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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals

January 13th, 2011 Comments off

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Autism, a severe and incapacitating developmental disorder of brain function affects social and communication skills of a growing child and thus theoretically hinders the learning process, although a surprising number of autistic individuals excel in specific areas, an occurrence that psychologists struggle to explain. Individuals with autism often exhibit similar characteristics including: lack of eye contact; usual attachment to objects rather than people; preference to repetitive activity; delayed or unusual acquisition of language; social naiveté; and the exceptional ability in one or more specific area. Incidence in these exceptional abilities, savant skills, is defined according to the 1973 American Association of Mental Retardation as “a person with low general intelligence who posses an unusually high skill in some special tasks like mental arithmetic, remembering dates or numbers, or in performing other rote tasks at a remarkably high level. ” (Miller, 1999, p. 31). The most common types of savant abilities are in the areas of visual arts, particularly drawing, musical performance, calendar calculating and prime number derivation. Throughout the past two hundred years, occasionally the emergence of an outstanding skill in a person possessing a mental disability has been documented, thus warranting much speculation to the basis of these rare and seemingly out of place abilities.

It is possible that the extreme focus and social seclusion of these individuals compel them to seek out an area of interest to occupy their mental capacities, and thus through practice and concentrated attention on this one subject area, adapt a supreme and specific ability in this chosen field. This is a main theory posted by mainstream textbooks, but there exists another explanation that I wish to explore in evaluating the sources of savant skills in autism spectrum disorders.

According to some mainstream textbooks, savant skills have an origin in a special form of cognitive function that only autistic individuals possess. Although the reference contains only a few sentences pertaining to this theory of cognition, in an attempt to unearth an accurate basis for savant skills, it is a worthy conjecture to explore. With supporting evidence from a wide scope of other articles pertaining to psychological studies, an article by Leon K. Miller, “The Savant Syndrome: Intellectual Impairment and Exceptional Skill” serves as a main source for information on this speculation. A strong link between autism and remarkable natural abilities implies a biological factor. Reports of the high prevalence of absolute pitch in savantism (15%) as compared to that of the general population 05-. 01%) also indicates a possible biological principle that allows such ability. In a brain scan of autistic savants with absolute pitch, there is a marked increase of blood flow to the cerebellum while listening to music in comparison to non-savantists (Brown, Cammuso, Sachs, Winklosky, Mullane, Bernier, Svenson, Arin, Rosen-Sheidley, Folstein, 2003). In keeping with this theory, the examination of five thousand, four hundred autistic children, produced data that exceptional skills were cited by parents in approximately ten percent of the sample (Miller, 1999).

In Miller’s (1999) understanding of savantism, the exceptional memory that such subjects possess is most likely the reflection of a domain-specific organization in the brain, rather than enhanced skills gained through repetitive, focused learning. Some features of savants are consistent with an attribution model that suggests a differentiation in function of brain hemispheres, thus providing a specific hypothesis to this biological theory. People with autism have obvious trouble with language and verbal skills associated with the left hemisphere creating a “consequence of right hemisphere flourish. ” (Miller, 1999, p. 35). Mathematical calculations, spatial representations, and musical and artistic abilities are associated with this right hemisphere of the brain. Strong evidence for this right hemisphere reliance also includes the fact that a far larger percentage of savants are left handed than the general population (Miller, 1999). An alternate conjecture to the hemispherical approach is that autistic savants possess numerous localities in the brain for greater pathological development of temporal and parietal (both relating to spatial orientation, bodily acclimation, such as temperature and touch, and visual and auditory input) polysensory (Miller, 1999).

Duckett (1976, as cited in Miller, 1999) has demonstrated in numerous studies that savants have stronger capabilities in several memory and creative test measurements than controls matched on age, gender, and general level of intellectual functioning, indicating that savants may be able to learn more easily than their non-gifted autistic counterparts.

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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals (Part 2)

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Surprisingly, savant skills have been discovered in subjects who were virtually untestable by standard methods. Nadia, a woman described in Miller’s (1999) article, exhibited an extremely talented ability in drawing, yet her expressive language was restricted to just a few phrases and typical evaluation instruments placed her performance at near floor level. Such findings distinguish a difference between actual generalized intelligence and the abilities as supported biologically of savants.

