As the mother of an autistic son, Janeen Herskovitz knows all too well the challenges that come with parenting a child with special needs. Since joining our Topic Expert panel in late 2011, she has written extensively for GoodTherapy.org about her experiences, which can’t help but inform her role as a therapist specializing in the treatment of ASD children and their families.
She is also trained in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy, a common treatment for posttraumatic stress symptoms. She recently wrote a two-part series (see Part I and Part II) exploring the benefits of EMDR for autism spectrum-affected families.
Herskovitz, who maintains a practice in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, is the 11th therapist to be featured in our “Meet the Topic Experts” column—an ongoing series intended to help readers get to know the people who bring wisdom and guidance to The Good Therapy Blog on a daily basis.
Here’s how she responded to 10 questions we recently posed to her.
1. What made you want to be a therapist?
I’ve always been interested in helping professions, especially in regard to those who have unique challenges. My undergraduate degree is in special education, so I’ve had experience working with kids and teens who learned differently than their peers. Often, I spent more time helping them manage their emotions. After my own son was diagnosed with autism in 2001, I experienced the need for therapy to help me adjust to the diagnosis. After that experience, I decided I wanted to provide the same type of help that I received. I also have a passion for hearing people’s stories, so that makes my job especially enjoyable.
2. Why autism spectrum, specifically, as your area of focus?
I always say autism picked me as my focus area, I didn’t choose it. I suppose I actually did have a choice, but I felt a calling of sorts after my own son was diagnosed. I felt the effects on the family, firsthand, and saw a dire need for someone to specifically address and treat the needs of the whole family, not just the affected child. Currently my practice houses an art therapist who works with the affected children and their siblings, as well as a behavioral therapist. Together, we treat the entire family.
3. What other issues do people come to you for help with?
Depression, anxiety, relationship issues, parenting, and posttraumatic stress. I also run therapeutic support groups that specifically teach healthy boundaries, self-esteem building, and self-care for moms of kids with special needs.
4. What makes your job difficult?
Obtaining funding for the support groups I lead has been a challenge. I try to offer them for free or at a reduced rate whenever possible, as parents of kids with special needs often do not have the means to attend therapy, let alone groups. Convincing these same parents that therapy for themselves is not an option, but rather a necessity, is also a challenge.
5. Any passions or hobbies you’d like to share?
I love to read, go to the theater, listen to talk radio, and spend time with my family. I’m also a trained vocalist, so singing has been a passion of mine since I was 13.
6. Adam Lanza, the Newtown school shooter, reportedly had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. To what extent do you believe this diagnosis was or was not relevant to what happened?
It’s difficult for me to make a determination about whether his Asperger’s diagnosis had anything to do with his actions, because I have never met him, nor have I treated him. My gut response is that, no, I do not believe it had anything to do with his actions. I view the autism spectrum (ASD) not only as a mental health issue, but as a whole body issue, rooted in the immune system. Asperger’s does not drive people to kill other human beings any more than diabetes or heart disease. Two things disturbed me most about the media releasing that information: (1) It casts a disparaging light on people on the autism spectrum, an already very misunderstood population. (2) Mental health issues are very personal and complex. When the media throw out diagnostic labels after a tragedy, it’s disrespectful to the families involved and to anyone who has that particular diagnosis.
7. How can we increase sensitivity, empathy, and understanding toward those with autism spectrum-related issues?
That’s a great question. I’m constantly striving to increase empathy and understanding not only among the general population, but also among those who work and live with people with ASD. I suggest that if people want to increase their understanding, they should learn from people who have the condition. I’ve learned more from reading people like Carly Fleischmann and Temple Grandin than in all my years of training and living with a person who has the issue. I find that people often need to know the following things: Most of the people I’ve met who have ASD, even the ones who cannot speak, are NOT cognitively impaired. Most understand everything that is said to them and within earshot of them. I believe autism is a social/communication/immune issue, NOT a behavioral disorder. Behavioral therapies are usually needed in order to better understand what is driving them, and to help control their impulses, but their behaviors are usually rooted in their inability to communicate or socialize properly. There is also an assumption that people with autism do not experience empathy, but my experience has been the opposite; many actually have a heightened sense of others’ feelings and can sense when someone doesn’t “get” them. The rule of thumb here is the old adage, “Never judge a book by its cover.” The autism cover often looks like the opposite of what’s really going on in the story. And lastly, I implore people never to judge the parenting skills of a child on the spectrum. Until you walk in these shoes, you truly have no idea what it’s like.
8. Have you ever feared for your safety in a therapeutic setting?
I have not. I’m very blessed to have my private practice, Puzzle Peace Counseling, in the same building as a world-renowned physician who specializes in ASD, so I usually feel safety in the number of people and their level of expertise. The only time I considered safety a possible issue, I was treating a gentleman who had an anger-management problem. I made sure I scheduled his appointments when I was not alone in the building.
9. As simply as possible, please describe eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). What is it useful for?
EMDR is a research-based intervention designed to treat PTSD and trauma-related issues. It works on the premise that when things happen to us, especially negative or traumatic things, they get stuck in the brain, almost like a record player needle that keeps skipping over a crack in a record. It uses eye movements similar to those in REM sleep in order to help the brain process the memory fully. This usually results in relief of symptoms such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, ruminating, and flashbacks. It’s also been found helpful in treating other issues, such as anxiety, depression, and personality conditions. It’s especially helpful in my practice, as I am seeing an alarming increase in PTSD in parents of children with ASD.
10. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has met with scathing criticism from mental health professionals, including autism spectrum specialists. Do the DSM‘s flaws outweigh its usefulness?
I’ve been able to understand and empathize with both sides of this issue. As a clinician, I don’t put too much stock in labels; I treat people and focus on symptoms. On one hand, I have always thought of it as a “spectrum,” and have viewed Asperger’s as part of that spectrum. On the other hand, there’s a possibility some families may lose services due to Asperger’s no longer being a DSM-recognized diagnosis (and therefore possibly not recognized by insurance companies). I am seeing more and more kids who are teetering right on the edge of that deciding line; they are too “high functioning” to fall under the new criteria, but can’t function properly without services, therapies, and educational accommodations. It is my hope that clinicians keep this in mind and proceed with caution and empathy as they make the switch. If children no longer meet the criteria for ASD, they need to be given a more suitable, accurate diagnosis that will help them obtain similar services. I think more of the DSM-5 flaws will become evident the more we use the new criteria, and I hope revisions will be considered if they outweigh its purpose.