Friday, March 15, 2019

Some Thoughts on Autism, Vaccinations, and Screens

I recently read an article talking about the massive increase in diagnoses of children on the autism spectrum. The numbers have been climbing – more like skyrocketing – for the last few years. There are more than likely a number of reasons contributing to this increase:

NO, it is not due to vaccinations. While the misleading information on this issue looks so slick and convincing, it is merely designed to bring parents to the point of fear. Here is how I know that vaccines DO NOT cause autism. MULTIPLE studies that checked for a correlation between the two show that children who are not vaccinated are just as often diagnosed with autism as those who are vaccinated. It does not matter what theories are proposed – the relationship is not there.

Some reasons for the increase have to do with definitions of autism and awareness, but a new intriguing theory suggests we might be creating some autism symptoms by exposing children to activities that delay their language and social-emotional development. These activities primarily involve screens. In fact, in some countries, when a child receives an autism diagnosis, the first therapy is to reduce screen use for the child as much as possible. This often reduces the symptoms to a point where the child requires little additional therapy. 

The reason screen usage might be contributing to the symptoms of autism is that it prevents children from engaging with other humans, and that is how children develop both language and social-emotional skills.(Deficits in these two areas are markers for autism.) Playing video games and watching YouTube will make your child good at screens, but will not help them to be better with communication or relationships.

I am NOT suggesting that keeping your child from screen use will prevent autism.There is no reason to believe screen use causes autism -- just that it might make some of the symptoms more likely.

I am NOT suggesting that you ignore an autism spectrum diagnosis and just reduce screen time.We will leave diagnosis to the experts and trust their suggestions for therapy.

However, I do feel comfortable telling parents that reducing screen time will not, in any way, hurt your child.If children never see a computer until school age, they will pick up the skills without a problem.

And I do know that if children do not develop communication skills, social skills, or emotional regulation skills in a timely manner, they will have big problems not only with relationships but also with anxiety and learning.

My advice? Get your children vaccinated and rethink your screen use and your child’s screen use. Let them learn how to be a human, first. Let them learn the way God designed their brains. We cannot improve on that.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Building Executive Function Skills at Home: Part IV

Cognitive flexibility is the last of three major skills involved in executive function. Cognitive flexibility is the skill that allows your child’s brain to switch from one thing to the other quickly or to see a problem in a new light.

The picture to the left shows an example of a problem that needs cognitive flexibility. The  Candle Problem is an experiment conducted by Karl Duncker in 1945. Participants were to use only these tools to attach a candle to the wall so that the lit the candle would not drip wax on the wall. 

Most people could not get it because they did not see the box that held the tacks as an available tool. If you tack the box to the wall, it will serve as a shelf to hold the candle. Cognitive flexibility lets you see the box as more than the container for tacks – it is also one of the tools available to solve the problem.

Children use cognitive flexibility when they read, and it allows them to develop reading fluency and strong comprehension skills. Readers have to be able to quickly go back and forth between decoding words and paying attention to the content.  Children also use cognitive flexibility when they problem solve with authentic problems. Authentic problems are the kind where the answer is not in the back of the book.

Here are some home activities that can increase cognitive flexibility:

Family Meals When children help to plan, fix, and clean up family meals they have many small opportunities to problem solve.  When children are first learning these skills, resist the temptation to answer questions or solve problems for them quickly. Let them try first and only step in with a hint if they are on the wrong track.

Role Play Stories Acting out a story will add fun to reading and will promote better reading skills by strengthening cognitive flexibility. Solving problems on how to create a simple costume will add to the fun and brain power. For something different, show your child how to read a story with silly voices, and then encourage your child to try. 

Cooperative Board Games There are some new board games out there where players do not compete against each other. Instead, the players form a team and compete against the game.  PANDEMIC and FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD are suitable for older children, while younger players will enjoy FLASH POINT and RACE TO THE TREASURE.  Because everyone is working together, these make good family games when there is a big age range. Cooperative games are all about helping your team members.

Building Projects Encourage your children to attempt creative projects that involve design, building, and problem-solving. The end result is great, but it is not the goal. The journey is where your child will find the real reward of stronger brain skills.