Social Communication Disorder: Knowing Words and Gestures, But Not How to Use Them

Social communication disorder (SCD): it’s what we call it when children struggle with subtle nuances of communication. Children with social communication disorder may not be clear about when to respond during conversation, and when it might be better to keep quiet and listen. A child with SCD may not have a good sense of private space: how close or far to stand next to a conversation partner. SCD may also be called pragmatic language impairment or semantic pragmatic disorder. SCD is a relative newcomer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), so some specialists may not even know it as a separate disorder distinct from autism.

Social communication disorder affects a child in three different areas: social interactions, social understanding, and pragmatics. Pragmatics means using language in its proper context. A child with SCD may not understand, for instance, that we use different language and tone when speaking to a baby than when we speak to a teacher or an elderly grandparent. A child with social communication disorder might approach a grandparent and say, “Hello, Cutie-Pie. Does oo want a bottle?”

Child whispers in the ear of shocked seated elderly woman

All children want to make friends and fit in with their peers. Some children find it easy to make friends while others find it difficult. It can take time and practice to learn how to make social conversation and get along with others. If making friends with others is an ongoing challenge, however, it may be a sign of social communication disorder. The symptoms of SCD tend to appear in early childhood, for instance in preschool.

Social Communication Disorder: Symptoms

Symptoms of SCD include:

  • Issues with verbal and nonverbal communication during social interactions
  • Difficulties in adapting to the communication style of a conversation partner
  • Problems in understanding and relating to the context of a partner’s conversation
  • Difficulty in understanding things that are implied rather than explicitly stated
  • Difficulty relating stories
  • An inability to master basic social rules
  • Severe anxiety that causes the child to avoid social situations

Social Communication Disorder: Genetic Factor?

Researchers are still learning about social communication disorder, so don’t as yet have firm answers about what causes the disorder. Some studies suggest that children with social communication disorder tend to have family members with autism spectrum disorder, known communication disorders, or learning disabilities. This would suggest there may be a genetic factor in developing SCD.

Children with social communication disorder can have other disorders at the same time. They may, for example, have other speech disorders or ADHD.

Social Communication Disorder: Diagnosis

A diagnosis of social communications disorder is diagnosed by observing a child’s difficulties in learning verbal and nonverbal communication skills. During an evaluation, a speech and language professional will see if your child can:

  • Answer questions
  • Use gestures such as waving and pointing in appropriate ways
  • Take turns during play and conversations
  • Appropriately express and describe emotions
  • Stay on topic
  • Adapt language and tone to the situation or conversation partner
  • Ask appropriate questions and respond with relevant answers during conversation
  • Use different words and terms for the same thing, for instance hi, hello, hiya, hey.
  • Make friends and keep them

Until recently, many believed that social communication disorder was a facet of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Ruling out autism is, in fact, part of the process of diagnosing social communication disorder. This is because there is some overlap of symptoms between the two disorders.

Social communication disorder, however, lacks the restrictive and repetitive behaviors (RRBs), interests, and activities of autism. RRBs are different from the repetition you might hear from a child with social communication disorder. Ask a child with SCD if he hung up his hat, and the child may give you a blank look and repeat, “Hat.”

This is because the child doesn’t understand that a question has been asked. The child only understand that s/he is meant to say something, but doesn’t understand what that something might be-only that it’s something about a hat.

Children with autism, on the other hand, may feel a need to eat the same foods each day; to line up their crayons in a specific order; play the same game with the same toy car daily; or engage in the same type of conversation on a specific topic. In social communication disorder, these behaviors are absent.

In the same way that SCD seems similar to autism, it is also sometimes confused with ADHD. Confusing the picture further, children with SCD may also have ADHD. But ADHD comes with attention problems. SCD does not.

If you ask the child with a social communication disorder which he prefers: chocolate or peanut butter, he might say peanut butter, even if he really prefers chocolate. He does so because he is focused on the end. He didn’t process the rest of what you said. But it’s not that the child lost focus as with ADHD. It’s that the child with SCD may think that only the end of a sentence is important.

Chocolate being dipped into peanut butter

Social communication disorder may be suspected when a child has no trouble with words, speech, or gestures but struggles to use and apply them in social situations. If you tell the child to wave, he will do so. But he may not understand that waving is connected to and indicated when greeting and parting from others.

Children with SCD may also be slow to reach language milestones or show little interest in socializing with others. SCD can make it difficult for a child to understand stories and conversations, and to bend to various social situations. These issues are very different from the general issues that come with, for instance, intellectual disabilities. Social communication disorder affects understanding of every type of communication: verbal, nonverbal, spoken, written, gestures, and sign language, too.

Social Communication Disorder: Treatment

While there is no cure for social communication disorder, there are treatments. Speech and language pathologists are trained to recognize and design treatment for communication problems like SCD. Teachers and speech-language pathologists often work together to help children better their communication skills. For those who find speech difficult, there are alternative means of communication. This can mean something as simple as holding up a picture, or as technologically complicated as using a smartphone to type out a sentence.

Preschooler with smartphone

Therapy for children with social communication disorder may be given in the child’s school setting, or at a local clinic. Schools employ speech-language pathologists who can offer therapy and coordinate these efforts with the child’s teacher. Some clinics offer therapy to children with SCD as part of early intervention programs or special education initiatives. Hospitals and medical centers may also have therapists on hand to help you find and implement a strategy that works for your child. The idea is to figure out a treatment plan that gives such children a plan: a reliable method to get them through challenges and difficult social situations.

Therapy for social communication disorder is a must, as SCD doesn’t improve without professional assistance.

A therapeutic plan for a child with SCD may include:

  • Social skills training that helps children acquire the skills to interact with others in social settings
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to minimize anxiety and deal with strong emotions
  • Medication for coexisting conditions that may worsen the child’s social communication disorder, for instance ADHD.
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Support and training for parents

SCD Action Plan

If you suspect your child is having difficulty with social skills, you’ll want to get to the bottom of things. Here are three simple steps for getting started:

  1. Watch your child and note his or her behavior. Write your observations in a notebook.
  2. Share your observations with your child’s teacher and compare notes. The teacher can help by making sure that classroom instructions are clear and by pairing your child with children who share similar interests.
  3. Ask the teacher about having your child undergo an educational evaluation. If the school agrees this is indicated, the evaluation will be free. The results of the evaluation may mean your child receives supports and services, all absolutely free.

SCD: Specialists and What They Can Do

Social communication disorder can only be diagnosed by a speech therapist. But it’s possible other specialists can rule out SCD. It helps to know what the various specialists can and cannot do for your child. It’s important to note that if you go the private route, using private specialists, you’ll have to pay for any tests administered. Here’s the breakdown of the specialists you might visit for a child who may have SCD, keeping in mind that only you know your financial and community resources and what you are able to afford:

Pediatrician: A pediatrician can help rule out medical issues as cause for your child’s behavior and advise you on your next step. Some pediatricians are also able to test for ADHD. A pediatrician can sometimes offer a referral for further testing or therapy with a speech therapist.

Learning specialist: A learning specialist can test for learning and attention issues. These are the same tests your child would receive in an evaluation provided by the school. The difference is that you would have to pay. In the case where the school decides not to test and you still feel there is a problem, you might want to go this route and hire a learning specialist to administer tests. If you don’t feel that what the school offers is adequate, and you can afford to go private, a learning specialist may be a good option.

Psychologist: A psychologist is trained in both learning disabilities and attention issues and can rule out or diagnose a variety of learning and attention difficulties. The psychologist can also check for nonverbal learning disorder and for ADHD. While the learning specialist’s focus is specific to learning disabilities, a psychologist has a broader framework. Your child may not need that broader framework.

Speech therapist: The speech therapist is the specialist who is most qualified to diagnose social communication disorder. This is also the professional best equipped to prepare a treatment plan for your child with SCD.

SCD: What You Can Do At Home

Parents can do a lot to help children develop their social skills, feel better about themselves, and can also offer the support children need to keep trying. Here are some practical ways you can help your child:

Read and learn all you can: Read articles online, take books out of your local library, or buy books on children and social communication issues. Knowledge is power. So is understanding your child’s plight.

