Back Off Jack…I’m a Heavyweight

Sometime during the late 1990’s, Academy MetroWest came into possession of a copy of the movie Heavyweights. No one really remembers how it came to us or who brought it in but it’s exerted a powerful presence at our summer camp ever since. It’s one of those rare gems that’s ostensibly for kids but is just as funny for adults. All of our veteran staff members and campers, along with most of our newer participants, find themselves quoting it on a daily basis.

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For those of you who haven’t seen it, Heavyweights was released in 1995 and, for some reason, it was neither a commercial nor critical success. It’s the story of a group of overweight, misfit boys who spend the summer at Camp Hope, a “fat camp” that, for years, has been run by the Bushkins, a loving, nurturing couple played to great comic effect by Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara. Early on in the film, we learn that the Bushkins have fallen on hard times and have sold the camp to a maniac named Tony Perkis, wonderfully portrayed by Ben Stiller in one of his early starring roles. The film is probably most widely known as  the first feature film by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Freaks & Geeks,….) and it also features a young Kenan Thompson, years before he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live.

The plot of the movie is nothing out of the ordinary. The new camp owner has no idea how to interact with children and is looking to use the summer at Camp Hope to create a best-selling infomercial on the “Perkis System” for weight loss. After enduring his clueless and  sadistic rule for most of the summer, the boys find their strength and confidence, stand up to Tony Perkis, take over the camp and begin to gain control over their weight and their lives.

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“I am your new friend and counselor!” Academy MetroWest Director Gary Steinberg (left) and counselor extraordinaire Adam Hurley (center and right) model the latest in Heavyweights fashion.

Despite the fairly standard plot line, the dialogue in the movie is vastly superior to most standard-fare, feel-good kids’ movies. It might not rise to Superbad’s level of hilarity but most adults will find it very funny and, with the exception of a couple of skinny wiener and fat-ass jokes, there’s nothing in Heavyweights that would make parents feel icky about watching it with their kids.  There are some wonderful messages for kids (and adults for that matter) in the movie but they’d mean nothing if it weren’t entertaining – and it is.

The messages the movie conveys have some important parallels to the ones we try to emphasize at our camp, Creative Adventures. Our kids are not necessarily overweight but we do draw a distinctly quirky crowd. Like the campers at Camp Hope in Heavyweights, many or our kids go through much of life feeling like they’re outsiders or that they’re somehow different from typical kids. In Heavyweights, the kids draw on their experiences and struggles to foster an atmosphere of empathy and support among each other. During one of the early scenes in the film, Gerry Garner, played by Aaron Schwartz, is on a plane as he heads to Camp Hope for the first time. He’s approached by Camp Hope veteran Roy, played by Kenan Thompson. Here’s a snippet of the dialogue:

Roy: Headed to fat camp?

Gerry: No! Why do you say that?

Roy: Because you’re fat.

Gerry: Well so are you.

Roy: I know. That’s why I’m going to fat camp. I’m Roy.

Gerry: I’m Gerry….yeah I guess I’m going.

Roy: I knew it! Well you’re going to love camp, man. Camp is awesome! Plus no one picks on you because YOU’RE not the fat kid. EVERYBODY’s the fat kid!

Substitute the word “quirky” for the word “fat” and you’ve got our camp in a nutshell. You can do the same thing later in the movie as Gerry is talking to Pat Finley,  a veteran counselor at Camp Hope played by Tom McGowan, who also struggles with his weight. They begin talking about the campers at Camp MVP, a nearby sports camp populated by a more athletic crowd. Pat says:

“I wonder what it’d be like to be one of those guys. You know just once I’d like to score a winning touchdown. In  my entire life, I’ve never scored a point in anything. Gerry, I’m just so tired of being the fat guy.”

There are other lessons too. Besides invaluable advice like “Never put Twinkies on your pizza!” Heavyweights also emphasizes working together, self-advocacy, self-control, empowerment (“If we start respecting ourselves, no one can touch us!”), and setting realistic expectations. It shares these messages without being preachy or making you feel like you’re being clubbed in the head with them. If you’re looking for a funny kids’ movie that doesn’t insult an adult’s intelligence, look no further than Heavyweights.

 

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Of Big Mats and Longevity – 20 Years of Academy MetroWest

A confluence of two seemingly unrelated events made this week a momentous one for us here at Academy MetroWest. This past Tuesday, we finished up our school year program. It marked the end of our 20th year running weekly social skills groups. We start our summer program on June 23rd so, technically, we have to get through the next 7 weeks before we’ve officially completed 20 years of operations. But still, the school year program occupies most of our year and we’re feeling pretty good about this accomplishment.

The other momentous event of the week happened on Wednesday when we accepted delivery of a new crash pad or, as we usually call it, a new big mat. For us, this is a big deal.   It was really time for a new one. Our mats take a beating and the old one was starting to become pretty disreputable. Big mats are big ticket items and we had put off buying a new one as long as we could. But after 20 years of getting stomped on and beaten on by our kids and staff, time had really taken its toll and it forced us to figure out how to finance the purchase of a new one.

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After 20 years, our poor, suffering old big mat is finally about to be retired. 

