Virtual Autism

Virtual Autism: 5 Facts Every Parent Needs To Know 

Virtual Autism

The incidence of autism among children has increased alarmingly in recent years, all the more so since not all cases are yet diagnosed and there are still children who are not yet taken into account and included in a therapeutic program. For the first time in the specialized literature, virtual autism was noticed by the Romanian psychologist Marius Teodor Zamfir, who observed the existence of a link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children and their early exposure to virtual environments: tablets, television, laptop, telephone.

Children's brains develop enormously in the first 3 years of life, they grow and form a large number of neurons and specialized nerve cells, as well as a large number of synapses. After this age, effects of "modeling" of the connections between neurons follow, the number of nerve cells in some areas of the brain decreases, finer networks are created, more faithful in reactions, and more specific.

In order to develop optimally, the child learns from the environment, from what he sees, what he hears, and what he feels through his sense organs (skin - see the sense of touch, eyes, ears, tongue, etc.). The exposure to virtual environments deprives the child of tactile and olfactory discoveries, of creating relationships in space with regard to objects, of exploring the environment and therefore of his own body by learning balance and experiencing positions, by discovering some characteristics of objects (texture, temperature, smell, weight, taste, sound when falling, breaking, etc.) and at the same time, the child learns both by observing the people around him and by interacting with them.

Exposed to virtual environments, the child becomes sedentary, stops exploring the world with all his senses, and may even stop developing his speech. Even if he hears words and songs, the child learns to speak from people, whom he watches carefully, and not from virtual environments.

The tablet, the TV, and the phone deprive the child of all this, and the cartoon character does not respond back to the babble as the parent does. Deprived of many aspects of the environment, both those that he would observe and those that he would interact with, as a response of those around him to his gestures, the child who spends a lot of time in the virtual environment can show developmental disorders and delays in making purchases according to age may have behaviors on the autistic spectrum.

Not all children exposed to the virtual environment may have developmental disorders, but when there is already a genetic predisposition, symptoms of the autistic spectrum and more may develop.

It is important to say that all the neural, and nervous processes that take place in the normal development of the child (all the more so when he is small) undergo changes, and unfold differently when the child is excessively exposed to virtual environments.

The prevalence of the use of electronic media, and screens is increasing among children under 3 years of age worldwide and tends to increase within a decade. Some studies suggest that increased screen time in young children is associated with negative health outcomes, such as decreased cognitive ability (logic, intelligence, etc.), delayed language development, mood, and autistic-like behavior, including hyperactivity, decreased attention span, and irritability.

Today, children around the world spend more time a year in front of screens compared to children who were more socially engaged in the past. Children's first exposure to screens is already at a much younger age (infants) and, moreover, parents actively persuade children to use virtual environments as "babysitters, to entertain and keep the little ones occupied, so that the parent has more time for him.

Surprisingly, many parents proudly confess that their child under the age of 2 regularly spends time in front of screens, that they "know" how to click.

Early screen exposure can cause neurochemical and anatomical changes in the brain. Significantly reduced melatonin concentration was found in a subset of children exposed to screens. The deficiency of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, acetylcholine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) has been observed in studies of urban Internet-addicted children, which may cause a spectrum of aberrant behavior phenotypes. The researchers found that there are negative effects of screen exposure on the regional volume of gray matter and white matter in the brain, which may correlate with delayed verbal competence, aggression, and decreased cognitive abilities.

I propose 5 basic information that parents should know about virtual autism.

1. What is virtual autism?

Virtual autism presents the behaviors on the autism spectrum (ASD) generated by early and prolonged exposure to virtual environments such as TV, tablet, laptop, phone. Generally, these behaviors disappear or the child responds to treatment better and in a shorter time than in the case of other causes that lead to ASD. But there is a risk that the return will not be complete.

At the moment we know autism that it is not necessarily a disease, that is, we do not have analyzes or investigations that attest to autism, but there is a spectrum of specific behaviors that have been included in this pervasive developmental disorder, which includes especially the areas of communication and interaction, but also part of the perception of the environment and the self.

We know that there are over 1000 genes involved in autism and that many people (including typicals) have them, some developing ASD, some not. That is why specialists take into account environmental factors that trigger or predispose to ASD, such as early food allergies and other gastrointestinal disorders, but also exposure to virtual environments[

2. Symptoms of autism

The symptoms of virtual autism are the same as those included in autism spectrum disorder (watch the video at the end of this article):

  • The child does not respond when you call his name.
  • The child does not look in the eyes and does not show visual contact with those around him.
  • Repetitive movements, stereotypes (spin wheels, line up toys, pour water from one glass to another endlessly).
  • Uses a certain part of the toy rather than the toy for its purpose - for example, does not place the cup correctly (to hold the liquid), does not put the phone to the ear, the hair elastic to the hair, the bracelet to the hand, etc.
  • They don't play with anything (mommy and daddy, feeding the doll/animal, cuckoo-baby, princess, etc.).
  • Avoids physical closeness or does not ask for hugs or does not like to be held.
  • Delayed motor development, for example, walks later or does not start self-service with other children.
  • Delays in language development or disturbances in language development, for example, does not speak or, if he does, either repeat some words (echolalia), has fixations on certain topics, or repeats a question endlessly.
  • Does not imitate gestures, activities, or sounds.
  • Does not answer questions, even non-verbally, and does not know body parts.
  • Don't point the finger - pointing the finger has two components: proto-imperative and proto-declarative. Protoimperative finger-pointing should appear around one year of age. If it does not develop until 16-18 months and protodeclarative form, it would be very good to consult a specialist. The proto-imperative form refers to the child showing that he wants something, pointing to the water bottle or a toy he wants. Protodeclarative form occurs when the child points to an interesting object, it is a kind of question "wow, what is this?", the child insistently points with the finger and verbalizes or makes a short sound. The child with ASD does not exhibit these behaviors.
  • Also about pointing, the little one may not be able to follow what someone else is pointing to. For example, if the mother points to the teddy bear in another corner of the room, the child does not follow with his eyes.
  • The child does not know who his mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather are and does not look for hidden objects (for example, when asking the question "where is a mother?" the child should look at the mother, and if we hide a toy under a sheet, he should search).
  • The child does not explore the environment as much as those of his age or does not explore the environment at all, for example, he can lie on the floor.

