Virtual Autism: A New Threat to Toddlers

Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda manipulates toy ball

Pediatricians are alarmed that little kids who spend hours and hours a day on phones, tablets, and around TVs can develop autistic-like symptoms. The good news: the symptoms often completely disappear when the children switch to playing with other kids and palpable toys, interacting more with caregivers, and avoiding all screens.

Two doctors in France are leading an awareness campaign about “Virtual Autism,” a condition they explain in this video.

“Screen viewing several hours a day prevents the brain from developing and generates behavior problems and relationship problems,” reports Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda, speaking also for colleague Dr. Isabelle Terrasse. “We decided to make this video to warn parents, professionals, and public bodies of the grave dangers of all screens for children between the ages of zero to four.”

Over the past five years, the doctors noticed more and more toddlers with unusual changes in behavior. Some had stopped responding to their names, they would avoid eye contact, and had become indifferent to the world around themcharacteristics of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Others were developmentally behind for their age.

Pediatrician holds up drawings by two 4-year-olds. The drawing by the child who is on screens a lot is much less detailed than the one drawn by a child who doesn't spend much time on screens.

Drawing on left by a 4-year-old who spends little time on screen media. Drawing on right by a slightly older 4-year-old who was highly screen-exposed..

After asking parents in detail about the kids’ media use and household exposure, the doctors discovered almost all the children had spent large amounts of time on and around screens—in some cases, ten hours a day. But when the doctors had families eliminate or greatly reduce the children’s screen exposure, the ASD symptoms would almost always disappear.

Because the same phenomenon has been observed in Romania, screen withdrawal is now a therapeutic protocol for early ASD.

Astronomical Rise in Autism Incidence

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in 1975—when VCRs first came on scene—only one in 5,000 children in the U.S. were reported to have ASD. But by 2016, video on demand had become ubiquitous and the incidence of ASD had risen to one child in 68. (Update November 2018: a new report based on US government health statistics shows the number may now be 1 in 40 American children.)  

Until very recently, “AV (audio-visual) exposure in infancy has been overlooked” as a sign of autism, according to research ophthalmologist Karen Frankel Heffler of Drexel University College of Medicine. As she writes in the journal Medical Hypotheses, “There has been an explosion in viewing opportunities for infants over the past 25 years, which parallels the rise in autism.”

“Attention in the vulnerable infant is drawn away from healthy social interactions toward TV, computer screens, and electronic toys,” according to Heffler.

At the first ever Children’s Screen Time Action Network conference, I happened to meet Dr. Heffler’s research associate, Lori Frome, M.Ed. Frome is an Early Interventionist who discovered, also by chance, that the symptoms in one of her ASD patients disappeared after her screen exposure was curtailed.

Frome then tried the same treatment on her own son, who also had an ASD diagnosis. In only a few screen-free months, as Frome describes in this video, her son had “a complete developmental trajectory change in the core deficits of ASD.” In other words, her son became developmentally normal for his age.

Screen media has a “very addictive power,” say Dr. Ducanda. “Little by little the child can no longer do without and demands it more and more. If the parents try and withdraw him, he can go into a real meltdown.”

Doctors Ducanda and Terrasse contend that heavy doses of screen time affect what would be, in pre-digital times, the natural wiring of a child’s brain. Watching a ball move on a screen, for instance, does not register in a child’s mind the same way it does to manipulate and throw a ball. Says Dr. Ducanda: “The small child’s brain cannot develop without this sense of touch.”

Dr. Andrew Doan, an ophthalmologist and neuroscientist, produced this animated video to show how watching screen media can rewire a child’s brain.

Keeping the Chance of Autism at Bay

So, what’s a parent to do? For one thing, to actively support a child’s basic developmental needs. For kids to learn to speak, reason, and develop crucial social skills, they need face-to-face interaction with loving people and to use all their senses as often as they can.

That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids under age two spend full time exploring their world without interruption by screen, except for the occasional Facetime with Grandma. Preschoolers shouldn’t have more than one hour of screen time a day “to allow children ample time to engage in other activities important to their health and development,” says the AAP.