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It’s being replaced by this nice, shiny new one.

Big mats play a big part in our groups and activities. All our social skills groups take place in our gym and use cooperative, non-competitive games as a means of helping kids view themselves in a more positive light and learn to interact more effectively with their peers. Big mats can be a landing pad in some of our challenge courses that involve kids jumping off high places. They can be the foundation for forts or safe areas in our tag games and cooperative problem solving games. They can be arenas for wrestling games, barriers for obstacle courses, and any number of other things we need them to be. As you can see from the photographic evidence above, our kids had put the old one through the wringer. It served valiantly but after awhile, we learned that even duct tape has its limits in the world of equipment maintenance. Right now, the new big mat has all the cushion you’d find in any conventional brick or concrete block but our camp kids will teach it a thing or two over the next few weeks I’m sure.

The story of how we came into possession of our old big mat is a good one and it’s a nice illustration of how things tend to go when you start a new business. We started running groups back in 1994. My partner, Gary Steinberg, and I had been colleagues for 6 years at The Academy of Physical and Social Development in Newton, MA, running groups very similar to the ones we conduct now. For a number of different reasons, we wanted to open a branch on our own. We spent a few months negotiating a license agreement with our old boss and opened up shop in September of 1994. The license agreement created a structure that enabled us to get started but it was expensive for us. At first, we didn’t have a lot of kids coming through our door so our operating budget was very limited. We had one old big mat that we inherited as part of the license agreement but couldn’t afford another.

One day, a friend of Gary’s let us know about a guy he knew in South Boston who had a couple of used big mats he wanted to sell. We took a trip down to meet him and check out the mats. I can’t remember his name but he was a repo man. He dealt mostly in repossessed office equipment but had somehow gotten his hands on these mats. They were good mats and, at the time, were in good shape. The repo man asked us to make him an offer and we offered $600 for the pair. This was WAY below market value, even for used mats of this size. But we weren’t lying when we told him that this was all we could afford. He declined the offer but called us back a month or so later after trying unsuccessfully to find another buyer. We got the mats for our asking price and for 20 years, they have been workhorses for us. They have done their time.

When we bought those mats, Bill Clinton was in the midst of his first presidential term. When you mentioned the name OJ Simpson, you still thought of a football hero. I was 31 years old, living in an apartment just outside the Boston city line. I was single (“alone and desperate” as my wife would tell you). Now I’m 51, I live in a house in the suburbs, I’m married, and have a daughter. Since 1994, we’ve worked with nearly 2000 kids in our school year program and have had about 450 kids attend our summer program. In 20 years of spending as much time with each other as we do with our wives and children, Gary and I have not killed each other and, in fact, remain very close friends. The story of our transition from a new business struggling to keep the doors open to our position today as an established area resource for kids and families is not a linear one. There have been – and there continue to be – ups and downs along the way. But the other day we posted news about finishing 20 years of the group program on our Facebook page and in response we received some monumentally gratifying feedback about our program and our work. In the realm of the human services, accomplishments are not always tangible and easy to measure so when we read the feedback we got from clients, staff, and friends from the past 20 years, it absolutely made our day.

Our new big mat has some big shoes to fill.

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What Parenting Has Taught Me About My Job

On June 4th, my daughter Lucy turns 8 years old. The day after she was born, we were still staying at the hospital. At night, the staff gave us the option of having her spend the night in the nursery or in our room. We opted for the nursery, figuring that we’d have plenty of sleepless nights ahead of us so why not grab some peace and quiet while we could? What we didn’t know was that the maternity nurses wheel your baby down to your room every time the kid starts crying. In doing so, they give you that oh so subtle message – “This is what your life is like now, pal, so start getting used to it!” It felt like they were wheeling a screaming Lucy down to our room on an hourly basis. Midway through a long, daunting night, I found myself doing some quick mental calculations; “Hmmm…ok she’s 2 days old. There are 365 days in a year so we’re roughly 1/183 of the way through the first year. Multiply that by 18 years and…dang! We’ve got a long way to go!”

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Me and a nearly 8 year old Lucy with our “Sandville” masterpiece at Crane Beach in Ipswich, MA

Fast forward to today and we’re closing in on the halfway point. Parents won’t be shocked to know that my outlook on those lifeline fractions has changed dramatically in the intervening years. Ever since Lucy flashed me her first smile (the first that clearly wasn’t gas or a strange facial twitch anyway) when she was 2 months old, I’ve been enraptured with my kid. I’ve been blessed with a low maintenance, friendly, creative, little (Daddy’s) girl who makes just about everything the family does more fun than it would have been without her. So instead of calculating how soon we’ll get her out the door, I’m thinking about how much longer we get to keep her close at hand.

During the past 8 years, there have been plenty of opportunities for me to draw on experience from my professional life in my interactions with my daughter. Some of these have been fairly predictable – for instance, I spend a good deal of time speaking to parents about limit setting at my practice – while others have been pleasant surprises. From the outset, I had a feeling that being a parent would also affect the way I worked and thought about my work but I wasn’t sure how. While there have been plenty of subtle differences in my thinking, there have been two that I draw upon all the time. They both relate to interacting with parents.

