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.

37 thoughts on “Autism Is The Child Of Social Disconnection”

  1. Snorre Grimstad

    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. Hello,

    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. 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.

      1. Thats because you’re autistic aswell.
        It seems Dr Mate has not combined his research with neurodiversity.
        I hope you haven’t stopped giving you child the connection they need

    2. I get completely what you mean. I’d suggest to differentiate some definitions. What you write about is overprotection, limitation, clinging. It is top down, hierarchy, dictated from parent to child adjusted to mainly the needs of the parent (e.g. to not feel the fear of feeling overwhelmed when the child cries and not having learned nor being able to handle their own parent feelings…). Even attachement is not used so much anymore in newer, more reflective sources.
      On the other hand connection as talked about in those kind of sources like Gabor Maté, means connection on the same level between child and parent. It means seeing the child for whom they are, for their fears (not ours), for their strenghts, for their capacities, for their struggles. This is really hard to do for most of us who have not experiences anything similar ourselves.

      I’ll give you some examples: Child has already learned to climb stairs: I do not physically hold their body, but stand behind them to only catch them if they should lose balance. Same for all the emotional situations: I do not remove all possible sources of sadness or anger beforehead (oh, how exhausting that would be anyway!) I am their save harbour to give them the safe space they need to feel all of their emotions and to let them out whenever they need to, so that emotions don’t get stuck unresolved in the specific brain parts. Which is why certain parents cling. As they probably did not feel supported or safe enough when they felt sad or angry or… they most likely have those emotions stuck in their Amygdala and have some fear connected to those type of emotions, why they try do do everything to protect (actually not their child but) themselves from feeling those stuck emotions again. As their brain has saved those emotions as “impossible to handle”.

      So as you suggest it should be the aim of parents to always strengthen that two way connection which strongly includes the perspective and developmental needs of the child. This means to support and to be there as their save haven and at the same time give the space needed to make experiences “on their own”, but not “alone” or “lonely”. It is indeed the balance between connection and autonomy that is important.

    3. This doesn’t explain the sudden onset that coincides with the social and economic changes in culture. The parental behavior you describe has always been present. It may create other behaviors, but it doesn’t seem to match ASD. When we factor in that most children are raised with less family present now due to everyone having jobs, varying schedules, and the amount of time in front screens and not being connected to nurturing, communicating family members we can see the timeline matches quite well with the societal factors that Mate describes.

      1. I agree the increase in rates of autism are largely societal. However parents are *also* to blame if they have birthed a child into the world and do not offer that child a safe and nurturing emotional environment. Who else is?

        I’m autistic. My parents love me and have never emotionally or physically abused me. They gave me so many gifts and often times spoilt me. However they were both unemployed. The house I grew up in was covered in cockroaches as it was a decaying house built in 1958. I didn’t know food could actually taste nice until I learnt to cook for myself.

        But my parents exterior of niceness was then used to gaslight me when I shared my feelings of insecurity. As Gabor explained, I feel like everyone is quite robotic. I was stonewalled from emotional connect growing up because to do so would threaten their own self-worth. Their favorite phrase was “not now”.

        The single most important thing for a child’s development is a safe home to grow up in. My parents lives were also difficult growing up. Their own parent’s also neglected them. That did not absolve them from making better choices, and it doesn’t absolve me either.

    4. I believe, as the article outlines, a BIG problem in our Western culture is the loss of a loving & supportive tribe. 2 parents can not make up for a whole tribe of caring elders, aunts, uncle, siblings, cousins & friends living together & even more so the broken Mum/Dad divorce. But I also strongly believe the current EXPLOSION of Autism is connected to way too many vaccinations in their early years.

  3. Robin Moore-Slater

    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. 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. 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.

    1. Monica! Yes!
      I completely feel the same way.
      I love being neurodivergent and I see it as an evolutionary advantage to have some members of community in the spectrum.

      We can focus so deeply on certain topics of interest; we can look beyond antiquated social assumptions and question them for justice and fairness.

      The world is loud, busy, cluttered and so far removed from natural cycles that it is aggressive for ND folks. But it is not a disease or disorder.

      I live a beautiful life by listening to my authentic body and following my own rhythm. I had to learn by recognising patterns and nurturing my gifts. I had to find ways to contain my experience and not get flooded by the wider world.

      It is possible to thrive as an autistic person and to offer our incredible gifts and talents back to the world.

      I do not feel it’s scientifically accurate to call neurodivergence a disorder.

