Autism Is The Child Of Social Disconnection

Autism is increasing at an alarming rate, according to Autism Society Canada, and may have doubled in the past decade. About 105,000 Canadians have an autistic or other developmental disorder, and 3,000 new cases were diagnosed in Canada in 2002. Statistics from school boards in Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Quebec show an average increase in autism cases of 63 per cent over the last two years. Experts see no clear reason for the increase. The answer appears invisible only because it’s too close for us to recognize it.

Autism is a disorder of development, characterized by impairments in interpersonal and social interaction and communication, along with rigidly repetitive and apparently purposeless behaviors such as tics. Genes are the usual suspects cited by researchers. However, the gene pool does not change so rapidly that it could even remotely account for the epidemic in autism and its related disorders. Nor does heightened awareness of the condition provide a clue. Although there was a nearly 300-per-cent rise in autism cases in California between 1987 and 1998, a major study at the UC Davis Medical School in 2002 found that the increase was real and not due to statistical factors.

What, then, is happening to so many of our children?

In a word, it’s a matter of connection. On the neuroanatomical level, the brains of children with autism have reduced connections between important emotional centres and other brain regions. Psychologically, the autistic child lives in a world of his own, largely isolated from emotional contact with those who love him.

Such disconnect, though to lesser degrees, is also a feature of the many other developmental disorders now afflicting burgeoning numbers of children, including Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s and attention-deficit disorder. We all know the frustration, and even rage, we can experience when we make a phone call and instead of getting a responsive human being, we are greeted by a mechanical recorded menu. Such frustrated rage at the disconnect is the constant emotional realm of the autistic child.

The physiology of brain development can no more be understood in isolation from the environment than we can explain a flower’s growth without reference to soil conditions or climate. Even more than the flowering plant, the human brain develops in interaction with the environment. Genes, while important in their own right, are activated or turned off by external triggers.

Ninety per cent of brain development occurs after birth, during the first two or three years of life. It is during this time that the genetic material is triggered to express itself in healthy or in disordered ways.

Input from the nurturing environment heavily influences the chemistry of the brain, the growth and interconnections of neurons, or nerve cells, and the development and interconnectedness of brain regions. The most crucial of these inputs are the subtle and often unconscious emotional interactions between the infant and his caregivers. To comprehend what is happening to the brains of children, we need to look at what has happened to the child-rearing milieu over the past few decades.

Fewer children today have the luxury of being born into the non-stressed, emotionally balanced and nurturing environments that the optimal biological development of the human brain requires.

Parents of children with autism and other disorders do not love their children any less than other parents; they are not less skilled or devoted to the parenting task. To explain the explosion in childhood disorders we need to look to broad social factors, not to individual parental failure.

Throughout human evolution, children have been reared in the context of strong emotional relationships, in what may be called the “attachment village.” In tribe, clan, village, community, neighbourhood and in the clasp of the extended family, children were assured of the nurturing influences necessary for healthy brain development.

That emotional nexus is, with catastrophic rapidity, disappearing from our lives. Tribe, clan, village, community are things of the past. We are less and less connected to our neighbours, extended family or fellow workers, even to our own spouses.

Recent economic, social and cultural changes mean the family is functionally less and less intact. Parents are increasingly stressed and isolated. If the connections in our children’s brains are not as developed as they ought to be, it’s because the social connections on which they depend have been greatly weakened.

On the positive side, the human brain retains a capacity for development throughout childhood and beyond. Emotional connection is the key. The greatest successes in the treatment of autism rely on building and maintaining a secure and powerful emotional relationship with the child.

14 thoughts on “Autism Is The Child Of Social Disconnection

  1. Snorre Grimstad says:

    I’d love to hear more from you on this topic or to be pointed in a direction of what you deem to be worthy literature on the subject.

  2. Drew A Tupper says:


    I see families where there is a lot of connection, yet still social disorders develop.

    Have you considered that too much (of a certain kind of) connection can play a part in developing these social disorders? The parent who constantly connects, engulfs and overprotects the child does not allow the child to learn how experience the world on his own terms.

    This undermines the connection the child develops with himself. In this way severe anxiety can develop in a environment where parents protect, enable and disempower their own children, if only inadvertently.

    The intent is to be a good parent, but no resilience is being built.

    It is hard to detect with attentive parents, because it looks as if they are very present and are doing all the right things.

    What do you think?

    1. Lisa Lee says:

      This is a very interesting perspective. I’ve recently started to suspect my son may be on the spectrum and came to Dr Mate’s site because his perspective on disorders, illness and diseases ring completely true to me.

      His explanation above doesn’t describe the parenting we’ve done with our son though. But your description totally does. I’ve had depression and anxiety almost since he was born and I’ve known that the anxiety (much as I’ve tried to manage it) would be transferred to him in some way.