Watch for and note patterns: Keep a notebook handy and jot down your observations. Does your child always have difficulties in the same social situations? Do you see a pattern in your child’s behavior? What you observe can help the professionals help your child.

Practice social situations at home: Role-playing can go a long way toward training your child in appropriate behavior at parties, playdates, or just plain holiday gatherings with the family. Take turns starting and ending conversations, or greeting friends, neighbors, and relatives. Home is a safe place to try these behaviors out. It’s also fun to play-act, a great way for parent and child to bond!

Play matchmaker between your child and other possible friends: Your child has the best chance of effective communication with kids who share his or her interests. Does your child enjoy dance, art, or sports? Enroll your child in an afterschool class in whatever it is your child likes to do. There your child will be sure to meet other children who like the same things. It’s a good basis for friendship.

Try social skills building classes: Some schools offer free classes in social skills. You might be able to find a private class offered by those with training in learning difficulties who also run programs for children with social challenges.

Experiment with strategies: Don’t be afraid to try out new ways of helping your child. Seek out role-playing and other games on Pinterest, websites, and blogs.

Talk to other parents: Though every child with SCD will have unique challenges, it can help just to speak with other parents going through similar difficulties with their children. It’s comforting to network and share strategies. It’s great to have a support system and get advice on specialists or new strategies to try.

While social communication skills don’t ever go away for good, children with SCD can learn strategies to help them socialize and get along with others. As your child improves his social skills, this will give him the impetus to keep on aiming for better. And as long as your child is encouraged to keep on keeping on, things can only look up!

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Hans Asperger Selected Children with Asperger’s Syndrome for Euthanasia

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), like most syndromes or diseases, is named for the person believed to have first identified it as a distinct condition. But these days, the association is making people a little uneasy. That’s because it’s just been revealed that Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who discovered Asperger’s Syndrome in 1944, cooperated with the Nazis in its eugenics program. Hans Asperger, in other words, was sending children with AS to die, believing these children inferior beings to be stamped out, eradicated, murdered.

Does this render Hans Asperger’s work on AS irrelevant? Of course not. What it does do is take away our awe and wonderment, our respect of the man Hans Asperger was. No longer is he the haloed entity who helped us finally understand Asperger’s Syndrome, the one who gave the syndrome a name. The one who figured things out so we could get on with the act of educating and parenting children with AS; so that we could get on with mainstreaming those with AS into society.

Now Hans Asperger is as good as a murderer of the very children whose syndrome he identified.

Hitler's letter granting permission to engage in euthanasia of “incurably sick patients.”
Hitler’s letter granting permission for the euthanasia of “incurably sick patients.”

Asperger noted what he called “autistic psychopathy” in four little boys, and wrote about it for the first time in 1944. It wasn’t, however, called “Asperger’s Syndrome” until it was referred to as such in 1981, in a paper published by British researcher Lorna Wing. While Wing was the first to call AS after the man believed to have first noted it as a distinct syndrome, Asperger himself was a prolific writer who published more than 300 research papers and books. The majority of Hans Asperger’s publications are on the subject of autism in children.

It has been said that Asperger may well have had AS, which may be why he so ably noted it in others as a specific set of behaviors, separate from other types of autism. Asperger had difficulty making friends. He was an introvert who spoke of himself in the third person and often quoted his own words. Suspicions that Asperger, a high achiever by any standards, had Asperger’s, makes it even more difficult to understand why he favored sending children with AS to their deaths.

The story that only now sends shockwaves through the general public and in particular, parents of children with AS, is that Asperger “not only collaborated with the Nazis but actively contributed to the Nazi eugenics program by referring profoundly disabled children to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic . . . in Vienna. This was a clinic that he knew participated in the Third Reich’s child euthanasia program, where children were killed as part of the Nazi goal of eugenically engineering a genetically ‘pure’ society through ‘racial hygiene’ and the elimination of lives deemed a ‘burden’ and ‘not worthy of life.’ [1]

Propaganda poster extolling Hitler's eugenics program
Propaganda for Nazi Germany’s T-4 Euthanasia Program: “This person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community 60,000 Reichsmark during his lifetime. Fellow German, that is your money, too.” from the Office of Racial Policy’s Neues Volk.

These revelations came to light through meticulous research by Herwig Czech, a medical historian at the Medical University of Vienna. Can we find a way to be understanding about this information, to look kindly upon these new disclosures? Was Asperger, for instance, cooperating with the Nazis to save his own skin?

Not according to the editors who published Czech’s paper. “We are persuaded by Herwig Czech’s important article that Asperger was not just doing his best to survive in intolerable conditions but was also complicit with his Nazi superiors in targeting society’s most vulnerable people.”

Ouch. To say the least.

Czech isn’t the only researcher to have looked at Asperger’s role in the Nazi Hans Asperger with small childeugenics program. A recent book by Edith Sheffer, Asperger’s Children: The origins of autism in Nazi Vienna, makes the compelling case that Asperger was referring children both directly and indirectly to Am Spiegelgrund, where they would be murdered by starvation or lethal injections.

The cause of death was always recorded as “pneumonia.”

Molecular Autism, the medical journal that published Czech’s work, should be commended for its forthright insistence on telling us the truth about the man who changed everything for those with the subset of autism we know as Asperger’s Syndrome. It is important that we have an honest accounting of medical history in regard to AS; a true accounting of medicine gone wrong. It is also historically necessary to document the twisted path taken by psychiatry and medicine as they were practiced during the Holocaust: that men sworn to the good of mankind by way of the Hippocratic Oath, murdered children on the autism spectrum and any others they deemed undesirable or somehow defective.

One more important fact comes out of this work: that Asperger’s syndrome was discovered before Hans Asperger ever wrote about it. The term “autistic psychopathy” may have originated with Hans Asperger. But Georg Frankl and Anni Weiss had already published on the topic.  Because the two researchers were Jews, however, they were expelled from Austria, leaving for the U.S. (where they soon married). It is Frankl and Weiss who deserve the credit for discovering Asperger’s Syndrome, rather than the man who abetted the murder of those who manifest its symptoms.

Asperger has his apologists. People who say he wasn’t as bad as some of his colleagues. Is one Nazi worse than another? Did he have to administer the lethal injection in order to be called a murderer of children unable to fend for themselves?

And what are the implications of this story for the study of medical ethics? For the self-esteem of those with AS, struggling to be part of society?

Reinventing Hans Asperger, Nazi

In truth, Hans Asperger is no different than any other Nazi reinvented in the imagination, the most famous example being Wernher Von Braun. Von Braun, a Nazi, went on to father the American space program. Hans Asperger, a Nazi, fostered our understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome, even as he failed to understand that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have value and deserve to live and breathe. From now on, Hans Asperger will no longer be thought of as the father of all children with Asperger’s Syndrome. Our awe for the man will be gone, replaced by horror.

The legacy of Hans Asperger, it seems, is not one of honor or respect, but a legacy of evil it is impossible to fathom.

A legacy that is forever changed.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

[1] Simon Baron-Cohen, Ami Klin, Steve Silberman, and Joseph D. Buxbaum, Did Hans Asperger actively assist the Nazi euthanasia program?, (Molecular Autism, 2018), https://molecularautism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13229-018-0209-5

 

Allergies in Children

Allergies in children occur when the child’s immune system reacts to substances that are harmless to most children. Some substances are known allergens, which means they are known to cause allergic reactions in children and others susceptible to allergies. These substances include dust mites, pets, pollen, insects, ticks, mold, various foods, and some medications.

Allergies can make a child feel miserable with chronic uncomfortable symptoms. For some children, however, allergies don’t just affect quality of life, but are so severe as to be life-threatening. Any child can develop an allergy, but allergies are more common in children whose families have them, too.

A child who often coughs or sneezes, develops rashes or hives, or gets stomach aches, cramps or nausea each time he or she eats a certain food, may be experiencing allergies. If you identify those allergies early on, you have a good chance of making your child’s life a better, more comfortable one. By identifying and dealing with a childhood allergy, you’ll cut down the number of days your child will have to miss school. Treating the allergy means you’ll also be able to use your sick days and vacation days as they were intended, instead of using them to care for a sick child.

