual working memory. Of course, the power of the findings of this study may be weakened by the fact that the group of autistic children was divided into two subgroups – those with symptoms consistent with ADHD and those without, and also because the groups were not equally weighted by gender. ADHD symptoms, as in typically developing children, tend to affect boys with autism more than girls. The researchers did not subdivide the group of typically developing children in a similar fashion because that group all had similar levels of attention deficits. In dividing up the autistic group, it was possible to look at the way autism interacts with ADHD, because some of the children had both sets of symptoms, and some only had one or the other. The group of children with high-functioning autism and ADHD symptoms had more serious issues in their verbal working memories than either of the other two groups, including the ADHD group. The researchers found this to be interesting, because it hints at an additive effect when it comes to attention problems and autism; Those with both sets of symptoms are more impaired than those with either one alone. This is not the first time that an additive effect has been found for autism and attention issues, however, as a similar effect has been found with deficits in inhibition. Another finding of the study is that attention deficits alone could not explain the difficulty which children with autism had in the acquisition of new information. That difficulty appears to be characteristic of autism, regardless of the child’s ability or inability to regulate their attention.

These findings necessitate the development of questionnaires and treatments specifically to measure ADHD symptoms in children with autism and then help them, because their problems and symptoms may differ from those of children who have ADHD alone. Additionally, they bring attention to the fact that those with autism and attention problems at a clinical level may have further difficulties with their verbal working memory and with their ability to recall information in general. This may help the parents of autistic children better understand the issues they are facing and provide more directed and relevant help. It also explains some of the other findings on children with high-functioning autism and attention, because it appears that this is a heterogeneous group, and there would be two findings for each of the two groups; combined results may be misleading. Future research should work on developing more specific questionnaires and tests to measure this pattern, and explore whether children with high-functioning autism can benefit from working memory training and how the symptoms of ADHD may complicate the efficacy of other special instruction the children are receiving, such as social skills training.

Author Bio: Dr. Tali Shenfield is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Richmond Hill Psychology Center. She holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Toronto and is a member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario, Canadian Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, and Canadian Psychological Association. When she is not busy with psychological assessments and psychotherapy, Dr. Shenfield spends time on writing professional articles on parenting and psychology topics. You can follow her on Twitter at @DrShenfield.

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Tuesday 1 October 2013

On Learning Strategies for Children with Learning Disabilities

On Learning Strategies for Children with Learning Disabilities

Reprint of my article published by on Sept 14th

As any parent knows, learning comes in many forms and from many sources. Each learning experience is as unique as the child participating in it. This applies to those with a learning disability as much as it does for typical children, and possibly even more so. There are a couple of theories pertaining to intelligence and learning that have special significance when applied to children who are known to learn differently in one or more areas. The first of these is Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which postulates that there are many different types of intelligence. These include linguistic (good with words), logical-mathematical (good with math or logic), spatial (good with maps, art, and visualization), kinesthetic (good at dancing, sports, or crafts), musical (good with patterns, music, and identifying sounds), interpersonal (good at understanding others), intrapersonal (good at understanding themselves), and naturalistic (good at identifying and understanding animals and plants). To Gardner, intelligence is more than a standardized test score, which typically only measures linguistic and logical-mathematical proficiency, and while each child has the capacity to develop each of these intelligences, they may be especially talented in one or two areas.

            This idea is something that likely makes a lot of intuitive sense to you. In fact, while this theory has not had a lot of empirical evidence to back it up yet, many school systems accept the idea of multiple intelligences and are looking to encompass more types of intelligence in their classes. Think about it: While your child may have serious difficulty reading a book or doing algebra, they are good at baseball or soccer, playing the violin, drawing, or making friends. It is obvious that some children are better at some things, while others are gifted in other areas. This is the idea that Gardner captures in his theory of multiple intelligences – that intelligence is a process created out of a person’s biological, psychological, and social influences that can be activated to create products that are of value to a culture, whether that be a physical product or an intellectual one. Some of the reforms that this idea could prompt include increasing emphasis on nature, art, and music in the curriculum, developing a child-centered approach, and developing the child’s potential, rather than forcing all children to master the same information. Educators must find ways of instruction and teaching that work for each student, in order to maximize their learning potential.

