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Dr. Neophytos Papaneophytou: “Magic Does Happen When We All Work Together”

New Greek TV had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Neophytos Papaneophytou.

A psychologist by trade, Dr. Papaneophytou is also an established children's book author and psychology professor. Additionally, the native of Cyprus has organized the first international autism conference on the island and has also established the nonprofit organization Magic Always Happens, that aims to advance autism awareness, research, knowledge and quality of life.

In our interview below, Dr. Papaneophytou discusses his many roles, inspirations, expansive career, future goals, Greek-Cypriot background, and more.

Maria Athens: Can you tell us about your professional background?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: I have been teaching psychology for the City University of New York (Baruch College, Lehman Collage, BMCC) and other academic institutions since the year 2000. At the same time I maintain a clinical practice in Manhattan, and in Kingston, NY. My professional training includes appointments with Bellevue/NYU, St. Luke's Roosevelt, Hackensack UMH and other nationally recognized mental health institutions.

During my career I was fortunate to receive specialized training in the areas of personality disorders, chronic mental illness, couples and family therapy, and forensic evaluations, with a specialty in treating children who were abused and neglected, among others. I work equally well with children and adolescents, as I do with adult clients.

Some areas of my academic research and interest include issues pertinent to the acculturation experiences and personality characteristics of Greek-Americans, and I hope to be able to publish my next book on such issues in the near future. My interest in the role and function of fathers in our society has grown, and I anticipate further work in this scientific field will soon follow.

Maria Athens: What inspired you to become a child psychologist?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: As a young teenager I was a sea-scout leader in Cyprus, and I worked with young scouts for years. Though my initial studies in England focused on marketing management, international relations and law, I decided to shift my focus once in the US. I integrated my previous learning with consumer psychology and then completed my PhD in clinical psychology.

Since all of the above sciences seem to converge at the level of the individual, and as each adult is shaped by her/his experiences as a child, I felt particularly interested in researching how ones personality, character, and presentation are formed. This fact, led me to the conclusion that present behavior, presentation, and level of socialization goes back to one's early stages of development, and his/her formative years during childhood.

Hence, I understood that in working with adults we all carry a child inside of us and once one can address the needs and wants of people (the child inside of them) one can effect positive change. Since I have always had particular sensitivities for children with special abilities (I dislike the term "special needs") and their families, it was only natural to also include that in my theoretical research, world view, and applied work.

Having served as a volunteer at the pediatric unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York allowed me to enjoy unique experiences. There, I witnessed the unlimited levels of resilience, love, empathy, pain, joy and compassion, exerted each and every day by many colleagues, clients/children and their families alike. Some of these experiences have influenced my core belief system, and are probably covertly reflected in my two recently published children's books.

Maria Athens: What were the catalysts that led you to write children's books?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: Children are a remarkable part of our population and their brain is easily pliable. With the appropriate intervention, children can form a positive character, easily learn and apply cognitive, interpersonal and other life skills, and form positive, healthy habits that they can carry with them for life. To use an analogy, once you plant a tree you have to support it right at the onset so that it keeps growing straight; this is the function of an early intervention, be it in terms of psychotherapy/play therapy, or other treatment.

Parents of children are not always "child development savvy" despite their meaning well and good intentions. Life, work, and level of education differ among people and socioeconomic strata; this holds especially true in the US. Books can function as wonderful assistive adjuncts to ones efforts for good parenting.

Offering a means to guide ones child, educate them, help them develop healthy life habits, ease them to sleep every night, and help them bond with their care takers is invaluable. All of these benefits can be derived through book reading, an activity that is fun, brings people together and creates meaning through story-telling. Books and stories offer modeling experiences to children and parents alike, and they remain available for generations to read.

Since I enjoy reading and writing books for children, and I do wish to assist in the positive development of children while supporting parents, writing children's books was only a natural consequence in my pursuit of excellence. In this case, my books also function as a healthy means of supporting charity work with most of the sales proceeds directly benefiting the work of "Magic Always Happens®, Inc." a New Jersey non-profit entity with a tax-exempt status pending.

