Respecting individual differences

By Vicki Louk Balint

Daniel B. Kessler, M.D. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

Last year, developmental behavioral pediatrician Daniel B. Kessler, M.D. joined Southwest Human Development to help establish the Children’s Developmental Center. The center offers a team approach to assessing and treating children birth to age 5 who face developmental or behavioral challenges, minimizing the frustration factor for parents seeking answers and support. Kessler talks about medication myths, Internet misinformation and why celebrating individual differences is the key to meeting the needs of any child.

Over the course of your practice, what has changed about how medical professionals, the general public and parents view ADHD, autism and other developmental differences?

The myths were that these kids didn’t exist when their parents were growing up. The worst of the myths is that pharmaceutical companies are inventing these [conditions] to sell their products. These are real, biologically based differences. There is a tremendous and still growing evidence base for them. And they existed before—we just didn’t know what to look for.

Talk about how parents typically begin to realize that they are raising a child with challenges. Where’s the first place they might look for help?

Parents have generally heard from teachers, relatives or neighbors that there are some aspects to their child’s behavior or performance or learning that’s not what it could be or should be. They speak to other people; they go online. The problem with the Internet at this point is that there’s not too little information, there’s too much. Everybody’s an expert, everybody has an opinion, everybody knows what you should do for your child. And much of that intervention is irrelevant or wrong.

What is the most common bit of misinformation that influences families looking for answers?

Well, the biggest myth is about using medication. No family really wants to put their child on medication. You have to have respect for those medications, you need to know what they are capable of and what they’re not, you need to follow that child with any suggestion that you make—is it helping or is it not helping?

How do you begin a conversation about using medication with parents? It can be a big step.

The opportunity to follow kids over a long period of time has allowed me to say to families, “This has been helpful to many kids. It may not be helpful to your child. We’re going to watch your child. But there’s so much good to be had by looking at all the potential medications that are available.” Parents need to be open to the possibilities.

Are we, as a society, getting better at meeting the needs of children with developmental and/or behavioral challenges? Especially at a time of budget cutbacks for services?

We are getting better, absolutely. I think our understanding improves all the time. I think we have to allow the larger society to know that it is not to their advantage to ignore these needs. Not choosing to expend resources would be very shortsighted. We need to support our schools. We need to better equip our teachers to handle the challenges of our children.

You worked with noted pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. during your residency training. What did you learn?

One of his key teachings is “we’re all individuals.” Babies at birth are all individuals. They have individual differences that we need to learn and respect, and that was the most important lesson I think that I learned early in my career: to accept and understand each person as an individual. We’re not imprints of any of our parents, as I found out with my own kids, thank goodness, and taking that lesson with me has been instrumental in everything I’ve done.

After you completed your medical residency, you moved with your family from New York City to Arizona, looking to best meet the needs of your own children.

We knew it was going to be a long haul raising kids in the middle of New York City. I learned early on that my oldest, my son who is now 27 and incredibly successful as an adult, had some early learning issues. So we had to seek out resources for him. All of that would have been much more difficult in New York. We did locate good schools [here], and supported their needs. Both of my kids were quite different from one another.

What is most satisfying about what you do?

It’s the kids and the families. I decided to be a pediatrician because I thought pediatricians were having the most fun. And as a pediatric resident, to have an opportunity to sit with a family and a child, to interact with that child and family in something more than a seven-minute visit, was the most satisfying. To help them get where they need to go or want to go is unhesitatingly the most satisfying thing, the most rewarding thing that I do.

Phoenix multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for Raising Arizona Kids and through her own company, Small Change Productions.


More on working with T. Berry Brazelton, taking a team approach to care and why investing in early childhood intervention pays off down the road. Listen to our full interview with Dr. Kessler.


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