            The second theory that is especially relevant to children with learning disabilities is the idea that people are not intelligent based on any specific innate characteristic, but rather on how well they learn the material and adapt to the instructional style at hand. People’s intelligence is not just because of their potential or talent. Intelligence relies on the learning style of the child, and there are five main variables that impact learning style. There is the environment, which consists of the amount of noise in the room, the light level, temperature, and seating arrangement. There are the emotional aspects of learning, such as motivation, persistence, responsibility and amount of structure. There are the sociological aspects, such as who the individual prefers to work with, and the perceptual-kinesthetic, such as whether they learn best by hearing, seeing, manipulating the material, reading, etc., and if they prefer to stay still or move while concentrating. Finally, there are the cognitive aspects, such as how long they need to process information, and how much detail they need to understand a new concept. Those who best match their learning environment to their personal learning style are most successful at processing and retaining new material.

            Of course,  it may not be reasonable to adhere to these approaches 100% of the time. In reality, teachers cannot work solely within a child’s intelligence, or there would be children who would do nothing but music or mathematics. Similarly, in a classroom of twenty or thirty children, the teacher will not be able to accommodate each child’s individual learning style all of the time. However, when it comes to children with learning disabilities, information about the child’s particular intelligences and learning styles may be incredibly useful. After all, a child may have a learning disability in one area and be well above average in another. For a child who has a hard time with math, but may be very musically intelligent, singing the multiplication tables may help them learn. Or a child who learns best working alone, in the morning, may be able to work on their most difficult subject then. Every child is unique, but for children with learning disabilities in particular, it is critical that the parents make sure that their child’s individual strengths and needs are being attended to in school to optimize their learning. 

Image Credit: Kirsten Skiles -

Monday 16 September 2013

6 Signs Your Child May Have ADHD

6 Signs Your Child May Have ADHD

Reprint of my article published by on Sept. 4th

It is difficult for parents to deal with the thought that their child might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Schools often push parents or caretakers into using medications to solve behavioral problems. Often, the teachers will take it upon themselves to provisionally diagnose a child with ADHD. This leaves the parents feeling pressured, frustrated, and unsupported. It is important for the caretaker of a child with behavioral concerns to understand the difference between normal childhood behavior and the true diagnosis of ADHD. There are several signs and symptoms of ADHD that you should watch for so that you can make an informed decision about the care of your child. They will help you determine if it is time to seek a professional opinion.

To be considered symptoms of ADHD,  the behaviors described in this article must be present for at least six months, cause distress in the life of the child or family, and be present in more than one environment. If the behavior is temporary due to stress or only is present at school, then your child may need an evaluation for another disorder, but it is likely not ADHD. Also, a child with only one or two symptoms may not have ADHD but might benefit from counseling or mentoring.

1.       Impulsive behavior. A child that shows signs of being a risk taker may have ADHD. Risky behavior will become evident as the child gains independence. Some of them are normal signs of growth: By testing boundaries and pushing through their limitations, children are able to mature and develop skills necessary for adulthood. The problem comes when the behavior seems to happen without much thought or concern for consequences. The impulsive behavior may be as simple as blurting out answers or questions in class or as dangerous as deciding to jump from a high place or use drugs.

2.       Forgetfulness. Some children might pretend to forget activities which do not want to do, but for a child with ADHD, forgetfulness is less selective than this. They will forget preferred activities as well as ones they may not enjoy. They may become distracted while completing one task and forget about that task altogether. This may happen multiple times during the day which may end with their video game controller in the refrigerator, their homework on the front lawn, and the telephone in the bathroom. In school, the teacher may show you work that is half done or off-topic. All children have occasional or purposeful forgetfulness, but with ADHD, it may seem as though the child can’t help it.

3.       Hyperactivity. A hyperactive child is different than a child that is just active. A hyperactive child seems like they are plugged into an electrical outlet and cannot stop moving. Hyperactivity is easily noticed and often disruptive. A child that is truly hyperactive will be moving even when they are sitting still. Their legs may shake, their fingers may tap, or they may constantly fidget. You may notice that the child needs to stand up or move around in situations where it is customary to sit down, such as in a movie theater or a classroom. The hyperactivity will not be due to medication or behavioral issues, and is seemingly out of the control of the child.

4.       Interruptions. If having a conversation with or near your child is difficult due to constant interruptions, it might be due to ADHD. Interruptions from young children without ADHD occur, but usually are less intrusive and disruptive than from a child with ADHD. This also includes physical interruptions, such as not being able to wait their turn for a game or cutting in the lunch line without regard to social norms. The child with ADHD does not do this with the intent to irritate or mistreat others, but just cannot wait for his or her turn. This is likely due to the thoughts of the child being so rapid and changing that it is important to them to do the activity or ask the question in the moment before the next impulse comes along. In a child with ADHD, redirection and attempts at correcting the behavior are not successful over the long term.

