Monthly Archives: April 2021

Community Blog

Promoting Equity for Autistic Children and Teens during Covid

By Leah Kirsch and Abby Donaghue

Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into law in 1975, children with disabilities have been guaranteed access to a free and appropriate public education. This policy was a historical breakthrough in the rights of disabled and neurodivergent Americans, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), quite literally opening the door to public schools for disabled students. For most affected students, IDEA is enforced by providing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) guaranteeing service access and curriculum accommodations.

Under the circumstances of COVID-19, special education programs governed by IDEA have faced unforeseen challenges in adapting to remote learning. Online education was never considered when IDEA was written, and no amendment since has addressed this learning environment. Many of the services and accommodations guaranteed in students’ IEPs have subsequently been rendered inaccessible. While some services are weakened in a virtual format, others are impossible to provide or assess online. This is especially true of the social opportunities that are crucial to developing social and communicative skills for autistic students. 

The transition into remote learning has also brought with it immense stress for youth with ASD and their families. The disruption in daily routines has been significantly distressing, as the consistency and structure that many autistic individuals thrive with have been largely lost. Parents have been tasked with recreating these routines while also taking on the role of teacher, speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, counselor, and more. It’s an enormous challenge for many families to provide these services – without training –  while balancing parenting and work responsibilities. Hardest hit have been low-income households, which are disproportionately families of color that have taken on the brunt of the economic burden from the pandemic. Parents performing underpaid essential work don’t have the opportunity to care for their children while working from home. Non-English speaking parents face additional barriers to providing these services to their children, as they can’t provide the instruction typical of English-speaking schools.

We also recognize that schools aren’t entirely to blame for the hardships families have been facing. In-person activities have been halted for the safety of everyone involved, and teachers are being stretched incredibly thin trying to adapt to entirely new instructional modalities. Still, there is room for more to be done to help autistic students and their families. 

At the Crehan Lab, we are currently conducting a study on IEP satisfaction and equity across racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Schools have the opportunity to learn so much from families’ experiences with remote learning: what worked, what didn’t, and ideas for moving forward. Yet all too often, parent concerns aren’t addressed in their child’s IEP objectives. As we leave remote learning behind, it’s crucial that schools listen to parent perspectives and take the necessary steps to support students through the transition back to in-person learning. For more information on best supporting children with ASD in returning to school, check out the following resources: 

Indiana Resource Center for Autism      

UC Davis News Room

Leah Kirsch (left) and Abby Donaghue (right) are undergraduate research assistants at the Crehan Lab, studying social development and access to resources in the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Abby is a sophomore double majoring in Biopsychology and Child Study & Human Development. Leah is a junior double majoring in Cognitive & Brain Science and Child Study & Human Development. 

Community Blog

Unconditional Positive Regard

By Emily H. Carroll

I don’t believe in the concept of a bad child.  As a therapeutic mentor, I met children who set fires, physically and emotionally harmed others, ran away, and struggled with honesty, and not one bad apple graced my presence. One client, Joey*, attempted to steal a fidget spinner during our session. His hands fumbled with the small, precious gadget, attempting to conceal it in his wadded-up jacket.  Judy* threatened to fatally harm another child. In my work with Joey, Judy, and children more generally, I often consider the notion of unconditional positive regard and I have come to believe that such acceptance holds a special kind of power to build and transform.

Unconditional positive regard is that feeling you get around someone with whom you feel safe to just be.  This person could witness you in your most selfish moment and they would still look at you with kind, unassuming eyes, even as they hold you accountable.  It may sound ironic that a child lighting fires around the house needs some loving energy, but when we consider what we teach a person when we blast them with shame and withhold our love, we find that we are punishing one kind of violence with another kind of violence, passing on the plague of hurt. 

In the face of unsafe behavior, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust serve as natural, protective human responses. Too often, however, we let this warranted emotional response simmer and morph into vilification of the person, or in this case, child, who does harm.  I believe that the process of labeling a child bad and wrong nurtures the roots of violence. When we see a child as a monster, even if unconsciously or subtly, we close a door to effective connection, change, and growth. We miss an opportunity to understand the pain fueling the behavior.   