Magic Always Happens®, Inc. was formed especially in support of children on the autism spectrum. Thus, by buying and reading my recently published children's books a parent/guardian supports our noble cause while she/he allows for magic to happen with the development of her/his child.

Maria Athens: What message do you want children to take from reading your books?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: Through these books, children and parents are inconspicuously receiving multiple, healthy, developmental and other life messages. Through my 1st book "Magic Always Happens: My Daddy Loves Me!" children understand the love shared by their father through simple affirmations, connected to seemingly "mundane" daily activities. Feeling valued, appreciated, supported in each and every moment of their life is critical in forming a secure bond between the father-son dyad. Though this book particularly addresses the relationship of a single father with his son, all fathers can read this story to their children at any time.

Through my 2nd book "Fluffadelia: A Happy Feather's Train Ride Story" a child learns the values of making new friends, sharing and caring, develops social and interpersonal skills, and perhaps most importantly, learns to ease into bed-time routines leading to deep sleep rendering less anxiety.

In both books, parents or guardians hear that children respond to structure, love, empathy, caring, and security, and are encouraged to adopt consistent healthy sleep time habits and bed time routines (a big problem for many families) among other. The role and importance of family structure, even if in a single-parent home, and the importance of the fact that "it takes a village" are also directly implied in both books.

Maria Athens: What is the mission of your nonprofit organization Magic Always Happens?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: Some of the main goals we have at Magic Always Happens®, Inc. are to create added awareness regarding autism, increase research in this field, offer knowledge regarding specialized, effective treatment, and enhance the quality of life, relationships, and personal development of both children and their families. Ultimately, we wish to engage the Greek Diaspora, and other (non-Greek) institutions around the world, in a productive dialogue pertinent to effecting positive, sustainable, and permanent change in the lives of children, and adults with autism.

On the applied level, we aim at organizing local, national, and international events, colloquia, and conferences that will lead to increased education on the nature of these diagnoses (autism spectrum disorders) or condition. We wish to enhance understanding of the person's needs and abilities, and establish formal networks and collaborate with other entities to assist people of all ages who may be able to lead an independent life and either remain, or become productive members of the society they live in. This is consistent with the existential questions asked by many parents of children with autism who truly wonder what is to happen to their children once the parents are gone.

We believe that once the financial "burden" of not allowing people on the autism spectrum to flourish, or to reach the maximum of their own abilities is understood, local, national, and international entities will converge in order to collaborate closely on tasks such as education, vocational rehabilitation, targeted relational treatment and individualized support. Admittedly, not all people on the autism spectrum are treated with the utmost respect by some, being given equal opportunities, and/or are encouraged to be as productive as they can possibly be. The time to change these notions is now and the "here" can be anywhere really.

Though my main inspiration to create this non-profit organization is as you may know my 14-year-old nephew, Leonidas, who is autistic and lives in Cyprus, I love and care about all children with special abilities and their parents. Change happens in small increments, and we are indeed willing, able, and ready to see that change happen. We are well aware that we cannot do it all alone, and we invite anyone and everyone who may wish to support our mission and goals in any way to join us.

Maria Athens: Can you tell us about the first annual International Conference on Autism Treatment and Research, happening in Cyprus in October, 2016?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: The 1st annual Cyprus International Conference on Autism Treatment and Research is a product of many years of personal work, collaboration with research and other institutions, and some non-governmental organizations. Having historically witnessed the limited level of services offered to children with autism in my country of origin, Cyprus, I decided it was high time to take immediate, strong, and decisive action to "make magic happen" if you will.

My goal is to bring positive change, build relationships, enhance treatment, educate parents and children as to their endless potential and life opportunities that could emerge from guided, supported, structured, professional expert care, among others.

