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Executive functions and everyday life: children with developmental disorders

Professor Lucy Henry talks about her work on developmental disorders, and the role of higher order thinking skills


“I trained as a Clinical Psychologist several years ago, and whilst doing my training, I started a large research project funded by the Wellcome Trust on memory and witness skills in children with intellectual disabilities,” says Professor Lucy Henry. “I have been interested in developmental disorders ever since.”

As a Professor of Speech and Language in the School of Health Sciences, Lucy’s role includes teaching about cognitive development and developmental disorders, in addition to carrying out research exploring memory and higher level thinking skills - often also known as executive functioning - in children with developmental disorders.

“Since the Wellcome Trust project, I have had the opportunity to be involved in further projects on children with intellectual disabilities, as well as children with several other developmental disorders. These include specific language impairment, developmental coordination disorder, Down syndrome, Williams syndrome, histories of childhood maltreatment, special educational needs, and dyslexia (in adults).”

But while the scope of Lucy’s research has expanded over time, it is the work that started with the Wellcome Trust that continues to inform current research. As a result, she is leading a new project which is looking at witness skills in children with developmental disorders.

“We are now working on a project looking at witness skills in children with autism,” says Lucy. “As part of the project we are conducting proper police-style interviews with primary school age children who have witnessed an 'event' (a short play) at school. The children also take part in a police-style identification parade (line-up) and undergo a cross-examination a year later via 'closed-circuit TV' as would be done in a real court case (we use Skype to mimic this) with an experienced barrister.”

In the long run the project aims to better understand what can be done to improve the amount of information that the children recall, without making them more prone to making errors, in addition to several other research questions.

Delivering her inaugural lecture on Thursday 5th March 2015, Lucy's talk centred on what we know and don't know about developmental disorders in children, and particularly higher order thinking skills.

“The talk was about higher order thinking skills (executive functioning) in children with four different developmental disorders: specific language impairment, developmental coordination disorder, Down syndrome, and Williams syndrome. These groups of children have rather different patterns of strengths and weaknesses when we look at their performance on executive functioning tasks.”

Executive functions represent a constellation of abilities required to deal with unfamiliar, demanding and novel situations. These skills include being able to remember, process, and manipulate important details relevant to the task (‘working memory’); ignore information not currently useful, or suppress unhelpful responses (‘inhibition’); switch attention from one thing to another as necessary (‘switching’); plan ahead (‘planning’); and generate new solutions (‘fluency’). An example of executive skills in use would be finding your way from North to South London without a satnav.

As a result, by understanding the executive skills ‘profile’ of children with developmental disorders (for example, which areas are weak or require assistance), suitable interventions can be devised to support them. In the case of Down syndrome, an emphasis on working memory can be beneficial.However despite a lot of progress in the area, certain issues still persist, with lack of awareness still a primary problem.

“Developmental disorders are quite common, and yet public awareness is limited for all but a few (e.g. autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). It would be great if we could have more public awareness of a broader range of developmental disorders, more timely assessments for affected children, and more targeted evidence-based interventions (e.g. training, support) for individual children, as their needs are often very complex.”

So, while great strides have been made over the past few decades, in particular with respect to establishing some key facts about developmental difficulties regarding executive skills, there is still much to be done to help raise awareness of these issues. Luckily for City, we have Lucy and her colleagues, who continue to work hard to find out more about these developmental disorders, helping the children who grow up with these issues.

As a result, Lucy's professorship will also provide an ideal context in which to take her research forward, enabling her to concentrate on the vital work needed to improve our understanding of developmental disorders and of the most effective interventions for the children in question.

Child Witness project:

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