5.       Avoidance. Often, children with ADHD have difficulty in school and, if left untreated, may develop learning disorders or fall behind their peers. Being able to listen and retain hours of information for a child with ADHD is nearly impossible. For the hyperactive child, avoidance may be more overt and purposeful. The child may ask to go to the restroom multiple times or ask to sharpen their pencil or to do another small task that consumes time and allows them to avoid work or chores. A child that is more inattentive will escape through doodling or daydreaming. They may be very slow and deliberate with their work so that there is not enough time to complete it. In either situation it may seem like things never get fully done by the child at school or at home.

6.       Unfocused. Children with ADHD have trouble maintaining their focus and this makes it difficult for them to be successful at school. The structure of a school day does not work for the unstructured thoughts and needs of a child with ADHD. It may also be difficult for them to focus outside of school, when they are watching television, playing games, talking, completing homework, or doing chores. A child with ADHD may quickly lose eye contact with you due to something else catching their attention, or might stop mid-conversation and begin talking about an unrelated topic.

If your child exhibits with any of these symptoms and they cause distress, it is wise to find a counselor that specializes in child and adolescent disorders. If more than a couple of these symptoms describe your child, then there is a high likelihood that your child may have some form of ADHD. A psychologist, psychiatrist, or developmental pediatrician can help make a clear diagnosis and suggest appropriate treatment options.

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Tuesday 10 September 2013

The Benefits of Being Angry

The Benefits of Being Angry

Reprint of my article published by on Aug. 20th

Your heart races, your body temperature rises, and you feel ready for an outburst that expresses how angry you really are. You may be tempted to hold back your anger, but this may not always be the best approach. It turns out anger has a beneficial side too. This emotion is often hidden or repressed by some, but it can be helpful and even healthy.

Psychologists examining the expression of anger are finding that it can help resolve disputes when combined with a proactive approach. When two people use anger to work towards a solution, rather than to vent about how they’ve been wronged, anger is actually a positive emotion. Such an approach can strengthen a relationship as it allows one party to evaluate and express how he feels. The other party benefits from this as well. When not played out in a dramatic manner, he gets a better understanding of his partner’s view of the problem and the two can start towards a negotiation that may lead to compromise. “This is in contrast to the negative long-term consequences described by people who felt they were victimized and yet hid their anger from the perpetrator” say Baumeister, Stillwell and Wotman in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 59, No. 5).

Everyday anger is beneficial outside the home as well. It can decrease feelings of uncertainty on the national front. In 2001, Dr. Larissa Tiedens of Stanford University published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology citing four studies that found evidence for people granting more status to politicians who express anger than to politicians who express sadness or guilt. Just think back to the events following 9/11 and recall the leadership with which Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York empowered the people to feel less fearful. President George W. Bush also used anger to rally the troops and empower people following the attack. A clear expression of anger is seen as powerful and prepares people for action. 

Additionally, feelings of certainty and optimism as a positive outcome following anger were evidenced and measured in scientific literature by social psychologists Jennifer Lerner, Roxanna Gonzales, Deborah Small and Baruch Fischoff from Carnegie Mellon University. Their study, published in the March, 2003 issue of Psychological Science, examined the responses of the public during two stages following the 9/11 attacks. The first stage took place nine days following the attacks. As a baseline, 1786 people were assessed regarding their feelings about the event and their levels of stress, anxiety and desire for revenge. Two months later, as stage two of their study, Lerner and colleagues primed 973 participants to feel angry, fearful or sad. The different groups had different reactions. More specifically, those primed to feel angry were found to give more realistic and optimistic assessments of 25 terrorist-related risks compared to the participants primed to feel fearful. In this way, angry people feel more in control and have a higher degree of certainty than fearful people.

Anger can also help promote justice without resorting to violence. In fact, anger reduces violence, even when it precedes it. Imagine how different the world would be without the angry words and actions that brought about change when Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights in the 1960’s or when women were advocating for the right to vote and be seen as equals in society. In this way, anger motivates change.
In addition to reducing domestic and national disputes, improving relationships, and lubricating negotiations, anger can also be beneficial to health. When used constructively, anger benefits heart patients who have problems with hostility. According to one analysis by Davidson and colleagues published in Health Psychology (2000),  anger helps these patients maintain their resting blood pressure.  Constructive anger is a way to resolve a problem when the person expressing it is justified and presents his frustrations to the wrongdoer. By contrast, anger is not constructive, that is to say it is destructive, when it is used to confront someone or vent bad feelings.

We can all benefit from recognizing the positive sides of anger. Anger puts us in touch with our point of view, allows us to feel more in control and can be the first step towards negotiating a solution to a problem. It motivates, alleviates uncertainty, reduces violence and hostility and can even be good for your heart. So don’t be so quick to discount anger as a negative emotion or hide it behind a ‘grin and bear it’ attitude.

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