I am sharing a blog from Mad in America that offers intriguing insight and research on possible causes of autism being linked to use of electronic screens. Statistics show an exponential increase in the incidence of autism, now called autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), that parallels the increase in TVs, video games, smart phones and other electronics in the past 30 years. More intriguingly, Marilyn Wedge, PhD, reports studies from Romania and France that show completely removing electronics can decrease autism symptoms. She notes that the rise in ASD has occurred only in rich countries. Hmmm…
Dr. Wedge notes that a developing child’s brain needs complex interpersonal and environmental interactions to learn. Being sedentary and with only the eyes engaged does not provide these essential experiences. She advocates a new lifestyle for the whole family with much less or no use of screens for children. This may be difficult to imagine, but I grew up without a TV before I was in junior high, so it is possible! And certainly there were no other digital media back in the 1960s. So my siblings and I played, usually actively, outdoors, and often in groups. I was also an avid reader as I got older.
Consider what might happen to a child who is unable to process language well because he has been limited in his social engagements with peers through play. Consider that he has been glued to a video game and never properly learn the give-and-take of normal social interactions called reciprocity. He may have never had to negotiate for his turn at a game, never had to stare down a bully, never had to show concern or care for a hurt or offended playmate. He never learned social nuances, such as how to make a joke, to take a joke, to understand the difference between a joke and a hurtful tease. Social skills are obviously learned in social interactions and if these skills are not learned at the appropriate developmental age, the brain does not develop properly. If these skills are not learned, the brain prunes or kills off the unused neurons that are responsible for things like social reciprocity.
When I conceptualize ASD I also like to consider it as part of the normal fear or threat response. The “fight-flight-freeze” response to fear can cause child to freeze or dissociate if he is in a new situation, or is asked a questions and is uncertain of the correct response, or just feels overwhelmed. Isn’t that what happens with children on the spectrum? They lack social skills and are highly anxious in social situations. They did not learn the value of engaging emotionally and socially with others. When distressed they do not rely on turning toward others for comfort, but rather revert to self-calming skills that involve repetitive movements, ordering objects, obsessive focus on specific topics, and other tactics. These behaviors may appear odd, but they are likely merely attempts to reduce fear through making their world more predictable and orderly, with fewer social interactions.
I also believe, based on attachment theory, that perhaps some people with ASD had a parent or parents that had limited social and emotional skills or were even verbally abusive. This leaves a child either unlikely to learn appropriate social interaction skills or outright fearful of engaging with others. Again, isn’t this what is happening with those with autism? They are anxious about engaging with others, perhaps because they did not experience these skills with nurturing and caring parents. In addition, these skills may not have been modeled for them by parents. And it appears we are learning that if their eyeballs were glued to an electronic device, this may also be a factor.
Certainly, more research is needed, and like most emotional and behavioral problems, it may be a combination of temperament, environment, parenting, and genes that causes these issues.