Invisible disability: Building Great Britons

A report was published on Wednesday by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Conception to Age 2 – the First 1001 days. It’s called Building Great Britons.
The thrust of the report is similar to Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens (2008) and Early Intervention: The Next Steps (2011) from MPs Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith. Building Great Britons sets out a policy framework aimed at preventing the social problems believed to originate in adverse experiences between conception and a child’s second birthday.

Breaking the cycle

The conceptual model underpinning the report is a familiar one. Neglect, maltreatment and insecure relationships in early childhood are assumed to be a primary cause of mental health problems and antisocial and criminal behaviour. Parents who had such experiences during childhood tend to adopt the same child-rearing strategies as their parents, setting up a damaging (and costly) self-perpetuating intergenerational cycle.

Like the Early Intervention reports, Building Great Britons argues that preventing child neglect, maltreatment and insecure attachment will save money and result in a flourishing society due to the emergence of well-rounded citizens who are “physically and mentally healthy, well educated, empathic, prosocial, hardworking and contributing to the costs of society” (p.3). As Tim Loughton, Co-Chair of the APPG says “the economic value of breaking these cycles will be enormous” (p.4).

“This” it’s claimed, “is not ‘rocket science.’ Technically it is ‘neuro-science’” (p.3).
The basis for that claim seems to reside in repeated references to brain development, although there’s no detail about how brain development is involved. The association between early adverse experiences and long-term unwanted outcomes is well established, but there are some problems with the model.

what causes what?
The first is that just because two things are correlated, it’s not safe to assume that one causes the other. They might both be caused by something else, or be totally unrelated. So parents might neglect, maltreat or form poor attachments with their children because their parents did, or because the family has a genetic predisposition towards severe post-natal depression, or because they are grappling with challenging life circumstances.

multiple causes
The second problem is that even if we could predict with certainty that all neglected, maltreated, chaotically attached children will develop mental health problems or anti-social behaviour in later life, the causal chain doesn’t always hold in the opposite direction because mental health problems and anti-social behaviour have other causes such as poor physical health, adverse life events or peer pressure.

looking back vs looking forward
A third problem is that retrospective surveys linking adverse childhood experience with later health and social problems, such as the ACE study referred to in Building Great Britons (p.14), tend to rely on self-reports – not always the most reliable sources of information, especially about early life. Prospective assessments that track children through their life course such as the Dunedin and Cambridge studies tend to be more reliable. They have also found correlations between adverse childhood experiences and problems in later life but that the emerging patterns are quite complex.

When reading through the research findings, I was struck by how often researchers expressed surprise at the frequency of adverse childhood experiences. The ACE study was prompted by the unexpectedly high incidence of sexual abuse in childhood reported by people dropping out of a weight loss programme. The Dunedin study began as a small-scale follow-up assessment of perinatal risk. Its scope was broadened after researchers found a higher incidence than they expected of accidental injury and impairments to sensory function, development and behaviour in 4/5 year olds. The implication wasn’t that the children had been neglected or maltreated (although some might have been), but that developmental impairments in the general population were more frequent than had been previously thought.

children with disabilities: noticeable by their absence

This brings me to a glaring omission in Building Great Britons. One group of children is especially susceptible to social, emotional and behavioural problems and is at increased risk of poor physical and mental health in later life. They are children with disabilities. But the only mention of disability that I could find in Building Great Britons was of children with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, caused by a mother’s excessive alcohol intake during pregnancy.

Childhood disabilities can be caused by neglect or maltreatment but they can also be caused by factors such as;

• inherited genetic conditions
• spontaneous genetic variations at or before conception
• mother’s illness during pregnancy
• environmental damage during gestation (e.g. exposure to toxins)
• childhood infections
• accidental injury.

Whether you think disability is caused by a ‘functional impairment’ or by the way society responds to that functional impairment, for administrative and legal purposes a clear-cut distinction is usually made between someone who’s deemed disabled and someone who isn’t. But from a biological perspective the boundary is rather blurred. As the Dunedin study found, a significant proportion of children has some sort of developmental impairment; currently in the USA it’s 15%. In the UK, only 6% of children are classified as disabled, but that figure rises with age. Around 16% of the working-age population has a disability.

Not all disabilities are obvious, and some are difficult to detect. The average age at which autism is diagnosed, for example, is 5.5 years, and diagnosis is often much later than that. Autistic children have unusual attachment patterns and autism is so frequently confused with attachment disorder that Heather Moran, a consultant clinical psychologist, devised the Coventry Grid to help professionals distinguish between them.

There’s little doubt that neglect, maltreatment or poor attachment in childhood can, and does, lead to social, emotional and behavioural problems and to impaired physical and mental health. But what Building Great Britons does is to frame the causes of those problems solely in terms of neglect, maltreatment or poor attachment, and more specifically in terms of the ‘troubled families’ who are deemed to be the source of these societal ills (pp.3-4).