Psychologists agreeing with Miller’s proposal believe that autistic individuals have limited skill expression, revealing constraints on their cognitions. The inability of savants to express and describe their own processes of drawing, musical performance, or calendar calculation also provides evidence that savants do not have a remarkable understanding of their abilities, but instead inherently possess them through biological characteristics of the brain. Adults and children with autism do not have the social function to know how to describe such events, but this trait is also displayed by protégés without a mental disability. Highly practiced skills, for example, may become so automatic and routine in typically developing individuals that they are also unable to describe these processes. The actual concept of language itself and the structure it requires to make sense in vocalization may interfere with the preservation of detailed information about a particular event or situation, as language disorders have been found to be very common in savantism (Miller, 1999).

Many studies have been conducted to determine exactly how much understanding savants have of their own abilities and the methods in which they utilize in their talents. The ability to formulate a specific day of the week on a mental calendar may be an exceptional skill, however, it is atypical and, therefore, a difficult skill to compare against sample groups without a disability (Miller, 1999). It is suggested that people with autism who display an uncharacteristic ability in calendar computations have a very rudimentary knowledge of mathematics (Miller, 1999). While Heavey, Pring, and Hermelin (1999) insist that formulas and algorithms exist in published format for the calculation of dates, they perceive it to be highly unlikely that the learning-disabled savants would be able to access, read, and synthesize these mathematical components. A strong short-term memory is also essential in manipulating the computation of calendar dates, which concurs with the findings in a 1973 study by Spitz and LaFontaine that savants have superior short-term memory in comparison to controls with developmental delays (Heavey, Pring, Hermelin). Additionally, when asked to reproduce a piece of art, autistic individuals with such savant abilities created sketches that were not literal copies of the original, but instead more often adapted another perspective on the original artwork, bringing in outside sources of knowledge. This example functions to provide evidence that these people are capable of thinking through a process of replication instead of merely producing an exact copy (Miller 1999). Similar to the findings in artist abilities, Miller (1999) also discovered through his research that immediate recall of musical fragments by savants is “not a literal reproduction of the material heard, (but rather) participants’ renditions preserved essential musical structural regularities present in the original. ” (p. 42). Through examples and theories stated by Miller and others, there exists a strong possibility that savants have a biological tendency to excel at specific tasks, contrasting with my assumptions that much of their abilities are learned through focused study.

Many of the arguments posed by Miller and others seem to be convincing, but much of the supporting evidence of their theories seems vague and hypothetical without practical knowledge of the day-to-day behaviors of autistic individuals Autistic savants may be predisposed to certain categories of abilities that are controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, but these cannot develop without sufficient attention. Anderson (1998) has found significant data in a series of MRIs conducted in autistic individuals, concluding that there is no structural difference in the activities of each hemisphere at any given time in autistic savants. Bilateral processing is utilized most often by nearly every function of the body, and therefore, although one side may represent a stronger presence over the other, the latter side must also be relatively high functioning (Anderson, 1998).

People with autism spectrum disorders can become obsessed and narrowly focused on one particular subject of interest, as they are motivated to concentrate on a specified goal in response to the social and environmental deprivation, leading to attentional development and extensive practice of this new skill (Anderson, 1998).

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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals (Part 3)

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Brunswick (2001) attests to this idea that autistic individuals are completely shut off from the world, and it is this isolation that motivates a select few to become absorbed into a particular field as a means of connecting with the world. Babies with autism appear to be developing normally until the age of two when social learning begins to contribute increasingly to the cognitive development of the children in question. Most of this learning takes place through processes of teaching by a caregiver and spontaneous imitation on the part of the toddler. However, because as autistic children gain greater knowledge of the physical world, their appreciation and discernment of human interaction fails to keep pace, and as a result, they are inclined to ignore other humans in favor of inanimate objects, to which they becoming increasingly attached. Data has verified this assertion when it was discovered that autistic individuals out perform the typically developing controls in the Wechsler Block Design Test, demonstrating the advantage that autistic participants have evolved through their “enhanced ability to mentally segment designs into their constituent parts. ” (Heavey et al. 1999, p. 146). It has been discovered that savants are more likely to engage in repetitious behaviors and among those with autism, the savants were more likely to possess one single interest, showing more obsessional attitudes towards their ability. Additionally, savant skills can be found in individuals where autism is not diagnosed. Therefore, it is more logical to conclude that an internal concentration on the skills rather than a biological predisposition determined by this disorder is at play

