Two themes stand out when I reflect on autism research in 2013.
First, there was substantial debate about how we diagnose autism, primarily spurred by changes introduced in DSM-5 (which was published in May). The reformulation of the diagnostic criteria – which led to a discontinuation of the category of Asperger Syndrome in favor of a broad-based category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – spurred concerns that many youth would no longer qualify for a diagnosis and hence have their intervention options limited. Others suggested that more precise diagnostic criteria are needed to ensure that ASD does not get overdiagnosed. While we await empirical resolution via publication of well-designed studies, it’s clear that the DSM-5 debate will stand out as an important time in which we wrestled (again) with the best way to be inclusive in diagnosis without expanding diagnostic criteria too broadly.
Second, we are seeing more research on the early diagnosis of ASD, or at least detection of early warning signs, using methods like tracking eye movements of babies when looking at a human face. While this line of work will need to continue to refine the validity and feasibility of the approach – particularly when studying infants – it is an intriguing approach that may eventually have important implications for delivering interventions in the first year of life. Given the proven utility of early intervention, the hope is that the earliest interventions may hold the most promise for promoting development.
Wherever these research directions take us, we know for sure that early detection and intervention is essential. That’s one message that has not changed in 2013.
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As we mark the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, it is a salient time to consider the substantial public health challenges that were raised by that tragedy – and that still remain. Three are most prominent.
School safety is an ever-present concern. Although no school can eliminate the potential for a tragedy, strides are being made at many schools across the country to put into place practices and technologies to keep children as safe as possible. It has been suggested that 90% of school systems have made some type of concrete change to improve school safety in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy. Lock down drills have become a reality for children, practiced with the regularity and acceptance of a fire drill. Teachers and administrators are trained to know how to react in the event of an attack and how to best try to secure the safety of their students.
Some schools have video surveillance systems in place that are monitored for potentially suspicious activity. Schools may have changed their policies concerning entry at different times of the day. And at some schools there is a police presence or security guards in place. Yet these types of changes will undoubtedly need to be evaluated, and potentially evolve over time. It does appear, however, that that sad and startling day at Sandy Hook Elementary promoted a nearly universal awareness that no school can be assumed to be safe – and that every school needs to take a comprehensive approach to trying to best ensure their students’ safety.
Gun control – always a polarizing topic – remains a hotly contested issue in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. There have been some actions to promote gun control in some states, and some reactions to ensure gun owner’s rights in other states. As the swinging pendulum of gun control plays out across the country – evidenced by the current swirl of debate surrounding how access to firearms should be regulated – what remains most clear is that we are no where close to coming up with a focused effort to reduce the likelihood of someone with a gun entering a school and killing children and adults. Most influential – and sobering and inspiring – has been the efforts of Sandy Hook parents to promote a ‘cultural change campaign’ to properly orient our attention on violence prevention, particularly gun violence aimed at our children. It is hoped that this effort will inspire a change in our collective mindset that will do away with the philosophical rhetoric about the pros and cons of gun control and gun rights and focus instead on ways to prevent gun violence from permeating our schools.
Mental health remains another core public health issue that has been illuminated by the Sandy Hook massacre. We have yet to get a good handle – at the most public level – on the burdens faced by those with mental illness, the importance of properly recognizing and treating those who suffer, and the myths and realities about the risk posed to society by some individuals. What can be stated with confidence is that despite the substantial progress made over the last few decades in the identification and treatment of mental illness, we simply need much more support for research and intervention.
This unfortunately comes at a time when our national finances are such that research funding has been cut dramatically over the last few years. We just witnessed a government shutdown that kept scientists away from doing their work. Deciphering the inner workings of the brain, the effects of genes on development, and the impact of a multitude of environmental factors that convey risk for mental illness is a task of extraordinary complexity. Bringing sustainable, evidence-based interventions to those in the population who need them is a daunting undertaking. Until we grasp how important this effort is, and embrace how much financial support it will take, we may find ourselves wondering and debating if a future shooting could have been prevented via advances in knowledge and practice.
Although these three public health challenges remain, it is good to know that they are at least not being dismissed or are fading away. We may eventually look back on that horrific day at Sandy Hook Elementary as a turning point and catalyst for making real and sustainable progress in our efforts to keep children safe in school.
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Joe Biden Answers Your Gun Safety Questions
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When discussing the 4 types of sibling relationships, the unique profile of siblings who have high levels of both positivity and negativity in their relationship was flagged. Why is this group particularly salient to researchers who study siblings? Because they are more likely to get in trouble – together.
The idea was formalized decades ago by the late Dr. David Rowe. He was studying twins and examining their similarity for delinquent behavior during the teen years. He found that twins were very much alike in this regard – if one twin was getting into trouble, the other twin was likely to do so as well. But the key observation was that this similarity was not due to genetics – something the twin design gets at by comparing identical and fraternal twins. Similarity for DNA didn’t matter much. What mattered was how much time the twins spent together, and if they had common friends.
Now of course just spending time together with a sibling doesn’t promote delinquency. Over the years, research has shown that the combination of both high positivity – hanging out, having fun, having common friends – and high negativity – fighting, arguing – signals the possibility of rule breaking behavior in the teen years. Observational research shows how this can happen. These sibs end up laughing and fighting at the same time – and they end up enjoying and reinforcing each other’s negative behaviors (one hits, the other laughs, hits back, they laugh). Getting into trouble becomes fun. Other studies show how this becomes a mechanism by which an older sibling introduces a younger sibling to substances at very early ages – ages which are problematic. These influences are most prominent when sibs are closer in age (typically within a few years) – but the principle applies to both brothers and sisters (so it’s not just limited to boys).