When I was delving into the thinking behind the Early Intervention reports, I asked a few researchers who’d been actively involved how some obviously erroneous claims about brain function had crept in. None had had a say in the final content of the reports, but one told me that it was sometimes necessary to present data in a way that was most likely to persuade government to come up with funding. I take his point; but I couldn’t see how that justified presenting the data in a way that was misleading.

What the data on social, emotional, behavioural, physical and mental health problems tell us is that children by definition are vulnerable, and parenting by definition is challenging. They also tell us that we are all, at all times, at risk from unforseen life events that could trigger social, emotional, behavioural, physical or mental health problems that result in us needing help from the community. That’s why in the developed world we have education, health and social care services.

It’s true that a minority of families cause a disproportionate number of problems, for themselves and others. There are good reasons why early intervention is appropriate for them. But because all children are vulnerable and all parenting is challenging, there are good reasons why early intervention should be available to all families. We shouldn’t have to justify it in terms of ‘good citizenship’ or the financial costs for ‘society’ – which at one time we were told didn’t exist.

Nor should reports produced by Members of Parliament about vulnerable children and challenged parents look right past one of the most vulnerable groups of children and one of the most challenged groups of parents. In the total of 351 pages that make up the two Early Intervention reports and Building Great Britons, childhood disability is mentioned, in passing, only five times – and three of those references are to Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.

When I contacted @first1001days, the Twitter account for http://www.1001criticaldays.co.uk/ to point out the omission, I got a prompt response inviting me to write some supplementary material. Within an hour, another parent and I had responded with a paragraph summarising the main issues, and notified @first1001days. I wasn’t surprised not to get an immediate reply, as the report was being launched that morning. But we’re still waiting…

Disabled people are still invisible, it seems.

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brain development and social problems

Reading the final report of the Munro Review of child protection, my attention was caught by what turned out to be a minor typographical error. The last sentence of paragraph 5.8 appears to refer to reference 95, the Royal Society paper Brain Waves Module 2: Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning, but in fact cites reference 94. Reference 94 is an independent report commissioned by the current UK coalition government, published in January 2011, written by Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North and entitled Early Intervention: The Next Steps.

Graham Allen MP

Early intervention is summed up as follows by the ‘Early Intervention Review Team’;

Early Intervention is an approach which offers our country a real opportunity to make lasting improvements in the lives of our children, to forestall many persistent social problems and end their transmission from one generation to the next, and to make long-term savings in public spending….” (p.vi)

In 2008, Graham Allen had written another paper on early intervention, this one co-authored with Iain Duncan Smith and entitled Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens published jointly by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and the Smith Institute. Iain Duncan Smith is a former leader of the Conservative Party and currently Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. In 2004, he founded the Centre for Social Justice, a centre-right think tank, just after his period of party leadership ended. The Smith Institute is a left-leaning think tank set up in 1996 in memory of the former Labour Party leader, John Smith. Ed Balls, later to become the Labour government’s Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, worked for the Institute between 2004 and 2005.

Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

In previous posts I’ve complained (at some length) that the model of child development being used by children’s services pays little attention to recent biological research. It would be unfair to suggest that biology is entirely absent however. There are many references to physical development in this literature, Aldgate et al’s book contains a chapter on genetic and biological influences and the Munro report cites the National Research Council’s From Neurons to Neighbourhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development – chapter 8 contains a comprehensive summary of brain development. The second chapter of each of the two documents written by Graham Allen is also dedicated to brain development. It’s these two chapters I want to concentrate on in this post.

I’m not entirely clear why it was deemed necessary to refer to brain development in papers about early interventions intended to forestall social problems. After all, few people would want to see evidence from brain scans before they could be persuaded that sanitation, a balanced diet or education have good outcomes for individuals and for the population as a whole. And given the technical problems with brain scanning and the interpretation of the resulting images, there are other more reliable ways of measuring the effectiveness of interventions. Allen and Duncan Smith’s Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens justifies the inclusion of material on brain development as follows;

We make no apology for presenting, as laymen, a considerable body of medical evidence in this chapter. When economic resources are under intense pressure, and facing strong claims from well-established programmes and special interests, we believe that this medical evidence points overwhelmingly in favour of a shift to Early Intervention.” (Good Parents p.45)

What’s the evidence?

The first few pages of chapter 2 of Good Parents focus on results from three large-group, longitudinal studies purported to show that early adverse childhood experiences result in later health risks such as smoking, alcoholism, illicit drug use, obesity and high level promiscuity (Good Parents p.54). At first glance, the conclusions presented are persuasive, but when you look a little more carefully, the picture isn’t quite so clear-cut.

I’ve mentioned several other documents that in some cases refer to each other. To clarify how they are linked, I’ve mapped out the connections here:


Two of the studies, Farrington and West’s Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, a Prospective Study of South London Males From Ages 8–32 and the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study are prospective – that is, they started with children and have periodically sampled their health, development and behaviour over many years.

