I met a friend for lunch this week. He was fresh off the plane from London as part of a multi-country jaunt, and he had the baggy eyes to prove it. The first thing he did was pull out Monday’s Daily Telegraph and point to an article on page 12: “Primary pupils who can swipe but not speak.”
The article began: “Parents’ immersion in smartphones has left thousands of children starting primary school unable to hold conversations, teachers say.
“Around one in three children starting school is not ready for the classroom with many lacking social skills, suffering speech problems or not toilet trained, a survey of senior primary school staff showed.”
The litany included “more and more children entering our early years stage with delayed speech” and “levels of reading, writing and numeracy lower than they should be.”
The rest of the article basically blamed the parents and their failure to keep children from coming into contact with the world we live in, which is deemed self-evidently noxious and destructive – too many smartphones, too little parent-child interaction.
Before tackling that bogus argument, let’s just acknowledge the facts in evidence here. A third of pre-school kids in England today have some version of issues that echo autism – speech problems, lack of social skills and toileting problems. My friend, much more knowledgeable about autistic children than I am, said the latter probably reflected sensory issues and GI problems (as well as general delay, I’d suggest).
I don’t care what this is called – autism-like traits, or school-readiness deficit syndrome in a third of children, not otherwise seen before (SRDSIATOFC-NOSB), or whatever. It’s the kind of thing we’ve been talking about for years, a generation and now more damaged by something new and terrifying, and at least in England, it’s indisputable. I asked my friend what he thought was going on, and he said some combination of vaccines and other medical mayhem, pesticides, and god knows what else (the Environmental Working Group's study of all the evil crap found in mothers' umbilical cords is passing through the back of my brain). Unless you want to argue that the ability of one-third of children to make their way in life from the very start is just good old genes doing their work of making our species less able to thrive in a hostile world, it's definitely environmental. And it is NOT smartphones, dammit!
Of course, we also see this in America, with the same veneer of pop psychology pabulum stapled onto it because facing the truth is too threatening to the people doing the observing for a living. From the New York Times last October: “Boys are falling behind. They graduate from high school and attend college at lower rates than girls and are more likely to get in trouble, which can hurt them when they enter the job market. This gender gap exists across the United States, but it is far bigger for poor people and for black people. As society becomes more unequal, it seems, it hurts boys more.”
Ah, so inequality is at the heart of it. That’s the ticket! We can blame vague malignant capitalist forces, and get on the right side of the social justice movement. Well, I am on the right side of the social justice movement, but I don’t think inequality is what’s really going on here. As if there were no inequality – much worse inequality – before this male-centric problem was ever observed? And please tell me, then, why are four out of five autism cases boys? Were they disadvantaged? Did their parents or teachers disadvantage them? That's a discredited old argument but it is gaining new life.
In April 2014 another column in the Times was titled. "A Link Between Fidgety Boys And a Sputtering Economy." As I wrote then: The Times piece came very close to the core issue -- what's the matter with kids today?, and especially, what's the matter with boys? Things have gotten so dire, and the implications so large, that even a mainstream mouthpiece like The Times has no hesitation linking boys' problems to the overall economic fate of the country.
The Times went on: "If the United States is going to build a better-functioning economy than the one we've had over the last 15 years, we're going to have to solve our boy problems," adding that if only girls are considered, there's no problem at all.
As I pointed out, the solutions on offer in the piece, and in the research paper it was based on, and among the "experts" in general, amount to evidence-free bromides -- better schools, more understanding of the ways boys learn, more support for families because boys suffer more when fathers are absent. (What, no smartphone-blaming? Let's get the story straight here.) To quote the Beatles: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Missing was any sense that environmental factors, and specifically toxins, which have been repeatedly linked to problems like ADHD ("fidgetiness") and other neurodevelopmental disorders, which affect 1 in 6 children, and several times more boys than girls, could be playing a role.
So it’s just about unanimous, isn’t it? Even our most mainstream publications, openly hostile to concerns about vaccines or other environmental factors, acknowledge the rise of so many disabled and dysfunctional children that these kids’ futures – and ours, as the society they will inherit – are at stake.
Yet the experts fall back on video games and lack of good parenting and the devastation of being disadvantaged to explain it all. Fifty years ago it would have been the predations of rock and roll, and how refrigerator parents made their kids autistic. Faced once more with an inexplicable problem in children, parent blaming is, once again, the last refuge of those who cannot or will not see.
More on that next week.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.