When Lucy was in preschool, she had two very close friends in her class. She’d spend most of her time with them and didn’t reach out to the other kids in her class as often as she probably should have. At one point, her world was rocked when both of her friends announced that their families were going to be moving away. At first, Lucy took it in stride, and didn’t seem all that upset by the news. Then one day I was helping her get ready in the morning when she laid down on the floor and started crying, saying she didn’t want to go to school. She was normally pretty happy about going to school and when I asked her why she didn’t that day, she cried “Because nobody wants to play with me!” My first reaction (which I admirably kept to myself) was “What do you mean nobody wants to play with you?!?! Why wouldn’t anybody want to play with you?!?! You’re awesome! Who doesn’t want to play with you?!?! Let me at ’em!! I’ll tell them all the reasons they should want to play with you!!!” Then the semi-rational me took over. I was able to speak to her teachers about it and get some context and feedback that we were able to put into practice.  That’s not the point though. The point is that that morning was about 4 years ago and, to this day, every time I think of her crying “Because nobody wants to play with me!” it feels like I’m getting punched right in the chest. I used to figure that parents who have kids with social/emotional/cognitive issues would build up a kind of tolerance or external shell that would help them get used to hearing that type of expression of pain. Now I know otherwise. Parents live and die with their kids’ successes and failures, no matter how many times either of them are repeated. Now I try to listen with a greater appreciation of that.

For a lot of the parents I know, the only activity that comes close to the enjoyment of actually being with their kids is talking about their kids. Most parents, myself included, will jump at any flimsy excuse to tell anyone all there is to know about their children. I’ve tried to bring an awareness of this widespread parental predilection to my work in training graduate interns.

Most of the interns I’ve supervised have either gone straight to graduate school after completing their undergraduate work or have taken one or two years off. They’re usually around 24 or 25 years old and feel a bit insecure when it comes to talking to parents about their kids. It’s not always obvious to them why a parent would place any value on what a 25 year old, single, childless person has to say about their kid. This year, I’ve been trying to push our interns to reach out to parents anyway. To have someone who works with their child call to talk about that child’s functioning in a social skills group is a happy prospect for many parents. Bouncing ideas around with an intern who is willing to listen and share their impressions can be immensely helpful for both the parent and the intern.

There are plenty of other ways that being a parent has impacted my work and vice versa. Most of the insight I’ve been able to gain by being a parent comes down to a full appreciation of the limitless love that parents have for their kids. You can be the most empathic person in the world but until you’ve experienced parenthood for yourself, you have no idea how overpowering that love is and to what extent it dominates your consciousness. The visceral awareness of these phenomena that I’ve developed has hopefully enabled me to become more helpful to the kids and parents I work with.

 

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Take Me Out to the….Zombie Apocalypse

There are few things I like less than making small talk at parties.  Since we became parents, my wife and I haven’t gone to as many  as we used to but before my daughter was born, it was a fairly regular occurrence. When Sarah would mention a party we were supposed to attend, my response was often “Is this going to be another party where I have to make small talk all night with people I don’t know?” The answer was often “yes” and I’d usually be a good soldier, grit my teeth, and go. Over time, I discovered a secret to surviving  those parties – find a guy (preferably one who’s just as psyched as I am to be there) and talk about sports.

Sports provide the perfect fodder for conversation with people you don’t know. There are millions of directions the conversation can go, common frames of reference, and despite our fascination with and passion about sports, ultimately they matter not at all. You can talk about them ad nauseum but, owing to their almost complete lack of importance, you’re less likely to offend or anger anyone than you are with other touchier subjects.

Recently, I started wondering “What do non-sports fans talk about at parties with people they don’t know?” For at least one chunk of the sports-shunning crowd, my kids at work have supplied a couple of answers for me.

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Image courtesy of society6.com

We’ve heard a lot of recurring conversations with our quirky crowd here at Academy MetroWest  but two come to mind now. While neither of them has anything to do with sports, they meet my three criteria (a wide open topic with lots of room for discussion, a common frame of reference, as well as being nearly devoid of any real importance) for a tantalizing cocktail party conversation.

The first topic I’m thinking of is the zombie apocalypse. It’s long been a favorite topic of conversation for kids I’ve known but with the proliferation of zombie-themed movies, tv shows, and video games over the last few years, it’s been coming up more often. During the summer of 2012, the topic came up in my group during our summer camp  and it just wouldn’t go away. Specifically, the question up for discussion was “What is the ideal form of transportation during a zombie apocalypse?” If there’s no guarantee that there will be a reliable source of fuel, does it make sense to pin your hopes on a motorized vehicle? At one point, I bravely joined the conversation and suggested that a solar powered car would make a lot of sense. There was a lot of scoffing at that suggestion along the lines of “Yeah?!?! Where are you going to find a solar car in a zombie apocalypse, old man?” Ultimately, the group reached something like a consensus and agreed that a bicycle would be the best choice although, as I recall, there was a substantial dissenting group that favored sailboats or canoes.

