Going the extra mile

Continuing the coverage from the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference, Ella Rhodes reports from a developmental psychology symposium.

During a developmental symposium speakers demonstrated both the impact research can have, and the usefulness of psychology in measuring impact.

First, Dr Sarah White (UCL) outlined her work on the problems seen in those on the autistic spectrum in imagining another person’s mental state – known as mentalising or theory of mind. These difficulties, White said, are not always seen in every person on the spectrum – higher-functioning children and adults often pass tests of mentalising. Is this a genuine ability, or are they compensating in some way? White divided groups of children into high and low performers on a theory of mind test and five years later, when the children had reached adolescence, carried out a similar test in an fMRI scanner. Both autistic-spectrum groups had increased activity in a group of brain areas associated with mentalising compared to the control group. White said that in spite of each group’s performance this abnormal activity was evidence that a lack of spontaneous theory of mind was a universal feature of autism.

How is this compensation in performance achieved? White said it must have happened early in development, as the adolescents scanned showed similarly high performance when tested as children. An eye-tracking study with high-functioning adults who have ASD suggested that theory of mind was not happening automatically in adults either. White said that as her experiments have suggested a universal lack of spontaneous theory of mind, there should perhaps be a focus on improving this ability among people on the autistic spectrum.

White hopes to use a computer programme to help young children with autism learn how to do pretend play. This requires mentalising, and White has started to work with a PhD student at Cambridge University to develop an augmented reality app – where blocks children play with appear as planes, cars or other objects on screen. The children are given instructions such as ‘fly the plane off the runway’ pretending the block is a plane. White explained this would allow young children with autism to experience object substitution.

This year’s conference focused on the theme of impact, and Dr Deborah Riby’s (University of Durham) work showed psychological research can be used to have meaningful impact on families’ lives. She has looked into the problem of anxiety among people with William’s Syndrome (WS), a neurodevelopmental disorder with a prevalence in the UK of around 1 in 18,000.People with WS who have high levels of anxiety have significant problems with social functioning, and it has also been linked to repetitive behaviours – possibly used to soothe anxiety. Riby has worked with parents of those with the syndrome and said they had been instrumental in the direction her work had taken, and its subsequent impact.

Through surveys given to parents of those with WS, Riby found a fear of the future and noise were very common as were specific phobias of height, animals, flying, health and new activities. Half of the parents surveyed said their child’s anxiety had impacted on relationships and the freedom of the family, as unanticipated events can cause significant distress. Parents also said they had significant problems getting help for their child, and many wished they had some ‘tips and tricks’ to help their child and raise awareness among parents, teachers and doctors that behavioural outbursts can be an anxiety response rather than just a facet of the syndrome. Riby and her team went on to develop booklets which were distributed to parents in the UK and France. She now hopes to carry out further interviews about the booklet and develop one around anxiety in adults with WS, as the problem seems to increase with age. Her group has also been running workshops, giving parents and those working with WS advice and a valuable support network.

Since 2012, St Ninian’s Primary School in Stirling has been encouraging its pupils to walk or a run a mile a day during school hours. Since that time the so-called Daily Mile has hit international headlines and many more schools have been encouraged to take up the initiative. Dr Josie Booth (University of Edinburgh) has been working to evaluate the usefulness of the Daily Mile. She pointed out that only around 29 per cent of 11-year-old boys and 21 per cent of 11-year-old girls in Scotland meet the recommended 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity.

In the Daily Mile, founded by St Ninian’s Head Teacher Elaine Wyllie, each pupil walks or runs outside for 15 minutes a day. Teachers lead the activity and can take the children out of class at any point during school to let the children do their mile. It has proved popular with children, teachers and parents, but does it have a benefit?

Last summer Booth and her team set out to collect extensive data from three schools; St Ninians, a control school which is not using the Daily Mile, and a third which has since implemented it. The pupils are being measured on their height, weight, body composition, fitness, cognition, school attainment, wellbeing and classroom behaviour. The data is still being collected, but Booth presented findings that there are lower levels of obese children at St Ninians, and that the school has lower-reported behavioural problems, higher satisfaction with life in general at the school and lower social behaviour problems compared to Growing Up in Scotland data. However, Booth pointed out that it is too early to confirm whether any of these benefits are due to the Daily Mile, and that while schools are being encouraged to take it up the evidence is not there. In the meantime, Booth said she was cautious about implementing the Daily Mile in a widespread way. 

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