An Epidemic of Absence

Last week my nephew was diagnosed with autism. Shock aside, this prompted me to start looking for details, centers and ideas and I was absolutely blown away by the prevalence of this illness. Or maybe I should not call it an illness, maybe it’s become just another way to be …I don’t know. Whenever someone in your family is ill, you try to find explanations, you try to understand what happened, what could be a cause, what could be done from now on. Several of the resources I came across showed me something that made me be scared about our children’s future.

The development of technology, the progress devices have made from a computer on an office desk you could barely lift to a small screen that keeps you hooked for hours on end, the pull of the virtual world is moving us further and further away from each other, especially from our children. In an amazing interview by Stefan Mandachi, a Romanian entrepreneur, Psychiatrist Sanziana Burcea talks about the autism epidemic as a call for (re)connection launched by our young. Highlighting how connecting with an autistic child takes undeterred focus, how a parent must gain the child’s trust before the child can actually make a move toward him (a move as delicate as looking directly into their eyes), made me think that what these children lack is blind faith in their parents. In anyone for that matter. And by that they have become our teachers. These children push us to do things which have become so rare and hard these days: be present fully, engage, step out of our comfort zone, wait, be patient, infinitely patient and willing to change every day, sometimes every hour.

As it often happens when I am experiencing something personal, my attention zeros in on things that are related to what I am going through. Over the past week I paid more attention to babies and toddlers in relation to the adults around them. We live in a gated community and so my ad-hoc study was easy because I got to see the same people daily and there are many babies around. The patterns I am seeing scare me when I think of the future generations and how they will connect: most of the children around here have nannies who have come from the Philippines. Without an exception they are on their phones, never interacting with the children. Never! I have not seen one actually playing or making eye contact with these kids as they are pushing them around in strollers that have the child facing ahead and not able to engage with anyone. And this is not reduced only to the nannies. Parents do the same thing: they “scroll” their babies down the alley – pushing their stroller while scrolling on the phone.

Amy Cuddy’s Presence really brought things to light for me about presence and the important of presence when we are talking about gaining someone’s trust. Dr. Cuddy says: “The lesson is that trust is the conduit of influence, and the only way to establish real trust is by being present. Presence is the medium through which trust develops and ideas travel. If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far.” Dr. Cuddy also provides great examples to show how “presence is about showing up” and how the first part in gaining trust and in actually connecting with the other is for us to “just listen, stay focused on the present moment and look for openings.” What chance do you think we have at educating, molding our children if we don’t even take the time to establish this trust?

When my son was a toddler I used to read a lot more about parenting. And I forget where but a phrase I read truly shook me to the core as a parent: that what we offer to our children will return to us when they are older. I was lucky, 14 years ago when my son was in the first year of his life, the only technological threat in our relationship was the TV, the evening news and potentially a soap. When he was not talking or reacting the way I thought he should at almost three, I realized that placing him in front of Baby Einstein videos was nowhere near turning him into any kind of brainiac. Quite the contrary. And we quit. And instead, went to the park and read. How lucky we were!

Parents today are in such dire circumstances. I get the pull to just succumb to the doom scroll in the evening when you return from a work day that exhausted you and pushed all your buttons. I do get that. At the same time, read this: ten years ago, one of every 10K births in the US was one of an autistic child. Today, it is every 54th. If that is not shocking, I don’t know what is.
Science has evolved tremendously and the silver lining of the autism epidemic is that doctors have been able to observe more and more and uncover more elements of the enigma of this terrible condition. What I found jaw dropping in the interview I mentioned above, is when the psychiatrist talked about how we all have some autistic traits in us, sure, there are neuro-biological aspects of autism that make a child more prone BUT what happens to that child in the first two years of life, the quality of their relationship with their parents and the atmosphere in their home, the quality of interaction and connection, the attunement of the parent that gives the opportunity for early observation, the openness of the family to learn and BE there, all of these do bring about the possibility that neural pathways are created in ways that, even if they do not strip autism away completely, help the child to decipher a world that otherwise they would be completely disconnected from.

I think it is the 13th hour. There is so much talk about mindfulness, focus, presence. It is not by chance. We could choose to think that a vaccine causes these illnesses and put our kids in even more danger, or we could choose to do something that only brings about positive side effects: BE with each other. Even if that represents only one hour of our day.

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

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