  •  the child also seems to have limited interests in the environment and toys.

  • The child does not ask for visual approval. For example, when he is unsure about an activity or when an unknown person enters the room, the child will normally look to the parent to study his reaction. A child with ASD may not present this approving look. Also, when crying, young children look their parents in the eye, but a child with autism spectrum disorder will not.
  • The child does not interact with other children.
  • Does not initiate the game.
  • Parents have wondered at least once if their child is deaf or hard of hearing. The child does not respond to some sounds around.
  • The child shows self-stimulation movements: either he smells the objects or licks them, or he swings, hits the objects or waves his hands or walks on the tips, or spins in a circle.
  • May not tolerate some textures (e.g. stuffed toys, sand, touching food, cold surfaces, etc.) or has preferences for some foods, showing eating disorders (e.g. prefers to eat only pureed or semi-liquid foods).
  • Strong bouts of crying, the child is difficult to calm down and the bouts seem to appear out of nowhere.
  • The child does not understand simple commands and seems to respond or perform "only when he wants to".
  • The child likes routine and seems disturbed when there are changes in the daily routine (resistance to change).
  • Sometimes it seems he doesn't feel the pain.
  • He does not understand NO and does not recognize dangers (for example, in the park he does not avoid the swing, on the street he does not understand the danger of cars, at home, he does not understand the danger of heights, he does not stop when the parent says "NO" or "stop")
  • He does not empathize with those around him, for example, if the mother hits herself and shows that she is in pain, the child does not even seem to notice.
  • The child does not perform simple games such as building a tower of cubes, playing with a cause-and-effect toy, age-appropriately doing a simple puzzle or interlocking, and does not place the cup properly or place the objects properly.
  • Also, the child does not demand attention and acceptance from the parent. For example, he doesn't bring the parent his drawing, he doesn't bring toys to the parent, he doesn't ask him to look at him, and he doesn't bother him at all if the parent is busy or talking on the phone.

      3. Assessments and therapies in ASD

        The child may present only some of the above symptoms. A team consisting of a psychiatrist and a psychologist is recommended for the assessment of the child, today the most used tests for autism are:

        • A test for parents is carried out online – the M-CHAT test.
        • The Portage Test.
        • ADOS modules.
        • ABAS test.
        • Denver Screening Test.

        A test for assessing developmental delays, also useful for making intervention plans - Carolina Curriculum .

        For children under 2 years of age, the most recommended interventions are Denver and Mifune, and after 2 years there are also several therapies, such as ABA, Son-Rise method, RDI (Relationship Development Intervention), 3C therapy, etc.

        Speech therapy and language development interventions are associated with these therapies, as well as desensitization therapies in ASD (for example food desensitization to help the child eat solids or more varied times to help him accept textures or sounds that he rejects).

        4. What do specialists recommend for the prevention of virtual autism?

        The American Academy of Pediatrics sent certain recommendations, renewed in 2016, based on 49 specialist studies. They emphasize the fact that, up to 18 months, the child is not allowed to sit in front of small screens AT ALL, between 18 and 24 months - a maximum of 30 minutes/day and only with an adult around, who can introduce and teach them explains what is happening on TV, between 2 and 6 years - a maximum of one hour/day and between 6 and 12 years - a maximum of 2 hours/day. Every time the little ones interact with the screens, the quality of the programs watched must be checked. The respective studies show that, if we exceed these recommendations, attention problems, obesity, cognitive delays, language delays, sleep problems, autism spectrum disorders, depression, anxiety, etc. may appear in certain children.

        A real challenge is presented by online preschool programs as well as online schools. It is already known, since the pandemic, that the limitation of socialization together with online studies has led to the alarming increase in depression and obesity among children and adolescents.

        5. How can the difference be made between "classical autism" and "Virtual Autism"?

        Psychologist Zamfir tells us that the differences are not related to symptoms, but are related to the character of recovery: "Children who showed excessive consumption of the virtual environment, between 0-3 years, recovered with an efficiency between 4 and 5 times higher compared to the children who were not in front of the virtual environment, and the number of children integrated from mainstream education, at the functional and adaptive level, was almost 3 times higher among the children who presented consumption of the virtual environment.".

        Of course, a rigorous anamnesis regarding the child's lifestyle up to the time of diagnosis of the autistic disorder may suggest the possibility that the child suffers from virtual autism. The child's speed of recovery, much faster than with other types of ASD, also tips the scales toward a diagnosis of virtual autism.


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