The other topic focuses on hypothetical battles between superheroes. I know for a fact that this topic pre-dates my time here on the planet. My dad, who grew up in the 40’s & 50’s in Brooklyn and Long Island,  used to tell me the story of a recurring conversation from his youth that incorporated both baseball and superheroes. He and his friends asked themselves  “If you were to drain the Pacific Ocean and there was a one on one baseball game being played between Superman and Plastic Man that used the entire ocean floor as a field, who would win?” As you can imagine, a question as weighty as that one occupied a good chunk of time and brain work for me. Among the kids I work with, the topic usually veers away from baseball and towards more conventional battles among superheroes. My own personal twist on this was to ask a number of them who’d win in a fight between Iron Man and Darth Vader. Most kids I posed that question to agreed with me that Iron Man would never get close enough to Darth Vader to do any kind of damage.

But just like asking whether or not Cy Young would be able to strike out Miguel Cabrera, it’s a great conversation because you can go around and around with it and never reach a definitive answer and, even if you could, it just doesn’t matter! I know there are some contrarians out there who are thinking “Doesn’t matter?!?! I guess we know who WON’T be surviving the zombie apocalypse!” Regardless, both of those topics can serve a vital function for a lot of kids by providing the school-age equivalent to a great cocktail party conversation.

 

 

 

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Fudging the Autism Diagnosis

On April 2, The U.S. Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) issued a statement regarding changes to the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders stemming from the publication last May of the DSM5. I found one section of the statement particularly curious. Here’s what it says:

“…the Committee cautioned clinicians to pay special attention to individuals with obvious ASD symptoms who narrowly missed being diagnosed with ASD according to the new criteria. In addition, the Committee strongly emphasized that, “Services should be based on need rather than diagnosis; it would not be appropriate for a child to be denied ASD-specific services because he or she does not meet full DSM-5 criteria if a qualified clinician or educator determines that the child could benefit from those services.”

Is it me or is this governmental committee suggesting to clinicians that if people don’t meet the criteria for a formal autism diagnosis, we should just fudge it if they come close?

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Before I delve into that question, here’s a little context about the IACC and the DSM5. The IACC, first authorized by The Combating Autism Act of 2006, operates within the domain of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Its  mission is to “develop and annually update a summary of advances in autism spectrum disorder research related to causes, prevention, treatment, early screening, diagnosis or ruling out a diagnosis; intervention, and access to services and supports for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.” It is comprised of representatives from government, academia, medicine, and the autism advocacy community. I read about their statement in the excellent blog Left Brain Right Brain but it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in the news.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the DSM5, its full title is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) and it is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The DSM sets forth diagnostic criteria to be used by mental health professionals in the assessment of all “mental disorders.” Its publication marked the first major revision to the DSM since 1994 and, included within its pages are some wholesale changes in the criteria for a host of issues, including autism spectrum disorder. I have written about these changes in the past but the main point of the changes to autism  is the elimination of the subtypes (Asperger’s Disorder, Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified, Rett’s Disorder, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder) and the creation of one overarching diagnosis (Autism Spectrum Disorder) that encompasses all the previous ones.

There are several problems with the IACC’s recommendation. For one, it exacerbates the problem that became the main impetus for changes in the autism classification to begin with. The APA rightfully maintained, that the old set of criteria did a good job of distinguishing people on the spectrum from people who are not on the spectrum but they were less effective at distinguishing those with one spectrum diagnosis, Asperger’s Disorder for example, from another, like PDD-NOS. By creating one unifying diagnosis, their hope was that clinicians would be able to make more accurate assessments. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a big fan of the changes the APA made but I agree that there were significant problems with overlapping and arbitrary diagnoses that needed to be addressed. The IACC, by suggesting that clinicians stretch the new criteria in order to provide services to people who might be “spectrummy,” rather than meeting criteria for a formal diagnosis, has taken steps to muddy the waters further than they were before.

It’s also not hard to imagine what these recommendations are going to do to the numbers regarding the prevalence of autism. Over the last decade and a half, the numbers have already changed dramatically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2000, autism was estimated to be present in 1 out of every 150 people. In 2004, that changed to 1 in 125. By 2012, the rate reached 1 in 88 and, as of March 27, the estimate is 1 in 68. So if clinicians heed the advice of the IACC, and provide the diagnosis to help people access services for autism even when they don’t meet enough criteria for that diagnosis, that number is likely to rise even more and it won’t be based on reality.

My real problem with the IACC recommendations is that they serve to make diagnosis completely meaningless. Mental health diagnosis is a different animal than medical diagnosis. Mental health disorders are often comprised of traits shared by everyone to one extent or another – impulsiveness or anxiety being two obvious examples. To reach a diagnosable level, these issues need to reach a point at which they cause significant interference in people’s lives. By telling clinicians, in effect that if it’s close, just go for it, the IACC is taking the already blurry line where “normal” human behavior, cognition, and emotion crosses into the realm of the diagnosable and obliterating it. If diagnosis happened in a vacuum, this wouldn’t be a big problem. However, formal diagnosis affects issues around insurance coverage, eligibility for services, and many other areas. Having a universally agreed upon set of standards, even if its not universally loved, is vital.