When you look through Today’s lens, early childhood has become a rarified, once-in-a-lifetime pre-digital opportunity.  As I write in The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital Age, each child begins life as a “wild human”—as free and unplugged as any other animal.

“When toddlers range around, freely using all of their senses to examine, taste and play with whatever they choose, they are making rich and lifelong neural connections.”

Boy playing outside with toy trucks

So kids can stay on a healthy developmental track, experts including Dr. Ducanda and Lori Frome recommend that you:

  • Talk and read with your child every day as much as possible
  • Provide materials, toys, and games that require manipulation, such as a play dough, finger paints, and a play kitchen
  • Go outside at least once a day and make sure the child has time to play alone and with other children
  • Not use screens when you are with children
  • Not hand a phone to your baby or young child (and keep the screen locked, just in case)
  • Keep the TV off around kids under age four, even if the child doesn’t seem to be paying attention to what’s on the screen
  • Wait until a child is at least age 6 before giving access to a tablet, and only if you’ve set up time and content limits (which is possible on the Amazon Fire Kids Edition)
  • Explain to family members and caregivers why these measures are essential to a child’s healthy development, durability, and well-being

Great grandfather plays on floor with great grandson

As Dr. Heffler points out in her research, Autism-like characteristics that develop in very young children can have a variety of causes. Still, if symptoms do arise, Dr. Ducanda and her colleagues recommend keeping the child away from all screens for at least a month, which will require the cooperation of every household member. If that can be accomplished, she claims, the child’s ASD-like problems will likely “miraculously disappear or diminish considerably.”

Conversely, if a child has a full, well-balanced life with minimal time on screens, the symptoms may never emerge.

Note: Dr. Heffler is seeking research subjects 18 to 42 months who have been diagnosed with ASD, have no other significant genetic or health problems, and have spent an average of two or more hours on screens per day. The study requires two visits to Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA; weekly home visits; and that a screen-free home environment be provided. For more information, e-mail Dr. Heffler at ASD-ESMStudy@DrexelMed.edu.

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Two books that help parents understand how screen media affects children’s development are Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time by Victoria Dunckley, M.D. and Virtual Child: The Terrifying Truth about What Technology is Doing to Children by child occupational therapist, Cris Rowan.

I discuss Virtual Autism, Attachment, and screen time management with Audrey Monke on her Sunshine Parenting podcast and in this TEDx talk

To help plan your family’s time wisely, use this free checklist:

Finally, for inspiration, download a free PDF copy of the quick-read Durable Human Manifesto.

About the author: DurableHuman.com founder Jenifer Joy Madden is a health journalist, digital media adjunct professor, and author of How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design. Her work has informed millions on outlets including ABC News, The Washington Post, Readers Digest, Tech Republic, Thrive Global, and many others.

Learn more about this author on Google+.

2 thoughts on “Virtual Autism: A New Threat to Toddlers

  1. one girl child now she aged 25 month. she start to see mobile screen at age 9 month upto 2 hour per day and increase every day now at age of 24 month it become to see on tv and mobile is near 7-10 hour per day, now at age of 25 month come to know autism , so question is
    (1) is it due to constant seeing of tv screen like rhyme etc
    (2) is it curable ? or how recovery we get?

    1. Thank you very much for sharing this about your daughter. Though this is a brand new field of study, it is true that some doctors in the U.S. and other countries see that little children who watch hours per day of TV, YouTube, and other screen media can start having autistic-like symptoms. These doctors also see that when a child with these symptoms STOPS using or being around ANY screens and STARTS playing with toys and other children and reading books and talking to and playing a lot with parents, siblings and other caregivers, the autistic-like behaviors get much less or even go away. It only seems to take a few weeks after they stop being on or around screens that they return to being normal curious, lively little kids. A great book you can read about this is Reset Your Child’s Brain by Victoria Dunckley. M.D.. You can also visit this website: https://esmautism.wixsite.com/website. Doctors studying this problem advise that if your child does stop being around any screens for a month and there is very little or no reduction in autistic-like symptoms, it is probably time to see a specialist in Autism Spectrum Disorder. If you’d like to talk directly with an expert knowledgeable about “Virtual Autism”, please let me know and I will put you in touch.

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