According to Allen and Duncan Smith the Cambridge study showed that adult offending could be predicted in childhood (Good Parents p. 51). That’s not quite what the study records. The 2006 report, which tracked the participants up to the age of 48, found that there were predictive factors in childhood for adult offending. In other words, some factors were predictive of behaviour for a particular group, not for particular individuals. The highest correlation between childhood factors and persistent offending was for children having a convicted parent or sibling. What this means is that children with previous offenders in their families are more likely to offend, not that offending can reliably be predicted in individual children. A significant number of children from families with an offender didn’t commit crimes, whereas some children from non-offending families did.

The Dunedin study looked at the health and development of 1037 babies born in Dunedin, New Zealand, between 1972-73. Data from the Dunedin study has been used in over 1000 publications but I couldn’t find which one Allen and Duncan Smith were referring to. They claim that nurses’ assessments of which of a group of 3 year-olds were at risk, predicted criminal convictions, violent behaviour and domestic abuse at age 21. They conclude;

the fact is that children who are likely to have poor outcomes, including adult criminality, can be identified at age three when they are still riding their tricycles.” (Good Parents p.52)

Not exactly. As Allen and Duncan Smith themselves point out, not all of the at-risk children offended, and some of the not-at-risk children did – 18% exhibiting violent behaviour and almost 10 % abusing their partners (Good Parents p.51).

The third study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, by contrast, is retrospective; it relies on self-reports about childhood maltreatment, family dysfunction and health status, and therefore on that notoriously unreliable data source, human memory. You can read the questions that were posed to participants in Preventing child maltreatment: a guide to taking action and generating evidence. It’s published jointly by the World Health Organization and ISPCAN, The International Society for the Prevention of Childhood Abuse and Neglect. My curiousity about Preventing child maltreatment: a guide to taking action and generating evidence was initially piqued by the title. I have no problem with taking action against child maltreatment, but do have concerns about ‘generating evidence’. Evidence is usually ‘gathered’ or ‘found’ – implying that it’s already out there, researchers just have to go and look for it. ‘Generating evidence’ suggests that, like Bettelheim, your case might not actually have strong evidence behind it so you need to create some.

I was also concerned by a reference in the Foreword to the idea that

the traditional “privacy barrier” between the domestic and public spheres has inhibited the evolution of policies and legal instruments to prevent violence within the family and provide services for those affected by it.” (p.vi)

I’d predict that the prohibition of violence is as likely to be effective as the prohibition of alcohol consumption, but that violence might be lessened if its causes were to be addressed. Furthermore, the ‘traditional “privacy barrier”’ isn’t about “privacy” – a relatively recent development in human history – but about protecting the individual from the abuse of power by the state. I’m sure the author, who’s had extensive experience with the UN, is aware of that. But I digress.

I also had concerns about Box 1.1 (p.8). It’s entitled Child maltreatment and damage to the developing brain and is adapted from a pamphlet published in 2001 by the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information and the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse called In Focus: Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Early Brain Development. The pamphlet lists 31 references, 11 by Bruce Perry and one by Allen Schore. In 13 pages, Schore’s work is cited 17 times and Perry’s 40 times. These names crop up again in the papers by Allen and Duncan Smith.

My concerns about Box 1.1 and the In Focus pamphlet weren’t so much about what they said, as about their emphasis. Firstly, maltreatment and neglect of children is, by definition, harmful – that’s why they are called maltreatment and neglect. We already know that certain practices cause harm to children, at the time they happen, immediately afterwards, and, in some cases, throughout life. We don’t need evidence from brain scans to tell us that. But maltreatment and neglect are being presented as if pre-existing evidence of harm isn’t sufficient to persuade legislators that more stringent legislative measures are required to prevent maltreatment and neglect, so neurobiological findings are being recruited for this purpose. Secondly, although there is certainly evidence to suggest that maltreatment and neglect have a negative impact on brain development, they are only two of the factors that do so. In other words, you could predict with some confidence that maltreatment and neglect would result in ‘abnormal’ brain development, but you can’t assume that because someone’s brain has developed abnormally, that they were maltreated or neglected as a child. Thirdly, there’s an implicit assumption in the way the evidence is presented that maltreatment and neglect are the primary cause of ‘social problems’, when social scientists have been aware, for decades, that those causes are many, varied and have complex interactions.

In short, the evidence doesn’t appear to support the idea that the predominant cause of social problems is child maltreatment or neglect. Allen and Duncan Smith call for a study along the lines of the Dunedin study to be carried out in the UK “in order to provide definitive evidence on the benefits of Early Intervention” (Good Parents p.52). I can’t see why another study is necessary – the Cambridge study makes clear that the causes of antisocial behaviour are complex and that patterns of behaviour change significantly over the lifespan.

Update 13/12/16:  Thanks to @PaulWhiteleyPhD on Twitter for drawing attention to this article in Nature analysing the Dunedin study findings.

In the next post, I want to look at what Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith have to say about brain development.

Photographs of Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith from Early Intervention Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens.