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President’s Special Strands: Take Strides to Make a Difference

By Ralph E. “Gene” Cash & Katherine C. Cowan

This year’s NASP Convention in Boston, February 24–28, 2009, promises to be one of the best and most exciting ever, with terrific presentations, social activities, and service opportunities. The convention theme, “Take Strides to Make a Difference,” is intentionally broad, encompassing the myriad ways in which school psychologists can make a meaningful difference for those they serve. The President’s Special Strands on autism and eating disorders/childhood obesity offer outstanding continuing professional development on two issues that are of increasing importance to school psychologists. Additionally, these presidential strands are a collaborative effort between Division 16 of the American Psychological Association (APA) and NASP. The cooperation between NASP and Division 16 is designed to further the goal of fostering the relationship between the two entities and to provide a broader diversity of presentations and perspectives on the highlighted topics. Strengthening such important partnerships contributes to the vitality of our profession, and that makes a positive difference for us all.

Strand I: Making a Difference for Children with Autism

Autistic spectrum disorders are exploding in prevalence in the United States, and the reasons are under intense investigation. Although autism has traditionally been considered a low incidence disorder, that perception is changing rapidly based on the data and a broader understanding of the constellation of symptoms. The autism rate currently is estimated to be 1 in every 150 live births. Media interest in the disorders, public demand for answers, and better diagnostic tools recently resulted in the American Academy of Pediatrics issuing a recommendation that all children be screened for autistic spectrum disorders no later than 24 months of age.

Despite the increase in diagnosed cases of autistic spectrum disorders, relatively little is known about the cause(s) and possible preventive factors. Accurate diagnosis often can be problematic, although more and better approaches are being developed rapidly. Intervention strategies for both academic and behavioral challenges associated with the disorders are numerous. Many have substantial research data with which they can be evaluated, while others have little research basis or are not evidence-based at all. Clearly, however, early intervention that is evidence-based shows promise for ameliorating the effects of the disorders. This strand will explore the challenges in prevention and diagnosis as well as evidence-based intervention strategies for educators and parents.

Effective Treatments for Children With Autism: Separating Science From Science Fiction | Vincent Alfonso
Despite claims that there are several effective treatments for children with autism, most treatments have not been tested scientifically. Instead, parents often are misled by those who claim that they have the cure for their children because the parents find themselves in a desperate situation, and rightly so. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on all professionals who work with young children with autism to be open, honest, and thorough with parents, so that parents can make well-informed decisions regarding treatment for their children. In this presentation, several treatments for autism will be reviewed, and those that have the most scientific evidence will be highlighted. Recommendations for consulting with parents also will be discussed.

An Examination of the Changing Rates of Autism in Special Education | Steve Brock
The incidence of autism in both the general and special education populations has increased dramatically in the past decade. This fact has prompted many (especially those in the popular press) to question whether there is an “autism epidemic.” This presentation will explore evidence in support of the hypothesis that the changing rate of autism is due to artificial factors and not a true increase in the number of persons with these disorders.

Myths and Realities for Predicting and Treating Autism: An Evidence-Based Analysis | Elaine Clark & William Jenson
Data from multiple autism studies from the UU School Psychology Working Group will be presented. One will be a 25-year follow-up study of 241 children followed to adulthood that highlights the predictive value of cognitive growth and adaptive behavior. Another will be a set of metaanalytic studies that cover a 40-year span examining intensive treatments for preschoolers (e.g., ABA and developmental approaches) and interventions for language, aggression, self-stimulatory and self-injurious behavior, and social skills. Effect sizes from these studies raise questions and give answers about the utility of using peer-facilitated social skills instruction, parent-mediated interventions, and the parameters that facilitate early intervention (e.g., age of the child, intensity and duration of treatment, and use of a developmental versus ABA approach). The presentation will end with a practical demonstration of an evidence-based practice approach for teaching social skills to elementary-age children with autism.

The Changing Face of Autism Assessment: New Data and New Ideas | Sam Goldstein & Jack Naglieri
In this presentation, Drs. Sam Goldstein and Jack Naglieri begin with a historical overview of the conceptual underpinnings of autism spectrum disorders. They will discuss prominent theories, symptom profiles, and impairments. They will then present data from a recent multisite study evaluating patterns of behaviors among normal and autistic children and adolescents. The presentation closes with a discussion of the changing symptom profile of autism, appreciation of those impairments that the data suggest are paramount to target through intervention, and ideas for the future.

