Thinking Outside the Box – An Interview with Dr. Ana Hanlon-Dearman

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Thinking Outside the Box – An Interview with Dr. Ana Hanlon-Dearman

Dr. Ana Hanlon-Dearman is a Developmental Paediatrician and the Medical Director of the Manitoba FASD Centre. As a Developmental Paediatrician, Dr. Hanlon-Dearman treats children with cognitive, learning, and behavioural disabilities. This includes children diagnosed with disabilities such as FASD, ADAH, and autism.

She has spent the majority of her career at the Manitoba FASD Centre, where she recently started in her new role as the Medical Director. To add to this impressive resume, Ana is also a Research Co-Lead with Canada FASD Research Network in the area of FASD Diagnostics. She shares this responsibility with her other Co-Leads, Dr. Mansfield Mela and Dr. Jocelynn Cook.

“I love the idea that CanFASD is a national organization… I love the idea that it has leads in a variety of different areas and we all have our own areas of research that are different but complimentary to really help kind of inform that total picture of FASD.”

Ana’s Experience with FASD

When Ana was first exposed to FASD as a resident, approximately 25 years ago, researchers didn’t know a lot about this disability. They knew that FASD was related to alcohol use during pregnancy, but they didn’t have a strong understanding of how this developmental disability could impact so many aspects of an individual’s life.

Ana says researchers did not have a strong understanding of the neurological factors at play that influence behaviour. She got involved with FASD research because she wanted to understand the complexity of FASD and change the misinformation that surrounded this disability. But she stayed in this field because she enjoyed the complexities of the research

“I also like it, I have to say, because it challenges me every single day.”

But FASD was not her only area of interest. Ana was also curious about sleep disorders. Her focus is not on physical sleep disorders, like difficulty breathing, but on behavioural sleep disorders. The questions she asks revolve around why kids have trouble falling asleep; why they have difficulty staying asleep; and why they may behave differently when they’re sleeping.

Early on in her career, her mentors suggested she meld her two interests and conduct research on sleep disorders in individuals with FASD.

FASD and Sleep Disorders

Research has found that children with FASD are far more likely to struggle with falling asleep and staying asleep. They are often very sensitive to sensory factors, like the texture of bedclothes, the amount of light, or the temperature of the room.

A group of researchers, including Ana, used this background research to develop a program called Better Nights, Better Days.  This is an online program for parents of children with sleep disorders. The goal of the program is to give parents the tools they need to improve their child’s sleeping habits.

“Think of it like an online parent coaching model…You go through and you learn a little bit about sleep disorders and then there are different areas that parents can work through to help them understand sleep better and get some ideas about how to help.”

The research group hopes that this program can help improve the sleep habits of children with disabilities, but they need to test out the program to see whether it is effective at achieving this goal. The researchers are looking for Canadian families with children between 1 and 10 years of age to help test out the efficacy of this program. If you are interested in participating, a full list of participant requirements and an explanation of the process is available on their website.

Looking Outside the Box

Ana advocates for creativity in research saying, “If things don’t make sense in a traditional model, then look outside the box.” She advises any researcher looking to get into the field of FASD to think broadly, keep an open mind, and listen to those with lived experience.

Her advice comes from personal experience. She wasn’t initially successful at publishing in this field because other researchers didn’t believe it to be an important area of study.

“I remember when I started in sleep research, for example. I had people who would tell me that sleep problems were because people weren’t putting their kids to bed when they should.”

She ignored the advice of those researchers and she chose to listen to the concerns of parents who came to her and told her that they couldn’t get their children to sleep. Over time her persistence paid off. The findings of her research helped to combat stereotypes that linked poor sleep to children’s behaviour or parenting styles and helped to develop supports to improve sleep in children with disabilities.

She wants the world to recognize that individuals with FASD are not so different than you or I.

“Individuals with FASD are individuals. They’re people. They’re people who live in families, who want to grow up and do the things they love and be with the people they love and contribute to society.”

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