Excessive Screen Time and Autism

Posted on
March 4, 2019
Effects of Blue Light
Posted by
Ron Allen

A child with autism is more sensitive to the stimulant effects of digital devices.

In this day and age, it seems that everyone has a digital device,including young children. There are a number of valid concerns in regard to addiction to these devices, sleep disturbances, short term and long term eye issues, and brain development. As is often the case, those children who already have problems in these areas are at greater risk of harm. Our specific concern in this article has to do with excessive screen time and autism or autism spectrum disorder. This article first looks at autism spectrum disorder and its communication, social interaction, and behavioral components. Then we look at new information about how excessive screen time and autism are related.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a“developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life. (National Institute of Mental Health)

Autism spectrum disorder includes a number of similar conditions, Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder. These individual conditions are now considered to be variations in severity and presentation of the same condition.

The incidence in the USA of autism spectrum disorder is about one in 59 children. Better diagnosis and screening in recent years have been responsible for identifying many more children than were previously thought to have this disorder. The children with this diagnosis may have severe problems and some may simply need help with communication skills.

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Blue Light and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Kids in the autism spectrum have difficulty in or lack of interest in communication and social interaction. They tend to isolate and have repetitive and inappropriate behaviors partially as a result of their lack of interaction with, and understanding of, others.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Communication and Social Interaction Deficits

All children (and adults) who fall along the Autism Spectrum have difficulty with social interaction and communication. A child will not make eye contact with others, listen to them, or look at others. Also,an autistic child will rarely or never show things to others or respond to someone calling their name. These characteristics play out with difficulty in holding conversations back and forth with others. And, when a child in the autism spectrum starts talking about a favorite topic, they will not give others an opportunity to respond and not notice that others have lost interest.

The tone of voice of a child in the autism spectrum may sound flat or have a sing-song quality. And, their facial expressions commonly do not match what they are talking about.

As time goes by it becomes apparent that autistic kids are having trouble understanding the viewpoints of other people, are unable to understand why others are doing what they do, and cannot accurately predict what someone else will do next.

As the communication difficulties of a child with autism spectrum disorder inhibit their communication with and understanding of others,they tend to isolate.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Repetitive and Restrictive Behaviors

Kids in the autism spectrum often exhibit echolalia, the incessant repetition of words and phrases. They exhibit strong and persistent interest in facts, details, and especially numbers.

An autistic child will commonly be very focused on very specific things like objects that are moving or their parts. And, these children are easily upset when their routine is interrupted even to a small degree.

Specifically, in regard to our focus on excessive screen time and autism, autistic kids are often much more sensitive to sensory stimuli such as noises, lights, or temperature changes.

(National Institute of Mental Health)

Excessive Screen Time and Autism Spectrum Disorder

In Psychology Today,Victoria L. Dunckley M.D. writes about Autism and Screen Time: Special Brains, Special Risks.

Dr. Dunckley writes this.

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are uniquely vulnerable to various brain-related impacts of screen time. These electronic “side effects” include hyperarousal and dysregulation-what I call Electronic Screen Syndrome-as well as technology addiction, to video games, internet, smartphones, social media,and so on.

She notes, as we do, that children with preexisting conditions, like autism spectrum disorder, are more vulnerable to the pervasive effects of excessive screen time. The good doctor goes to list eleven specific areas in with excessive screen time and autism result in worsening of the condition.

  • First: Autistic kids tend to have problems sleeping which are related to low melatonin levels. As we wrote in our article, LEDs and Why You Cannot Sleep, the blue light from LED screens inhibits melatonin production, especially when viewed before bedtime. This is a problem for anyone but is especially worse for an autistic child.
  • Second: Autistic kids tend to have problems with “auto regulation.” They react excessively to the stresses of normal life, experience excessive and inappropriate emotions, and in general, are prone to overreact to various stimuli. And, excessive viewing of digital device screens has been shown to cause both short term and long term stress, hyperarousal, and dysregulation of emotions.
  • Third: Nervous system inflammation is associated with autism and excessive use of digital screen devices can cause inflammatory responses in the brain by suppressing melatonin, interfering with the healing effects of a good night’s sleep, and increasing the secretion of stress-related hormones.
  • Fourth: This relationship between excessive screen time and autism gets to the heart of the matter. The brains of kids throughout the autism spectrum are not as well-connected or developed as those of other children. Some of this is how they start out and some of it has to do with how these children become isolated and do not “practice” their social and communication skills as they tend to isolate. Unfortunately, excessive screen time worsens the “connectivity” issue and is seen on MRI scans of the brains of kids with video game addiction.
  • Fifth: Autism spectrum kids lack social and communication skills. The “treatment” for these children includes practicing the use of these skills. Unfortunately,excessive digital device use worsens social and communication skills. The worst thing you can do for an autistic child is to ignore them while they peer at the screen of their digital device!
  • Sixth: Autistic kids tend to be worriers. They exhibit social anxiety which they deal with by isolating and they have obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Both social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have been shown to be worsened by excessive screen time.
  • Seventh: In children throughout the autism spectrum there is a tendency for a disconnect between sensory input and motor response, called a sensory-motor integration issue. This is another pre-existing trait of autism that is worsened by excessive screen time.
  • Eighth: Children with autistic spectrum disorders are isolated and have poor social and communication skills. As such they have difficulty obtaining gratification in the real world. But, the tech world of the digital screen offers immediate gratification without the need to really understand things or sort them out.This can lead to problems in later years like porn addiction as an autistic child does not understand the difference between reality and fantasy simply due to lack of experience and practice in the real world.
  • Ninth: Autistic kids often have short attention spans, difficulty in processing information and making good decisions, and diminished ability to retain much of what has just happened. Unfortunately, too much screen time worsens all of this.
  • Tenth: This borders on the hypothetical but there is evidence that the brains of autistic kids are more prone to be affected by electromagnetic radiation. If this is the case, having a digital device close to the head all of the time would be a bad idea.
  • Eleventh: Kids with autism spectrum disorders are more prone to a number of psychiatric disorders ranging from excessive anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders to frank psychoses. There is strong evidence that excessive screen time can worsen or even bring on these conditions. Fortunately, there is also good evidence that weaning the child off digital devices can often reverse all symptoms!

What Should a Parent Do?

If you think that your child may be one of the one in fifty-nine who falls within the autism spectrum, talk to your doctor, your pediatrician, or someone experienced with this constellation of problems. There are many people with this condition who are living normal and productive lives after having received appropriate attention early on.

Should you hide the smartphone, tablet, and laptop computer? We live in an information age and it will harder over the years to work, communicate, and live in modern society without these devices and the skills needed to use them. But, there is a line between normal screen time and addiction. Basic issues like digital eye strain, sleep problems, and computer vision syndrome can be easily dealt with by periodically resting the eyes, avoiding excessive screen time late at night,and using glasses that block blue light.

However, if your child falls within the autism spectrum,you need to get advice and help from someone specialized in this area. And, one of the questions you need to ask is about excessive screen time and autism.

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