There’s a part of me that takes some satisfaction at seeing the APA, by many accounts, an  overly political and intentionally insulated organization, getting some blowback. The National Institute of Mental Health and now the IACC are two formidable bodies that have expressed serious reservations about our new system. On the other hand, we all need to work together to formulate and adhere to a system that works in the interests of people with autism and this new set or recommendations is likely to make it harder to do that.

 

 

 

 

 

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Quirky Couture

For many years, I’ve maintained (only half facetiously) that the best part of my job is that I’m able to wear jeans and a t-shirt to work. While I have no problem with wearing nicer outfits, comfort is a big deal for me when considering my wardrobe. In my work with kids, I spend lots of time chasing kids around, helping them through obstacle courses, and sometimes even wrestling with them. So wearing anything nice to work becomes a risky proposition.

I have some friends whose wives do all their clothes shopping. The wives go to the store, bring stuff home and say “Here. Wear this.” I’m not one of those guys. I can dress with some (limited) sense of style but often choose not to.

I only mention this as a lead-in to my first foray into the world of photojournalism. With no particular point in mind, I thought I’d share some of the fashion statements, broken down by category, made by some of the kids who attend Academy MetroWest. Of course, this is, by no means, a comprehensive selection of the fashion choices we see here every day. It’s just a collection of gems that jumped out at me this year.

1) The Random

Metal     HedgehogsBoard  Awkward

photo-2  photo

 

Bacon

2) TV & Movies

GlowCloud    OnaShirt

Vader

3) Video Games

Mario

 

4) Mental Health

ADD  ADD2

 

5) Minecraft

Creeper Creeper2

Minecraft3 Minecraft4 minecraftboss Minecraft2

CraftingTable  Periodic

6)….and my  favorite….

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This one is my favorite not so much because of the wardrobe choice but because of the description this boy gave to me about it. He said “Well, my pants are camouflage so supposedly they make me hard to see. On the other hand, you can’t miss my shirt so I guess they cancel each other out!” Looking at the photo, it’s not exactly an outfit that the truly fashion conscious among us would ordinarily choose to wear. On the other hand, I was pretty impressed with the way my boy confidently let his freak flag fly!

 

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Sweet Oblivion Feels All Right – For a Time

“I said Lord please give me what I need.
He said there’s pain and misery.
Oh sweet oblivion feels all right.” 

Shadow of the Season – by Screaming Trees

“Self knowledge is a dangerous thing.
The freedom of who you are.”

There is No Time – by Lou Reed

Helping children develop insight into their strengths and weaknesses is a process that involves  time, planning, and consideration from parents. As childhood fades into adolescence and young adulthood, parents need to help their increasingly independent sons and daughters develop more fully realized senses of themselves. The closer kids get to completing high school, the more their direction in life is shaped by their own choices and preferences. Parental guidance remains important but begins to take a back seat as adolescents become more mature and independent. As they make choices about their education, career, family, and friendships, it’s crucial that adolescents have a sense of which choices are likely to yield success and which ones are likely to breed frustration. The task of helping them come to a sense of self-awareness assumes even greater importance – and often involves greater challenges – when the children in question have learning issues or other special needs.

While the advantages of having self-aware kids are obvious, determining the best way to get there isn’t.  A big part of the confusion centers on when and how to start that process. For some kids, the fact that they’re unaware  of any major differences between themselves and their peers can be a substantial factor in helping them stay confident and resilient through a big chunk of their childhood.

In the realm of social skills, the concept of theory of mind plays a big role. Theory of mind is a set of cognitive skills that enables people to recognize that not everybody holds the same set of perceptions, beliefs, and knowledge. These abilities exist to varying degrees from person to person but for some, particularly among people on the autism spectrum, perspective taking comes only with concerted effort. Sometimes, no matter how quirky or idiosyncratic they may appear to others, some children and adolescents with autism don’t recognize that not everybody has the same set of special interests, anxieties, or perceptions that they do. In the long run, this presents some obvious challenges. However, during childhood, this lack of awareness can serve as a temporary scaffold for their self-image.  This  “sweet oblivion” can grant kids a reprieve from the insults to self-image and resiliency that might spring from a greater recognition of their issues. Helping these kids focus on just how different they are from their peers can seem like “piling on.” I used to work with a boy on the autism spectrum who, in addition to his social issues, had a mild speech impediment. On one occasion, he proclaimed to anyone who’d listen “I’m smawt! I’m good wookin’! And I’m vewwy athwetic!” He really was smart. Good looking? Well, let’s be charitable and say that’s a matter of personal taste. Athletic? Not by a long shot. His self-awareness may have been lacking but his self-confidence served him very well throughout his childhood.

Compared to the short-term, counter-intuitive benefits that can emerge from a lack of self-awareness, the advantages of helping kids arrive at a greater understanding of themselves are not hard to fathom. People who have a realistic sense of their own strengths and weaknesses are more likely to place themselves in settings that accentuate their assets. Adolescents who have a hard time reading social cues, seeing the effect that their behavior can have on others, and struggle to make social connections would probably do well to recognize that careers in public relations or sales might not be their best options. On the other hand, an emerging ability to step back and look at yourself objectively is likely to point you in the direction of things you do well. And it’s more likely that you’ll be able to seek out help and support in your areas of weakness when you need to.

