Monday, July 21, 2014

Mental disorders and the environment

Dr. Paul Patterson died last month. He was an epidemiologist and neuroscientist who worked on the influence of the environment on mental disorders. “Researchers examined the role that viral infections, such as the flu, might have in schizophrenia and other disorders, including autism.” This according to the obituaries article in Saturday July 19th, 2014 LA edition.  Patterson was part of one of those groups of researchers at Caltech. He studied the connections between infections and brain development. Patterson was a leader in the field of neuroimmunology. His research provided strong evidence that environmental factors play a major role in developing mental disorders. The challenges in the pregnant mother’s immune system can result in changes in the child’s immune system.

The exciting news is that this may lead to new ways to ameliorate the symptoms. Working with mice in the lab Patterson and his team demonstrated that bone marrow transplants significantly reduced the autism-like symptoms. While this is not likely to be the treatment for children with the disorder, the discovery may take scientist to other manipulations of the immune system that could reduce the incidence of these disorders. For example, Patterson and his team demonstrated that injecting the “autistic” mice with a specific human bacteria reduced the symptoms of the disorders. They are now working on an application to the U.S Food and Drug Administration to start testing with humans. Even when the process may take some time, it is very promising. Reducing the symptoms of the disorders would help us significantly in working with the kids to help them become productive and happy members of society. 
This is very encouraging news. The kind of news that papers don’t show in the front page or don’t make it to the TV news broadcastings. But for sure the kind of news that could change somebody’s life. Or even a family’s life. Working in the field of autism and related disorders I see first-hand the devastating effects the disorders cause in the quality of life of many families. We should make people aware of these scientific developments.

On a note related to our parenting blogs I think that knowing that health and immune system challenges, such as the flu, have a direct influence in possible mental disorders in the new born, may also lead to parents watching the future mother’s health very closely. It is imperative that before and during pregnancy the mother-to-be is under the care of appropriate medical professionals and she follows their advice carefully. Eating and drinking appropriately, managing stress, avoiding any kind of drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, are only a few aspects of the prenatal care. Prevention is a very powerful tool.

When my wife was pregnant of my daughter she was feeling very sick. We went to the doc and asked him for some meds to help her feel better. I’ll never forget what the doctor said: “Absolutely no meds, it’s the first sacrifice you make for your kid, but it’s not going to be the last one.”

Thank you Paul Patterson. You and your colleges make our lives better.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA



Saturday, July 5, 2014

The World Cup in the classroom

This week I had the chance to visit a middle school classroom. While observing the class, I was so pleased the teacher was incorporating a lesson about the World Cup, the Olympics of soccer which is taking place right now in Brazil. Being from Argentina, soccer (futbol for us) is my favorite sport. 

But more importantly, I loved this teacher’s approach. I have always advocated that education has to be made interesting and relevant to the students. Delivering a lesson through topics such as sports is interesting for children. Students were listening to the teacher, answering questions, doing some research on the computers and presenting their findings in front of the class. There was no yelling or scolding, not having to continuously repeat directions, no frustration, just a lot of fun enjoyable work and compliance. Subjects like mathematics, geography, history, even science and social studies can easily be taught through topics of interest and experiential learning. For example, I can’t think a better way to teach fractions to fourth and fifth graders than through cooking. All recipes, especially baking, include 1⁄4 cup of something plus 3⁄4 cups of something else. In the case of the this particular class, students were split in groups to work on the computers to find out the number of participating countries, their history in the world cups, statistics and much more. I can guarantee so much information was internalized and yes, I’m talking about a special education class.
As I wrote in my blog “Teaching Teachers”: ( )

“We can conclude that instead of forcing the kids to fit teachers’ way of teaching, teachers need to be able to change their way of teaching to fit their students’ needs. Children with special needs do not learn the way we teach, so we need to teach the way they learn.”
“As a first step, teachers can have more of an impact by learning the art of motivation and the power of stimulating instructional routines and structure. Simply put, this means motivating students to perform non-preferred activities. Good teachers motivate their students when they tell them they can have 10 extra minutes of recess if they finish their work on time, or give them points towards a pizza party or a preferred activity. Motivating materials (i.e. arts & crafts, music, tablets loaded with educational software, etc.), topics relevant to kids, and a loving, warm, and passionate approach to teaching are excellent tools. Education does not have to be synonymous with boredom.  It should be an amazing experience.”

The class I visited was a real life example of this. The teacher did a great job. At one point he looked at me and said “you need to find something they like,” as if he was justifying the “crazy” subject. He was also planning to implement a rewards system where students get points towards preferred activities. Sound familiar? I was in heaven.

The sad part of the story is that this teacher is the exception, not the norm. I can’t help but wonder why. When is education going to catch up with sound, scientifically proven methods of education? When are we going to stop demanding kids to participate in boring, long and irrelevant classes?
When is it going to be teachers and students tackling learning TOGETHER rather than teachers AGAINST students?  

Daniel Adatto, BCBA