      But your description of how I have perhaps prevented him from being able to make sense of the world, created anxiety and disempowerment by being too present, too keen to connect, essentially engulfing him, makes 100% sense.

      I can work with that. Thanks so much.

    2. Kiki says:

      No, no such thing as too much connectivity

  3. Robin Moore-Slater says:

    I think we must also look at the chemical environment in which we live, grow and develop, and the fact is that there are many untested chemicals in the environment of the developed world. Neurotoxins have been in common use as pesticides, and pesticide residue has become commonplace. Endocrine disruptors are commonplace now–and we humans are no more resistant than are the pests we have been eliminating. More testing and banning of dangerous profitable chemicals are in order.

  4. Caroline says:

    My mother was psychotic at my birth & I believe something in me sensed that she was incapable. My father (1927-1984) an old school Tweed suit GP once wondered if he was ‘a bit autistic.
    I believe nature eventually triumphs where there is no nurture. The trick is not to kill yourself before you realise not to ascribe to the widely held view that family & friends are your only hope. Nature can triumph (one day) this is achievable

  5. Monica says:

    I think being Autistic is just a different way of being in the world, that was once accepted and valued, but our culture and societies no longer have a place or use for. It is not an epidemic. The world has become far more polluted by sound, vibrations, light, and movement than ever before. Autistics experience the world in a very sensory oriented and sensory heightened way. And the fabric and organization in our culture of families, extended families, tribes, villages is broken and there is no longer a place for people who function this way (with these gifts). If an individual is forced to endure constant vestibular, auditory, visual over stimulation, forced to pretend to function like a non-Autistic and told how Autistics are instead of asked how they are or given an opportunity to communicate their experience in their own way, they are then perceived as having behavior problems, social/emotional delay, meltdowns, tantrums. Of course you that is what you will get from them.

  6. Ocean says:

    Can you please hook up with some good autistic advocates and fix you’re broken and damaging view of autism.
    Your work is otherwise valuable but you miss the mark catastrophically on autism.

    Try Autism is a human variation that’s always been around but is increasingly understood and therefore identified.
    Being autistic in a neurotypical world is traumatic.
    That’s where you can join the conversation while also staying in your lane.

  7. Marius says:

    This har probably to do with hightned levels of dopamine and serotonine as there are explosive use of SSRI drugs beeing used for so many things. Interesting article and references. I must say that its very important to grasp the complexities that these issues and imbalances are related to.

  8. Scrim says:

    We’re not blaming the parents, yet hey, the family is breaking down so yeah, let’s blame the parents…

    Autism numbers are rising because it is being understood and recognised – and here’s a thing – after countless decades, the emphasis on gendering it as affecting AMAB only has been thoroughly debunked. So of course numbers are increasing.

    As for the rest of this outdated, uninformed and offensive claptrap, try talking to some actually autistic people.

  9. Nathan Dean says:

    I find it interesting this is your take on autism. You reach the right conclusion at the end of this short piece, that autistic people possess the same capacity for emotional engagement as anyone, and therefore being emotionally caring is the primary method of helping autistic people–but you get there in this roundabout, genetic-heavy methodology which just seems to counteract all lived experience of autism as well as, more troubling, most of your own theories of how mental health functions. I’d be intrigued to see why you are taking this medicalised avenue here, but not with anything else…

  10. Serena says:

    I think the point of this article may not be to try and hypothesise a causative agent for the development of autism, but perhaps to try and determine why autistic people often are subject so much struggle and difficulty in their childhood (which often continues into adulthood). It seems to me that the message is that autistic children that are raised without the ‘village’ or by parents who are subject to intense stress or trauma themselves may not get the support they need to develop confidence and an understanding of themselves – and therefore go on to suffer for longer with unmanaged or badly managed symptoms in childhood and a lack of coping strategies and social support as adults. Obviously this is different for everyone and impacted by the level of support a person requires. I still think this article presents an good insight into how the brain development of an autistic baby/child would be impacted by an unstable or stressful home life.

  11. Nelson Rushton says:

    An autism diagnosis opens the door for special treatment and accomodations, so the diagnosis is an asset. I know this because my son has been diagnosed with mild to moderate autism. Thus parents have every incentive to take their kids to clinics that are known to hand out the diagnosis. What do you expect? This may or may not be the reason for the explosion in reported cases, but to discuss the issue and leave out that obvious factor is peculiar.

  12. Nelson Rushton says:

    An autism diagnosis is an asset in today’s world. I know this because my son has been diagnosed with mild to moderate autism, which gives him the legal right to one on one instruction in the school system. Clinics that give out the diagnosis liberally attract customers because the diagnosis is an asset. So what do you expect?
    This may or may not contribute to the explosion in reported cases, but I think it is part of any reasonable discussion.

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