Strand II: Making a Difference for Children with Eating Disorders and Childhood Obesity

Eating disorders affect and undermine the health of more Americans than any other category of illness. Most of the research on eating disorders has focused on anorexia and bulimia nervosa, mental illnesses that not only undermine health, but also can kill. Society, the media, and the entertainment industry as a whole emphasize the importance of staying thin, almost in obsessional proportions. Despite the emphasis on weight control, however, being overweight has become epidemic and can be just as deadly.

Possibly the greatest public health problem in the United States at present is obesity, considered predominately a behavioral health disorder. Over half of all Americans are overweight, and the health of at least 1 in 5 is detrimentally affected by obesity. Children are particularly vulnerable to and at risk for the physical, behavioral, and academic problems associated with excessive weight, including diabetes, heart disease, school failure, bullying, and mental health issues, making obesity a critical issue for school psychologists and other mental health professionals. Strand presenters will discuss the latest research and how school psychologists can help parents and schools prevent and intervene with eating disorders.

Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention: Family-Inclusive School Programs | Laura Anderson & LeAdelle Phelps
It is evident that physical fitness and healthy eating are influenced by family, media, and peers. Preschool children tend to follow family patterns regarding food preferences, snacking and mealtime behaviors, and frequency of physical activity. As children age, television ads promote fast foods and large portions. Finally, participation in sporting events, games, and outdoor activities is highly affected by the child’s peer group. To influence these factors, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a childhood obesity prevention campaign with the slogan, “Eat well, play hard, make it balance.” Focusing on the importance of matching food intake with physical output, the campaign uses multimedia ads featuring NFL players who encourage children to “get up and play an hour a day” www.hhs.gov/news/press/2007. Health promotion also can be enhanced more directly by school-wide family involvement and education. This presentation will review several successful health promotion programs that integrate family involvement and school programming.

Eating Disturbances in Young Girls: Understanding the Full Range of Difficulties | Tammy L. Hughes
Over the course of the last 50 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of children and adolescents with eating disorders. Historically, eating disorders were believed to occur predominantly in Caucasian adolescents and adult females from middle to upper socioeconomic status households. However, as researchers have begun to examine prepubescent and minority girls, it is clear that the number of women affected increases substantially when atypical and subclinical disturbances (e.g., absence of menses, weight gains not met) are considered. The impact of some eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness) requires that all school psychologists are familiar with risk factors, current diagnostic criteria, and evidence-based treatments.

Childhood Obesity: School-based Prevention Strategies and Interventions | Marissa J. Bartholomew
This presentation provides participants with school-based prevention strategies and interventions for childhood obesity. Participants will gain an understanding of the factors that contribute to childhood obesity. Social–emotional, health, and academic difficulties that obese children face will also be discussed. Participants will learn the essential components of school-based programs along with empirically based interventions that directly address childhood obesity in the schools. As a result of attending, participants will learn how they can: (a) help schools develop components for school-based prevention and intervention programs, (b) use the knowledge of empirically based strategies and interventions to work together with schools and families toward prevention, and (c) implement school-based interventions to help improve the quality of life for children who are obese.

Countering Childhood Obesity in Schools: What Can Be Done? | Elizabeth M. Weiss-DeBoer
This presentation reviews the evidence for recommended practices for obesity prevention and the promotion of healthy lifestyle choices within schools. Special consideration is paid to the issues of feasibility and acceptability. Overweight children are at significant risk for obesity in adulthood with more than a third of overweight children and 70% of overweight adolescents becoming overweight adults. The health concerns regarding obesity have been well documented for adults, with increasing research highlighting associated risks for children and adolescents. There are also social and emotional consequences that can impact school performance. Health related behaviors are established in childhood, and prevention over intervention should be considered a best practice.

The President’s Strands are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of professional development that will help you make a difference. There are hundreds of presentations, sessions, posters, and workshops on all aspects of our work—more than 900 in all. Whether it’s academic interventions, positive behavior supports, mental health (depression, suicide prevention, crisis, self-injury, prevention, screening, counseling, CBT), assessment, eligibility, advocacy, diversity and cultural competence, or career issues, the 2009 convention program truly off ers something for everyone. We hope to see you in Boston!

Gene Cash is the President of NASP and Kathy Cowan is NASP Director, Marketing and Communications.