To counteract the claims pertaining to IQ and the ability of savant individuals to overcome such low general intelligence by biological function to achieve such great abilities, one must explore the biological explanation of IQ that Anderson (1998) cites. In his explanation, IQ is determined by the speed of neural conductivity within the brain, operating on the principle that knowledge is not the equivalent of intelligence to explain savantism. Further evidence goes on to argue that inspection time (IT) tasks provide the best calculable scale of speed processing, necessitating that participants make simple discriminations between two or more pieces of data (Scheuffgen, Happe, Anderson Firth, 2000). It has been found that the autistic group had the same inspection time as did normally developing individuals, regardless of the large gaps in IQ scores between each group, providing evidence that the modern IQ tests are not accurate in determining an individual’s true intelligence and ability.

The strong hereditary evidence suggesting that a much higher percentage of autistic individuals possess certain skills than the rest of the general population is a potent claim. However, knowing that not every savant is diagnosed with autism believes me to think that there is another factor involved, such as motivation, in addition to any biological evidence of predisposition. Also, with the discovery and understanding of a new, more practical IQ test that assesses inspection time, it appears that autistic individuals are more like normally developing people than was previously considered, providing strong evidence that in fact, these abilities are present because the autistic savant works towards them rather than has a mystical biological inclination towards them. Due to the feelings of isolation overall and the already predisposition for children and adults with autism to act in repetitive and often compulsive obsessional ways, that despite any evidence of increased blood flow and regional activity in the brain, savants possess their skills as a result of persistent focus and motivation, mostly excluding biological factors.

References

Anderson, Mike. (1998). Mental retardation general intelligence and modularity.

Learning and Individual Differences, 10, 1-9.

Brown, Walter A. Cammuso, K. Sachs, H. Winklosky, B. Mullane, J. Bernier, R.

Svenson, S. Arin, D. Rosen-Sheidley, B. Folstein, S. (2003). Autism-related

language, personality, and cognition in people with absolute pitch: Results of a preliminary study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33, 163-167.

Brunswick, Natheniel L. (2001). Social learning and etiology of autism. New

Ideas in Psychology, 19, 49-75.

Heavey, L. Pring, L. Hermelin, B. (1999). A date to remember: The nature of

memory in savant calendrical calculators. Psychological Medicine, 29, 145-160.

Miller, Leon K. (1999). The savant syndrome: Intellectual impairment and exceptional

skill. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 31-46.

Scheuffgen, K. Happe, F. Anderson, M. Firth, U. (2000). High “intelligence,” low

“IQ”? Speed processing and measured IQ in children with autism.

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Explanations of Savantism in Autistic Individuals (Part 4)

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Development and Psychopathology, 12, 83-90.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 2)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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~ James Russell Lowell 
1819-1891

            A study conducted by Louise Despert and H. W. Potter in 1936 offered several conclusions after working with twenty-two institutionalized children ranging in age from four to thirteen.

· The story is a form of verbalized fantasy through which the child may reveal his or her inner drives and conflicts.

· A recurring theme generally indicates the principal concern or conflict, which in turn may be corroborated with other clinical evidence.

· Anxiety, guilt, wish fulfillment, and aggressiveness are the primary trends expressed.

· The use of the stories appears to be most valuable when the child determines the subject matter of his or her own story.

· The story can be used as both a therapeutic and an evaluation device.

            These generalizations are still viewed as valid today.   From this early study and others like it, the uses of reciprocal storytelling has continued and flourished to the point where it is considered a valuable professional tool.   Free flowing ideas coming from a child’s subconscious mind, in the form of a story, often provides the mirror that can reflect the complexity of a life that the child can barely begin to grasp.   Essential information is often garnered from this glimpse into the inner world of the troubled child.