Through my career, particularly during my postgraduate studies in the area of parent-infant mental health at UMASS, Boston, I was fortunate enough to meet and work with luminary professors who are unique experts in their field. Legendary pediatrician TB Brazelton, MD, professor of pediatrics, emeritus Harvard Medical School, founder of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, and Ed Tronick, PhD, distinguished university professor of psychology, director, Child Development Unit, UMASS, Boston, are two of the most influential mentors I was fortunate to have in my life.

Both Dr. Brazelton and Dr. Tronick remain strong supporters of my efforts and have offered their unconditional support to my vision, goals, philanthropic tactics, and strategy. I am especially indebted to Dr. Tronick who has kindly agreed to Chair the international scientific committee leading to the aforementioned conference, and beyond.

To address the specifics of your question, I am very much inspired to create the conditions by which we can establish a ground-breaking institution in Cyprus, able to serve the local, national, and international clientele, with the prelude being of course this annual, international conference. The conference is already attracting the interest of luminary experts from a number of scientific fields, and I expect it will gain exceptional momentum as we enter 2016 and beyond.

Thus, some of the World's greatest scientists and ground-breaking research pioneers will attend our 2016 international conference and share their research results and guidance. Invitations to this conference will also be extended to multiple international institutions, governments, and non-governmental entities who have already expressed a strong interest to attend this conference in order to share their expertise and network with us.

One must realize how exceptionally unique this entire endeavor is and hopefully, be valued and supported at all levels. At this point I wish to once again, just as I did during our October, 2014, formal book exhibit and autism event at the consulate of the Republic of Cyprus in New York, invite our Diaspora to join us in our efforts and contribute to our goals to the best of their ability. I sincerely believe that our Diaspora has a tremendous role to play here in terms of both setting an influential precedent, as well as in contributing in all practical aspects of our efforts.

Personally, I would love to see friends and experts stemming from our Diaspora networks engage with us from countries such as Australia, South Africa, the UK, the Far East, Latin America, etc. We do have an added responsibility as Greeks, irrespective of origin, age, and level of education, training or expertise, to give back to our nation. What better way to do so than through the support of the aforementioned endeavors, for our children, at all levels.

I must not neglect to express my deepest thanks and most sincere gratitude to the head of Church in Cyprus, his eminence Archbishop Chysostomos II, whose contribution and solid promise have been catalytic in the confirmation of the 1st Cyprus Annual International Conference on Autism, to take place at Paphos, Cyprus, 18 – 21 October, 2016. Though the government of the Republic of Cyprus, through the words of its current minister of health, Dr. Philippos Patsalis, has stated its support to us and in theory, the minister of health has taken this conference under his auspices, solid actions on behalf of the Cyprus government in support of our efforts remain to be seen.

Maria Athens: What were the steps involved in organizing the nation's first global autism gathering?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: Many steps were taken by many in order for us to be at this level of organization and expertise today. As I mentioned above, scientists, educators, parents, associations, and non-governmental organizations were approached, both by me and others. While I remain faithful to the true nature of my recommendations, clearly stated in my formal proposal submitted to UMASS, Yale, and other universities and institutions as early as 2013, others appear to have adjusted their bar to somewhat lower standards, demands, or expectations.

My personal efforts, as well as the ones of the luminary experts I mentioned render our goals unyielding and our vision crystal clear. Much work has already precipitated the organization of the aforementioned planned conference and many other events will take place between now and October, 2016. Increasing awareness, attracting international luminary researchers, engaging experts from a variety of scientific fields all remain solid, directed, measurable, attainable, and reasonable goals of Magic Always Happens®, Inc.

My team and I remain extremely motivated and driven by our belief in our ability to bring about positive change. We welcome all who may wish to join us in our vision in the pursuit of excellence.

Maria Athens: You also serve as a psychology professor, can you tell us about that?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: I enjoy teaching child, developmental, social, abnormal, and other fields of psychology at the college level. In the past 16 years I have taught psychology at various colleges and gained experience with many and diverse student populations. I recognize the fact that I learn as much from students as they may learn from me, and I enjoy sharing personal or professional experiences and examples with them to integrate knowledge.