I’ve seen a lot of kids with Non-verbal Learning Disorder go through the ups and down of this conundrum. NvLD resembles Asperger’s Disorder in many ways. In my experience, however, children and adolescents with NvLD tend to see others’ perspectives better than kids with Asperger’s Disorder do. They often have well developed verbal and concrete language skills that can potentially serve them well in educational and occupational settings. But once they get to middle school – an angst-ridden period for anyone – things can get very rocky. School work tends to involve more organization and integration than it did in the past and socializing becomes more sophisticated, abstract, and nuanced. Both realms can be taxing on these kids as their executive function delays become more obvious. At some point, they start looking around and thinking “Look at me! I’m so much smarter than these other slobs in my class. But they have such an easy time making friends and getting good grades. Why is it so hard for me?” The recognition that there are some important differences between themselves and their peers can make the already difficult road through adolescence  – an uphill slog for anyone – even more overwhelming.

So how are parents supposed to figure out this dilemma? Is it possible to help children and adolescents come to grips with their learning styles without sacrificing their resiliency and sense of self-worth?

Recently, Academy MetroWest hosted a parent workshop entitled When and How to Talk to Your Kids About Their Learning Styles. We brought in Dr. Gretchen Felopulos, a neuropsychologist from Massachusetts General Hospital and a school psychologist at the Cambridge Montessori School to lead the discussion. She did a wonderful job! If the parents who attended the workshop got even half as much out of it as I did, they’re in good shape because it was immensely valuable to me. Late in the discussion, I posed the same question to Dr. Felopulos that I discussed above. How do you find what she described as “that lovely balance between giving some information, some explanation and context without spoiling the peacefulness that they have about their existence?” She urged parents to look for small openings. For example:

“If they were to come up with some sort of dilemma like ‘I don’t get why everyone was going to so and so’s party last night. Why didn’t I get invited?’ You look for these windows of opportunity. Not necessarily to get out the video on Asperger’s or the Arthur PBS episode but just to say ‘You know what?! This is really important for us to talk about. Let’s think about all the things you’re good at. Make a list. Draw a picture. Make a chart. Then – what’s hard for you? What are things we know you’re working on?’ so you first get a lay of the land.”

To me this suggestion made perfect sense. To whatever extent you can, you follow your child’s lead. If their ideas suggest that this topic is something brand new or alien to them, you’ll want to tread lightly. Remember that a dawning sense of self-awareness is potentially threatening to their self-image so it’s important to avoid clubbing them on the head with it. On the other hand, if their responses give you the sense that they have some awareness of  what makes them tick, you can begin to take the conversation even further. Sweet oblivion really can feel all right but it only takes kids so far before the glaring shortcomings of that approach to life start making life even more difficult.

Posted in Mental Health, Parenting, Social Skills, Special Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Best Cure for Depression

The other day, the new issue of Psychology Today arrived at the office. Among the stories on the cover was one entitled “Can Yogurt Cure Depression?” I caught a quick glance at the title and it almost didn’t register. Then I thought, “Wait a minute! Did I really just read what I think I just read? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen!”

seinfeld-yogurt

Here’s my thinking: Every time I put on a few pounds and start getting disgusted with myself, I get “virtuous” and bring yogurt in for lunch instead of a sandwich.  I’ve found that it not only doesn’t cure any depression I might have, it actually casts a depressing pall on an otherwise bright and sunny day! I see the tiny container and think “You mean, that’s really all I get to eat right now?! What devastating news! The prospects for curing my depression would soar if I were eating a chicken parm sub instead.”

Later that same day, I was finishing up a session with a group of 6th grade boys. We usually spend 10-15 minutes in my office at the end of each session having a snack. If we have enough time, we do a short activity. The other day, there wasn’t much time left so we just chatted for a bit. I brought up the topic of that yogurt article and how ridiculous I thought it was and everyone agreed. Then one of my guys offered up this gem:

“Actually, what cures depression is stuffing your face with food you love with people you love.”

It made me scratch my head for a minute. Is this really a 6th grade boy, saying something tender (kind of) among other 6th grade boys? He continued:

“Or, if you’re a cannibal, stuffing your face with the people you love.”

And I thought “That’s more like it!”

My boy insists he made that up himself. I have my doubts. But even if he cribbed it, his timing was pretty perfect.

I’ve been busy and a bit stressed out all week but my mood has improved 10 fold since he made that joke. The best cure for depression is NOT yogurt.

Posted in Children, Counseling, Humor, Social Skills | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Blind Leading the Blind

For many human service professionals, state licensing boards require the completion of a certain number of continuing education units in order to maintain licensure. Personally, I’m required to attend 30 hours of continuing education programs every 2 years in order to renew my license as a mental health counselor. Some of these presentations are excellent and the best of them (anything involving Elsa Abele for instance), have changed the way I work with kids. Alternately, there are other workshops I’ve attended that have left much to be desired. Gary Steinberg, my co-Director at Academy MetroWest, has an idea that if you go to a 6 hour presentation and leave with 1 or 2 facts that you can use from time to time, you’ve had a successful experience. Now, 1 or 2 worthwhile facts over the course of 6 hours doesn’t sound like a big hurdle to get over but believe me, after some workshops, the only thing I’ve learned is that I’ve just wasted 6 hours of my life and I’ll never get them back.

