Children’s Health

New book, The Autism Revolution, offers hope, help for families

For decades, the word “autism” meant an immutable brain disorder, one determined solely by genes and that was only marginally responsive to therapies. Today it is coming to mean something different and more manageable. A growing body of research is dramatically changing the face and future of autism. In The Autism Revolution, a new book from Harvard Health Publications that I wrote with Karen Weintraub, I explain this evolution in autism science and offer strategies for families to help their children right now. One practical finding is that autism is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body condition. Treating digestive and immune system problems can make a profound difference in the family’s life, and even in the autism itself. Another finding is that autism may not necessarily be fixed for life, and that some kids improve with time and treatment.

Kindergarten redshirting is popular, but is it necessary?

Nancy Ferrari
Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

More and more parents are “redshirting” their young ones. That’s the practice of not starting a child in kindergarten until after his or her sixth birthday. Ann Densmore, EdD, an expert in language and social communication skills in children and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler, said parents do this to gain competitive advantages for their children and as a response to the shift in what kindergarten is. You can help prepare your children for kindergarten by ensuring there is adequate facilitated play in preschool. On the community level, talk with teachers, principals, and other parents. Challenge school committees. And realize that starting kindergarten is a new beginning for a child and his or her parents.

Snoring in kids linked to behavioral problems

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Children who snore, or sometimes stop breathing during sleep for a few seconds then recover with a gasp (a pattern known as sleep apnea), are more likely to become hyperactive, overly aggressive, anxious, or depressed, according to a new new study in the journal Pediatrics. How could snoring or apnea contribute to behavioral or emotional problems? It is possible that nighttime breathing problems during the brain’s formative years decrease the supply of oxygen to the brain. That could interfere with the development of pathways that control behavior and mood. It is also possible that breathing problems disturb sleep, and it’s the interrupted or poor sleep by itself that may cause trouble in the developing brain.

Can an infection suddenly cause OCD?

Jeff Szymanski, Clinical Instructor in Psychology, Harvard Medical School

Beginning in 1998, infectious disease and mental health experts have identified children who develop symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or tic disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome after an infection. First thought to be linked only to the group A streptococcus bacteria that cause strep throat or scarlet fever, it has been seen with other kinds of infections. Experts propose calling this frightening disorder pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). It probably happens when the infectious agent gets into the brain and inflames the basal ganglia. Rapid treatment with antibiotics can reverse the symptoms.

New anti-lice lotion is good news for nitpickers

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

The FDA’s approval this week of an old drug called ivermectin for treating head lice comes as good news to folks who shudder at the thought of using a nit comb to remove lice. It will be sold as a lotion under the brand name Sklice. Ivermectin works by interfering with nerve and muscle cells in […]

When are obsessions and compulsions in children a problem?

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.
Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

It is normal for children at some points in their development to be concerned about sameness and symmetry and having things perfect. But when such beliefs or behaviors become all-consuming and start interfering with school, home life, or recreational activities, the problem may be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Obsessions are irrational thoughts, images, and impulses that a person feels as unrealistic, intrusive, and unwanted. To relieve the anxiety caused by these obsessions, a youth may engage in compulsive rituals. Two main types of treatment are used to help youths better manage OCD: a form of talk therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication. The ideal approach is to try cognitive behavioral therapy before turning to medication.

Should kids have their cholesterol checked?

Lloyd Resnick
Lloyd Resnick, Former Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

New guidelines for from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that all kids between the ages of 9 and 11 have their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels checked. The rationale is that atherosclerosis (the fatty gunk in arteries that causes heart attacks, strokes, and other serious problems) starts during youth. Atherosclerosis is fed by high LDL. The guidelines aren’t aimed at getting kids to take cholesterol-lowering statins. Instead, they are about getting kids, their parents, and their doctors to talk about making healthy lifestyle choices. The hope is that more doctor time spent coaching and counseling now will mean less time treating cardiovascular disease later.

Study says ADHD drugs do not boost heart risk in kids

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.
Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

A new study involving 1.2 million children and young adults provided reassuring evidence that the drugs used to treat ADHD do not increase the risk of death from heart disease. Researchers analyzed medical records from a nationwide private insurance plan along with health plans based in Tennessee, California, and Washington State. They compared children taking stimulant drugs (like Ritalin and Adderall) that are commonly used to treat ADHD to children not taking these drugs. Cardiac problems were no more common among children using a stimulant as among those not taking one.

Pediatricians should ask teens about drug, alcohol use at every visit

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Although current recommendations call for pediatricians to ask their adolescent patients about alcohol and drug use at every visit, many don’t. To make it easier for doctors and nurses to do this, the American Academy of Pediatrics has just published a set of questions to guide the confidential conversation, along with advice on what to do with the answers. The first question is a simple one about drug or alcohol use. If the answer is no, the health care provider should praise the teen and encourage him or her to continue making good decisions about health and safety. If the answer is yes, six follow-up questions called the CRAFFT questions) can help separate those who are experimenting from those who may be headed for serious trouble and need more in-depth help.

Do chronic diseases have their origins in the womb?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis and other common chronic diseases are often blamed on genes, pollution, or the wear and tear caused by personal choices like a poor diet, smoking, or too little exercise. An intriguing hypothesis is that these and other conditions stem from a developing baby’s environment, mainly the womb and the placenta. During the first thousand days of development, from conception to age 2, the body’s tissues, organs, and systems are exquisitely sensitive to conditions in their environment during various windows of time. A lack of nutrients or an overabundance of them during these windows, so the thinking goes, programs a child’s development and sets the stage for health or disease.