A pioneer in modern psychoanalytics is honoured

York honoured a pioneer during spring convocation ceremonies last week. Dr. Stanley Greenspan (left) was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree during ceremonies for graduates of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies and the Faculty of Arts.

A medical doctor, psychologist and researcher into the causes of autism, Greenspan was unable to attend his convocation ceremony due to illness. The University awarded his degree in absentia on Thursday, June 15. York Professor Stuart Shanker delivered Greenspan’s convocation address.

Greenspan is perhaps best known for his pioneering work in developing an alternative treatment for autism. The disorder is now estimated to affect one in every 88 boys, striking males about four times as often as females. Greenspan’s insight into functional development has helped children who would otherwise be lost to their neurological condition. His approach challenges the conventional assumption that autism is solely genetic and suggests instead that autism may be linked in part to a child’s capacity for empathy. The premise of his clinical method, the Developmental Individual Difference Relationship (DIR) Model/Floortime approach, is that children learn skills during relationships with caregivers and other significant people in their lives.

The DIR approach is now the subject of an extended study spearheaded by Shanker, who is a York distinguished research professor of psychology & philosophy, and supported by the Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative. The research will have a profound impact on the treatment of children with challenges and on how to enhance the capacities of children developing typically.

Right: Psychology Prof. Stuart Shanker delivered Greenspan’s speech 

In his comprehensive and thought provoking address, titled “Building Global Collaboration: Can Social Evolution Catch up with Technology?”, Greenspan told graduates their work would be critical in building a global community in the face of enormous technological change.

“Our generation will have the opportunity, literally, to determine whether or not the world as we know it continues, whether it changes significantly or even ceases to exist,” said Greenspan. “Technology – both constructive and destructive — has given us the tools to change the world to a degree not possible in earlier times. The question, however, is whether social evolution can catch up to technology and harness it for constructive rather than destructive purposes.

“New insights about human development and the evolution of both individuals and groups now provide us with a framework for more fully understanding our current dilemma. These new insights are being generated, in part, at York University in the Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative by me, with Stuart Shanker. What I am about to share with you reflects some of our findings,” said Greenspan.

“In order to harness technology for constructive rather than destructive means, we will need to find ways to enable all groups who inhabit the globe to work together,” he said. “Because this challenge will only become greater over the next 50 years as more and more groups will have access to world-altering technologies, meeting this challenge is in your hands. Whatever the concerns, we all share in this common mission.

“What is missing from the formula for world-wide collaboration?” asked Greenspan. An answer is urgently needed, he said, so that mankind can deal with terror, global environmental, economic, social and health problems. Clashing cultures, fear and uncertainty are the results of these problems and humans have dealt with them in the past by either taking a head in the sand approach or by looking outward.

“If we narrow our view in response to stress, if we polarize around traditional boundaries, if we embrace unrealistic beliefs and fight or squabble with others over unreal or imagined problems, the result is chaos,” he said. “If on the other hand we broaden our view in response to rapid and frightening change, we can come together and organize new solutions. Healthy families, community and national ties can provide the security for broader cooperation rather than competition as many of us so sadly assume.

“Completing the formula for global collaboration will mean travelling the road for our ancestors when they evolved from hunter-gatherer groups into more complex social groups, communities, cities and then nations,” said Greenspan. He highlighted that the acceptance by early groups of their vulnerability and the embracing of religions, cultures and societal harmony acted to harmonize these early societies and unite them into nations that were more stable. However, said Greenspan, in the face of today’s rapid pace of change, especially in technology, mankind cannot take thousands of years to fashion a global community which will meet the needs of future generations.

“New destructive technologies necessitate revving up the pace of our social evolution,” he said. “Tactics of exclusion, exploitation and intimidation along with overly simplistic theories of human behaviour, must give way to policies that recognize the needs of complex groups.”

Greenspan highlighted the basic needs which must be addressed before a global community can happen. These needs include first and foremost, the fundamental requirement of safety and security. Secondly, he said, a shared sense of common humanity is essential to humanize those who have different cultures, beliefs and skin colours. “We must be able to care for a child in a distant, drought-ridden country as much as we would care for one of our own,” said Greenspan. This sense of shared humanity would lead to stability and collaborative problem solving. Another requirement, he said, should be centred on self-governing practices with representative government which require the investment of the trust and belief of citizens in governing principles such as justice and courts.

“The needs of complex social groups are more effectively met by individuals raised in stable, nurturing families, in economically viable, safe communities and in thinking-based educational programs,” said Greenspan. “Creating these conditions worldwide not only requires enormous investments in human capital but also fully accepting the reality of contemporary global interdependency. Our unit of survival is no longer the individual, the family or the nation state. Like it or not, we are unavoidably linked together.”