Baby has an allergic rash on his cheeks
The baby is adorable, but the allergic rash? Not so much.

Allergies: Common Symptoms

In order to identify allergy symptoms in your child, you have to know what they might look like. Here are some of the most common symptoms associated with childhood allergies

  • Skin rashes (such as atopic dermatitis or eczema)
  • Hives
  • Difficulty breathing (asthma)
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
  • Itchy eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Stomach ache
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea

Common Allergens

Getting control over childhood allergies means avoiding the substances that trigger allergic reactions in children. Here is a list of the most common childhood allergens.

Out of doors:

  • Tree pollen
  • Plant pollen
  • Insect bites
  • Insect stings

Indoors:

Irritants:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Perfumes and scented products
  • Automobile exhaust fumes

Foods that may be allergens:

If you think your child may have an allergy, have the child seen by an allergist. In the days leading up to your appointment, keep a journal of your child’s symptoms and what substances you think might have caused them.

Common Allergy Issues

If your child has allergies, he or she is probably dealing with some of the following issues:

Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, is the most common allergic condition in children. The symptoms of allergic rhinitis include runny, itchy nose; sneezing; postnasal drip; and nasal congestion or blockage. Other symptoms of hay fever include watery, red, itchy eyes, and fluid in the ears, which leads to ear pain, and ear infections. Hay fever is not triggered by hay, and does not come with fever.

Nasal congestion or a stuffy nose in children, is most commonly caused by allergies. When the nose is congested, a child is forced to breathe through the mouth. This can make for a restless night’s sleep, leaving your child tired during the day. This makes it difficult for children to concentrate in school. It’s important to note that if this congestion is not treated, it can affect the development of the child’s teeth as well as the bone structure of the face. Seek treatment for allergic nasal congestion as soon as possible, to prevent such issues.

Ear infections can develop when allergic congestion, causes fluid to accumulate in the ears. A buildup of fluid can lead to inflammation, pain, and a reduction in hearing. Decreased hearing puts babies and small children still learning to speak at risk for speech issues. Ear troubles due to allergies can cause ear pain, itching, popping, and a feeling of fullness or being “stopped up.” A child with ear trouble may rub or tug on her ear and may cry at night.

Food allergies affect some 6 million children in the United States. Breastfeeding is an excellent way to prevent food allergies for some children. But some children are so sensitive that they have allergic reactions to foods their breastfeeding moms eat. If you have allergies in your family, you may want to stay away from allergic foods while breastfeeding. You may also want to avoid introducing these foods to young children. Allergic foods include:

  • Peanuts
  • Milk
  • Tree nuts (for instance, walnuts and cashews)
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Eggs
  • Wheat

Peanuts and milk are the most common food allergens in children. The most severe childhood allergic reactions to food are generally to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. While not all children outgrow food allergies, they often outgrow their childhood allergies to milk, eggs, wheat, and soy.

Children with food allergies are at risk for anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that can cause breathing difficulties accompanied by a sudden drop in blood pressure. An anaphylactic reaction can send the body into shock. For this reason, doctors prescribe epinephrine, a form of adrenaline, that can be self-injected at the first symptom. The child’s school should be made aware of the condition and teachers trained in the use of administering the life-saving epinephrine in case of emergency.

School nurse helps child with asthma inhaler

Allergies: School Issues

Inform the school. If your child has allergies, his school should be informed. The same is true of summer camp or anywhere your child spends time. It’s important to ensure that the school knows what to do in case of emergency, and how to administer your child’s medications.

Classroom pets. Some classrooms have pets with fur, for instance gerbils, that can cause symptoms in children with allergies. If your child feels unwell in the classroom, for example, asthma, coughing, or congestion, a runny nose, a rash, or sneezing, such symptoms may well be caused by the classroom pet.

Boy sneezing from holding cat
Will the family pet have to go?

Asthma and gym class. Participating in sports or physical education classes is good for children, even those with asthma. Children with asthma should, however, take care to use their asthma medication regularly and as directed by a physician. When asthma symptoms occur during hard exercise or sports, it suggests that the child’s asthma is under poor control.

Chalk dust irritation. Chalk dust can be an irritant for those with allergies. Children with allergies may need to sit farther away from the blackboard to avoid irritation and allergy symptoms.

It’s a challenge to deal with children’s allergies, and it takes commitment. But take heart: so many children suffer from allergies that you are surely not alone in dealing with this issue!

If you suspect your child has allergies, don’t take a wait and see attitude, because early identification and treatment of allergies is crucial for your child’s health and development. See your child’s doctor as soon as possible.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Low Carb High Fat Diets: Safe for Baby?

Low carb high fat (LCHF) diets are trending. As with all diets, popularity waxes and wanes, with experts opining for and against their safety. Adults, when they choose a diet, must educate themselves and take these warnings into account before plunging in. Babies and children, on the other hand, eat what adults feed them. Which begs the question: is it safe for babies to eat a low carb high fat diet?

For those who see the low carb high fat diet as a lifestyle, the answer is an unequivocal yes. They say that carbohydrates are, as a body, a nonessential nutrient—that all carbohydrates turn into glucose in the body, and that while the brain needs glucose for energy, the body manufactures all the glucose one needs in a process called gluconeogenesis, a process independent of diet. And anyway, what could be bad about giving babies fewer sweets?

Baby with water bottle
Baby with low carb drink (water!)

Especially since we’re not talking about a no-carbohydrate diet (can you spell c-o-n-s-t-i-p-a-t-i-o-n?) but a low carbohydrate diet. Vegetables that are low in carbohydrates are full of vitamins, minerals, and yes, fiber. No one is against a nice dish of oven-roasted fennel and cauliflower, for instance, or a carpaccio of kohlrabi slices drizzled with a smooth Dijon vinaigrette and sprinkled with some pink Himalayan salt.

But is it reasonable to feed a baby no whole grains, no Cheerios for little hands to grasp, no crusts of bread to chew on? No convenient beginners’ rice cereal, thought to be so easy to digest, so hypoallergenic? Professor Timothy Noakes, thinks so.

Noakes, the author of The Real Meal Revolution, was willing to stake his reputation on the concept. An emeritus professor in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, Noakes was forced to defend the idea that a low carb high fat diet is healthy for babies and children. He was found not guilty. Because there is no proof that a low carb high fat diet is dangerous. Not dangerous for babies. Not dangerous for anyone.

But not everyone agrees with Noakes. Elizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD at the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website tells readers that limiting carbohydrates puts children at risk for developing deficiencies later in life and that whole grains, taking longer to digest, make one feel full longer, which, she claims, prevents hunger. An article in the Daily Mail tells readers that carbohydrates are essential to brain function without mention of the diet-independent biological truth of gluconeogenesis, and like Ward, advises whole grains like brown rice be made part of a healthy children’s diet.

Laurie Endicott Thomas, MA, ELS, author of Where Do Gorillas Get Their Protein? What We Really Know About Diet and Health and Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes: Prevent Type 1, Cure Type 2, says that the keto diet (a type of low carb high fat diet) is “generally bad for a child’s health and well-being. Children hate the diet because it is limited and ‘yucky.’ It can also stunt their growth and cause some bad side-effects, such as pancreatitis.”

Laurie Thomas sees only a limited use for the ketogenic diet, “The ketogenic diet is useful in cases of severe epilepsy. By feeding an epileptic child a ketogenic diet, you can get control of some seizures that would otherwise be uncontrollable by medication. The ketogenic diet is particularly useful in cases of De Vivo disease, which results from a genetic defect in the protein that is supposed to transport glucose from the bloodstream into the brain. Since the brain is deprived of glucose, children with De Vivo disease are born with a very small brain. Since their brain is starved of energy, they are prone to seizures. Ketosis is beneficial in those cases because it provides an alternative fuel source to the brain.”

Low Carb High Fat: Gorillas Versus Humans

At Thomas’ aforementioned website, she speaks of the similarity between gorillas and human beings and how diet impacts on the two species. “When I was in sixth grade, my teachers taught me about the Four Food Groups. They told me that I had to eat two servings of meat and three servings of dairy products every day. Otherwise, my growth would be stunted. I wouldn’t be able to grow normal hair or fingernails. Then I went to the zoo, where I saw that the gorillas, which are bigger and stronger and hairier than I would ever be, were eating nothing but salad. In other words, they are practically vegan, yet they were clearly getting enough nutrition. How could that be?

“Gorillas have nearly the same DNA as human beings, which means that our body chemistry and theirs is almost exactly alike. Gorillas also have almost the same digestive system that we have. So how can gorillas grow up to be so big and strong without eating any meat (other than a few termites), any dairy products, any eggs, or any fish?”

Mountain gorilla
Gorillas are similar to humans, but with smaller heads and much larger guts

The answer, according to keto diet aficionado and scholar Chanah Shapira Stillman, is not in the similarities between humans and gorillas, but in their differences. Stillman, citing Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb, explains, “Human babies are actually all premature from a developmental standpoint. Because of cranial size and pelvic dimensions, they are born before they have achieved a level of development parallel to anthropoid apes at full term, which would be, as I recall, at about 18 months. The head is proportionally very large; a characteristic all humans retain. It’s called neotony.

“For human babies to be born at full term you would need ginormous (!) hips. Walking would be dicey with legs too far apart!

“Since human babies are so large-brained, adequate maternal diet during pregnancy would necessarily include sufficient fats, and subsequently children’s rapid brain development must include a similar enriched diet.”

But it’s not just the difference between human babies and gorillas but the differences between humans in general and gorillas. Stillman points to Dr. Loren Cordain, the founder of the paleo diet movement, regarding that difference. Cordain’s work, says Stillman, is key to understanding how nutritional requirements are essential to the expanded brain size of humans, which in turn means that humans need more fats. Not something you’re going to get on a mostly vegetarian diet.

Low Carb High Fat: Expensive Tissue Hypothesis

“Eating nutrient-dense bone marrow, fats, and brains makes that caloric expenditure possible. That’s the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis, and vegans hate it,” says Stillman.

“It’s all interlinked. Apes have lots of gut which we traded for more brain power. Comes down to the cost of running the physical plant. Look how ‘dumb, slow, and tasty’ cows are. They have 4 stomachs to convert their semi-vegan diet into one large mammal body.”

Thomas disagrees, citing experiments from the 1920’s regarding the beneficial effects of the LCHF diet for children with epilepsy, “The keto diet is a good way to control seizures in children with severe, drug-resistant epilepsy. It is bad for everyone else,” says Thomas.

Jessica Haggard would beg to differ, having raised two children on a low carb high fat diet. Haggard works from home as an entrepreneur alongside her husband, promoting the keto lifestyle for Families at Primal Edge Health. The homeschooling mom has written two cookbooks of family-friendly LCHF recipes incorporating unprocessed, whole foods. She coaches clients and families who want to adopt the keto lifestyle. While Haggard doesn’t impose the strict keto regiment on her children (no one’s counting macros, i.e. eating specific daily percentages of protein, fat, and carbs), she does expose her children to a wide variety of high fat foods.

Keto pie graph
Ketogenic diets mean eating more quality fats and very few carbohydrates

Haggard remained low-carb throughout both pregnancies, and breastfed her children while maintaining a ketogenic diet. Starting her kids on a ketogenic diet, however, was not an automatic thought. “It is actually because of our first child that we got into higher fat diets. She had dental caries. This gave us a big push to reexamine our diet.”

Haggard and her husband are young American expats living in Ecuador. “I am not an expert, just a mom,” says Jessica with a smile. “I have the practical side—the implementation and the meal planning strategies. I have the success story of seeing my children thrive. I was part of a “birthing wave” with my second and I see a huge difference in the children with different diets. Granted, there are many variations that set families apart but I always wonder at the influence of diet. In fact, a few of the families I coach are in the process of eliminating grains and starches and remark on the improvement of their children (better mood, less gas/discomfort).”

Was it difficult to put her children on such a radically different diet?

“It was not easy per se, to go against the established way of eating. But for my family, our path was clear cut.  In search of a dietary intervention to help my, at the time, one-and-a-half-year-old with dental cavities, we were exposed to the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), fat soluble vitamins and—get ready for this—organ meats!

Low Carb High Fat: Making The Switch

“So we made the switch, all of us as a family. No more sugar, grains, or legumes, plus lots more butter, raw dairy cream, and fish. This lead us to keto, where my husband and I have been eating for the last 4 years or so. I had a ‘keto-ish’ pregnancy and now my baby chooses fatty fish, avocado, butter—all the classic healthy fatty foods. He loves my beef heart meatballs. These are his choices.

“I keep fresh, local, seasonal fruit around and occasionally cook plantains, parsnips, carrots and beets but they—with the exception of newly discovered parsnips—don’t get enjoyed the same way as burgers, my grain-free flatbreads, or low-carb coconut flour pancakes. My oldest also eats lots of honey.”

Asked if she met much resistance from pediatricians, Jessica says, “I’ve followed a very unconventional path with bringing my children into the world. It’s been very intimate. The short story is that they were both born at home, ‘unattended,’ that is without any certified medical attendees. These were 100 percent natural births, no epidurals, no vaccines.* They have been extremely healthy all their lives and I have never had a reason to visit a pediatrician.

“I live in Ecuador (born and raised in California) so it’s easier here than in the US to avoid standard medical care. On this path of independence, there have been challenging moments of doubt, but through faith and a serious approach to self-education my husband and I have made the choices that we think are most optimal for our family.

Low Carb High Fat: Healthy Carbs

“I am very grateful for this way of eating. I don’t have a label for it, you could call it keto plus healthy carbs. It has set my children up with a savory palate and they know how to portion control, choose healthy options and eat to satiety.”

The bottom line about babies and the LCHF diet? Read everything you can get your hands on, beginning with Why We Get Fat, by Gary Taubes. Educate yourself. Then take a deep breath and make an informed decision in concert with your gut instinct.

It is unfortunate, but here it is: doctors receive little to no training on the subject of nutrition, and what they do learn is often based on outdated research or research skewed by the meddling of special interest groups. What does all this mean? It means you’re basically on your own when it comes to figuring out best diet practices for your baby. A scary thought and a huge responsibility.

One that comes with the job of parenting.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

*Kars4Kids does not take a position on immunization, instead offering both sides of the debate for our readers here: https://www.kars4kids.org/blog/immunization/

Underage Drinking: Having the Talk About Alcohol and Brain Health

Underage drinking can get in the way of the developing brain. And anything that gets in the way of the developing brain, for instance underage drinking, can interfere with academic performance. That means that kids who drink may grow up to be unemployed adults. If they don’t, for instance, get killed while driving under the influence of alcohol.

If you managed to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion, your child can, too. It’s just that most parents haven’t thought to explain it to them, lay it all out on the table. Which is a shame, because doing so may just stop children from taking that first sip of alcohol.

That’s the conclusion of a new survey conducted by market research firm GfK on behalf of Ask, Listen, Learn, a program of Responsibility.org. More than 1,000 parents of children ages 10-17 took part in the November, 2017 survey, the results of which are in a report entitled, A Lifetime of Conversations: Kids, Alcohol, and the Developing Brain, issued just ahead of Alcohol Responsibility Month. The report also includes data culled from other research on the topic of underage drinking, along with important advice and perspectives from experts in the field.

Stunning details in the new report illustrate both how and when parents are having conversations with their children about underage drinking. This information helps us understand how we have managed to achieve a significant reduction in children’s alcohol consumption in the United States since 1991, when experts first began to track the point at which underage drinking begins.

Some conclusions from the report:

More Parents Are Talking the Talk.

The good news is that more parents are talking to their children about drinking alcohol. A majority (76 percent) of parents of children aged 10-17, have in fact, spoken to their children at least once during the past year about underage drinking. That represents an increase of 7 percent since 2003.[1]

Parents Wait Too Long to Have the Talk.

The report suggests that parents may be choosing to be reactive, rather than proactive in their conversations with their children about underage drinking and alcohol. Half of the parents surveyed wait until their children see something about drinking on television or social media, or until asked about underage drinking, before they begin the conversation about alcohol. They may be waiting too long at that: only 2 in 5 parents spoke to kids aged 10-14, though 23 percent of 8th graders (age 13 or so) have already tasted alcohol.

Too Many Parents Think: “My Kid Wouldn’t Drink.”

More than half the parents surveyed, 58 percent, or nearly 6 in 10 parents of children age 10-17, say their children won’t be needing to make any sort of decision about alcohol over the next three months. They think their children are too young to discuss drinking. This flies in the face of underage drinking statistics: 23 percent of 8th graders have drunk alcohol and 53 percent think it would be easy to get alcohol. These particular statistics only increase as children get to high school.

Parents Think Kids Are Too Young for the Talk.

Of parent participants of children aged 10-17 who have not yet spoken to their children about underage drinking, 46 percent say their children are too young to have a talk about drinking alcohol. This figure includes 60 percent of parents with children aged 10-14.

Parents Don’t Think About the Impact of Underage Drinking on Living a Healthy Lifestyle.

Only 15 percent of the parents surveyed listed avoiding underage drinking as a factor in children living a healthy lifestyle. Parents instead prioritized eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and staying away from smoking and drug use, as elements critical to living a healthy lifestyle.

Parents Don’t Talk About Underage Drinking and Brain Health.

Parents tend to speak to their children only about the immediate consequences of underage drinking, for instance alcohol poisoning or car crashes. Experts believe that parents should instead be discussing the impact of alcohol on brain development and the long-term effects of underage drinking, for example, memory issues and alcohol dependence. When asked to list reasons children shouldn’t drink, 4 out of 10 parents did not list brain health.

“Parents are the most powerful influence in kids’ decisions not to drink alcohol underage,” says Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, the survey sponsor. “Past research demonstrates that when conversations between parents and kids about alcohol go up, underage drinking rates go down, but there is more that can be done to improve the effectiveness of these conversations.”

Experts like Blackman would like to see parents starting the conversation about underage drinking earlier, and they’d like them to continue the conversation as the child matures. Parents should begin the conversation before children are afforded an opportunity to drink alcohol, which means having that first conversation when a child is around 10 years old. By age 14, many children have already been offered a drink.

Does this mean that most children have been offered a drink by age 15? “No, not necessarily,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, family physician and youth development expert, who serves on the Ask, Listen, Learn education advisory board. “In fact, the overwhelming majority of kids this age have not tried alcohol. but as kids transition from middle school to high school, their chances of participating in underage drinking increase. According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, 23 percent of 8th graders have reported drinking alcohol in their lifetime, which increases to 42 percent in 10th grade and 62 percent in 12th grade.

“While there is still work to be done, these numbers have significantly decreased since 1991, partly due to an increase in parent/child conversations around underage drinking. Ideally, parents should discuss the dangers of alcohol, including the impact of alcohol on the developing brain, early and often with their kids, so they truly understand the risks and can feel confident in saying no if approached with an opportunity to drink,” says Gilboa.

But some parents aren’t speaking to their children about alcohol at all. One in four parents surveyed said they either didn’t speak to their children about underage drinking, or can’t recall whether or not they had that talk. That’s a shame: children need to know about these things, about alcohol and its effects. Children are open, moreover, to hearing about what underage drinking can do to them, not just in the short-term, but over time. Learning the facts of what alcohol can do to their developing brains, appears to deter them from ever wanting to try alcohol in the first place, according to the experts.

The upshot: It’s great that more parents are having conversations about underage drinking with their kids, but experts wish they’d put a different spin on these talks, and speak about brain health as being the most important reason to avoid alcohol. “Create a foundation for these conversations with kids by answering their questions simply and clearly at any age, and actively discuss this topic by age nine or ten. At this time, kids are becoming very curious about their growing bodies and brains and are open to learning about how alcohol can impact both.

“Adolescence includes critical phases in brain development. The area of the brain that controls reasoning—helps us think before we act—matures later in the third decade of life. The sooner that parents speak with their children about the dangers of drinking alcohol underage, the better,” says Dr. Gilboa.

Survey Methodology

The Lifetime of Conversations study was conducted online with GfK’s Omnibus, using the web-enabled “KnowledgePanel,” a probability-based tool designed to represent the U.S. general population, not just the online population. The study consisted of 1,000 nationally representative interviews conducted between November 10 and 12, 2017 among adults aged 18+ with at least one child between ages 10 and 17. The margin of error is +/-3 percentage points for the full sample.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!
 

[1] Responsibility.org, Wirthlin Worldwide National Quorum, May, 2003

Social Difficulties of Autism Improved with Anti-Cancer Drug

Social difficulties may be the painful behavioral symptom we most associate with autism. But what if there were a drug that could correct this symptom and make it easier for people with autism to socialize? It seems that there may indeed be such a drug, according to the newest autism research published March 12, 2008. Researchers at the University of Buffalo found that brief treatment with very small doses of an anti-cancer drug, romidepsin, not only improved social skills in animals with autism, but that the effects lasted long-term.

Until now, it seemed impossible that such a drug could exist, let alone that a single such drug could be enough to make a difference. Now, however, there is evidence that the behavioral symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), can be improved by targeting groups of genes known to be involved in the disorder. In this study, mice missing the gene known as Shank 3 (the absence of which is a significant risk factor for ASD), were given a three-day, small-dose treatment with the anti-cancer drug, and the effects lasted a full three weeks.

Why is a three-weeks-long reprieve from social deficits (deficiencies) considered a triumph? Well, we’re talking mice here, not humans. In mice, three weeks is a long time, and spans childhood through late adolescence, a crucial time for developing communication and social skills. Three weeks in mice is the equivalent of several years in a human. Which is why the UB researchers believe that the effects of this brief, low-dose treatment may last many years in people with autism.

“We have discovered a small molecule compound that shows a profound and prolonged effect on autism-like social deficits without obvious side effects, while many currently used compounds for treating a variety of psychiatric diseases have failed to exhibit the therapeutic efficacy for this core symptom of autism,” said Zhen Yan, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo, and senior author for this study.

Shank 3 and Social Deficits

This new research trial actually builds on earlier work dating back to 2015. At that time, researchers found that the missing Shank 3 messes up communication between neurons in the brain by affecting the function of a brain receptor known as NMDA (n-methyl-D-aspartate), a crucial factor in the regulation of cognition and emotion. Without Shank 3, the brain has difficulty understanding social cues. This results in the social skills difficulties that are common to those with autism.

In the latest study, UB scientists discovered that a very low dose of romidepsin could reverse these social deficits by restoring gene expression and function. Romidepsin works through epigenetics, which serve as a sort of on/off switch for genes. Dr. Yan notes that human genetics research suggests that epigenetic impairment plays a big role in autism. A number of genetic mutations seen in autism, explains Yan, are due to chromatin remodeling factors, which change the structure of chromatin, gene material contained in the cell nucleus that condenses into chromosomes.

“The extensive overlap in risk genes for autism and cancer, many of which are chromatin remodeling factors, supports the idea of repurposing epigenetic drugs used in cancer treatment as targeted treatments for autism,” said Yan.

Social Deficits/Missing Genes

The researcher and her team knew that chromatin regulators were crucial to treating the social difficulties of ASD, but the problem was how to target many of them at one time. “Autism involves the loss of so many genes,” explained Yan. “To rescue the social deficits, a compound has to affect a number of genes that are involved in neuronal communication.”

Yan and her colleagues decided to look at histone modifiers, a type of chromatin remodeler that modify proteins called histones. Histones help to organize the genetic material in the nucleus so that gene expression can be regulated. The UB reseachers knew that a histone modifier might be effective in targeting the many genes that are altered in autism.

Loosening Up (Those Social Skills)

The scientists focused on histone deacetylase (HDAC), a class of histone modifiers that play a critical role in remodeling chromatin structure regulating transcription in targeted genes. “In the autism model, HDAC2 is abnormally high, which makes the chromatin in the nucleus very tight, preventing genetic material from accessing the transcriptional machinery it needs to be expressed,” said Yan. “Once HDAC2 is upregulated, it diminishes genes that should not be suppressed, and leads to behavioral changes, such as the autism-like social deficits.”