So what’s a parent to do? How do you know if what’s going on is just part of the complex sib relationship – or the foundation for legal difficulties in the teen years? A few things to keep in mind. First, maintain good limit setting and monitoring – sibs can join forces and undermine parental efforts. Second, don’t let the negative get out of hand in the early years. Just because it’s normative for sibs to argue and fight now and then doesn’t mean it should define their relationship – it becomes habit and carries over to other social relationships. Third, keep an eye on what the older sib is introducing to the younger sib – no 12-year-old should be exposed to drinking or substances.
While sibling relationship features don’t guarantee developmental pathways, having insight into the ways in which the sibling bond can lead to problem behaviors.
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This guest post by Dr. Claire Elizabeth Cameron breaks down the take-home messages on how dads contribute to early child development.
Most of the research on parenting has focused on moms. But a recent review of the literature – specifically a meta-analysis of almost two dozen studies of father involvement during early childhood – illustrates the specific parenting features by which dads have a positive influence on their kid’s development in the early years.
During the years from 3 to 8, how much time dads spent with their kids, as well as how positively (or negatively) they interacted with them, related to how children performed on cognitive, social, and behavioral assessments. In fact, fathers made the greatest relative contribution to their children’s social and self-control skills, compared to cognitive skills.
Features of “positive dad parenting” are consistent with generally effective parenting, and include:
- Spending time together
- Expressing warmth to your child
- Providing support for your child’s learning without controlling too much, or being overbearing
- Setting appropriate limits and consistently enforcing those limits, without harshly punishing your child
Spending time together…sharing warm moments…all dads want those things. But what if your youngster is unruly, obstinate, or just plain hard to get along with? The researchers on this study acknowledge that rather than involved dads producing better behaved kids, it is just as likely that well-behaved, self-controlled children are easier for fathers to spend time with. Yet beyond this “chicken or egg” question is a clear message: early childhood is a critical time for dads to engage with their offspring.
So, Dads – what to do if your child makes it difficult to share enjoyable moments together?
First, think about what could be motivating your son or daughter’s undesirable behavior. Rarely are children deliberately trying to irritate you when they act out. Instead, he or she could be tired, hungry, or looking for some attention but not be able to ask in a more productive way. If you figure out what’s really behind the pouts or whines, it’s like playing offense instead of defense.
Second, try to model the behaviors that you want to see in your child. Want a child who can keep their temper in check? Try deep breathing or taking a moment of “time out” if you yourself become angry. Show your child the power of earning a reward (like a treat or a favorite TV program) by setting goals for yourself and indulging only after you’ve met the goals, rather than whenever you feel like it.
Third, doing just one thing at a time can make whatever you are doing more enjoyable, and this includes interacting with your child. So, for some meaningful one-on-one time, put the cell phone and video games on the shelf and find something active or creative for the two of you to do together.
Fourth, when in doubt, go easy on yourself. In this study, simply spending time together was as important for children’s behavior as cultivating specific, positive interactions that take lots of energy. So if you are exhausted at the end of a long day, just bring your child along as you relax in your regular routine. Your child will appreciate the time with you.
Claire Elizabeth Cameron is a Research Scientist with expertise in early childhood development at the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). She received BAs in Honors Psychology and Italian, a MS in Developmental Psychology, and a PhD in Education and Psychology from the University of Michigan before completing a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Institute for Education Sciences at CASTL.
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Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy
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Toddlers, kids, tweens, and teens may pose unique parenting challenges – but there are some principles that apply across all those developmental periods that help promote good, compliant, social behavior. There are 2 constructs that have been shown in research to be key parenting strategies. They are:
1) Limit Setting. Every toddler, tween, and teen needs limit setting. They need to know their boundaries and how to respect them. Some things are off-limits. Some behaviors are not acceptable. Think of providing clear, consistent rules that make sense. A toddler can’t run around and touch every thing they want in a store. A tween can’t talk back to a parent disrespectfully. A teen can’t stay out all night. You can come up with a whole bunch across the ages – but the limits should be clear, to the point, developmentally appropriate, and enforced with consistency. And of course as kids age the limits change – but the principle remains the same. There are limits, they are set, they are adhered to, and there are (appropriate) consequences to not abiding.
2) Monitoring. As toddlers begin to assert their independence, monitoring becomes really important – and remains important through the teen years. Parents of toddlers need to keep an eye on them. Using the example from above, it’s one thing to say a toddler can’t run around a store and touch everything that looks appealing. It’s another thing to actually monitor them to follow through on that. Same principle down the developmental line. It gets hard – we can’t know what our kids are doing every second of the day. But it’s our obligation to be as informed as possible and to be proactive about the need to monitor. As kids get older, an open line of communication is essential as kids spend more and more time outside the home. Mobile technology – which is becoming commonplace – is certainly a tool that can be used in a good way to stay in touch with our kids and keep the lines of communication open to permit remote monitoring and aid limit setting.
Parenting can be tough. Consistency can be hard to achieve. But keeping in mind basic principles to guide our parenting strategies can help us keep the big picture in mind – and give us a framework that is applicable to nearly every developmental stage.
Find out what your parenting style is with our handy quiz. Then, browse through these no-fail tantrum tamers.
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How to Discipline Your Kids
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