      I think all people can experience suffering and trauma. Especially if they are forced to be something that they are not. It is possible to live a vibrant, balanced life without any medical conditions as an autistic person. This needs to be discussed also.

      There are advantages to having to having a sensitive brain processing style and lack of confirming to social or cultural assumptions. These advantages allow us to be objective and critical of human patterns that may need change.

      Without our awareness, these patterns may go unseen and unchanged. Autistic people have always existed and they have helped to the world change by speaking up. We sense what is off earlier than neurotypicals do.

      It is crucial that we remain authentic and deeply nurture our gifts. There is nothing wrong with us—and yet as discussed in this thread there is plenty ‘wrong’ with the modern day world as far as tribe, village and connection goes.

      We are the canaries in the mine feeling the pressure cooker. The world needs to listen to kids flapping, crying. They are offering direct feedback about what is not working for everyone.

      Thanks for reading.

      1. Great answer! Yes, those on the spectrum tend to really think for themselves and are not wired for certain unhealthy social games or following the crowd. That can definitely be a positive but can also come back to bite them. It can take a lot of courage and struggle to be truly authentic as a fundamentally different person from the majority of people around you.

      2. “We are the canaries in the mine feeling the pressure cooker. The world needs to listen to kids flapping, crying. They are offering direct feedback about what is not working for everyone.” – love this!

    2. Thank you Monica! I’m Autistic. I think of meltdowns as zoochosis. Some animals are more prone to zoochosis in captivity.

  6. 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.

    1. As an academic, his lane is where ever he chooses to research. Being traumatized makes normal life triggering. What evidence do you have that autism ‘has always bee around’?

      I believe that Gabor Mate is acting in good faith. He is very open to discussion, and so I would not assume that he has excluded autistic people from the discussion, but as you have pointed out, it is a very contentious issue. Advocates are not intellectuals, they are activists who engage in a culture war.

      I thought I was autistic because I met every single criteria (as does my father), read the books, joined the online communities. The symptoms of autism and Flight CPTSD are identical, yet no body wants to acknowledge it because it’s easier to digest and the autism identity is self-affirming.

  7. 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. 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. 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. 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

    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.

    1. Why do you conclude that factor to have been left out? Maybe that above mentioned study could give you some answers?

      “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.”

  12. Nelson Rushton

    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.

  13. It’s not necessarily that autism rates have dramatically increased. Autism awareness has made a big leap in recent years and some who would have gone undiagnosed are now getting diagnosed, especially those that don’t fit a stereotypical presentation of autism. But societal changes are an interesting theory which could contribute. If one has less than ideal parental figures and are not regularly exposed to anyone else, or makes connections with other adults, that spells trouble. Then the struggles they are predisposed to can really hold them back and it can be challenging progressing in life being underdeveloped in certain ways. There is also more to autism than disconnection…for example, there are sensory sensitivities, processing sensitivities and differences, differences in how language is processed and used…

  14. Daniëlle van der Geest

    Really like gabor mates work but on this topic i feel a bit confused. Since my daughter is diagnosed with Autism on her 19th i learn a lot about her and myself and my father as well. Coming from a warm nice good connected family we are all suffering with some autismthings. Now we more learn how to live in this world and accept what we are good at and what not is helping a lot. The expectations of the social world around us that we all have to be and act the same makes it difficult. I really think something in the genes plays a role and environment can be helpful or harmful.

    1. Hello Danielle.
      Since I’m very interested in learning more about autism, I’m happy I fell on the right place. I think Dr. Mate has great experience in what he declares and writes in his book, but reading the many autistic people here, this is knowledge given freely from the source.

      I treat people with many issues but I really want to focus on autistic children’s moms. I believe much comes from when the child is being formed in mother’s womb. What she went thru is felt by the child, emotions, outer vibrations and much more is absorbed by the child.

      In many cases, while treating moms the child gets calmer and positive reactions happen. The reactions happen to the whole family and, as the mind reaches a more peaceful state, consciousness widens and a deeper understanding/connection is noticeable in the family.
      I’ve had great results in similar cases.

  15. I think the research I’ve seen is suggesting that both prevalence and awareness are increasing.

    The interplay between autism and trauma is super interesting and seemingly contentious – which to me makes it important to study more; and, for people to deeply respect diverging (see what I did there) opinions.

    I believe that saying trauma causes ASD would be overly simplistic, but saying trauma has no role would be too. In terms of intergenerational societal and genetic effects, I tend to align with lots of Dr Maté’s thinking – although would like to hear more specifically regarding ASD.