What made me think about these workshops is the really wonderful one I attended this past weekend. I took part in a 3-day intensive course on becoming an ADHD Coach in Alexandria, Virgina. According to the International Coaching Federation,

ADHD Coaching is a designed partnership that combines coaching skills and knowledge of the neurobiological condition known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD coaches assist the client to develop, internalize and integrate his/her own tools, education and self-knowledge to direct and manage life and work challenges.

Coaching incorporates aspects of counseling, teaching, and other disciplines but does so in a focused, goal-directed, client centered way. The incomparable Jodi Sleeper-Triplett of JST Coaching, ran the workshop and, start to finish, it was a great experience. Jodi was energetic, knowledgable, and engaging. We had a great mix of educators, counselors, psychologists, parents, coaches, and even a lawyer comprising the student body. We clicked and learned a lot from each other.

For awhile now, I’ve been thinking that adding a coaching service to Academy MetroWest would be a great addition to our practice. Most of the kids we see have some type of executive function delay that creates barriers to their success in academics, social skills, and family life so coaching is something that could benefit many of them. Any reticence I had about taking the plunge had to do with the fact that I can be incredibly disorganized myself. There were times when I thought “Who am I kidding? They’re going to want ME  to help them be more organized and accountable?” In school, feedback about my organizational skills – or lack thereof – started in first grade and never ended. Even in my first internship in graduate school, my evaluation cited my strong clinical skills but also stated “Bruce could stand to be more organized.” My mom and I had a good laugh over that particular understatement.  With all this in mind, I thought that if I ever do start a coaching practice, it would have to be called The Blind Leading the Blind Coaching. Somehow, I’m not sure it would inspire much confidence in prospective clients. For what it’s worth, my organizational skills have been good enough to help sustain a private practice for nearly 20 years so maybe I’ve learned something since grad school.

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Possible logo for my coaching practice

Aside from the training that Jodi provided, there was also ample opportunity to revisit the bane of every counselor’s existence – role playing. If you’ve never had the pleasure, role plays involve one person playing the part of a client and one playing the part of a practitioner – in this case a coach. I did my first role play in 1982 when I was in college. For 3 years, I worked for Student Outreach, the crisis intervention hotline at Hofstra University where I went to school. Training to become an Outreach counselor involved role playing – lots of role playing. “Clients” would present with any number of issues ranging from substance abuse, academic issues, relationship problems, to just good old fashioned craziness. I did plenty of role plays in grad school as well but, until this weekend, it had been awhile since my last one.

This weekend, I found myself doing some intense method acting during my role plays as a client. I tried to draw on and really inhabit my long years of experience as a space shot and really get into the roles I played as a client. My first one went well. The problem I presente  was that I had too many demands on my time and my organizational issues weren’t allowing me to do justice to any of them. My second one drew directly from my experiences during my freshman year in high school. I was bored. I’d come home from school every day and plop down on the couch and watch cartoons. I couldn’t figure out how to break that pattern. During the role play, the interactions between me and my colleague who was playing the coach reflected the depth with which I threw myself into my character. As my coach began to explore what after-school activity options there might be at my school, he asked me about my interests. I drew on the fact that during my freshman year in high school, I had a brief flirtation with the world of photography. I told him that I was interested in photography but that my organizational issues made it hard for me because I was always sloppy in the darkroom with all the chemicals. At that point, he broke character and looked at me quizzically and said “Well that might not be an issue any more because there’s this new thing called DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY you might have heard of that doesn’t use chemicals!”

Supposedly, Robert DeNiro went to great lengths – gaining 60 pounds and immersing himself in his character’s life – to get into character for his role as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. That’s nothing. I journeyed from 2014 back to 1978 for one role play!

Another role play that I watched had one participant playing the part of a college student who was having trouble with the long papers required in college. He did fine with papers that had to be about 5 pages long but had trouble organizing the bigger ones. When the “coach” inquired about whether or not he had contacted the writing center at the college, his response was “No! They’ll only take my f$%#$ing poetry and turn it into sausage!”  After I finished laughing, I couldn’t stop thinking about how many kids I work with who have made remarks just like that one.

In addition to all the laughing, I learned a tremendous amount at this weekend’s training. Not only did I take away way more than one or two facts that I’ll be able to use in my work, it gave me a whole new perspective on how to structure counseling sessions with kids who have executive function issues. Whether or not I continue on to become a fully certified coach, attending this training with JST Coaching was an incredibly valuable experience for me and I’d recommend their services to anyone who wants to learn more about this exciting field!

Photo Credit: Amos37.com

Posted in Children, Coaching, Counseling, Mental Health, Social Skills, Special Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Less Fun Than Vacuuming? Really?

