Interview with Ashley Pallathra, Doctoral Candidate and Author

Ashley Pallathra, M.A., Doctoral Candidate

1. To start off, can you tell me a bit about your professional background?

Both myself (Ashley Pallathra, M.A.) and my writing partner (Edward Brodkin, M.D.), work as mental health professionals and clinical researchers. I hold my master’s degree in psychology, and I am currently a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Edward (Ted) is a board certified psychiatrist, Associate Professor of Psychiatry with tenure at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Adult Autism Spectrum Program at Penn Medicine,

2. Tell me about your book, Missing Each Other. How did you come to writing on the topic of human connection?

In 2014, Ted and I started working together at the University of Pennsylvania, where we were implementing a clinical research study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The purpose of the study was to evaluate the effectiveness of a novel program to provide autistic adults with support for their social functioning (e.g., social skills, emotion regulation, relationship development, etc.). Essentially we were really interested in understanding the questions of how we connect, or fail to connect, with each other.

Over time, we realized that the skills we were aiming to cultivate for our research participants went beyond simple social skills or social cognition (e.g., understanding other people and interactions). Many of our participants were struggling to “tune in” or get “in sync” with both others and with themselves. We started to characterize it as “attunement” or the ability to “make contact” with others. It’s the ability to feel genuinely connected to someone. It’s an elusive concept that hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves. It also felt like a relevant topic for typically developing individuals (i.e., people who are not on the autism spectrum). With rates of loneliness, social isolation, and anxiety/depression increasing globally, we felt pulled to explore this concept more in a way that might reach the general public.

3. Who is your book for, and what is the main takeaway you’d like readers to have after reading?

In short, our book is for anyone interested in understanding how to better connect and strengthen their social interactions – whether with close, intimate relationships or with casual acquaintances. I consider it a “popular psychology” or nonfiction work that weaves together storytelling with scientific research in a way that we hope feels relevant and culturally informed.

One of our main takeaways from the book is that a having a good life requires cultivating our connections with other people. And the key to authentic connection is in this process called “attunement.” We are all social beings, no matter how introverted or extroverted you are. But there’s a lot of things that get in the way or disrupt our ability to experience authentic connections. What sets our book apart is that we dive into practical and accessible strategies that readers can implement in their own lives to strengthen both their personal and professional relationships.

We consider attunement to be made up of 4 dynamic components: relaxed awareness, listening, understanding, and mutual responsiveness. Relaxed awareness, enables you to be able to listen to other people much better, consequently strengthening your connection to them. Listening is one of those things that many of us take for granted, but it’s really an art form. By listening, we don’t just mean hearing the literal meaning of the other person’s words, but also noticing the nuances of their communication: their tone of voice, the pauses in their speech, their facial expression, eye contact, body language. Understanding includes being aware of your own assumptions, biases, etc. that may impinge on your ability to understand others. Finally, attunement requires that we meet someone where they are in order to facilitate the formation of connection. By breaking each component down individually, we’re able to help readers target each one with specific exercises.

4. I love the video resources on your website! Tell me more about how these activities came together?

Thank you! As I mentioned above, in addition to talking about the individual component of attunement, we provide exercises that readers can practice individually and/or with partners (e.g., friends, family members, colleagues, etc.). These exercises are in part based on Tai Chi and mindfulness practices that incorporate a mind-body connection that we believe are important for cultivating connection. I think our exercises are unique in that they can be adapted to be taken off the “yoga mat”. In other words, they don’t have to be practiced in isolation. Instead we help you integrate them into your busy daily schedules. You can practice them while in a stressful business meeting or on your walk to the metro or your car. We want them to help you feel attuned in as many different social situations as possible.

5. Tell me a bit about your work as you’re pursuing your PhD?

As a clinical psychology graduate student, my research focuses on strengthening social competence and resilience skills in predominately racial/ethnic minority youth. I am a member of the Child Cognition, Affect, and Behavior Lab. We partner with schools in the Washington, DC metropolitan area where we implement a resilience based group therapy (The Resilience Builder Program ®) that helps strength social competence and resilience skills like proactive orientation towards challenges, emotion/behavior regulation, and adaptiveness. It’s a transdiagnostic approach that places a strong emphasis on social connection. I love the way this intervention is able to facilitate growth for kids with a number of different kinds of struggles, whether it be related to anxiety, attention dysregulation, mood disorders, disruptive/conduct difficulties, academic challenges, etc.

Personally, I’ve had a strong interest in understanding the impact of this treatment through a culturally informed lens. My research has revealed a dual-language advantage in social competence and resilience skills among my bilingual participants as compared to our monolingual students. My dissertation is currently investigating the impact of parent resilience on child functioning pre-treatment and how it might predict treatment responsiveness over time. We’ve had to adapt our research in the age of the pandemic, so it will be interesting to see how our results evolve while conducting our group therapy via telehealth now. Stay tuned!

6. Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to share about?

Ted and I are now bloggers! You can catch our weekly blog on Medium where we explore the concept of attunement further and how readers can continue to strengthen their connections and relationships. We also write for Psychology Today on similar topics. We’d love to engage more with individuals interested in these topics! You can follow us on Twitter as well (@ashleypallathra and @tedbrodkin).

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. Her clinical interests are varied and include child and adolescent therapy, TF-CBT, rural psychology, telemental health, sexual and domestic violence, psychological assessment, and mental illness prevention. Dr. Marschall presently works in the Child and Adolescent Therapy Clinic at Sioux Falls Psychological Services in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she provides individual and family therapy and psychological assessment to children, adolescents, and college students. She also facilitates an art therapy group for adolescents and college students with anxiety and depression. Dr. Amy Marschall is certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Telemental Health.

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