The Use of Props

The books we read should be chosen with great care,
that they may be, as an Egyptian king wrote over his library,
"The medicines of the soul. "

             Younger children, whose expression is limited by verbal abilities, may use props to enhance their stories.   These props often include items such as dolls, puppets or crayons. Gardner commented on the use of these devises when he said, “Although drawings, dolls, puppets and other toys are the modalities around which stories are traditionally told in child therapy, these often have the effect of restricting the child’s storytelling or of channeling it in highly specific directions. ”  (p 25)  In contrast Brandell cites numerous sources that have used adjuncts, such as puppetry, finger painting, drawing, costume play, clay modeling and doll play with success. (p 4).    Brandell does qualify the use of play techniques with the statement that “ at times, the traditional therapeutic play modalities simply cannot provide the child clinician either with sufficient, dynamically meaningful information about the child or with an effective vehicle for conveying both therapeutic understanding of the child’s narrative and therapeutic communications of a more specific nature.   “Accordingly, children’s autogenic stories have long been recognized as an important source of clinical data. ”  (p 86)  Toys are used alone in play therapy but are merely an adjunct when used in conjunction with stories made up by the child-patient.   In the end, it is the story that provides the rich store of potential information and the props merely a means to that end.    

In child therapy the conduit created for these stories to flow through is safe.   Because the child feels safe his ability to express disturbing wishes, fears and conflicts become less encumbered.   The subconscious narration takes form through metaphor.   This metaphorical story now gives the therapist a rich volume of information to utilize when helping his patient to move towards stronger mental health.   Play therapy also engages in the use of props and toys.   Many of the toys are specially designed to be flexible enough to allow the child’s play to take many different forms.   In this environment it is not necessary to solicit a story of make believe to accomplish therapeutic goals.   When props are used there is a thin line between play therapy and reciprocal storytelling.   Knowing when one begins and the other ends would be difficult to clearly define, however, it is easy to see how one can bleed into the other!  

            The problems that affect children are often common with those that afflict adults.   Mental disorders such as anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive behavior can be explored using reciprocal storytelling.   Occasionally the after effects of emotional neglect and physical and/or sexual abuse is exposed.   But topping the list of those situations that are most effectively treated by this type of therapy are those children troubled by environmental causes such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or serious illness.  

An Example of Reciprocal Storytelling

Storytelling reveals meaning without

committing the error of defining it.


~ Hanna Arendt ~

1906 1975

            Dr. Richard Gardner uses case histories to illustrate and help therapists learn to ply their talents.   By Dr. Gardner’s own admission the soliciting and the evaluation of stories is “is not an easy technique to learn.   Proficiency may require months and even years of practice. ”  From the narrative the practitioner must tease out the ideas, emotions and issues that are being brought forward from the child’s subconscious mind.   Case histories can help fill the gap that the lack of experience creates.   To learn vicariously through an accomplished therapist is one way to understand how reciprocal storytelling works.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 3)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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  Looking at an example makes it easier to incorporate the theoretical talk and classroom-like explanations into a living, breathing embodiment of the concept as it applies to the real world.   Here is an abridged version of one of Dr. Gardener’s case histories.   Included are the child’s story, the therapist’s evaluation and the reciprocal story.   The author of the original story is a ten-year-old-boy.  

            There was a hurricane.   In one village the hurricane blew down the mountains and the whole village was covered, but there were still people living there.   The Red Cross sent airplanes, but they couldn’t find the village because the ground all looked the same.   A radio plane picked up signals from the people underneath the mountains.   They found the place but they couldn’t find a way in.   They began a search and they found a cave.   In the cave they lost one of their members.   They found him in a deep pit.   The man had fallen and broken his back.   They put down ropes and a stretcher to rescue the man.   They took him to the plane.   They had to start all over again.   They went back into the cave, after a long search, they found a door.   They found a small stone that when touched opened the door.   They walked in and found a tower.   Up in the tower was another door.   Inside was another tunnel.   The tunnel did not seem to have an end.   They went into the tunnel.   They saw a light and went towards it.   They found steps going down.   Finally they found the village that needed supplies.   They gave them the food and then everyone was all right.  

            The therapist job is to now interpret the story.   By its very nature this process is subjective.   In this case he decided that the buried men and villagers represented the patient who feels overwhelmed by his anxiety.   The depth of his anxiety is expressed by the depth to which the villagers were buried.   The Red Cross represented the therapist who tirelessly searches him out in order save him.

