Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Working memory can be improved by training

In experimental subjects, which are usually undergraduates majoring in psychology, working memory can be improved (emphases mine) ...
Memory Training Shown to Turn Up Brainpower - New York Times

... The key, researchers found, was carefully structured training in working memory — the kind that allows memorization of a telephone number just long enough to dial it. This type of memory is closely related to fluid intelligence, according to background information in the article, and appears to rely on the same brain circuitry. So the researchers reasoned that improving it might lead to improvements in fluid intelligence.

First they measured the fluid intelligence of four groups of volunteers using standard tests. Then they trained each in a complicated memory task, an elaborate variation on Concentration, the child’s card game, in which they memorized simultaneously presented auditory and visual stimuli that they had to recall later.

The game was set up so that as the participants succeeded, the tasks became harder, and as they failed, the tasks became easier. This assured a high level of difficulty, adjusted individually for each participant, but not so high as to destroy motivation to keep working. The four groups underwent a half-hour of training daily for 8, 12, 17 and 19 days, respectively. At the end of each training, researchers tested the participants’ fluid intelligence again. To make sure they were not just improving their test-taking skills, the researchers compared them with control groups that took the tests without the training.

The results, published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were striking. Although the control groups also made gains, presumably because they had practice with the fluid intelligence tests, improvement in the trained groups was substantially greater. Moreover, the longer they trained, the higher their scores were. All performers, from the weakest to the strongest, showed significant improvement...

... No one knows how long the gains will last after training stops, Dr. Jaeggi said, and the experiment’s design did not allow the researchers to determine whether more training would continue to produce further gains.

Fluid intelligence is a part of what determines IQ scores on tests.

I reviewed the PNAS abstract, but there wasn't much there (psychologists don't do structured abstracts, alas). The PDF costs money -- PNAS isn't part of the "open access momvement". I'd like to know how big the improvements really were.

One of my children's working memory is very limited. A 10 to 15% improvement might make a big difference in what he's able to do. If other studies replicate these results we might hope to see a training program developed.

Update 7/5/08: Hoisted from comments, by Martin of MindEvolve:
I was so impressed that I splurged for the full study. The improvements weren't subtle. Over the course of 19 days, the number of objects held in working memory just about doubled, and scores of raw intelligence increased by as much as fifty percent.

I was so impressed that I contacted Jaeggi and her team and developed a software program using the same method so that anyone can achieve these improvements at home. (For just $9 more than purchasing the study!) ...
Martin is marketing a product he's developed here, but he's been at this for a while. So it's intriguing ...

Update 12/14/2008: The full text of the article is now available for free online. See my Dec 2008 f/u essay.

Special needs children and family income

The only surprise here is that that family income decrease is only about a 14%, though the total cost was estimated at closer to 25% of income. (via FuturePundit: Autistic Kids Lower Parental Income, emphases mine):

The costs of raising kids with developmental defects is very high

New research suggests that the average household with children with autism not only spends thousands of dollars toward educational, behavioral and health care expenses each year, but also suffers from a lesser-known cost that hits them up front – a sizeable chunk of missed household income, perhaps as much as $6,200 annually....

...“That’s a staggering 14 percent loss,” Montes said. “We presume this may be strongly related to a lack of appropriate community-based support resources and services...

The study, published in April’s edition of Pediatrics... is based on data from the National Household Education Survey on After School Programs and Activities in 2005, a telephone questionnaire that drew on parents of more than 11,000 children, kindergarten-age through eighth grade. Parents reported if their child had an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD (that is, if he or she had ever been diagnosed with autism or a pervasive developmental disorder), their total household income and their highest level of education. Several other demographic details were collected, including the parent’s age, type of family (two parent or otherwise) and whether they lived in an urban or rural locale...

...Data collected from 1999 to 2000 showed that each year U.S. taxpayer dollars collectively pay $12,773 of the annual education expenses associated with each child with autism. In spite of this assistance, ASD-affected families still bore the brunt of the financial burden. Between un-actualized income (again, estimated near $6,200) and extensive out-of-pocket ASD-related expenditures – one 2006 national study from the University of Rochester estimated that these families paid nearly $5,300 more than other families – this direct-to-family cost may exceed $11,000 each year...