Being an instructor for courses taught over the weekend enables me to engage with students who are really determined to lead a successful life. The population of students attending weekend classes includes people of all ages, socioeconomic and other strata, single parents, etc.

International and local students bring a wealth of life knowledge with them and are really thirsty for knowledge, development, growth, professional success and accomplishment. Being a psychologist and an assistant adjunct professor allows me to teach on a theoretical level but also, and perhaps most importantly, to utilize experiential learning as I call it that benefits students the most.

Maria Athens: Can you describe your own Greek background?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: Though I am now proud to say I am a Greek-American (Americanized to the degree a naturalized citizen can be) I was born and raised in the picturesque Mediterranean port town of Limassol, in Cyprus.

Despite the historical turbulent times of my early childhood and development, including the civil unravel and the Turkish invasion of 1974, I was fortunate to be taught the precious values of our history, philosophy, language, culture, customs and habits, and I am extremely proud to be Greek.

Having been raised in Cyprus I witnessed a plethora of local, regional, and international events and developments constantly occurring both inside and outside my island of origin. This experience naturally rendered me more curious as to the human condition, psyche, and the motivating factors and forces we humans have, acquire through learning, utilize, and thrive on.

Understanding politics, regional conflict, financial and economic variables, and international interests and plots, enables one to maintain a better, more objective eye and enhances one's ability to think outside the box. I am confident all of these personal experiences offer a tremendous arsenal that remains at one's disposition.

In my case, combined with my military training and service, I have learned to integrate the theoretical and applied, while maintaining a positive perspective in my relentless pursued of my life goals, both as a psychologist and as an attentive human being.

Though psychological theory speaks to the human need to "leave something behind" for future generations (see generativity) one must set life goals early on and remain faithful to those if he or she wishes to meet them in his or her lifetime. In my case, I do know the goals set have been and continue to be met with success as I have long ago internalized the motto "who dares wins." Persistence and perseverance do render results.

Maria Athens: What's next for Dr. Neophytos Papaneophytou?

Neophytos Papaneophytou: The mission of Magic Always Happens®, Inc. remains of paramount importance and we will expand our efforts in reaching out to others who may share or identify with our goals and vision. I consider it my duty to provide all factors enabling and leading up to the establishment of the Cyprus International Center for Autism Treatment and Research (CICATRE) I proposed in 2013, with the successful completion of the 1st Annual Cyprus International Conference on Autism Treatment and Research being an extreme priority and a prelude to CICATRE.

I am blessed to have been able to bring together luminary researchers to address previous formal events, and I intend to follow up with multiple local, national, and international events in the future. Book exhibits, autism awareness colloquia and international collaborative research meetings are already scheduled for 2015 and 2016, with some of those taking place in New York City, Santiago/Chile, Athens/Greece, Paris/France, Cyprus, and elsewhere.

On a personal level, I look forward to continuing to work with clients clinically, engage with students academically, and expand on my research and publications, including the publication of additional children's books with the majority of proceeds going toward the stated cause.

Since my first book "Magic Always Happens: My Daddy Loves Me!" has already been translated and published in multiple languages (English, French, Greek, and Spanish) with additional languages pending, it is my hope that it will continue to be purchased all around our globe. I anticipate additional translated editions of my 2nd children's book "Fluffadelia" will soon be widely available internationally, and enjoyed by many children and parents alike.

I must admit that I enjoy writing and I wish to confess that the next children's book may have already been conceived, and it will soon be processed for publication. I invite everyone to read, share, and talk about the benefits these books offer to children and parents alike, and to continue to care, provide for and dare I say love all children with special abilities in this, or any other society.

Magic does happen when we all work together, when we share the vision, passion, and determination to see our goals and mission through. Let's seek international support in the face of our Diaspora, our networks, and our media in order to help our special children and enjoy the blessings with them.