            Therapists, after evaluating their patient’s stories will mentally rewrite the tale using the same general plot and characters.   They alter certain aspects to help the patient see the situation in a different, often more healthy light.   Here is the therapist’s reciprocal story offered to his patient.   In this version the villagers are framed as being very resourceful.   The group used all kinds of ideas to help rescue themselves:  banging on walls, sending radio signals, and putting crews together to begin to dig out.   They even placed a bottle with a note inside and set it free in a stream, which lead out of the mountain.   The radio established contact with the outside.   They communicated and worked together.   They dug towards each other until they met.   The villagers helped themselves while working with others.   These cooperative relationships lead to the villagers rescue.

            In the patient’s story he feels helpless, buried, overwhelmed and is waiting for the therapist to work hard to save him.   In the therapist’s version he tells the patient that if he is in distress he must help himself if he expects help from others.   Being a passive victim will not help him feel better and he is being shown that his active participation is needed.  

            The technique of reciprocal storytelling offers a peek into the unconscious mind of the child.   This works because the process of logical, mature, adult thinking has not yet affected the child.   The therapist, because he is speaking to his patient in his “own language” has a better chance of being heard.   When the patient hears the therapist’s story, some believe that the conscious mind is bypassed and the message is delivered directly to the patient’s unconscious mind.   There are no confrontations and no strange psychoanalytic interpretations for the patient to endure.   Children communicate their stories using metaphors and if the therapist is sensitive to the message being transferred there is an opportunity to provide the therapeutic help that is needed.   Occasionally that help may even be transformative.  

Growth Through Reading

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends;
they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors,
and the most patient of teachers.

~ Charles W. Eliot ~

1834–1926

            When we are finished reading a great book, what is it that we are left with?   Does any part of that book become entwined with our own personality?   Perhaps regardless of a few well-chosen words is the nature of our psyches such that it is impervious to the influence of a good story?   Or do we take something of the story’s essence with us?   If we do take something, what is it?   What ever it is, can it stay with us?

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 4)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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  Can it help us?   Do we change because of it?   Those that have faith in the power of the written word believe that indeed we can be positively affected by reading literature that give us a different view of the world.   When these changes enhance the quality of life, the science of psychology would file it under the heading of bibliotherapy.   Unlike reciprocal story telling, this form of bibliotherapy can be utilized by a large group of professional and laypersons.   Look to your librarian, your teacher, your parents, your best friend, your spouse or even yourself and you may find a practitioner who has been involved in bibliotherapy and didn’t even know it, or identified the process through some other vernacular.   To attempt to create a comprehensive list of subjects that might be covered successfully by the individual interested in books with a bibliotherapeutic benefit would be pure folly.   Some subjects might be more pervasive, but the available material is potentially endless.   If literary themes are endless, are too the benefits also endless?   Can anyone name all the different ways that any given human being can grow?   Add to this, a list of persons who might be the recipients of these benefits and what you will have is a quantity that has grown exponentially into a number too large to fathom.   In fact, one could argue that every person on this planet could be a patient involved in reading thinking, growing, and healing.   When bringing to life this powerful force of bibliotherapy, there is always a need to consider the subject matter, potential benefits and audience.

A library is a hospital for the mind.

~ Anonymous ~

The Grieving Child

            The child who has suffered the loss of a loved one through the finality of death may be a child who is locked into a confusing world of emotions.   While most children are resilient and grieve in a way that allows them to move forward in a healthy way, there are others that find themselves trapped in to behaviors and emotions that they can not begin to unravel.   For these children it is important that we realize how unresolved grief can adversely affect their lives.   Some may be come distant, reclusive and severely depressed.   Other’s shows their pain through aggressive or bizarre behavior.   Eating disorders, self-mutilation, work-a-holism and other manifestations have been documented in children who have been unable to accept or grieve the death of a loved one.   The burning question then becomes:  How to we best help these young souls?   The tools available to the caring adult, be they teacher or parent or therapist are numerous.   One way may be to allow expression of unacknowledged pain through the reading of fiction.   These stories would hopefully contain characters, situations, worries and emotions that the reader can identify with.   It is worth noting that it is not universally accepted that reading fiction of this nature holds any value.   The few studies that are out there often contradict each other, with some showing great potential and other falling short of offering any sustainable improvement for the individual.   But for the believers, some stories have brought to its readers a catharsis.   They find some relief from the emotional tension that was created by an unbearable loss.   Even if at first the relief is fleeting, once there is an opening of the mind there exists the possibility that further liberation is possible.  