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to NPR on the way home from work and heard a piece that has been lodged firmly in my brain since then. In the segment, Melissa Block interviewed Jennifer Senior, a contributing editor for New York magazine, about her new book about parenting entitled All Joy and No Fun. According to Ms. Senior, the book set out to investigate parental well being in general and, in particular, the effects that children have on their parents’ lives. The interview left me stunned.

The title of the book developed from a question the author posed to a friend of hers who had just recently become a father. When she asked him what his impressions of parenthood were so far, his response was “All joy and no fun,” suggesting that there’s no shortage of beaming pride and fulfillment that comes from his child’s accomplishments and day to day experiences but also that that same day to day experience is lacking in basic adult enjoyment and fun.

To examine this claim, the author looked at studies of parental attitudes conducted over a 50 year span. According to Senior:

“We assume that children will improve our happiness. That’s why babies are called bundles of joy. But what’s so interesting is that one of the most robust findings in the social services….is that children do not improve their parents’ happiness.”

In fact, the studies indicated that having children either had no effect or “slightly compromised their parents’ happiness.”

By this time in the piece, I was pretty surprised, but as I kept listening, I heard the kicker. Ms. Senior cites a study by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman that asked mothers to rate a variety of typical daily activities and the enjoyment they provide. According to Ms. Senior:

“What’s truly amazing about Danny Kahneman’s study is that when the women were answering this question, they didn’t even realize they were ranking childcare so low…  And only at the end  when everything was all added up did he discover that parents would have preferred — yeah, napping, answering emails, shopping, watching TV … housework, vacuuming clocked in higher which is amazing.”

Vacuuming?!?! Vacuuming is more enjoyable than childcare?!?! As I write this, it’s been  two weeks since I heard this interview and I’m still dumbfounded!

Vacuuming

I fully understand what a slog parenting can be. My daughter is 7 now and, believe me, I’m very thankful she’s outgrown Dora and Caillou. I don’t miss changing diapers and I’m happy that the daily battles we had during the terrible two’s are (mostly) a thing of the past. I’m also not so blind as to say that parenting a 7 year old is always a party. My wife and I are blessed to have an easy-going, low maintenance kid but, as with all kids, we still have days in which drama and drudgery vastly outweigh delight. One day about two years ago, the three of us were about to leave the house to go to a screening of Sing Along With Mary Poppins. Before we got in the car, I just stopped and screamed to the heavens “My life is so boring!!!” I actually wound up enjoying the show but, clearly, it is not what I would have chosen to do had I not had a child in tow. Some of the fun things I used to do all the time before my daughter came along are much smaller parts of my life now. Some day, when my wife and I are thinking about going out to eat, we’ll be able to consider factors other than “Do you think they have grilled cheese on the menu?” But for now, going out for ethnic food doesn’t happen all that often.

But vacuuming?!?!

Learning that so many parents don’t have fun being with their kids left me feeling bad for them. They’re missing out. I can accept the fact that I enjoy playing with kids more than most adults do. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for about 25 years. Along with the fact that I get to wear jeans and a t-shirt to work most days, the best part of my job is that I’m a mental health professional who spends more time chasing kids around pretending I’m a dinosaur than I do being Sigmund Freud. So I get it. If I didn’t like playing with kids, I wouldn’t still be doing what I do.

But what we’re talking about here is vacuuming, people. Vacuuming, to use a pun so obvious it’s painful, sucks!

In our work at Academy MetroWest,  we strive to run our groups in ways that enable us to be ourselves and have fun. Aside from the obvious point that having fun is an intrinsically good thing, there’s a method to the madness as well. Adults need to be aware that in everything they do with kids, they are role models. In our groups, one of our points of emphasis with kids is the need to adjust their behavior based on their circumstances and surroundings. We try to do that in our interactions with them as well. When the situation warrants, we set limits, provide social feedback, stay on top of group dynamics,  provide support and a whole host of interventions that constitute decidedly “grown up tasks.” On the other hand, we spend a lot of time having fun with them too.  When there’s no immediate reason to be serious, the message we try to convey through our behavior is that it’s okay to relax, be yourself, and have fun.

My good friend Steve Gross is the founder and Executive Director of Life is Good Playmakers and one of the most capable and empathic human service professionals I’ve  met. The Playmakers provide training and support all over the world to day care workers, teachers, social workers, and other human service providers. Their work is aimed at helping young children overcome experiences with poverty, violence, and illness, through the enriching experience of play. Steve defines playfulness as:

“The motivation to freely and joyfully engage with, connect with, and explore the surrounding world.”

He describes social connection as one of the key elements of playfulness. Parents begin fostering a sense of joyful connectedness in their children from the time their kids are babies. When even the youngest children have a chance to engage with their parents, seeing the changes in their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, they learn to associate all those good things with social interaction.

I suppose you can fake that for awhile but my guess is that it starts to fall flat after awhile if you’re not really enjoying yourself.

I don’t have a magic solution for those parents who don’t have fun interacting with their kids. I just know that finding a way to do so can be immensely rewarding for parents and valuable for kids. Keep trying. The vacuum cleaner will still be there when you’re done.

Posted in Books, Children, Counseling, Family, Parenting, Social Skills | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment