Digital Devices and Autism

iphonepuzzle2Nearly every day, a family enters our office and, within moments, the child obtains some type of digital device. A parent then admits, “I have to give him the iPhone.”

For affected infants, toddlers, and youngsters, this behavior only appears to be obsessive – compulsive disorder. Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors are part of the fabric of Autism Spectrum. Some children draw pictures, play a musical instrument, bang on a table, line up toys, or bounce a ball, for example.

iStuff takes these habits to another level, entirely.

The Good
There is a wide selection of programs, such as Proloquo2Go, Communicate Easy, and GoTalk NOW that can be an invaluable aid for the apraxic child. They streamline effective communication, where before the PECS tended to be kludgy and restricted. The addition of electronics means that the children get to hear words, or even observe lip movement.

Parents will often discover that their child has learned to read by utilizing digital media. Many patients even display an ironic ability to learn another language. “I didn’t know he could do that!”

Hidden abilities, such as videography or photography can take shape. Drawing and other design-assisted skills encourage artistic expression.

Plus, playing games is always fun.

The Bad
Digital stimming promotes OCD behaviors. Older adults may remember their talking childhood doll, Chatty Cathy. Pull the string and she would randomly repeat 1 of ~12 cute phrases. However, after just a few days, the child would be less likely to use the dolly’s cord, and more likely to talk for the doll. It got boring. On an iThing, there are infinite choices.

A parent may point out their child, engrossed in Angry Birds, and inaccurately observe that, “She’s very good with that iPad.” Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests can lead to a great deal of frustration – and aggressive behaviors – when the battery runs out.

A recent study even documents the effect on sleep when children have screens in their bedroom. The loss of proper rest often adds to frustration, a short fuse, confusion and fog.

broken iPhoneThe Ugly
No imagination. For most of the apps, everything is there to entertain children of all ages and all levels of skill. There may be little incentive to go to ‘the next level’, as the present state of perseveration is sufficient. The toy talks to the child, rather than the other way ’round.

No socialization. Individuals can spend hours doing the same iActivity over and over. Whereas the Pong TV Game of the previous century was more interesting when played with another human being, the computer is an engaging opponent. Sharing, which is part of neurotypical development, is rarely promoted, because the scenes are short-lived and mostly interesting in real time. With many games and adventures, there is nothing to show.

Conclusion
Digital devices are not only here to stay, their complexity and power to invade our lives will increase. After watching thousands of patients and talking to their parents,

TheAutismDoctor’s advice is to limit electronics to
the time that is absolutely necessary
for the parent to have a life.

Cooking, caring for siblings, driving, and other chores, often demand the full attention of the adult. Those should be the most acceptable, defined periods of time to offer, or allow, the use of electronic toys. In order to achieve such control, parents should start utilizing such a strategy at the earliest possible age.

Finally, get outside as much as possible.

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Brian D. Udell MD
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