    I have an ASD diagnosis and suspected ADHD. I think we have to be sensitive to validate those who have experienced trauma with no ASD/ADHD diagnosis, those who have some relationship with ASD/ADHD, and everything in between.

    I see lots of discourse around autism online that it is “innate” or “inherited”, to me this is susceptible to many challenges, particularly given the overlap between eg PTSD and ASD

    Eg, would that mean ASD is purely genetic? Current research says no.

    In which case, what about some level of in-utero impact? If that’s possible, shouldn’t that be classed as trauma? Or is that how some would define ‘innate’, because someone is ‘born that way’?

    I align with the evidence that humans do much of their neurodevelopment outside the womb so it’s a really interesting issue. From what point should we say someone has neurodevelopmental differences? Or does it matter, and therefore how should we frame the believed causes of neurodevelopmental diagnoses?

    I’d love to see more research in this area and for us to learn to help others in a person-first way, before labels and factions. And I think all scientific theories and labels should be able to be reimagined and improved using better evidence, creativity and inclusivity – that’s progress.

  16. I know you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings Gabor, but blaming autism rise on “society” makes individuals helpless because how can they change a society. Be blunt, tell the truth that it is the parents fault for not establishing a secure and healthy attachment to their child. At least then individuals have the power to change.
    I always knew the refrigerator parent idea had some truth to it, but some parents just can’t handle the truth. All parents wound their children, especially in this day and age. Hopefully the wounding can be healed. Unfortunately autism is usually one that cannot.

  17. This is rife with factual inaccuracies. It’s incredibly misrepresentative of the facts and experience of being autistic. It’s ableist nonsense. How ironic that you claim your work is compassion meets science. This is neither. Mostly I’m commenting to confirm critical comments get deleted.

  18. I know how stressed I am and I know how difficult I have experienced the past two years since my sons birth. It makes sense, despite entering motherhood with high hopes that I would stop the inter generational trauma by being the best mum ever. My plan was co-sleep, breastfeed, not put my child into daycare, essentially connection + and prioritise my son regardless of the expense or additional stress this might create for me. In addition to my own significant trauma, my husbands family’s dysfunction, my own social isolation, financial insecurity and the impact of all of this on my own unstable mental health, in retrospect my plan does not appear to be the brightest and only compounded the creation of an environment resulting in my son’s diagnosis. Daycare may not have been the best for attachment and connection but caring for my son not only in social isolation but with his family being so unkind to me was always going to be impossible for me. To think all that hard work and I created what I was most afraid of.
    I’m feel somewhat heartened by the article mentioned that this is not fixed and there is some hope as he is still young.

  19. Mr. Mate is on to something. There is research showing that eye contact prepares the brain for sharing mental states with others and sets the foundation for social interaction. I don’t believe it’s purely coincidental that avoiding eye contact is one of the main symptoms of autism.

    It’s possible that lack of attunement during a critical period causes areas in the brain to fail to develop, which in turn is what causes autism. The question is, is this the whole story or is there more to it? And is it ALWAYS caused by the parent? I have heard cases of infants refusing to look at their mother since day one, or of babies so hypersensitive that looking at mother was uncomfortably stimulating, so they’d actively avoid it. It would be very difficult to make eye contact with an infant or baby like that, no matter how calm and present the mother is.

    I hope research will continue to search for a way to prevent autism. My only concern is that these days any mention of a potential cure gets you called an “ableist” and attacked. Autism is not a variant of normal human development and we do no one any favors pretending that it is.

    If you want autism to define who you are, you absolutely have that right. But it’s wrong to weaponize your autistic identity to silence viewpoints you don’t agree with — “You make me feel bad about myself, so shut up.” When you make ANYTHING a part of your identity, you can no longer honestly engage with it because your sense of self is now contingent upon it. Any criticism of it becomes a perceived direct attack on you. It’s no way to live.

  20. This is what happens when experts believe their expertise makes them default experts in other specialisms. Your theory doesn’t fit the prevailing body of best practice research out there. Autism is a genetic condition. Autistic people socialise differently and do not tend to thrive in neurotypical social patterns and environments, but they can and do thrive when they learn their Autistic needs (including autistic social needs) and how to meet them.
    Parenting and social environment can affect a person’s experience of autism, it cannot determine whether a person is Autistic or not. This is harking back to the very outdated “refrigerator mum’s cause autism” idea, now widely understood to be completely misguided by autism researchers and specialists.
    There are some excellent journals out there publishing papers written in the last decade.

  21. Being allistic is the result of human exceptionalism and disconnection from the ecosystem. This article is ableist trash.

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