Autism and Screen Time

Posted on
July 10, 2019
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Digital Device Usage
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If you have an autistic child, it can seem like a blessing that they are interested in their smartphone or tablet and spend hours playing games on it. Then the blessing turns into a curse when they explode into irrational anger after losing a game or witnessing some disturbing fantasy event in cyberspace! This does not mean than you need to take away the smartphone or tablet, but you do need to be aware of the issues relating to autism and screen time and plan appropriately.

We have pulled together a bit of useful information about autism and screen time as it relates to the various issues dealt with by kids with autism spectrum disorder.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Not all that long ago child psychologists and psychiatrists talked about Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and Autistic Disorder as separate entities. It turned out that with further study,these are all degrees of severity of the same condition, now called Autism Spectrum Disorder. Slightly more than 2% of kids in the USA have conditions that fall somewhere in the autism spectrum. The numbers seem to be increasing,but experts generally attribute this to better screening and awareness of the condition. If your child has an autism spectrum disorder they may simply need help with their communication skills and dealing with stressful situations. Or,they may have very severe problems that inhibit normal social functioning.Because digital devices have been such an integral part of our daily lives, autism and screen time is an issue with pretty much every child with issues that fall within the autism spectrum.

LEDs can cause sleep disorders

Sleep Disorders, Autism and Screen Time

Anyone with an autistic child knows that their kid often has trouble sleeping or getting to sleep. Researchers report that kids in the autism spectrum don’t secrete as much of the brain chemical melatonin. Melatonin is what the normal brain produces in the evening when the blue light contained in sunlight is gone. This is how it worked for all of human history until they invented digital devices with LEDs (light-emitting diodes). What is the autism and screen time connection here? The blue light, which is the most energetic part of the visual spectrum, is what suppresses melatonin production during the day. When the sun goes down we used to have less blue light exposure, melatonin was produced and the brain renewed itself with a goodnight’s sleep. Unfortunately, LEDs can cause sleep disorders and when your child uses the smartphone,tablet, or computer late in the evening it blue light further suppresses melatonin production in someone who is already not making enough of this sleep-inducing and brain-restoring chemical. Restricting digital device use before bedtime is a good idea as is blue light filter glasses eye protection.

Dealing with Stress, Autism and Screen Time

Child psychologists talk about “auto regulation” issues. In normal speech, they are talking about the ability to deal with the stresses of everyday life in an appropriate manner. Unfortunately, kids with autism spectrum disorders tend to overreact to relatively normal stimuli and react in what seem to others to be inappropriate ways. One of the ways that all of us learn to deal with the events of daily life is by dealing with them in social settings from childhood on. But, because kids in the autism spectrum do not communicate well, they tend to become isolated and do not have the opportunities to experience and react to normal events like other kids do. Add to that the constant use of a digital device and immersion in worlds of fantasy and excessive stimuli. That is where you see your child quietly playing a video game and then exploding when a fantasy character is killed. The autism and screen time connection here is abundantly clear. You need to insist on “timeouts” from the smartphone and time spent with other children or with adults in normal social and play settings. The worst downside to autism and screen time is that digital device addiction in isolated kids a affects brain development and has been even been shown to shrink important areas of the brain!

Worrying, Obsessing, Autism and Screen Time

Everyone worries but kids with autism tend to be worry warts and to obsess about the things that bother them. Much of this comes from social isolation because they don’t have good social skills, tend to isolate and therefore don’t improve their social skills. These kids are left alone with their fears. The root of obsessive-compulsive behavior is fear and the worrying of the autistic child leads to repetitive thoughts and behaviors. While these thoughts and actions tend to help the autistic child cope with the stress of the moment, they also lead to worse isolation and worrying. There is ample evidence that isolating with the smartphone worsens this situation. That is the autism and screen time link in this case. Now you can add things like digital eye strain to the mix and your poor child has even more to worry about.

Poor Social Communication, Autism and Screen Time

The basic issues with children who have an autism spectrum disorder are poor communication and social skills. They start out behind their peers and the tendency to isolate denies them the “practice” that other kids get when they play and otherwise interact. Although there are skills that can be developed used a digital device, the ability to relate to one’s peers, “roll with the punches” of social defeats, and build friendships using communication skills are not among them. There is even research evidence on MRI brain scans of children with excessive video game use that the connections of the brain that facilitate communication and social interaction are underdeveloped and tend to atrophy with disuse.

Communication and social skills are like muscles that need to be exercised to be healthy. Don’t use them and they atrophy. And, with children whose peers are constantly learning more skills, this puts the child with autism spectrum disorder further and further behind. That is the autism and screen time link in this case.

Autism and Screen Time

Autism and Screen Time
Autism and Screen Time

There is a mix of issues to concern a parent when their child has a condition that falls somewhere within the autism spectrum. Helping your child learn the social and communication skills necessary to live as full and complete a life as possible is paramount. To deal most effectively with autism and screen time, a “best practice” approach is to mix digital device use with school, play, social interactions, and lots of one on one parental support. Take a look at this article for a thorough and somewhat scientific look at autism and excessive screen time.

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