How to salvage the futures of our world?
Growing up has never been easy even in the "normal" world. The golden years of development for a child are the ages between 0 - 6 years. In these years, children go through a metamorphosis of their own. Their bodies are growing, brains are rapidly expanding and minds are developing. There are a million skills to learn and a myriad of emotions to experience.
Everything from a mother's comforting hug to a fire's scalding lesson is being felt for the first time. It all feels new but it is consistent for most parts. Can you imagine what it must be like to be 2 years old right now and trying to make sense of what's happening in the world? The pace of change has been a little too much for adults to contend with. What about the little ones?
As adults, we take many of our skills for granted. We don't remember the bruises from bicycle accidents while zipping through morning traffic. We forget that we are often communicating throughout the day even when we say nothing at all. We can break each of these activities down to their component elements. And then, even a simple act of brushing appears as a complex
multi-step process. And this is how children perceive it. They learn by observing their peers, experimenting in play, and mimicking the adults around them. The pandemic has limited children's access to all these learning avenues. Their peers are locked up in their own homes.
Playtime has morphed into endless hours of Youtube and television. The adults have brought their work home and are still figuring out how to function in the "new normal". This is leading to gaps and delays in child development.
We cannot blame all the challenges that children face on the pandemic. Some of them are nature's doing. I'm talking about developmental conditions like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia.
There are 7000+ rare and genetic disorders like down's syndrome that affect children. The US now reports that 1 in 44 children are being diagnosed with Autism. The burden of these conditions on populations across the world is in the 8-12% range. These conditions are also responsible for causing hindrances in a child's development. What can we do to give our children a better start?
Well, the future is not all doom and gloom. We have many examples from the past to learn from where we have solved pressing problems. We have battled the problems of infant mortality and child nutrition. A good first step in the right direction would be to have universal screening. We need to assess each child for the basic building blocks that make up the pre-scholastic skills.
We need to educate parents about the "warning signs" of developmental issues. We must encourage them to seek out professional help when needed. This needs to become the "obvious" thing to do, as is the case with vaccinations today. Unfortunately, parental denial and ignorance are giant hurdles to solving this parallel pandemic.
The professionals who can help wear many hats. These are developmental pediatricians, pediatric neurologists, child psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, sensory integration specialists, special educators, and so on. Navigating this labyrinth of experts can be daunting for a new parent. We need to make this journey simpler and more accessible for
people. There is also a widening gap between the demand and supply of professionals. We need to be building this capacity at scale. This might mean taking help from people involved in adjacent or similar fields. An interdisciplinary approach will lead to more personalized and effective interventions.
I for one believe that technology can play a big role in simplifying this rigmarole. Better screening tools and more objective assessments are the need of the hour. We can use the power of social media to spread awareness amongst the new parents. A wide variety of assistive technologies and aids are being built to give all children a level playing field. New models of self-help and parent-mediated interventions are emerging across the world. Ongoing
research in frontier areas like genetics and gut health is attempting to explain the origins of these conditions. On the curative side, new medications and digital therapeutics are being developed.
I'm very hopeful that early childhood care is improving and getting better. This is imperative to improve the quality of life for all children around the world. The children who hold in their little hands our very future.