BLOOM: What led you into the field of children’s rehab?
Amy McPherson: In the U.K. I did my PhD in self-management in childhood asthma. My research has always looked at empowering kids to look after their health by giving them the knowledge and skills—but also the feeling of control over their health—so that they can manage a chronic condition.
When I saw a job opportunity in Participation and Inclusion here it encapsulated my philosophy of working with children with long-term conditions to help them participate and be as active as they want and can be. I did an interview on Skype and I came here for a meet-and-greet. Then I moved 3,000 miles.
BLOOM: Was that a hard decision?
Amy McPherson: It was a no-brainer. I was really drawn to the fact that no one here talked in terms of deficits in kids with disabilities. I met people who were committed to giving kids with disabilities a future that was as meaningful as any other kid’s future.
BLOOM: Can you describe your research?
Amy McPherson: When I first came I was interested in our Busy Bodies program, which promoted healthy eating, physical activity and feeling good. My office was embedded with clinicians in Therapeutic Recreation and Life Skills. That was a phenomenal opportunity to understand what went on in the hospital from a clinical perspective. I worked with therapeutic recreation specialists to understand what the kids in the program thought about health: ‘So you have a disability, what does that make health look like to you?’
It was a great introduction to rethinking my notions of what had been quite a medical approach to self-management, and looking at why participation matters. That was a springboard into looking at different aspects of health, wellness and happiness and working with kids with an existing condition to see what they want their health to look like.
BLOOM: Where does weight fit into that?
Amy McPherson: There’s a two to three times higher prevalence of obesity in kids with disabilities. That puts them at risk of the same secondary conditions that any child with obesity faces. But in addition, it can be harder for a child with a disability who is heavier to move around, do self-care and be independent. Different diagnoses also come with specific challenges that make it hard to manage weight.
BLOOM: How can we help clinicians and families address weight issues?
Amy McPherson: I’m very interested in how we talk about weight and weight management. Often kids get weighed and measured when they come in for regular checkups, yet we hear from clinicians that they have concerns about talking about the topic. This is true with kids in general and their families, as well as kids with disabilities. Doctors don’t feel confident and are worried they’ll ruin a relationship. It’s a hugely stigmatized issue and by doctors saying ‘I don’t want to offend anyone,’ they’re acknowledging the implicit stigma in society that higher weights are bad. We want to find ways to address weight and wellness that are not stigmatizing and judgmental, but supportive and positive.
BLOOM: How do you do that?
Amy McPherson: We’re doing something super cool. Working with Christine Provvidenza, we got Centre for Leadership funding to develop a knowledge translation casebook that is a practical handbook for health professionals about how you talk about weight. It will have things like sentence starters and scripts and simulations of positive and less-positive experiences. It will also have case studies and learning guides and will talk about what the evidence says.
One of the fun parts is that we’re working with families, youth, clinicians, researchers and students to co-develop the content for this handbook. It will be online and interactive. It’s for all children and parents, but will also have chapters addressing common challenges related to different disabilities.
BLOOM: What’s an example of neutral language?
Amy McPherson: The doctor could say: ‘Would it be okay if we talked about how you can feel healthy and energized?’ Or ‘Would you be interested in knowing more ways to stay healthy? How can I help?’
We want to encourage clinicians to have a conversation about wellness that suits the child. You may live in larger body, it doesn’t bother you and you have no medical complications. So we talk about what makes you feel well. Or, you might have a higher weight and a lot of medical complications and are distressed about it. So it may be appropriate to focus more on the weight and work together to reduce those health risks. But we need to always address it in a positive way. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and not everyone who weights over ‘x’ has to be subjected to a medical intervention. It’s not realistic and the evidence doesn’t support that.
Research shows that the vast majority of people who lose weight regain it. Physiologically our bodies will always try to put that weight back on, and it’s got nothing to do with will power. So what is sustainable for this person, and what does health and wellness mean to them? That’s hard for people to get their minds around, because we’re so used to saying ‘let’s fix this, let’s get the number down.’ But we’re setting up people to fail when we do that. There are physical ramifications to putting on and losing weight and it can also be incredibly damaging psychologically.
BLOOM: I’m assuming that one of the reasons doctors don’t like to talk about weight with children is that no one really knows what to recommend?
Amy McPherson: There’s very little evidence about how talking about the topic in different ways affects outcomes. In the future, we’d like to evaluate our knowledge translation casebook in different health settings to start to understand this area more.
BLOOM: What do you love about your work?
Amy McPherson: I love designing ways to figure out what’s really important to individuals and how we can support that person to work towards that. I’m a huge fan of strengths-based approaches. What are you really good at? What are your resources and strengths? How can we support you to thrive, whatever that means to you? I’ve worked on topics like incontinence, sexuality, weight management and wellness. We just received CIHR funding for a study on solution-focused coaching for kids on health promotion goals that they set for themselves. That’s for kids with spina bifida and cerebral palsy.
BLOOM: What’s the greatest challenge of your work?
Amy McPherson: The hardest thing is to break away from the idea that health is a number and it’s just a case of eating less and moving more.
BLOOM: What emotions come with this work?
Amy McPherson: A whole mix of emotions. It’s exciting to be part of a movement that’s enhancing the field. I’m very comfortable with an approach on wellness that is individualized and means something different to each person. It compliments with my own personal philosophy that rather than ‘How can we get you to live in a smaller body?’ the question should be ‘What do you find motivating?’ A person’s best weight has been described as whatever weight a person achieves while living the healthiest lifestyle they enjoy, which I think is a lot more feasible and positive for most people.
The work is also inherently frustrating because it’s complex, and you’re trying to figure out the best way to move forward without doing damage to anybody.
The stigma around kids with disabilities and people who live in bigger bodies makes me feel very sad. And when you have the two together, it’s an intersection of multiple stigma.
BLOOM: I would like us to do more research looking at how we can help children feel comfortable in their own skin. I’ve heard of kids with amputations who wore hot, heavy prostheses for years, even though they didn’t help functionally. And then when they feel more comfortable with their bodies, they abandon them. One woman with no arms in a BBC interview described it as being her ‘independence day.’
Amy McPherson: There are huge parallels between the stigma associated with size, and the stigma associated with other body differences. Difference is not emphasized enough. For example, very often the health benefits of things like being active and eating well are overshadowed by weight loss and unrealistic body ideals. Traditionally in rehabilitation, we haven’t been so good at looking at the big stuff that matters to youth with disabilities—beyond the physical, the function, the fix. We hear that our kids in school often don’t get health and sexuality education. I’ve heard of students with disabilities being told to leave the classroom during those sessions because they don’t need it. We can do so much better.
BLOOM: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were just starting out in this work, what would it be?
Any McPherson: You’ve got to be really tenacious. It’s a bit of a roller coaster, but you need to stick with it and stick with high standards at all times. And collaborate. That’s where the fun is—in working with other scientists, clinicians and families to come up with, if not solutions, then approaches to the things that are really important to children and families.