Guest essay: From Asperger's to Anxiety; How Children's Behavioral Health Needs Are Being Met Locally

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By Caryn Hacker-Buechel


Every major television network currently has a prime time show airing that is helping put a face to common mental health conditions that today affect one out of every four people and most likely every family in our community.

This provides us with a wealth of educational opportunities.

“Penny Penny. Penny.”

Fans of the wildly successful CBS hit series “Big Bang Theory” are already grinning at this reference to brilliant Ph.D. physicist Sheldon Cooper’s repetitive calling for neighbor, Penny, through her closed apartment door.

His unusual voice sounds like a baby chick’s continual chirp followed by the staccato knocking of Sheldon’s knuckles on her unanswered door.

Unusual and quirky behavior, you may think? The general nerdy mannerisms one may attempt to pass off as ‘‘normal’’ for those of such a brilliant mind? Think again. Cooper displays this and many other zany behavior patterns, as we watch his need to sit in his special chair, deal with his germaphobia or speak Klingon. Though not specifically diagnosed on the series, Dr. Cooper depicts the behavioral traits related to at least one mental health condition.

Max Braverman of “Parenthood’’ offers another glimpse into an often misunderstood behavioral syndrome. Viewers feel the frustration of and budding compassion for Max and his family as he angrily demands the repeated consistent verbal loop of “You promised me a puppy” or “I want the vending machine to come back.”

Renewed for another season on NBC, viewers will follow the Braverman family’s journey as they learn to deal with teenage Max’s issues, alongside those of other family members including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety as they confront problems related to infertility, unemployment, adoption, infidelity, cancer and retirement.

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan of Fox’s “Bones” provides a third view into the unconventional world of those with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). Her Spock-like speech patterns dotted with constant clinical and intellectual medical jargon, obsessive thinking and an inability to appreciate humor will continue as facets of Dr. Brennan’s character and reveal various aspects of this disorder during its entertaining ninth season.

Similarly characteristics of AS also come to life in Dr. Virginia Dixon’s character on ABC’s hit drama “Grey’s Anatomy.’’ As a cardiac surgeon, she repetitively spits out countless facts about the heart, usually trivial, explaining surgical procedures technically, even if the patient is unable to understand. She also suffers panic attacks when put out of her comfort zone.

Last, the critically acclaimed hit NBC comedy “Community,’’ wrapping up its third season, follows a group of students at a community college and features a student, Abed Nadir, whose undiagnosed psychological condition is displayed through an inability to pick up on social or emotional cues and when we has problems understanding emotions and particular difficulty with sarcasm.

So what can we learn and take away from this educational opportunity that television is providing us today? A few of the teachable opportunities that come to mind are common symptoms, compassion, empathy and awareness that with early childhood diagnosis and appropriate interventions, individuals with afflictions of the mind can and do go on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and even physicists.

Whether told with humor or a dramatic flair, these TV shows and their portrayal of this aspect of Autism and other psychological conditions, help to educate the universal population regarding this relatively unknown syndrome and can reduce the stigma. Asperger’s is typically characterized by significant difficulties in social and non-verbal interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests and activities. Unlike autism, those with Asperger’s are verbal, but their speech patterns are often formal and lack a sense of spontaneity.

“Children with Asperger’s also suffer with symptoms of anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders,” according to David Lawrence Center licensed mental health counselor and clinical supervisor Cynthia Burman. Behavioral Health Network, Wrap Around Collier, Therapeutic Behavioral Onsite Services and the new Collier County Public Schools’ Educational Day Treatment Program are just a few examples of the Center’s services available where children and their families receive on-site specific assistance from trained masters-level therapists in their schools and/or homes where their problems often occur.

“Because of their issues with appropriate behaviors, these children really don’t fit in at school. They see their world as being very black and white, with little gray area, and they have great difficulty making and keeping friends,” offered Burman. “Our therapists help them learn social skills so they can carry on conversation and interact more easily with others.” Some children have also benefitted from a new pilot equine therapy program, where the relationship with a horse has caused general changes in empathy, boundary setting and the development of social respect. Funded in part by the Department of Children & Families and grant money from the Naples, Children and Education Foundation, these encouraging, innovative and highly effective community-based programs are changing lives.

“When working with children, it’s almost impossible to make any real change without also involving the families. These community-based programs allow us to do just that,” stated Burman.

The transformation brought about by early therapeutic involvement creates a positive ripple effect into the future. “Creativity, compassion and patience,” suggested Burman, “is of ultimate importance in this line of work.”

For more information call the David Lawrence Center at 239-455-8500 or visit

© 2013 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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