As the mother of an autistic son, As the mother of an autistic son,

Meet the Topic Experts: Janeen Herskovitz

Therapist Janeen HerskovitzAs 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 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.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rob Wieman, Managing Editor

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lora

    April 7th, 2014 at 3:40 PM

    I can definitely see how someone in your shoes, who has experienced something like this firsthand would want to then be able to take what you have learned and then help others through the difficulties of their own journey

  • candi

    April 7th, 2014 at 4:35 PM

    “Convincing these same parents that therapy for themselves is not an option, but rather a necessity, is also a challenge.” This quote really hit me because I too an the parent of an autistic child and I am always so busy doing for her and getting her from place to place and making sure that her needs are being met that I know there are times when I forget about me and my husband and my other children. That sounds so terrible to actually have to say but I know in my heart that there is truth in the statement. But it seems like after all the time I put into making things ok for her there just isn’t that much time left over for anyone or anything else.

  • Joey

    April 8th, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    I know that there are some concerns about the media having shared information about Adam Lanza and his health background, but don’t you think that in many ways the public was looking for answers and the media was simply offering them speculation about what could have caused this to happen?
    I never heard one journalist say definitively that this is what made him snap or made him do what he did nor did I hear anyone say anything that made me think that just because he could have suffered with Aspergers that this meant that others with similar traits would behave the same.
    In this case I think that the medis was trying to fill a void for all of us, give us some information when we were all looking for some answers and while they may not have been satisfying it at least started some discussions where before there may not have been one.

  • Davis t

    April 8th, 2014 at 10:52 AM

    That must be difficult meeting with patients for whom you know need mental health resources and services yet no longre qualify because they are considered to no longer qualify under the new medical guidelines and diagnoses. I think that as a mental health professional, as well as a parent that would make me so upset to know that this is a child who needs help to maintain a certain level of life and yet he is not going to have access to it just because one or two people think that he will be alright without them. I very much feel for the families and organizations who now have to consider what to do with these losses.

  • amanda

    April 9th, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    Any thoughts on why the increase in PTSD with parents of children with autism? Do you think that it is because they feel like they are at fault for this or somehow to blame?

  • Blanca

    April 10th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    Such a well rounded practice!
    It has to make you so happy to know that there are so many different people and issues that you can help treat.

  • janeen herskovitz

    April 10th, 2014 at 9:43 AM

    Thank you all for the encouraging comments and questions. Davis t, that is frustrating, but luckily I am still able to help these parents and kids with the local resources we have here in North Florida. Often, if they no longer quality for the ASD dx, they usually qualify for a processing disorder, speech disorder, etc. It’s really all about knowing what “label” will fit best in order to attain services.

  • janeen herskovitz

    April 10th, 2014 at 9:47 AM

    Amanda, yes, that is part of it. Most parents will blame themselves and experience the stages of grief over and over again. Additionally, the PTSD usually occurs when the parent has a hx of trauma and stress and/or has a child with ASD who is a danger to themselves (ie: self-injurious, runs away, etc.)

  • janeen herskovitz

    April 10th, 2014 at 9:48 AM

    Joey, agreed about Lanza and the media. Good point. A sad truth, but true nonetheless.

  • janeen herskovitz

    April 10th, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    Candi, I can SO relate to your comments. However, in my experience, both personally and professionally, our bodies and brains can only take so much. Life with ASD is a tough one, for the whole family. Even if you can’t find the time for therapy, set aside time daily or weekly just for you. When you feel those pangs of guilt, come up with a mantra you can tell yourself like, “It’s ok to do this. I need time for me so I can be the best parent I can be.” If you’re a person who has trouble saying no, or has very little self compassion, therapy may be needed for a bit to help you learn some new skills. I’ve been there!

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