The authors speculate that the income shortfall may be affected by milder developmental disorders in the parents, however the interaction is complex.  Because the projections adjust for parental education, which would be affected by relatively subtle parental disability, a parental disability effect may be already accounted for in the model.

In our situation (adopted children) the income decrease is probably closer to 50%. We still do very well, so no complaints there! The key point is that the burden of cognitive disabilities is very high and lifelong.

This study provides an economic motivation, if we need any, to justify research in identifying the causes of cognitive and behavioral disabilities and creating prevention and mitigation strategies. Prevention, of course, won't help our family very much, but I think there's a lot (lot, lot) more we could do on the mitigation side.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The candidates and disability policy

Crooked Timber's Michael Berube has summarized the disability policies of the three contending candidates:

Crooked Timber -- Disability and Democracy.

McCain's policy is fairly simple ...

... Yes, well, McCain’s disability policy is much easier to summarize: (a): we need to cut costs; and, following from (a), (b): don’t become disabled...

Clinton does a very good job ...

... A Hillary Clinton Administration would be quite good on disability/ health and disability/ employment, and generally good for my kid – this one, not the college senior who turns 22 today...

but her web site does a poor job of displaying her disability policies.

Obama's plan is "... remarkably enough, at once broader and more specific than Clinton’s". For example:

... proposes “a comprehensive study of students with disabilities and transition to work and higher education” – something that (a) has never been done and (b) is of great interest to teenagers with disabilities and their loved ones. “As president,” we’re told, “Barack Obama will initiate such a study and task his Secretary of Education with researching: the barriers that keep students with disabilities from seeking and completing higher education; the barriers that prevent students from making a direct transition to work; the extent to which students with disabilities are able to access loans and grants; reasons college students with disabilities drop out at a higher rate; and best practices from schools that have effectively recruited and graduated students with disabilities that can be implemented more widely.” This is, as you might imagine, a (cough) special interest of mine. But that’s not just because I have a 16-year-old with Down syndrome. In recent years I’ve had many fine students at Penn State – twenty-year-olds with dyslexia, or Asperger’s Syndrome, or arthritis, or mild cerebral palsy – request “reasonable accommodation” from me on final exams. And I’ve been amazed and appalled at how few many of my colleagues (here or elsewhere) seem to believe that they’re under no obligation to provide reasonable accommodation for everyone. (Guess what? If you teach in the United States, you have that obligation! It’s a real federal law!) So I’m thinking that “a comprehensive study of students with disabilities and transition to work and higher education” might not be a time-wasting exercise for disabliity-policy wonks. I’m thinking that it might actually make a world of difference for students with disabilities – in high school, in transition, and in college...

Among the topics Berube reviews are:

  • limitations on the ability of insurers to discriminate on the basis of preexisting conditions
  • fudning of IDEA (the grossly under-funded Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).
  • federal employment support for persons with disabilities
  • Tom Harkin's ADA Restoration Act (overturn Supreme Court decisions that have limited the ADA's scope).
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of genetic information by employers and health insurers. (Tom Coburn has blocked passage of this in the Senate).

The bottom line of course is that either Hilary or Obama are light years better than McCain for persons with disabilities and their supporters.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wanted: a class action lawsuit on academic skills testing for special needs children

I don't have time to sue the State of Minnesota, but I'd be glad to sign on to a class action suit. I don't want any money -- in fact I'll donate towards a lawsuit.

I wouldn't mind the state's standardized testing program if my son was being tested on something he's studied. If he were being tested on third grade rather than fifth grade material I'd be pleased to participate. That's not how the unthinking robots who wrote the No Child Left Behind law chose to proceed however:
"The Minnesota Test of Academic Skills (MTAS) is Minnesota’s alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards. The MTAS is part of the statewide assessment program and measures the extent to which students with significant cognitive disabilities are making progress in the general curriculum. The MTAS in reading and mathematics was administered for the first time in spring 2007. Beginning in 2007-2008, the MTAS is administered in reading, mathematics and science.

In order to meet federal NCLB requirements, the MTAS has been aligned with the academic content standards established for all students (i.e., Minnesota Academic Standards). Alternate assessments based on functional skills or skills that are taught at an earlier grade level may not be used for AYP calculations..
So my child loses about two weeks of education (which he greatly needs) and spends most of the day eating candy and playing word games after spending a few minutes pointlessly scribbling on material he can't possibly follow. He's stressed and depressed, and the ordeal has barely begun.

