By Dr. Ronald S. Federici

While the role of the Developmental Neuropsychologist is to evaluate intellectual-cognitive, memory processing, learning aptitude, and problem-solving strategies, a critical duty may actually be in the evaluation of a child’s emotional integrity and perception of relationships. The interplay between neurocognitive development and emotions encompasses basic neurobiology which suggests that human emotions, reactions, interactions and attachments may be strongly mediated by a combination of genetic, neurochemical, neurocognitive and environmental factors. As there has been a tremendous amount of discussion regarding “attachment disorders” in the post-institutionalized child, the current psychological research focuses almost solely on the effects of deprivation and abandonment and the creation of an “attachment disorder” without a more detailed understanding of the role of innate neurocognitive functioning.

While abandonment and institutionalization most certainly has a profound impact on a child’s ability to develop trust, bonding and security in newly adoptive relationships, an emphasis needs to be placed on the integrity of the post-institutionalized child’s higher-level neurocognitive abilities with a comprehensive assessment regarding the availability of “innate skills” needed for bonding, attachment and the development of appropriate social-interactional and reciprocal behaviors. While many children with post-institutionalized attachment disorders may display a combination of unattached or even indiscriminant behaviors (Ames, 1997), many post-institutionalized children display a very intense pattern of behavioral dyscontrol; aggression and violence; destructiveness to self and others; a lack of cause-and-effect thinking; indiscriminant affections to strangers as evidenced by being inappropriately demanding and clingy; or a pattern of social withdrawal, isolation and maintaining a self-stimulating posture. A principle complaint from parents adopting an older child is that the child may be out of synchrony with their environment resulting in difficulties in providing management, structure and organization.

The concept of a “neuropsychologically-based attachment disorder” seems most appropriate for many post-institutionalized children, particularly the child who shows a history of high risk pre and post-natal factors which may have influenced neurocognitive development. For example, there is a documented interaction between growth parameters and neurologic competence in profoundly deprived institutional children assessed in Romanian institutions (Johnson and Federici, 1999). Children who have shown documented medical and neurological impairments along with extended time in institutional settings typically display very pronounced impairments in the development of appropriate social-interactional skills. Combined with suspected impairments in neuropsychological abilities, behavioral patterns can often be quite aberrant and intense in nature, often overwhelming the newly adoptive family.

Therefore, it seems only appropriate to broaden the horizon when assessing children for bonding, attachment or general psychological dysfunction by including a comprehensive assessment of neurocognitive abilities or deficit patterns. As children from institutional settings are at highest risk for medical, neuropsychological and emotional problems, an assessment of only the psychological or behavioral manifestations provides only a partial understanding of the adjustment issues which often produce tremendous stress on the newly adoptive families and treatment providers attempting to intervene and provide services (Johnson, 1997; Federici, 1999).

Careful differential diagnosis regarding neuropsychological versus psychosocially-based attachment disorder can help provide newly adoptive families with better parameters of understanding the post institutionalized child. Additionally, neuropsychological and neurocognitive rehabilitation approaches should typically supersede solely psychological or psychiatric/pharmacological therapies as providing direct interventions and increasing speech and language, sensory-motor, abstractive logic and reasoning and, of greatest significance, visual-perceptual analytic abilities. These brain behavior interventions strengthen the post-institutionalized child’s ability to adequately “perceive” and process human relationships, emotions, facial expressions, social cues, and the necessary sequential “steps” needed to move towards a more healthy level of bonding and attachment. Too often, children from institutional settings are quickly categorized as having either a “reactive attachment disorder” or modicum of psychiatric syndromes ranging from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, varying types of depression and anxiety conditions or, very commonly, oppositional and conduct disorders or even autism/pervasive developmental disorders. While many of these psychiatric patterns may be co-morbid conditions, there needs to be a very aggressive but yet conservative approach in assessing the post-institutionalized child. Rank ordering developmental disabilities of the child as opposed to relying solely on the assessment of families or treatment providers may avoid misleading diagnoses and nonproductive therapeutic interventions.