Stories of Death: For Children?

To use books rightly, is to go to them for help;  to appeal to them when our own knowledge and power fail;  to be led by them into wider sight and purer conception than our own, and to receive from them the united sentence of the judges and councils of all time, against our solitary and unstable opinions.

~ John Ruskin

1819-1900

            How death is presented in children’s books has gone through a historical metamorphosis like many forms of literature.   Certainly Christianity and Christian sensibilities were at the forefront of concern when dealing with death during the 1800’s and some of the 1900’s.   However, since about 1960, children’s books show less of the directly Christian morality and pious sentimentalism of the late nineteenth century.    As fiction brings to our children more and more stories based in reality, how much is too much?   To offer up a heavy dose of life’s pain and trouble finds many objecting to the destruction of childhood innocence.   Others contend that we underestimate a child’s ability and their need to understand and experience all of life, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.   And through what better vehicle than literature?   So there has been a birth of children’s literature that contains heretofore-taboo subjects that is written for all readers, not just those who may “need” to read about death, divorce or illness.   For the general reader or for the reader with a goal in mind, the book must be first and foremost a good book.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 5)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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   It is impossible to overestimate the capacity of children to feel, suffer, and understand.   This speaks to life problems including death, debilitating illnesses, or severe marital discourse.   Child can share their feelings though literature, but it must be in terms of action and plot.

What we bring to a story

Affects what we take from a story

That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.

~ Doris Lessing

1919

            As adults wrestle with what type of information we offer our children through reality-based literature, we would be well advised to understand that the story is viewed through each individual’s window of life experiences.   Note that if a description of an old woman sitting on a park bench included the notation that she grinned a crooked grin and spoke using only one side of her mouth, the juvenile reader would only understand that this person has probably been affected by a stroke if the child brings to the book a pre-existing understand of a cerebral vascular accident (stroke) and knew some of the more common after affects.   He could then incorporate this characters condition into his overall understanding of how this particular moment fits into the plot and meaning of the story.   If the child has no such reference the scene will be read, but in general be passed over unnoticed.   In the book, Bibliotherapy for Bereaved Children, they had ten children read the story Squib.   Six of the children were non-bereaved and four had experienced the death of a loved one.   All children were between the ages of 10 and 14.   After they had read the book their opinions and responses where tape-recorded and then transcribed.   There is an obvious difference in the way in which these two different groups of children spoke about and understood the book.   The ideas that they found interesting or insightful, frightening or sorrowful were obviously colored by their life experiences.   For example, one child found it interesting how the character spoke to the picture of her dead brother because she had done similar things.   She was living vicariously through this character, and one might even surmise, was taking comfort in the connection she had made with this person.   For another child this same scene was described as strange or weird, but seemed not to elicit any type of emotional response.   There is no doubt but that there has been an increase in the social realism present in today’s fiction.   Many of these books are reaching a teenage audience, but some are being read by younger children.   There is a group of professionals with a less-than-enthusiastic opinion of these books that deal with subjects such death, drugs and sex.

In general, however, most writers and educators believe that this growth in children’s literature has served the reader well.  

A successfully communicated thought,

from one human mind to another,

is one of the most powerful forces I know.

~ Peter McWilliams

1950 2000

How Reading Can Heal

            A strong relationship between reader and fictionalized characters can be forged through shared life experiences.   The power of these connections is often predicated on the skill of the writer as much as it is on the subject matter of the book.   Bereavement, created by the death of a friend or family member, arguably tops the list of emotionally charged issues that might be dealt with in a book with potential therapeutic value.   Death is considered an environmental issue.   There are other types of deaths and other environmental conditions that hold the potential to cause havoc in the mental stability of a child.   Divorce, serious illness, sudden disability and war are some other environmental tragedies that children can be forced to cope with.   By sharing common experiences with a character in a book the child is offered an opportunity to make an emotional link that may serve to bring to the reader many different kinds of benefits.    

