CAHELP eNews - November 9, 2017

child viewing digital screen and digital tablet

How much is too much? Autism and Screen Time

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from others, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD require more help in their daily lives; others need less.

Many parents worry about the amount of screen time their children are exposed to, whether it is video games, computer work, smart phones, or watching television, we instinctively know too much time is not beneficial. Parents of children with autism have additional concerns about screen time due to its stimulant nature, and according to Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley, "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" (Psychology Today).

As technology and online resources continue to grow, so does the need to understand the risks involved with the over usage of these assistive devices. In Dr. Dunckley's article, Autism and Screen Time: Special Brains, Special Risks, she references the following 11 reasons children with autism are extra vulnerable to screen time effects and tech addiction:

  1. Children with autism tend to have low melatonin and sleep disturbances and screen time suppresses melatonin and disrupts sleep. Aside from regulating sleep and the body clock, melatonin also helps modulate hormones and brain chemistry, balances the immune system, and keeps inflammation at bay.
  2. Children with autism are prone to arousal regulation issues, manifesting in an exaggerated stress response, emotional dysregulation, or a tendency to be over or under-stimulated; screen time increases acute and chronic stress, induces hyperarousal, causes emotional dysregulation, and produces overstimulation.
  3. Autism is associated with inflammation of the nervous system and screen time may increase inflammation by a variety of mechanisms including increased stress hormones, suppressed melatonin, and non-restorative sleep. Light-at-night from screens also suppresses REM sleep, a phase during which the brain "cleans house."
  4. The autistic brain tends to be underconnected-- less integrated and more compartmentalized-- and screen time hinders whole-brain integration and healthy development of the frontal lobe.
  5. Children with autism have social and communication deficits, such as impaired eye contact, difficulty reading facial expressions and body language, low empathy, and impaired communication; screen time hinders development of these exact same skills-- even in children and teens who do not have autism.
  6. Children with autism are prone to anxiety-- including obsessive-compulsive traits, social anxiety-- and screen time is associated with increased risk for OCD and social anxiety while contributing to high arousal and poor coping skills.
  7. Children with autism frequently have sensory and motor integration issues, as well as tics; screen time has been linked to sensory-motor delays and worsening of sensory processing and can precipitate or worsen vocal and motor tics due to dopamine release.
  8. Individuals with autism are typically highly attracted to screen-based technology and are not only at increased risk for developing video game and other technology addictions, but are more likely to exhibit symptoms with smaller amounts of exposure.
  9. Children with autism tend to have a fragile attention system, poor executive functioning, and "reduced bandwidth" when processing information.
  10. Children with autism may be more sensitive to EMFs (electromagnetic fields) emitted from wireless communications (e.g., WiFi and cell phone frequencies) as well as from the electronic devices themselves.
  11. Children with autism are a higher risk for psychiatric disorders of all kinds, including mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, tics, and psychosis. Likewise, higher amounts of total screen time are associated with higher levels of psychiatric disturbances, including mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, tics, and psychosis.
Less screen time, meaning more outdoor time, bonding, eye-to-eye contact, and interactions can benefit all of us, not just those with autism. The old adage of everything in moderation is a good reminder to limit exposure to screen time and increase exposure to other social interactions and natural stimulants.

References

Dunckley, V.L. (2016). Autism and Screen Time: Special Brains, Special Risks: Children with autism are vulnerable to the negative effects of screen time, [website]. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201612/autism-and-screen-time-special-brains-special-risks