As the researchers found, however, the anti-cancer drug romidepsin, suppresses HDAC, turning down the volume on the HDAC2, which allowed those genes needed for signaling between the neurons, to do their thing. “The HDAC inhibitor loosens up the densely packed chromatin so that the transcriptional machinery gains access to the promoter area of the genes; thus they can be expressed,” said Yan.

Lo and behold, Yan and team found that romidepsin rescued gene expression across the board, targeting all the risk factors/altered genes at once. In fact, when Yan and her co-authors mapped it all out, they saw that romidepsin restored function in most of the more than 200 genes that are suppressed in the autism animal model used by the researchers.

“The advantage of being able to adjust a set of genes identified as key autism risk factors may explain the strong and long-lasting efficacy of this therapeutic agent for autism.” Yan explained.

How Long A Wait??

The scientist and her research team plan to continue looking into autism treatment drugs. Parents of children with autism, meanwhile, can only wonder how long it will be until romidepsin will be authorized as a safe treatment for human beings. The wait is bound to be long and painful.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Journal Reference:

  1. Luye Qin, Kaijie Ma, Zi-Jun Wang, Zihua Hu, Emmanuel Matas, Jing Wei, Zhen Yan. Social deficits in Shank3-deficient mouse models of autism are rescued by histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitionNature Neuroscience, 2018; DOI: 1038/s41593-018-0110-8

University at Buffalo. (2018, March 12). Autism’s social deficits are reversed by an anti-cancer drug: Using an epigenetic mechanism, romidepsin restored gene expression and alleviated social deficits in animal models of autism. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 20, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180312201647.htm

How Should Kids Brush Their Teeth?

How should kids brush their teeth and when should they begin? The simple answer is that the minute that first pearly white tooth pops out of your baby’s gums, it’s time to begin brushing. At first, use a very soft brush and some water. Later on, at around 18 months, use a pea-sized glob of fluoride toothpaste. After the age of seven, children can be trusted to brush their own teeth, with a bit of supervision from parents.

No parent can doubt the importance of a child’s teeth. Teeth help children eat and speak and support the bones in their faces so they look nice. But teeth don’t take care of themselves. If children don’t brush their teeth, plaque can form in a thin coating on the teeth. Plaque (PLACK), is a sticky, thin film of bacteria that attaches itself to the teeth.

The preferred food of the bacteria in plaque is sugar. That may be the sugar in a piece of candy or a glass of soda pop, or it may be the sugars that develop from the carbohydrates we eat, for instance noodles, grains, and potatoes. Any time children eat starchy or sweet carbohydrates, they feed the bacteria on their teeth. As bacteria interact with starches and sugars, they turn into acids. These acids burn their way through children’s tooth enamel, making the holes in their teeth that we call cavities.

Mother brushes little girl's teeth

Brush Their Teeth: Gums, Too!

The bacteria in children’s mouths don’t just cause cavities. They also attack children’s gums. If kids don’t brush to remove the bacteria-filled plaque in their mouths, they may end up with gingivitis (jin-ja-VIE-tis), or gum disease. Gum disease not only looks and feels bad, giving children sore, swollen, red gums, but can also cause tooth loss. Gums, after all, are the tissues that hold and support the teeth inside the mouth.

Children should brush their teeth twice a day, after eating breakfast and again before bed. It doesn’t hurt to brush after lunch and after having a snack, too. It is brushing the teeth that removes plaque from children’s teeth, keeping them and their gums, healthy.

Cute little boy brushes his teeth

All of the teeth should be brushed, and not just those in the front. If children can think of their mouths as having four parts or quadrants, it makes it easier to cover all of them. Spend 30 seconds brushing each section of the mouth, beginning at the back and working toward the front, front and back of each section, gums and teeth, for a total of two minutes of brushing altogether.

Angle the brush 45 degree toward the gums from the upper and lower teeth. Move the brush back and forth using short strokes along teeth and gums, making sure to cover all the teeth and gums, front and back. Make sure the tip of the brush is upright when brushing behind the front teeth, both top and bottom.

Don’t forget to brush the tongue, too! Plaque sticks to tongues as well as teeth.

Brush Their Teeth: Two Minutes

It can help to play a 2-minute song as children brush, or to have them sing one in their heads. When the song is over, they’re done brushing! Alternatively, parents can use a two-minute hourglass to help children keep track of how long they should brush their teeth. Some battery-operated or electric toothbrushes have a built-in timer, and will vibrate when it’s time for the child to move along to the next quadrant.

Make sure to use a toothbrush with soft bristles. Get a new one every three months. Some toothbrushes have bristles that turn pale when it’s time to change to a new brush.

If children become sick with a cold or the flu, buy a new toothbrush once the child is recovered. It’s a good idea to have several spare soft-bristled toothbrushes on hand in the home for this purpose. Buy a bunch when they go on sale.

Brush Their Teeth: Floss ‘Em, Too!

Floss your child’s teeth as soon as there are two teeth that touch. Do this once a day. Slip the floss between the teeth to remove food that gets trapped between the teeth, where a toothbrush cannot reach.

To floss, take a strand of floss between thumb and index finger, wrapping the floss around a finger at each end of the strand for good control. Insert the floss gently and curve it around each tooth, sliding it up and down along the insides of the teeth and just below the gum line. Use a new section of the floss for each two teeth, so as not to transfer plaque from one tooth to the next.

Even when children do a great job brushing and flossing, it’s important to have their teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist (hi-JEN- 7i ist) or dentist twice a year. A professional cleaning gets the plaque we might miss, even with the best of efforts. The dentist or hygienist can also give children tips on better techniques to use when they brush their teeth.

Red-headed brothers get a lesson in tooth brushing from bearded dentist

Limit sweets and starches to starve plaque of its favorite source of nourishment!

Brush Their Teeth: Water or Toothpaste?

You can begin using fluoride toothpaste for a child of 18 months, using a pea-sized dab on a water-dampened soft-bristled toothbrush. Children should be cautioned not to swallow toothpaste when brushing. Make sure that children spit the foamy mess of toothpaste and loosened plaque out into the sink.

Children can rinse their mouths out with water, after they brush0 their teeth. This gives them more practice at spitting!

Brush Their Teeth: Infants

An infant’s teeth should be brushed with a soft-bristled toothbrush moistened with water.

For an infant or very young child, hold the child in your lap, facing away from you, or stand behind a young child. The head should be tilted back so you can see the teeth. Brush their teeth gently with a circular motion, angling the bristles toward the gums.

Infant has his teeth brushed

It’s important to make tooth-brushing a fun time for parent and child, in order to avoid a situation where the child fusses and fights when it comes time to brush their teeth. You want the child to develop good dental hygiene habits right from the beginning. That’s the best way to prevent painful cavities and expensive dental work.

Let your child see you brushing your own teeth, night and day. Doing so sends a message to your child that this is something that everyone does and that it’s important.

Brush Their Teeth: Make it Fun!

Make tooth-brushing a fun time by gargling noisily or trying to sing songs as children brush their teeth. Roll your eyes and make faces at your child as the two of you brush your teeth together! Tell jokes. Do whatever you can to reinforce the idea that brushing teeth is fun and represents quality parent-child time.

Think of keeping your child’s teeth clean as having the same importance as wearing a seat belt in a car, or putting on sunscreen. If you feel this way, your child will come to feel this way, too.

If you can’t find a toothpaste your child likes, have children brush their teeth with plain water. Your child will still get the benefits of brushing.

How do you make brushing fun?

How do you keep kids from fussing at tooth-brushing time?

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Roots of Empathy: Can Babies Heal Bullies?

Can spending time with a baby prevent bullying? One school program, Roots of Empathy, brings babies and their moms into classrooms. And research suggests that participating classrooms show a reduction in bullying and aggressive behavior.

Is it really just that simple? What is the exact nature of the Roots of Empathy program, and how can we reproduce these results in our own children’s classrooms? Because even one child bullied, is one child too many.

Roots of Empathy has developed a research-based school program for primary school children in which the teaching tools consist, in the main, of a local baby and parent. The program has spread across Canada and to 10 other countries, as well. More than 800,000 children have experienced the program since the nonprofit’s founding, in 1996. Roots of Empathy Founder Mary Gordon, says the long-term goal of the program is to build a “more caring, peaceful, and civil society, where everybody feels a sense of belonging.”

