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Effect of screen time on children with autism

Children on the spectrum often face difficulty in understanding and dealing with the world around them. Moreover, autistic children like to repeat specific patterns of behavior, which makes it difficult for them to interact with others. This makes digital devices an easy escape route to autistic children, where predictable outcomes give them a comfort zone which doesn’t always exist in the real world. 

 According to some data about 64.2 percent of young adults with ASD spend their free time on TV, and video games and 13.2 percent of young adults with ASD spend time on social media sites, emails, and chatting. Considering this number, it is important to understand the pros and cons of media usage 

Pros

  1. Digital devices are an important tool that helps children on the spectrum to communicate, develop social skills, enhance their ability to learn and sometimes to even calm them down. 
  2. In children with autism screen time can be treated as a reward for their child. This method also works to help autistic kids learn other activities. 
  3. According to researchers, smartphones and tablets can serve as a mode of therapy for kids. This is where the power of technology can be leveraged to provide treatment to kids with autism. 
  4. Unlike the real world, the digital medium provides audio and visual stimuli that are not present in the real world. The anxiety of a face-to-face interaction can be quite overwhelming for kids with ASD. On the other hand, digital device provides autistic kids with a setting where they can control their interactions and have time to process. This can aid autistic children in social interactions in real life. 
  5. The use of digital devices helps children on the autism spectrum learn on their own as distractions in a classroom can make kids anxious and stressed.  

Cons

  1. Many children with autism are sensitive to stimulus. Digital devices can make such children irritated as there are multiple stimuli in any digital device.  
  2. Some studies have found that increased screen time can disturb the sleeping pattern in such children. 
  3. Too much screen time also leads to release of stress hormones which may further trigger irritability and behavioural issues. 
  4. Autistic children are more sensitive to electro-magnetic fields and most communication devices emit these. 
  5. Screen time hinders the development of social skills thus pushing them further back in their social interactions. 
  6. Screen time can worsen sensory behaviours like tics 
  7. Excessive screen time can also amplify OCD in autistic children 
  8. Too much screen time can also cause a lower attention span.  

Thus, it is important for parents to regulate the time that children on the spectrum spend on digital devices. It is important to set out rules for screen time.  

  1. Allocate a certain amount of screen time and stick to it.  
  2. Set a time of the day when your child has access to a digital device 
  3. Ensure that your child does not use a screen at least 30 minutes before bedtime. 
  4. Use screen time as a reward for activities that your child may not enjoy, such as cleaning up, homework, or other chores. 
  5. Give a 10-minute and five-minute warning before the screen time ends. Use a timer to clock the time spent on a digital device so that your child is aware of the time spent and the time left for screen time. 

As a parent of an ASD child, you would want to help your child live as healthy a life as possible. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the effects of technology on your child’s development. This would allow you as a parent to make informed decisions and regulate the use of social media to maximise the benefits and to minimize the hazards. 

— Pravda Nair, Special Educator, Sunderji Early Intervention Centre, India

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