His score will then become a problem for his school, which will be motivated to get him to move on and out, thereby showing nice year-on-year improvement.

This is child abuse. Heck, I feel guilty of child abuse for not keeping him home -- no matter what the law says.

Come on you hungry lawyers! Go for it. Rip their throats out. Get rich and make us happy.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Changing behavior in children: Kazdin for most and what we do now

I spent challenging years learning what Kazdin more or less gives away in a few paragraphs plugging his book (good Amazon ratings so far).

Here's Kazdin's summary in Slate ...
How to really change your kid's behavior. - By Alan E. Kazdin - Slate Magazine

... You begin by deciding what you want the child to do, the positive opposite of whatever behavior you want to stop. The best way to get rid of unwanted behavior is to train a desirable one to replace it. So turn "I want him to stop having tantrums" into "I want him to stay calm and not to raise his voice when I say no to him."

Then you tell the child exactly what you would like him to do. Don't confuse improving his behavior with improving his moral understanding; just make clear what behavior you're looking for and when it's appropriate, and don't muddy the waters by getting into why he should do it. "When you get mad at your sister, I want you to use words or come tell me about it or just get away from her. No matter what, I want you to keep your hands to yourself."

Whenever you see the child do what you would like, or even do something that's a step in the right direction, you not only pay attention to that behavior, but you praise it in specific, effusive terms. "You were angry at me, but you just used words. You didn't hit or kick, and that's great!" Add a smile or a touch—a hug, a kiss, a pat on the shoulder. Verbal praise grows more effective when augmented via another sense.

If you don't see enough of the desirable behavior, then you can work on it using simulation play. Wait for a peaceful moment and then propose an exercise. "Let's see whether you can stay calm and just use words when I say no to you. I'm going to say no—remember, this is just pretend—and you stay calm, OK?" You can even switch roles as part of the game. Most kids delight in playing the parent and saying no to the parent playing the child.

Your objective is to arrange for as much reinforced practice as possible, which means you want your child to have many opportunities to practice doing the right thing and then be reinforced in the habit by receiving rewards. Your praise is the most important reward, but you can also add little age-appropriate privileges (staying up for 15 more minutes before bedtime, choosing the menu for dinner), goodies (little five-and-dime gadgets for younger children, downloads or cell-phone minutes for older ones), or treats. And, yes, you reward successful let's-pretend simulation sessions, too. This won't go on forever. A brief but intensive period featuring lots of reinforced practice, often somewhere between a couple of weeks and a month, can make long-lasting or even permanent changes in a child's behavior.

Going ballistic never helps, but explanation aimed at improving a child's understanding can actually play a useful part in this approach. When combined with reinforced practice, explanation has been proven to speed up the acquisition of behavior. So, yes, go ahead and explain why it's important to show respect to parents or to play nicely with others. The understanding your child achieves will resonate with the experience of doing the right thing and being rewarded for it. The deep, nuanced science on this topic all points to reinforced practice as the key, but the greater understanding that comes from explanation is an optional add-on that can help good behavior develop more quickly.
If you've done any dog training lately you'll discover the same approach is very popular with canines. No more yanks on the training collars, effusive praise and food rewards for correct behaviors. I was very skeptical of that approach for our dog Kateva, but I must admit she's an awfully sweet and reasonably well behaved 1.5 year old.

Kazdin doesn't mention it in his summary, but this conditioning approach comes from animal training, where it's coordinated with with the use of "extinction". As Amy Sutherland discovered in her immensely popular NYT article, it works for adults and killer whales alike. For a complete guide to child rearing, I'd suggest the above summary in Slate together with my summary of Sutherland's article. You can read the two within ten minutes and be ready -- for neurotypicals anyway!

Of course I shall venture my opinion on this topic, I would say I am as expert on the childhood portion as most. For the top 80% of the temperament curve any non-abusive approach to child rearing will more or less work for almost every child. So for most family's Kazdin's approach, or any reasonable approach consistent with the temperaments of family and child, will work well enough.

For much of the next 18% I will guess that something like Kadzin's approach, augmented by basic extinction methods and some loss of privileges for various sins, is required for a reasonably successful childhood. (As to adolescence I have no experience and no predictions.)