The Roots of Empathy program has local parents volunteering themselves and their babies, coming every few weeks to classrooms, so that children can witness a baby’s vulnerability and development over time. Gordon says she started the program because she wanted to find a way to help children talk about their feelings. “Roots of empathy is a bit of a trick. We use a baby to help children find the vulnerability and humanity in this little baby so that then you can flip it back to their own experiences.

“They realize this sudden universe of ‘everybody in the world feels the same as me. We’re not so disconnected.’

“It’s very hard to hate someone if you realize they feel like you. It’s very hard to be bullying someone if you realize that.”

Lisa Bahar, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California, explains that the goal of the Roots of Empathy program goal is to realize that “we” are all the same, “in the sense of wanting to belong, to be loved and cared about. This kind of unique vehicle of bringing a baby into the classroom is what I consider a wonderful way to allow children to relate to someone who is nonthreatening, and who can give a young person the awareness of true connection to other human beings. This creates empathy, sympathy and compassion,” says Bahar.

But is this really something we need to have in our classrooms? Shouldn’t parents be teaching empathy at home? “If we are educating children who can read well and compute well but can’t relate well, we will have a failed society. Learning how to relate to one another requires empathy. You have to understand how the other fella feels,” says Mary Gordon.

Can It Heal A Bully?

Can the Roots of Empathy program help turn around a child who is already a bully? Bahar says yes. “Spending time with a baby activates the senses as we observe the eyes, the responses, the touch, and the expressions of the baby. These sensory impressions can be internalized and experienced through the baby. The pathology that exists within the bully will fight to resist the impact of these sensory lessons, the insight will nonetheless be gained, as the child experiences a sense of connection to another living being,” says Bahar.

Studies from 2000 onward, confirm that the Roots of Empathy program is effective, reducing bullying and aggression over the course of the school year and over time, in general. Children who take part in the program have an increased sense of positivity about the classroom environment. They feel more of a sense of belonging and acceptance. Students are also more likely to engage in “pro-social” behavior, for instance sharing with and helping their peers, and including them in their activities. Perhaps most important of all, the program appears to reduce fighting among classmates by 50 percent, on average. This is notable, since in general, classroom squabbles tend to increase over the course of the school year.

Roots of Empathy and the Root Cause of Bullying

But Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV, says that as a method of targeting bullies, Roots of Empathy misses the mark. “Roots of Empathy is a truly wonderful and beautiful program that by bringing a baby into the classroom teaches school age children about human relatedness, reading/understanding emotions, and human-to-human engagement. However, they missed the mark for targeting prevention of bullying. Clearly, the creators do not fully understand the root cause of all bullies,” says Walfish, who explains, “All bullies carry a secret that they, personally, have been the target of bullying, mistreatment, and mishandling by someone important within their family. That important someone is usually their father or mother, and in less frequent instances, an older sibling. Often, the mistreatment is abusive—emotionally or physically.

“The child who is the victim in his own family cannot ‘hold’ or contain the hostility and rage, and thus becomes the bully. He goes to school or out into the world and looks for an easy target. Then, he expels his hostilities onto another innocent victim.  It is a vicious cycle,” says Walfish, suggesting that playing with a baby is just not going to cut it, not going to stop that cycle, and is certainly not going to prevent that cycle from occurring in the first place.

Erin Clabough, PhD, a neurobiologist and author of Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control  (December 2018, Sounds True Publishing) sees Roots of Empathy program as, at the very least, a valuable tool in developing empathy, even among bullies. “Being a bully doesn’t mean you are pathological. Everyone can be a bully if they are placed in the wrong kind of situation. Part of our role as parents is to put our kids in roles where they can experience healthy things and feel how rewarding they are. Roots of Empathy is an incredible program that works to increase social awareness in kids and its effectiveness is supported by lots of peer-reviewed studies.”

But according to Clabough, the Roots of Empathy program isn’t enough. “Bringing a baby into the classroom to decrease the incidence of bullying in a school is a great start. But if that’s all we do, it will make as much meaningful change in a person as playing with a puppy for the afternoon. It’s a cute stress-reliever, a great wake-up call, and you can certainly learn a lot about nonverbal emotional communication from a baby, but these kids also need to practice cross-age relationships in an ongoing way.”

Buddy System

Clabough suggests that the buddy system is a great way to provide this sort of relationship practice and provides a means to build on the Roots of Empathy program. “Having a buddy in lower grades that kids see once a week is a great way to do this through the school setting, as is providing older mentors (for example, an 8th grader mentoring a 6th grader new to middle school). Our elementary school (Free Union Country School, in the Charlottesville, Virginia area) does a great job with this—every child in grades 2-5 has a smaller buddy in grades PreK-1. The buddy partnerships change each year, and as the children advance through school, they look forward to the time when they can finally be the big buddy,” says Clabough.

The practical benefits of the buddy system, suggests Clabough, are broad. “This buddy system normalizes having friends of different ages, it allows kids to grow meaningful connections to individuals outside their normal social groups, it creates a broader sense of belonging, and it strengthens every kid’s support network. Perhaps most importantly, it gives kids a chance to practice empathy through both teaching and looking at things from a different person’s perspective,” says Clabough, a mother of four, who concedes that, “The Roots of Empathy program has other components that are worth exploring.”

After the Florida Mass Shooting: PTSD in Teens

Can just listening to the news and viewing disturbing images cause PTSD in teens? This is a question some parents are asking in the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High school, in Parkland Florida. These parents wonder if their teenagers’ sleeplessness, nightmares, and frightening thoughts are more than just strong but temporary reactions to the news. The answer is a definite yes: if your teen is experiencing such symptoms, it could be posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and your child should be seen by a mental health professional.

Florida Mass Shooting

Perhaps thought you’d done as good a job as any parent might do in explaining the awful news coming out of Florida to your teen, but here it is, two weeks later, and your child still can’t get through the night without waking up drenched in sweat and shaking. Is this a genuine mental health issue or is it something that will pass with the healing qualities of time? What should you be doing to support your teen?

Dr. Robin Goodman of A Caring Hand, a nonprofit that specializes in helping children cope with bereavement, confirms that even teens outside of Florida can experience posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the mass shooting, “We do know that direct physical exposure (witnessing the event or being there) or emotional exposure (knowing someone who was injured or who died) as well as indirect exposure (seeing and reading about the event in the news and on social media) can impact teens and lead to trauma reactions,” says Goodman.

Knowing that teens even far from Parkland can suffer emotional trauma from the fallout of the mass shooting is one thing. But what are the symptoms of PTSD in teens? What should parents be watching for?

Jessica Tappana, of the Aspiring trauma counseling center, says that teens can be impacted by PTSD every bit as much as adults. The difference is that teens may hesitate to reach out to the adults in their lives for help. That means that their parents may not even know their children are struggling. And not all of the complicated feelings teens may experience after a mass shooting like the one in Florida can be labeled as posttraumatic stress disorder.

Healthy Response

“In the immediate aftermath of the traumatic shooting, it is normal to expect youth to be shaken and more anxious. Certainly students returning to Stoneman Douglas this week are going to feel anxious, but youth across the country who have watched the news coverage of Stoneman Douglas and the many “copycat” threats since are experiencing anxiety as well. Some of this nervousness is a normal response to the trauma.

“In the weeks following the trauma, you can expect teens to be processing this anxiety and talking about the trauma; their personal experiences; and their reactions. This is their way of trying to make sense of the experience, and facing their emotions about the situation is actually a healthy response,” says Tappana.

Teens protest the Parkland, Florida mass shooting in TallahasseeSo when does a teenager’s reaction to the traumatic school shooting become an issue of concern?  When do you seek professional help? “If time goes on and your child’s anxiety about the shooting is impacting his or her ability to function, you may want to seek professional help. PTSD develops when the brain doesn’t heal from the trauma and instead sees danger around every corner,” explains Tappana.

“Teens developing PTSD might be avoiding situations that remind them of the school shooting (i.e. school, the news, etc). They may be thinking about the shooting constantly or even having nightmares.

