The look on the doctor’s face showed concern, mixed with something else Sally couldn’t discern. “Sally, your son does not have autism spectrum disorder, I believe he has virtual autism.”
Sally couldn’t wrap her mind around it. She had never heard of it before. “Virtual autism? What even is that? How did he get it? Was it her fault?”
Receiving a diagnosis is often the first step in actually getting help for our kids. Figuring out what is actually going on is sometimes as difficult as dealing with the symptoms, and the toll they take on our kid’s life.
What do you do when you have to figure out a diagnosis between two conditions that are extremely similar? What do you do if you find out that something you did, or didn’t do, could have caused your child’s struggle?
In this article I would like to address Sally’s questions. They were the same ones I had, and maybe some of you share our thirst for this knowledge. Let’s find out together what virtual autism is, what it isn’t, how it is set apart from autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and what can be done about it.
Is virtual autism an assessment?
A quick google search for virtual autism will take you to options to have your child’s autism diagnosed through a virtual assessment. When you dig a little deeper you can find that a virtual autism assessment and virtual autism are not the same thing.
So, is virtual autism a kind of autism? I’m glad you asked, read on and I will explain.
Virtual autism vs ASD, what’s the difference?
I have been a parent for over 18 years. Each of my children have specific needs that have required diagnosis. The frustrations of finding the right doctor, to give the right diagnosis, and actually get help for my kids has been a huge frustration. There is an urgency to figuring out the rubik’s cube, especially since a delay in treatment means a longer time dealing with confusing symptoms.
Virtual autism is sometimes difficult to assess, but it is important to narrow down. Knowing whether your child’s autistic symptoms are due to autism spectrum disorder, or virtual autism, is crucial to their developing brains, as well as to the mental health of the entire family.
To date, scientists have not been able to discover what exactly causes autism spectrum disorder. We do know what autism spectrum disorder is. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism is defined as a “developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.”
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) provides standardized criteria to help diagnose ASD. In order for a diagnosis, a person must have deficits in three areas of criteria.
In truth, there is some speculation that virtual autism doesn’t actually exist, and that it is actually autism spectrum disorder. However, if it does exist, then the major, if not only difference between autism spectrum disorder and virtual autism is the cause.
So, what is the difference? The answer lies in knowing what virtual autism is. Virtual autism is actually a condition that is believed to occur when young children (under the age of three) are exposed to excessive screen exposure. This happens when screen viewing for too long of a time causes autistic like symptoms.
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In a study aiming at revealing the impact of early exposure of electronic screen on language development and autistic-like behavior, Donna Hermawati, Farid Agung Rahmadi, Tanjung Ayu Sumekar, and Tri Indah Winarni said: “Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has been on rise, but many studies suggest it is over-diagnosed. Currently, children have more access to electronic media on a daily basis than those of previous generations. Some studies suggest that increased screen time is associated with melanopsin-expressing neurons and decreasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter, and thus results in aberrant behavior, decreased cognitive, and language development.”
They went on to share: “Results showed that children who spent viewing ≤ 3 hours per day had language delay and short attention span, while children who spent viewing ≥ 3 hours per day had language delay, short attention span, and hyperactivity. While, we found that more than a half of children (66.6%) had no parents-child interaction during the exposure, speech delayed and short attention had been reported in all cases, and hyperactivity was found in 66.6% children.”
This is a significant finding. It shows the importance of a child’s interaction with the people and world around them. Social interaction, such as eye contact and communication skills, are some of the most observed behaviors when attempting to diagnose autism spectrum disorder. Deficits in these areas can lead to a possibly false ASD diagnosis.
How does early screen exposure affect developing brains?
Experts warn parents about risk factors of too much screen exposure, four or more hours a day, for young children. Intensive early screen exposure at an early age can cause problems in a developing brain.
Spending too many hours a day in a virtual environment withholds key stimuli on a young child’s developing brain. According to Cristiana BĂLAN, at “Spiru Haret” University, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences Braşov, Romania:
“Most of the time, the child receives only certain sensations (visual and / or auditory) from a virtual environment, and can not correlate these visual and auditory sensations with other types of sensations: vestibular, tactile, odor, tasteless, unable to develop accordingly. In such a child, if they do not intervene early (before 2-3 years), these problems will become more and more acute…”
This can lead to speech delay. Cognitive abilities can be affected as well, possibly leading to mental disorders. These issues can affect a child’s ability to negotiate social interactions in the same way neurotypical children might.
From the aforementioned study, by Donna Hermawati, Farid Agung Rahmadi, Tanjung Ayu Sumekar, and Tri Indah Winarni continue:“Some studies suggest that increased screen time in young children is associated to negative health outcomes such as decreased cognitive ability, impaired language development, mood, and autistic-like behavior including hyperactivity, short attention span, and irritability(1,2)”
If your child has autism-like symptoms, and has had a history of too much screen exposure, it could be virtual autism.
How can too much screen exposure affect mental health?
Some kids enjoy the feeling of tuning out the world and paying attention to the predictable, fast paced, and often comforting atmosphere of the virtual world on their screens.
In the same study it was found that even the light-dark rhythms that help the brain produce melatonin, dopamine, and increase a child’s understanding of their relationship to themselves and others can be messed up with too much screen exposure.
