Helping Special Needs Keiki

By Dr. Gaby Toloza
Interviewed by Rasa Fournier
Wednesday - September 14, 2011
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Dr. Gaby Toloza
Doctor of Psychology

Where did you receive your schooling/training?

I received my master’s degree in counseling psychology from Chaminade University and my doctorate in clinical psychology from Argosy University in Honolulu. I did my training in general psychology, which allowed me to work with a wide range of individuals from incarcerated women to foster youth to children with autism. My focus has always been to work with children and families. This month I’ll take the exam to be a licensed clinical psychologist.

When did you graduate from Argosy?

In 2009.

Can you talk about your work with children?

I have a nonprofit called Creative Connections Foundation, where we focus on working with children with special needs. A lot of our children have autism, but there’s also kids with ADHD or other mental health issues and behavioral problems. Our focus is to build functional life skills by giving them natural social opportunities that will help them to communicate better and navigate their local community. Schools try to teach kids to become as successful as they can, but they focus on their academics. Our focus is getting them out there to the post office, or surfing, or to the water park our kids this summer went horseback riding all kinds of things that children with special needs sometimes never get to try.

I also am co-owner of a group psychology practice called the Hawaii Center for Children and Families (HCCF). We work with all types of children and teens including children who have experienced a trauma, foster children, children with ADHD, behavioral problems, kids going through a divorce. We provide individual and group therapy as well as assessment services to children, adolescents and their families.

You mentioned earlier that you like fostering proactive behavior versus waiting for a crisis. Can you address that?

When a family goes through a divorce, it is going to have an impact on a child. Instead of waiting until the child starts to display symptoms, go in and see a therapist or psychologist. Start talking about what it’s going to be like, prepare the child for the process of living in separate homes.

At the HCCF we run groups for kids who are going through a divorce, so they talk about living in two different homes and what that’s like.

Dr. Gaby Toloza (right) and Mariko Adviento, assistant camp director at Creative Connections Foundation, prepare to engage children in therapeutic activities. Leah Friel photo .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

What age group do you work with?

Children of all ages from as young as 3 through 18. I also work with young adults, adults and families.

Do you deal with children who have disorders that lead to cutting themselves, pulling out their hair, eating disorders, etc.?

We have different types of children with a wide range of issues. We have young ones and teenagers who are depressed for various reasons. We have children who don’t have friends or are having a hard time coping with school or a family stressor. It can be at a level that involves the risk of self-harm behaviors or it can be where they’re just starting to isolate themselves, grades are slipping and we can hopefully intervene early. However, we do not provide crisis or emergency services.

How do you get those kids functional again?

Through things like individual or group therapy, helping them feel heard, though groups with other children who are going through a similar experience, through working with the family system and ideally establishing a network of support. My goal is giving a person a space to feel heard, understood and not judged. I also aim to help them develop coping skills and greater awareness of themselves and their personal value to the world by helping them learn to express themselves or how to ask for what they need.

Would you say a lot of mental disabilities go undiagnosed?

Disabilities might go undiagnosed for a variety of reasons. People might not get help because of the stigma attached the label of having a mental health problem. Unfortunately, the media still presents mental health disorders in a predominantly negative manner. I like to think that we all fall in a different place on this really big spectrum. We use a book that helps us to diagnose people, but I think if we looked at that book we’d all find disorders that sound like us. It’s all about different degrees of severity and how the disordered behavior impacts our life. We are all different and life stressors impact us each in unique ways.

Limited knowledge by the youths, their parents, educators or physicians to recognize the signs of concern is another reason for undiagnosed children. For example, youths with Asperger’s or autism are often missed in the school system because they’re usually very bright academically. They can read and write. They’re always seen as different, a little bit awkward and sometimes around middle school or high school is when they start to have social challenges. It’s hard for them to make friends. Instead of getting labeled with something like autism, they might be labeled as the awkward kid or the loner, which is unfortunate.

What I tell our teenagers who have Asperger’s is that because of what they have, they see the world differently. For example, one of our clients has a hard time when he gets a bad grade. We’re talking 98 percent. He thinks the world’s going to end. Now he’s come to accept that he can say, “This is my Asperger’s getting at me.” That’s much more empowering than, “What’s wrong with me?”

When should a parent seek help for their child?

When the school or other caregivers start to mention that he’s having a hard time focusing or the homework grades start to slip. Or you start to notice children isolating themselves that’s a red flag. Basically, when parents notice new behavior patterns that are unusual or seem concerning, they should talk with other caregivers/educators and with their child to foster open communication. If the child’s symptoms persist or worsen, seeking out the opinion of a psychologist is advised.

Any important tips for parents?

Encouraging healthy bonding through playing with children is my biggest message to parents. Find ways to connect with your children on their turf with their interests. Taking the time to show interest and to actually play and interact with them will mean a lot and help to foster healthy interpersonal relationship skills, which are so essential in life today. Talking and hearing your child’s perspective is not only enlightening, it’s also an empowering experience for each child.

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