Interview with a Neuropsychologist: Information For Neurodiverse Youth

I was recently interviewed by one of the most charming podcast hosts I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, 13-year old Nora Bornand. Nora is host of Tic Talk, a podcast that focuses on educating others about tics, normalizing tics, and destigmatizing neurodiversity. Have a listen, and see below for some show notes: https://anchor.fm/tictalkpodcast/episodes/Interview-With-A-Neuropsychologist-Dr–Vindia-Fernandez-eq9if6

  • Can you tell us a bit about your job? What does it mean to be a neuropsychologist?  Could you walk us through a typical day in your job?

A neuropsychologist studies brain-behavior relationships.  With that knowledge, neuropsychologists can give people different types of tests to see where if there are parts of the brain that are functioning better than others.  For example, if someone has had a brain injury, looking at how well they process verbal information and nonverbal information like shapes and puzzles, can help us figure out if they need help with recovery.  Sometimes these people are sent to speech therapists or other specialists.   I work with children and adolescents, so when I test children, I help families understand if a child’s neurodevelopment (or brain development) is going as expected or if the child has behavioral or learning differences that may benefit from therapy. 

  • What does neurodiversity mean?

Neurodiversity is the concept that we’re all a little different, and that’s o.k.  Some people are very talkative and have great vocabularies.  Others are great at art.  Most of us also have areas that where we tend to struggle.  For example, I am not very good at sports and have terrible balance.  Some individuals struggle with learning how to read or with concentrating for longer periods of time.  When these various challenges make day-to-day functioning difficult, we start to consider the possibility of a neurodevelopmental disorder.  People don’t always like to use the term “disorder” because they think it has a negative connotation, but specialists like myself use it to identify children who could really use extra help to make their lives more manageable. 

  • Can you talk about neurodevelopmental disorder, and are there any known causes? 

A neurodevelopmental disorder is a difference in how a child develops that impacts their day-to-day functioning in a way that makes their life much more challenging or stressful than average.  These differences are thought to be present from birth or they may develop slowly during childhood.  Sometimes neurodevelopmental disorders happen because there is a clear impact to the brain, for example if there is a head injury or a genetic condition that affects the way the brain develops.  But most of the time, we don’t really know why.  When scientists want to study a disorder like ADHD or autism, they often have to study hundreds of children’s brains with MRI’s (which are sort of like X-rays of the brain) to just figure out subtle patterns in brain functioning.  For most people with a neurodevelopmental disorder, getting an MRI wouldn’t be very useful, because these subtle differences can’t be detected and the recommendations likely wouldn’t change much.  

  • What are some misconceptions that people have about neurodiversity?

People sometimes assume that neurodiverse children and adolescents have problems that need to be “fixed”.  In fact, neurodiverse children and adolescents have many strengths that should be celebrated and nurtured.  They also want to be treated with respect and autonomy, which means they want to be involved in decisions that impact their life.  Also, neurodiverse children and adolescents are often teased or bullied for their differences and that’s not fair.  But we know from research that bullies don’t make good friends.  The focus should be on making friends that are accepting and inclusive.  Lastly, neurodiverse children are sometimes underestimated in school when all they need is for the teaching approach to match their learning differences.  These various misconceptions can be addressed by not judging others before getting to know them and practicing inclusivity in every day life.  Neurodiverse children and adolescence can also practice self-advocacy – the ability to understand and communicate one’s needs to other individuals.

  •  How can parents support neurodiverse children?

Very specific recommendations will vary depending on the difficulties the child or adolescent is presenting with.  However, what I hear most from adolescents is that they don’t want to be underestimated and they also want some control of their lives.  So, for parents and other adults in a supportive role, it’s important to listen and try to respect adolescents wishes as much as possible.  I think many parents worry about giving adolescents freedom, because they’re worried the adolescent may make mistakes and suffer the consequences, but making mistakes makes us stronger if we learn from them. 

Having said that, if a child or adolescent is struggling with academics, making keeping friends, or with their emotions, parents can seek the advice from specialists like myself to figure out where that difficulty is coming from.  It can be risky to ignore challenges, especially when they are impacting a child or adolescent’s self-esteem or causing high levels of stress.       

  • How did you know neuropsychology was the profession you wanted to follow?

I always knew I wanted to help people, and I became a peer-counselor in middle school.  I was taught how to listen my classmates’ problems and help them find appropriate solutions to their problems.  That experience really stuck with me, but I didn’t know I wanted to become a neuropsychologist at that point.  In fact, I didn’t know what a neuropsychologist was for a long time. I didn’t figure it out until I went to college and I took a part-time job testing adults that had schizophrenia, which is a type of disorder that affects how people experience reality.  Sometimes they hear or see things that aren’t really there.  I was drawn to the idea that we could somehow measure how people think and feel by giving them different types of cognitive tasks.  More importantly, through that work, I learned that we as humans have more things in common than we have differences.  I saw that people are strong and capable of so much more than they’re often given credit for.  That was inspiring to me.  I worked in research for many years doing this type of work before I realized that I wanted to have a more direct impact on the lives of children, adolescents, and young adults.  So, I became a pediatric neuropsychologist and never looked back!

  • Can you tell us about your education / background training?

After high school, I completed college and I majored in Psychology, which means the majority of the classes I took were related to human thought and behavior.  Then I worked for several years at UCLA as a research assistant on a genetic study of schizophrenia.  I practiced testing hundreds of children and felt strongly that I was on the right career track, so I applied for a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, which I received in 2014 from the University of Houston.   That’s typically a 5-year degree, but I wasn’t done yet.  Then I completed post-doctoral training for three-years, which means I worked with specialists in neuropsychology and research to further strengthen my ability to work with neurodiverse youth.

  • Are there any ways the pandemic has impacted neurodiverse people?

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 has been very hard on neurodiverse people.  It has been hard on many children and adolescents, because they miss their friends, but it’s especially hard on those students that struggle to concentrate or stay engaged for long periods of time.  It has also been hard on children with learning disabilities that require more help from teachers.  This is causing an increase in anxiety and other mental health issues.  That’s why it’s so important for all of us to do our part to help end this pandemic. 

  • What does it mean to be a culturally informed neuropsychologist?

It means that when I work with neurodiverse youth, I always look carefully at the child’s background to see if there are cultural factors that could be influencing their development and ability to get along at school or at home.  One of these factors is the language a child speaks at home.  Understanding that some children don’t speak English at home helps me understand why they may be experiencing academic problems.  In these cases, students need support and time to master the language of instruction.  The opposite is also true.  Sometimes the problems that neurodiverse students experience are overlooked because their parents and teachers assume the problems are related to being an English learner.  Using language and culture to examine development and learning style is one way I help adults provide better support to neurodiverse youth.

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