Today's blog features inspiring individual Sheneen Daniels. Dr. Sheneen Daniels is the Director of the Clinical Division for CReATE, a unique private practice specializing in the provision of evidenced-based evaluations and the implementation of applied clinical research. At CReATE, she manages all clinical, administrative, programmatic, supervision, and training for a team of doctoral-level psychologists, graduate students, and other clinicians. She is a licensed psychologist with over 15 years experience in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders and conditions. Dr. Daniels currently holds a position as Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with primary duties as Consulting Psychologist to the UNC TEACCH Autism Program (Asheville Center). Camp Spring Creek: You have conducted thousands of psychological evaluations, many for children with learning differences such as dyslexia. Based on your experience, if there was a message you could give to others about how these children experience the world, what message would that be?
Sheneen Daniels: Well, I think the main message would be that children with dyslexia are as unique and diverse as children without dyslexia, and although it is very important to identify dyslexia early in development, I think it is just as important to identify the strengths and gifts of children early as well. I have seen children with dyslexia who are socially gifted, masters at constructing things with their hands, unbelievably musically talented, stellar math students, or athletically gifted; the list goes on and on. Every child has a gift and it is important to identify and build upon these strengths, particularly as you are addressing the child’s challenges with reading and/or school in general. The second most important message is to instill hope with understanding. When parents first receive a diagnosis of dyslexia for their child, sometimes it can be overwhelming and they may believe the diagnosis will be a barrier to their child’s long-term success. The child may have started to feel demoralized as school is a big part of a child’s life and receiving a diagnosis may make them feel as if something is inherently “wrong” with them, rather than understanding that his/her brain may just process information differently. However, with the right intervention, support, and a focus on the child’s strengths, children with dyslexia can be quite successful and the possibilities are truly endless!
CSC: Your career demonstrates an admirable commitment to both research and meeting the needs of people with neurodevelopmental conditions and disorders. Those of us who don't work in the sciences often carry an image of the researcher as an inaccessible scientist, dressed in lab whites, holding a clipboard, and sternly overlooking his/her case studies. Can you tell us a little bit about how you balance the emotion and the science of your work? Do they have to be separate? Or perhaps more keenly stated, how do you negotiate the balance between passionate interest and emotional investment, with the objectivity that clinical research requires?
SD: I firmly believe that psychological testing is both a science and an art. Science in that it requires hypothesis testing, data collection and interpretation, as well as a strong, understanding of evaluation instruments, statistics, and current research. However, it is also an art, because it requires creativity, experience, and compassion in order to translate the science in a way that will be helpful for a particular child or family. It really doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have about statistics or research if you can’t present the information in a way that makes sense for the ones who need to understand it. On the flip side, you can have a lot of compassion but if you do not really understand how the science informs clinical practice, then your ability to help the child or family is limited. Every clinician will talk about cringe-worthy cases early in their career, largely related to their inexperience, self doubt, or refusal to think creatively or flexibly. For me, the cases where I was unable to effectively communicate and instill hope, encourage exploration, and ultimately inspire the family (or child) to move forward, tend to be my greatest regrets. At this point in my career, I can share so many wonderful success stories with parents and children who are receiving the diagnosis for the first time, and this can be very inspiring for them as well.
CSC: There are many barriers to early intervention, not the least of which is simply awareness of the fact that early intervention is important and can yield successful outcomes for children with learning differences. But I'm thinking about some of the families in our neck of the woods--many of whom would struggle to get a day off of work (losing pay) to take their child to Asheville (gas money) for an assessment they can't afford. What options do these families have or where might your refer them?
SD: The child’s school system can be the best place to start, though there admittedly are barriers in this environment as well. There can be long timelines and the school is not required to test a child just because the parents request it, although making the request is the first step and should be done in writing. Parents should remember that they are their child's best advocate and communicating regarding their concerns and/or their child's progress can be instrumental. Regarding private evaluations, insurance and Medicaid do not cover psychological testing solely for educational purposes or to determine if a child has dyslexia specifically. However, if there is also concern about ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder or other “medical” disorders, then sometimes the testing can be covered to investigate those conditions. Other diagnoses identified during the evaluation process, including dyslexia, could be documented in the process. Another great resource is a university psychology clinic, where graduate students may administer the tests but are closely supervised by licensed psychologists. Western Carolina University, for example, has a great Psychological Services Clinic and comprehensive evaluations are available for a very low price and may even be discounted based on a family’s ability to pay.
CSC: With your degrees, many areas of research were possible for you. What inspired you to focus your career on neurodevelopmental conditions and disorders, or specifically, learning differences?
SD: I have always really liked math and the sciences always appealed to me; however, I also was drawn to pursuing a discipline where I could make a difference in some way. My first semester of graduate school in clinical psychology included both assessment and statistics courses, which I thought were fascinating, though this was not the case for many in my graduate class! I was intrigued by the variability that I saw in how individuals approached certain tasks and what that might tell us about how their brain processed information or where their strengths might lie. I became especially interested in dyslexia after studying Sally Shaywitz’s work, as she was really able to pinpoint brain functioning through functional MRI’s, and helped to clarify a disorder that was previously misunderstood. And not only did her work bring understanding to dyslexia, but the research also showed that with the right intervention (and early!), individuals could actually modify their brain functioning in ways that could help them to become more fluent readers. I felt that her research brought so much understanding and hope and was able to experience this first hand with a young family member of mine. This particular individual was diagnosed at a young age with a reading disability, though dyslexia was never explained to him. He was quite determined, however, and worked hours on his homework every night for years, though he still struggled. By late high school, however, he was quite discouraged and perceived himself to be not very smart (despite having a superior IQ!). He was conditionally accepted to a local university but had no intention of seeking out support services due to self consciousness and very low expectations for success (he did not believe he would make it past the conditional enrollment period). Around this time, I was nearing the end of my graduate studies and encouraged him to get an updated evaluation with a clinician who had an understanding of dyslexia. The result was truly remarkable. Once he understood that dyslexia meant he had isolated weaknesses in phonemic awareness, spelling, and a slow reading speed -- but that he was quite bright and capable of succeeding in college, his motivation, determination, and expectation for success returned. He subsequently took advantage of support services and accommodations in college and went on to graduate and become a successful professional in the financial field, earning prestigious credentials. This experience highlighted for me, firsthand, the importance of understanding both limitations (i.e., disorders, such as dyslexia) BUT ALSO strengths and how to apply this knowledge towards developing a success-oriented plan for the future.