Benefits

When you live in the shadows of insanity the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blissed event

~ Ani Difranci

1970 –

            Many benefits can be brought to a child who reads fiction where life problems are presented in a realistic fashion and are intertwined into a plot that is, at least in part, reflective of the reader’s life.   A common byproduct of such an encounter is a reduction in the sense of isolation.   Children may feel isolated for a host of reasons.   They may actually be cut off by a family who finds talking about the sorrowful even too draining and so the subject becomes taboo and off limits.   In the reverse context, the child may be afraid of their feelings and withdraw into a form of self-isolation.   The sense of aloneness is often accentuated by the near certain belief that no one could possibly understand how they are feeling.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 6)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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  The link between the fictional subject and the bereaved reader may allow the child a huge sense of emotional relief when they realize that they are not alone.    The character’s actions may show the reader new ways to cope with unwanted feelings.   The vicarious experience may bring to light an idea that had been lying just below the level of consciousness, but never been given the needed words to formulate the concept.   This valuable piece of insight may go along way when it comes to the ability to communication.   Sharing feelings with others becomes critically encumbered if the child is groping for words they cannot find. The gift of words that accompanied any new insight will go a long way towards reaching out to and sharing with others.   A sense of empowerment and control may accompany the acquisition of new knowledge.   Empathy for others and themselves may be given life through the vicarious reading of a book that mirrors aspects of the reader’s life.   In the end there are two factors that play an enormous role in what type of positive rewards the reader will leave with.   The first is the reader and the second is the writer.   The reader brings to the story a preset range of knowledge that greatly affects how the story will be interpreted.   The writer is charged with the responsibility of writing an engaging story that reflects back to the reader a reality that is accurate and believable.   A poorly written book is likely to inspire no one, but a well-written book holds the potential to enrich the reader in many valuable ways.   

Many issues Many books

Books come at my call and return when I desire them; they are never out of humor and they answer all my questions with readiness. Some present in review before me the events of past ages; others reveal to me the secrets of Nature. These teach me how to live, and those how to die; these dispel my melancholy by their mirth, and amuse me by their sallies of wit. Some there are who prepare my soul to suffer everything, to desire nothing, and to become thoroughly acquainted with itself. In a word, they open the door to all the arts and sciences.

Petrarca Petrarch

1304 1374

            Environmental problems were used to describe how bibliotherapy might assist a child reader; however, there is a glut of other issues that might be addressed in books and provide similar therapeutic value.   There are some publishers that specialize in the publication of books that address only issues that are relevant to specific childhood problems.   Tales of bed wetting, racism, rudeness, or sharing are some topics covered by these specialized publishers.   In general these books are written with the therapeutic motive in mind, but when looking at the larger picture, most are written by authors who create believable characters engaged in well-developed plots that appeal to a large cross-section of the child and teenage population.   Whether written directly as therapeutic literature or as a general interest story the topics often move from one extreme the death of a parent, to another learning to share our toys.   These books offer an immense variety of topics that might be included within the world of bibliotherapy.  

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed on and digested.

~Francis Bacon~

1561 1626

How do you find these books?

            Therapists, teachers, librarians, or parents can find information about suitable books on the Internet and in books written just for the purpose of identifying titles that offer relevant story lines.   Reviews, topics and suggested age ranges are usually found in these sources.   The best selling book, The Lost Boy by David Peltzer, is an example of a book that might be considered valuable to a child-abuse survivor.   A review of this book might recognize its therapeutic value, but caution that the content is powerful and age appropriateness needs to be considered.   This harrowing biography may offer a teenage reader new knowledge, a sense of camaraderie, and a feeling of hope, but because of the intense details a younger reader nay feel more frightened than connected to the character.    Finding age-appropriate material is important and it can also be controversial.   Fortunately for the interested adult there is a large volume of information available to help choose good books that are interesting, applicable and age-sensitive.  

The press, the pulpit, and the stage,
  Conspire to censure and expose our age.

Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon

1633 1685

Teenagers more bigger controversial issues

            Both six-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds can sustain trauma from similar life experiences, there are, however, issues that are faced by the teen population that a six-year-old might never encounter.     Drugs, alcohol, date rape, sexually transmitted diseases and similar topics are just such issues.   As children grow the pressures that confront them also grow.   So while the core goals of bibliotherapy remain the same, as do the potential benefits, the subject matter becomes more sophisticated and at times fraught with controversy.