Most children with high functioning autism fall into this 18% range.

For the most challenging 2% ... well, a miracle is helpful. In my reading list post I recommend Greene, The Explosive Child combined with extinction, positive direction, and rewards. I agree with Kadzin that for these children punishments have little impact on behavior, but some symbolic measures they may be needed to provide a sense of justice (and comfort) to both the sinner and the injured.

We've recent added to this with my wife's version of "applied behavior analysis". She did the reading on this so I can't provide references, but there's psychological judo involved. With the most challenging 2% one very quickly runs out of positive incentives. The range of behavioral interventions needed to provide health, safety and education are so large that all practical measures of praise and reward are piled so high as to be irrelevant. It's the behavioral analysis of "printing money"; the currency is so devalued that a wheelbarrow is needed to buy a loaf of bread.

The trick then is to "revalue the currency". All privileges are removed, and even things like "sugar on cereal" are redefined as privileges. Rights are limited to nutrition, shelter, education and love. Then one seeks actively for all signs of good behavior, no matter how small and new, and rewards them with praise and concrete measures. We've returned to using a sticker chart of about 7 columns by seven rows. Each act is rewarded with praise and a sticker, a column gets a bigger-than-average privilege (ex: 20 minutes on the Wii) or a quarter (the sibs prefer the money, of course the same system must apply to all), a full chart gets a treat or $2.00.

As of today, then, we apply a mixture of Greene, Kazdin (before we knew of him), reward/extinction, Applied Behavior Analysis modified, symbolic punishments in the cause of a child's sense of "justice", as much exercise as a child will tolerate, medications, and many leaps of imagination and experimentation. The experiments usually fail, but some will work, at least for a time, when retested at a later date.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The effective cessation of Minnesota's waiver services program for persons with cognitive disabilities

Two months ago I wrote about Waivered services and the Personal Care Attendant program:
.... Which brings me back to the PCA (personal care attendant) topic. The AuSM has an excellent handout called Services for Children with ASD (scan PDF 103K) I'll summarize here and expand upon:
Recently my wife attended a seminar that included a discussion of waivered services. The bottom line -- the DD waivered services program is out of money and is well into yet another crisis of care. I'll run through some history and summarize the current story.

Developmental disability (DD or MR/RC (mental retardation) waiver) waivers began in 1981, as part of an effort to move persons with mental retardation/DD out of CF-MR facilities (institutional care facitlity for mental retardation). Families and guardians received the money equivalent to the cost of institutional care, and the threshold for funding was set at the level of disability requiring institutionalization in 1981.

Now there are waivers for DD, CADI (people <65 style="font-style: italic;">hey pay more in fees than they get in funds.

The funds do not increase once the client is out of school at age 21.

Essentially the program has been on a downward spiral since 1981, but it gets worse. The DD waiver program used for persons with autism and mental retardation is not getting any more waivers? [I need to clarify if is a funding freeze or a reduction.]

The waiting list is long for what waivers exist, and you move up it depending on the intensity of your need. It will be a long long time before anyone without a crisis of care gets one of these waivers -- when pressed, the speaker thought you could wait 5-10 years or longer. One consequence is adults with DD no longer have funds available to move out of their parents home. Eventually the parents are too aged to care for the children ...

So in 1981 persons with DD were institutionalized. Then the institutions were closed, but the funds went to the community. Now the funds are going away, but there are no more institutions.

The CADI (nursing home level disability) waiver still available. It requires full disability requiring nursing home level care. These have primarily been used physically disabled people and persons with schizophrenia or other severe mental health disorders. In some areas they are being used for the DD population.

In addition to the above we learned of the following MN programs:
  • community support grant: up to $11K or so per year, have to have MA, can't use for PCA but does provide flexibility
  • family support grant: $250 per month, income limit about $85K
  • 2009 may bring a new program -- 1915J. I found this blurb: "The 2007 Minnesota Legislature authorized the Department of Human Services (DHS) to pursue approval of a state plan amendment for implementing a self-directed supports option in Minnesota. The amendment, referred to as the 1915(j), would allow Medical Assistance (MA) beneficiaries to be in charge of their own personal care services (PCA), instead of having those services delivered by an agency."
I'll update this with corrections and additions.