I have found that connecting to and validating the child’s pain, as well as seeing them with eyes that mirror their goodness, has opened up powerful doors to positive therapeutic work.  I set my intention upon adding and modeling positive connection and empathy to the child as opposed to defining them by the actions I don’t agree with. I endeavor to show up to each newfound delight, disappointment, and fear as an attentive, warm witness. “I see you, I hear you,” I say with my body, face, words, voice, and actions. With Joey, it became about witnessing and validating the injustice of some kids having more than others. For Judy, I validated the theme of double standards and desire for interpersonal connection. When I create accepting space for a child’s feelings, I nourish their own ability to hold themselves in positive regard.     

Even saying “no,” or perhaps especially saying “no” serves as an important opportunity to teach a child that a limit can exist alongside positive regard. For Judy, validating her anger came with the important caveat that hurting others doesn’t help. Limits and boundaries can become a means of expressing care and valuing wellbeing, as opposed to a means of exerting power and control. When I remember to maintain this mindset, the work becomes seamless and growth takes hold.    

Never underestimate the power of unconditional positive regard. We can model a different way of being, a different way of responding to pain that pumps the breaks on violence. An adult’s welcoming presence and shame-free limit-setting can lay the foundation for a child to grow their own internal source of acceptance. Ironically, acceptance can serve as the catalyst for change.    

*Names and identifying information have been altered to protect the client’s confidentiality.

I gain a great deal of daily inspiration and influence from Sarah Blondin’s work and I love to spread her magic. Find her meditations on her podcast, “Live Awake,” or the app, “Insight Timer.” She also has a book called “Heart Minded, How to Hold Yourself and Others in Love.”

Emily earned her BA in Child Study and Human Development from Eliot-Pearson in 2018 and since then, she has worked as a nanny, therapeutic mentor, and in-home therapy team member. Emily will begin a Master of Social Work degree in September, 2021 at Boston College.  

Community Blog

I Wish I Were Light Skinned Like You: Colorism in the U.S. and Latin America 

By Keshia Harris, Ph.D.

Have you ever wished you were another color or race? Have you ever wished more people found you attractive or that you didn’t have to fight so hard to be valued by society? First, I want to say, this is normal. Second, I want to assure you that you can have this thought at some point in your life and STILL develop a profound sense of pride in your race and skin color. 

If colorism is a concept that is completely foreign to you or not at all a part of your social experience, I’ll take the liberty to explain. 

Colorism in the U.S.

During my master’s degree training in mental health counseling at Columbia University Teachers College, I interned as a youth development counselor at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF). I’ll always remember the words of my 6th grade client, “I wish I were light skinned like you”. A gorgeous Jamaican American girl with espresso brown skin and thick curly hair, she longed so much to be as popular as her Dominican American friends with light brown skin and hair down their backs. 

I was shocked by her comment. As the darkest woman in my household and often the darkest person in my friend groups, I was keenly aware of where I fell on the skin color spectrum. No one, and I mean NO ONE, had ever referred to me as light skinned. 

My next reaction was deep remorse. How was it that such a majestic young queen could possibly see herself as ugly? Through introspective beauty activities such as having my client identify all of the Black female celebrities she admired (Beyoncé, Rihanna, etc.), we realized that she didn’t actually see me as light skinned. Rather, she saw me as pretty. In one of our final sessions, I put my arm next to hers so she could see the similarities in our skin tone. 

Colorism in Brazil and Colombia 

Unfortunately, the effects of colorism determine the life outcomes of communities of color far beyond popularity and far beyond our borders. My experience with the 6th grade student along with teaching English in Latin America inspired me to pursue doctoral research on colorism in educational outcomes of Black and Indigenous adolescents in Brazil and Colombia.  From 2014-2017, I studied how socioeconomic status, experiences of discrimination, and postsecondary goals varied by skin tone for high school seniors in Salvador, Brazil and Cartagena, Colombia. I wasn’t surprised to find that participants of darker skin tones reported the lowest socioeconomic status and the highest rates of discrimination.  On the other hand, postsecondary goals did not vary by skin tone.  

In other words, there were no differences in academic aspirations between light, medium, and dark skinned adolescents.  Oftentimes, researchers and policymakers place the blame of achievement and socioeconomic gaps on the individual.  However, the experiences of these young people clearly illustrate the atrocities of systemic inequalities, providing insight into differential life outcomes based on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin. Their voices speak to the reality that everyone should have a fair opportunity regardless of skin color.

Keshia L. Harris, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Center on the Ecology of Early Development (CEED) at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.  In March 2021, Dr. Harris presented her lecture titled, A social Justice Approach to Colorism in Education for Professor Richard Lerner’s Positive Youth Development and Social Justice Series at Tufts University Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development.