The Early Years

How did people go about raising children in prehistoric times?  Researchers considering this question have extrapolated from their studies of currently existing aboriginal cultures, identifying common practices that tend to promote group survival.  The modern child-rearing environment, they’ve concluded, lacks some of the beneficial customs practiced by our Stone Age ancestors and may contribute to behavioral problems and high rates of anxiety and depression among today’s children.

Both a recent article on and an entry by Andrew Lehman on Shift Journal discuss how the presence of multiple caregivers, or alloparents, enhanced the neurological development of prehistoric children and helped them to develop into emotionally healthy and socially well-adjusted adults.  Because these children spent much of their time being carried and cuddled by their parents and others, their early experience of the world was one of comfort and security, with very little stress.  They also spent many hours playing with other children of all ages, which helped them to understand the perspectives and the social expectations of their peers.

Where Andrew Lehman suggests in his article that “movements away from that paradigm in a modern context are resulting in autism,” he doesn’t mean to say that parents are somehow turning their babies autistic by not cuddling them enough, as the discredited (and ridiculous) psychology of Bettelheim would have it.  Elsewhere in his writing, he clearly states that autistic neurology develops in the womb.  The point that’s being made here, rather, is one touched upon by Mark Stairwalt in the post Autism Is As Autism Does: people are being classified as autistic based on their behavior.  In turn, their behavior is influenced by their environment and how well or poorly they learn to cope with stress.  When a child on the autism spectrum feels anxious and unable to cope, he or she is much more likely to exhibit the characteristic self-calming behaviors that often lead to a diagnosis.  In a more comfortable environment, the same child might never be identified as autistic.

Once again, this doesn’t mean parents should get the blame when their children develop behavioral issues having to do with the stressful nature of modern life.  Today’s environment is so far removed from our ancestors’ quiet villages and demands so much more from us, even the most doting parents couldn’t possibly protect their children from all sources of stress; and that wouldn’t be a good idea anyway because our kids need to learn from experience how to navigate the complicated world into which they were born.

It’s worth considering, however, that when young children are placed in early intervention programs and appear to become less autistic, what may really be happening is that they start to feel calmer and more confident as a result of getting so much individual attention from multiple adults.  The actual content of the program may have very little to do with the outcome.  Indeed, it’s quite possible that the children’s social behavior may improve despite having been subjected to regimented therapies such as ABA, not because of it.

The conclusions drawn from studies of prehistoric parenting would tend to suggest that when modern-day families choose early childhood programs, they should look for affectionate relationships between the children and the providers, which may be more predictive of good outcomes than the particular “brand” of the program.  Allowing a reasonable amount of time for free play with groups that include older children is also helpful because it provides an opportunity to develop social relationships naturally.

on 11/3/10 in Autism, featured | 3 Comments | Read More

Comments (3)


  1. Clay says:

    I really wish that I could have become better acquainted with my cousin’s families, and had spent far more time away from my “toxic parents”. As it was, I saw them very rarely, and so was effectively “isolated” from any other influence.

  2. Eliana says:

    I love this! I have felt this way for quite sometime.

  3. Gwen McKay says:

    Clay: Being isolated like that has become all too common in modern times, unlike in the villages of the past where there were always relatives nearby. Children, as often noted, no longer have a village to raise them.

    Eliana: Thank you! :)

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