Autism and Screen Time: Special Brains, Special Risks

By Victoria L. Dunckley M.D.
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.

Why? Because a brain with autism has inherent characteristics that screen time exacerbates. In truth, these impacts in occur in all of us, but children with autism will be both more prone to experiencing negative effects and less able to recover from them; their brains are more sensitive and less resilient.

As a framework for understanding these vulnerabilities, it’s helpful to know that screen time—particularly the interactive kind—acts like a stimulant, not unlike caffeine, amphetamines, or cocaine. Also know that children with autism are often sensitive to stimulants of all kinds, whether pharmaceutical or electronic. For example, children with autism and attention issues often can’t tolerate prescribed stimulants, a standard treatment for ADD/ADHD. Stimulants tend to make children with autism irritable, weepy, over-focused, more obsessive-compulsive, and unable to sleep. Stimulants can also exacerbate tics, self-injurious behaviors, aggression, and sensory issues.

In my own experience in working with children and adults with autism, screen time can precipitate regression (loss of language or of social or adaptive living skills), exacerbate repetitive behaviors, further restrict interests, and trigger aggressive and self-injurious behaviors. I’ve even seen regression occur when a communication device is introduced, often when the parents are told to encourage “play” on the device so the child can “get used to it.”

The proliferation of the iPad and smartphones has produced more problems and setbacks in my practice than any other single factor. Because the idea of eliminating screens can seem overwhelming, I typically recommend parents do a four week “electronic fast” as an experiment so they can get a taste of what the intervention can do. Families track two to three problematic areas to provide objective evidence, and are encouraged to document behaviors (such as screen time tantrums and how the child plays). Even a few short weeks can produce improvements that can be significant enough for the family to decide to continue with screen elimination, in which case the benefits will continue to build on one another. For link to full article please see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201612/autism-and-screen-time-special-brains-special-risks

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