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Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 7)

June 24th, 2010 Comments off

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  Should the shelves of our high school libraries house novels about the struggles of a lesbian teenager or novels about pregnancy where abortion is considered as a viable option?   As teenagers near adulthood their understanding of their world grows and expands.   Sex, violence, and drugs top the list of subjects that can lead to disagreement when evaluating literature that deals with these critical teenage themes.   Rape, incest, drug-addicted parents, domestic violence, and other subjects offend many and encroach into taboo territory.   Authors whose literature pushes at the edges of their craft may make invoke responses of disapproval to outrage.   Even if these topics are too hot for a school board to handle, the children who might benefit from a quality book whose plot line mirrors their life controversial thought it may be would be the losers should they miss the opportunity to make a positive connection through literature.  

No one saves us but ourselves;
  No one can and no one may,
    We ourselves must walk the Path,
      Teachers merely show the way.

~Nancy Wilson Ross~

1910 1986

General Literacy and its Effect on Youth

            Depending upon how bibliotherapy is defined there is another aspect that bears consideration.   It is included here because of the sheer power it brings to the individual who benefits from it.   Reading reading anything from a good book, the newspaper, or the directions on a condom wrapper is dependent upon the readers ability to well. read.     Common sense tells us that the literacy rate of any given population is likely to be tied to the quality of their lives.   Literacy abilities are often categorized using a leveling system that ranks from a low of 1 to a high of 5.   Sadly, 21% to 24% of Americans are considered functionally illiterate, having been assessed in the range of level 1.   The state and federal inmate population is in even worse straights with fully 40% of being functionally illiterate (level 1).   It is worth noting that 70% of all inmates were ranked at level 2 or under.   Compare this number to the 48% of the general population that score in the level 2 or lower range.   Can this comparison be used to further justify the need to raise the literacy rates of our population?   Is it such a stretch to conclude that the ability to read improves people lives?   If we accept that premise, could we then extrapolate that there would be a reduction in crime?   If so, as the dominos continue to fall, could the reduction in crime reduce inmate populations?   Well, as a Mark Twain once said, “There are statistics and then there are damned statistics. ”  The wisdom of those words makes a simple answer nearly impossible to pin down.   However, in general research does support the idea that an increase in the literacy of our population would be connected with the statistical probability of reducing crime and incarceration.   Offering educational opportunities to individuals already housed in our state and federal prisons as a means to reduce recidivism is a trickier issues and the data on that subject is conflicting.   Bibliotherapeutic effect of improving the reading ability of our general population is well highlighted by the examination of our prison population when contrasted to the general population.   Life quality as it relates to reading level has many other connections and the comparison offered here between the inmate and general population is but one.   The correlation between literacy and income level is well established.   There is also a strong link between low literacy levels and poor health.   So while literacy levels, don’t at first blush, seem to fall neatly into a therapeutic goal, the statistics tell a different story.

The Power of Reading

Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.

~John Locke~
1632 1704

            Bibliotherapy cuts a broad path when it’s meaning is examined.   Stories without books, stories with books, and books just for the sake of books dot the landscape.   Each venue holds the potential to use literature as a way to improve the quality of life. If children and adolescents can connect to the literature they read, they may be well served by the insight and comfort they receive from the experience.   In addition, if children and adolescents are blessed with significant literary abilities they may improve the overall quality of their lives.   To read is to gather knowledge.   To gather knowledge is to learn to think.   Learning to think leads to better decision-making.   Better decision-making leads to a healthier, happier life.

Works Cited

Philpot, Jan, Bibliotherapy for Classroom Use. Tennessee:  1997

Cuddigan, Maureen and Hanson, Beth. Growing Pains:  Helping Children Deal with Everyday Problems through Rreading. Chicago:  1988

Jones, Eileen. Bibliotherapy for Bereaved Children. London:  2001

Brandell, Jerrold. of mice and metaphors. New York:  2000

Gardner, M. D. Therapeutic Communication With Children:  The Mutual Storytelling Technique.

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