“For teens who were at Stoneman Douglas or who have attended another school where there was a threat, there may be ‘flashbacks’ where it feels like they’re experiencing the threat all over again.  Withdrawing or reacting to everyday situations in an extreme manner can also indicate a problem.

Wait Three Months?

“Traditionally, mental health professionals wait until about three months after a trauma to diagnose PTSD. That said, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Speak to a mental health professional regarding whether counseling might help children process their reactions to the shooting. This is especially true if children’s concerns are interfering with their ability to feel safe at school, interact with peers, or otherwise function on a day-to-day basis,” says Tappana.

Dr. Sal Raichbach of the Ambrosia Treatment Center cautions parents that PTSD isn’t just something that happens to soldiers, “When we think of PTSD, we often think of active soldiers or veterans who have seen wartime and are plagued with flashbacks from the battlefield. But PTSD is a lot closer to home than we think. Any traumatic event can trigger PTSD, from abuse in the household to a school shooting, like the one we’ve witnessed in Florida,” says Raichbach.

But that doesn’t mean that teens are going to experience PTSD the same way as those in the military, or war veterans. “PTSD in children usually differs from that seen in adults, and teens fall somewhere in the middle. Kids tend to reenact their trauma during play or watch for signs that the trauma will recur and try to prevent that from happening. Teens, on the other hand, will often show more aggressive behavior and potentially engage in self-harm or use drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.”

Unprocessed Trauma

Why do teens experience symptoms of PTSD after incidents like the mass shooting in Florida? “PTSD is the body and mind’s response to unprocessed trauma. When trauma is processed properly, with enough expression either through shaking in the body, through crying, or through the expression of rage and fear, it becomes ‘resolved.’ This means the body and mind won’t be haunted by the experience forever, which might lead to nightmares, chronic and constant fear, and the feeling of being perpetually unsafe,” says psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz.

Why do teens outside of Florida experience PTSD? It may be because of the extensive and inescapable media coverage of the event. “Research from 9/11 has shown that people can develop PTSD just from watching a traumatic event on television over and over again. Teens have been fascinated by this school shooting more than others because the distressed students have continued to speak out,” explains Dr. Carole Lieberman, author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How To Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror, who adds that the most important thing parents can do to help kids with PTSD is to acknowledge their reactions to the event as understandable. “It is important to talk about what happened and to get them to express their feelings about what happened. Ask them if they’re worried that this will happen at their school. Ask if they know anyone who they think has angry feelings and might be ready to explode like Nikolas Cruz. Ask if they know any classmate who has guns. Ask if they themselves sometimes get angry feelings that make them fantasize about hurting people or hurting themselves.

“If they have feelings about hurting others or themselves, get them into therapy. Also, if their symptoms of PTSD don’t resolve on their own in a month, get them into therapy,” says Lieberman.

Practical Tips

Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV offers the following practical tips for parents:

  • Before injecting too much information into your teen, first ask “What did you hear?”
  • Listen not only to what your teens say, but also pay attention to what they do.
  • Emphasize to your teen “You are safe.” Explain details of the measures schools have already taken to reinforce safety, for instance locking school doors and practicing emergency lockdown drills.
  • A senseless school shooting at their school or anywhere else can make teens (and adults) feel powerless. Give your teen a sense of control by suggesting she write a letter send it to a surviving child or family affected by a school shooting. Or offer to help your teen have a bake sale so she might send the proceeds to the families. These actions are proactive and also offer your teen an opportunity to feel helpful and giving.
  • Limit exposure to TV news, online broadcasts, and social media. Repeated exposure to the violent stories and graphic pictures can re-traumatize your teen.

What if you can’t tell whether your teen is experiencing PTSD or just normal teenage angst? “In my opinion, parents are the first line of defense against mental illness in children. They interact with their children more than anyone else, so they are usually the first to observe signs and symptoms. If you know your child or teen has experienced a traumatic event, talk to them and keep an eye out for any further signs of PTSD,” says Raichbach.

Dr. Goodman adds that teens aren’t the only ones affected by the mass shooting at the school in Parkland, Florida. “Parents must take care of themselves and get their own support so they can best support their teens.”

ADHD Symptoms: ADHD or Sleep Deprivation?

ADHD symptoms can sometimes be a sign of simple sleep deprivation. That’s the upshot of the discussion at a recent conference in Paris. Psychiatric researchers presented a roundup of the data that suggests that sleep and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are linked. Some of the experts, however, remain unconvinced that such a connection exists. Instead, they say the ADHD symptoms we see in sleep-deprived children only mimic the symptoms of ADHD. What we’re really seeing, say these dissenting experts, may be a sleep disorder.

That’s important, because the upward increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD is striking. We need to know if it’s possible we’re not seeing ADHD after all, but something altogether different. If it’s not ADHD and we treat the symptoms with drugs, we may not be addressing the root cause, and may even be making things worse. Especially since some medications for ADHD, for instance, Ritalin, can make it difficult for children to sleep.

“If adults don’t get enough sleep, they’ll appear sleepy,” says Dr. Syed Naqvi, a pediatric sleep expert at UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute and Children’s Health. “Children don’t do that. They show ADHD-like behavior instead—hyperactive or inattentive.”

Dr. Naqvi says he sees lots of children in his practice who have been diagnosed with ADHD whose behavior doesn’t respond to medication. What they really need is sleep. Once the issue of quality and duration of sleep is treated, the symptoms improve.

ADHD Symptoms from Ritalin

Naqvi has seen the occasional case where ADHD medication was the actual source of the sleep problem. In other words: these kids with ADHD symptoms didn’t actually have ADHD. They were exhibiting the symptoms of ADHD because they needed better and more sleep. And the drugs they were given for their ADHD symptoms exacerbated their sleep issues and caused them to be even more symptomatic. They needed sleep, not Ritalin.

Dr. Preston Wiles, an ADHD expert with the O’Donnell Brain Institute, agrees that the rise in the number of children taking medications for ADHD symptoms is “concerning.” Wiles says the increase in pediatric prescriptions for ADHD medications is due, in large measure, to the fact that there are so few clinicians who are qualified to render an accurate diagnosis of ADHD. Many of the “experts” prescribing these medications have little understanding of child behavior.

“Pills can be a poor substitute for taking the time to truly understand what is going on with behavior,” Dr. Wiles says.

Little Girl wearily rubbing her eyes
ADHD symptoms or just plum tuckered out?

Kars4Kids spoke with Dr. Naqvi to find out more about why children aren’t getting enough quality sleep and what parents can do to help:

Kars4Kids: What is the impact of technology, for instance, kids texting friends at night and the exposure to bright screens, on our children’s quality and quantity of sleep?

Dr. Syed Naqvi: Using technology in the bed with blue light-emitting screens or socializing at that time results in increased arousal and stimulation of the brain that should actually be winding down time in preparation for sleep. Such technology use frequently results in an artificial delay in sleep, causing inadequate sleep which in turn, impacts on daytime alertness.

Kars4Kids: What can parents do to improve a child’s quantity and quality of sleep?

Dr. Syed Naqvi: Parents should make sure there is a consistent routine for bedtime for the whole family with dimmer lights and a quiet environment, and allowing for age-appropriate sleep time and duration. Control the use of technology an hour before bedtime, and limit caffeine or sugary drinks intake from late in the afternoon. Younger children should go to sleep earlier, teenagers a little later.

Kars4Kids: Is it safe and/or effective to give children melatonin to help improve quantity and quality of sleep?

Dr. Syed Naqvi: Normal children do not need any sleep aid. Melatonin in small amounts may be used in select cases and is generally safe. Discuss the issue with a sleep specialist for a persistent sleep difficulty or any other need for using melatonin.

Mother showing tired boy with ADHD symptoms that it's time to go to bed
Is he exhibiting ADHD symptoms? He may just need more sleep.

Dr. Naqvi also offers a few tips to help parents figure out whether sleep disturbances may be affecting their children’s behavior:

  • Watch for signs of breathing problems, for instance snoring or short intervals where breathing is halted. If you see possible signs of breathing problems, have your child evaluated by a sleep expert.
  • Measure the duration of nighttime sleep the child is getting and monitor any daytime sleepiness.
  • Monitor your children’s school performance and seek help if things don’t improve after starting on ADHD medications.