LAFAYETTE -- It's clear that anxiety, attention, learning and behavioral challenges are front-burner topics for local parents and educators of special needs children.
Also certain, according to one area developmental pediatrician, is that more financial resources are needed to support existing services.
"If systems of care in our community were appropriately developed, supported and funded, the large majority of children I see would not need to see me," said Dr. Brad D. Berman, who said he is one of only 16 developmental pediatricians in the Bay Area.
More than 100 people attended a presentation by Berman, during which he answered questions about youth psychiatric issues ranging from medications to finding welcoming groups for their children.
There are many contributing factors to today's problems, Berman told the audience -- "trickle up" educational standards now applying what used to be expected of a seventh-grader to present-day fourth-graders, and what Berman considers excessive exposure to cell phones and electronic devices feeding anxiety and destroying old-fashioned down time.
"There's not enough time for them to negotiate with other kids, to just be, to watch the dust bunnies," said Berman.
Parents aren't experts at diagnosis, but they should be listened to when they see a pattern of delay, he added. "I'm not a big fan of 'Don't worry, he'll outgrow it.' "
There are fairly standard "red flags" for when answers should be sought, Berman said -- "When a child shows an atypical course for what would be expected according to age, gender, socioeconomic situation, and family, community and cultural expectations."
California's mobile, transient environment, plus parents' misplaced frustrations with local schools' special-education plans (generally underfunded, Berman said) sometimes undermines families' efforts to get the best for their kids, according to Berman. But he stressed that the parents need to be proactive on that front.
"It's incumbent on parents to get the school to understand their child's needs," he said.
And as long as funding-per-pupil is underfinanced -- California is 46th in the U.S. -- there's a limit to what services can be offered.
Berman told the audience the impacts of puberty are also a crucial factor when deciding on medications. Growth, sexual orientation, mastering aggression and finding one's place in the world are universal adolescent-age themes, and medications are a neuro-bioactive tool.
Spinning through side effects of several common medications used to treat anxiety and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Berman reminded the audience that not medicating also has side effects.
Berman said cognitive behavioral therapy is always the first choice of treatment. Eliminating stressors, engaging in mindfulness training and yoga, knowledgeable use of herbal remedies and helping kids discover their strengths as they find a welcoming community for themselves are vital actions parents can take.
"We're not in the business of fixing kids; it's (helping them) to learn to live with the challenges they have," he said.
Berman urged his audience to limit their children's electronics exposure, advocate for stronger health care system support (like state Senate Bill 946, mandating insurance companies and health care service plans cover therapy for autism and related disorders) and work collaboratively with doctors, schools and local resource centers aimed at helping their children.
Often collaborating with general pediatricians, neurologists, speech therapists, psychologists, educators and a child's family, doctors sharing Berman's specialty are a rare breed, he said, though comparatively abundant in the Bay Area.
"Believe it or not, there are only about 600 developmental pediatricians in the world," he said.