These phenomena can cause children to experience screen withdrawal when they are separated from the world they have immersed themselves in for so long. They can lose their ability to sleep properly, interact with others, and can become depressed and even angry. The aggression that can accompany this can further damage their relationships, and leave them with low self esteem.
The entire family can be affected. Every person’s mental health is important, and one person in the family is struggling, the entire family feels the effects.
How can parents handle the reality of virtual autism?
Knowing that something as simple as screen exposure could be so incredibly detrimental to our kids’ health, is terrifying. Especially for me as I am currently about to find out if my own son is autistic, has virtual autism, or another diagnosis. After all, we all are constantly paying attention to screens.
I want to offer a perspective to you. Most parents are guilty of allowing technology overuse. Technology overuse is inevitable in the world we live in today. Not just for children, all ages struggle to balance time in front of screens.
Maybe you are parents who do not allow technology for your kids. If so, I admire you immensely. I’d love to know how you do it and any valuable tips you have for others.
There are times when screen exposure is out of our control. For instance, some parents have children who came out of foster care, whose birth parents allowed too much. Some illnesses require down times in which technology is necessary, or most effective at keeping children still and quiet.
I remember when my youngest child was taken into the children’s hospital near us to have surgery on his heart. At almost three years of age, watching the tablet kept him calm as they wheeled him away from us, and into the operating room.
When he came into recovery he had to keep one side of his body completely immobile. The best way to do that was to let him watch a movie and play games on his tablet.
My point is, too much screen exposure is not always a result of bad or ignorant parenting. Also, even if our child develops virtual autism as a result of us being a little to liberal with the electronic screen media, it doesn’t mean we don’t love our kids, or that we can’t do something to help undo the damage.
Can virtual autism be reversed?
The knowledge that allowing too much screen time could be the root cause of your child’s autistic like symptoms can be devastating.
The best way to reverse virtual autism is to prevent it in the first place. If virtual autism is not prevented, there are things you can do to help your child overcome its symptoms.
The brain is a wonderful organ that can be healed in ways no one used to believe before. Now science has shown us ways to learn and grow, even if our initial development was impeded.
According to an article, How can we exploit the brain’s ability to repair itself?, published on the National Library of Medicine’s website, authors Victoria Miller and Diego Gomez-Nicola explained how the brain’s ability to regenerate cells is unlimited, contrary to what was believed before.
There is hope for teaching our children’s and our own brains, furthering development that was lacking. Employing the right kind of stimulation, interactions, and tactics is key.
Early interventionists believe that the earlier we begin treatment in our children with virtual autism the better. This means allowing them to develop their minds through exploring the world around them, and interacting with their peers and others. Eliminating their screen exposure for a time, while they feed their developing brains, is vital.
Cristiana BĂLAN offered the following tips to reduce your child’s exposure to screen media:
“To limit the time spent by the child in front of the TV, tablet, computer, mobile phone, parents should adhere to certain rules:
- Make a daily schedule to follow with the child.
- Establish rules for the use of the TV, the computer, and the phone by the child
- Remove any gadget from the child’s visual contact
- Offeri rewards when the child respects the daily schedule
- Building a special place in the house with exciting things that can be used when the child gets bored and wishes to play on the tablet. So the focus will be on something new
- The TV and the computer will be closed while homework is being done
- TV shows, computer games will be chosen with discernmentPhysical activities, walking will be of great significance
Physical activities have a major impact on the emotional development of the child. Emotional health is very important for the development of the child and can be greatly stimulated by movement. With the help of sport, the child grows physically, mentally and emotionally fulfilled. Sport stimulates interactions. With the help of it, children will learn to be patient with others, to wait for their turn, to be responsible, to respect others, to be accountable, to cope with unexpected situations, to adapt more easily. And last but not least, they will make friends of the same age with them and with similar passions.”
Getting our kids’ out in the world is a good step in the right direction. Social interaction with peers, moving their bodies, playing and exploring the world in a hands-on way can boost brain development and mood. This can prevent virtual autism symptoms, as well as reduce them.
We learned above that the children who had the most effects from too much screen exposure were the ones who lacked parent-child interaction. This is mind-blowing to me.
So much of our lives as parents are out of our control; this isn’t. We, as parents or caregivers, have a huge effect on our kids’ minds. This is a big responsibility. It’s also pretty special.
We have options at our disposal. We must look for ways to increase our child’s movement and interaction. The more activities we do that combine movement, social skills, and sensory input the better.
This compounds the healing of the brain, while also preventing boredom. Systematically, through these measures, we can eliminate the need and desire for allowing too much screen time. We, and our children, will simply be too busy, and be having too much fun, to have time for screens.
Here are some suggestions of things we can do with our children:
- Board games
- Building blocks
- Drawing or coloring
- Visiting an aquarium or zoo
- Going to the beach
Of course there are many others. The sky’s the limit!
If we allow children to be looking at a screen for the right amount of hours a day, we are interacting with them, talking through what they saw, drawing conclusions together, laughing and learning together, we counteract the damage that is done. That is encouraging to me.
Spending time together boosts mood and helps developing brains. Removing screens is good, not removing ourselves is even better!
Parents have no need to blame themselves or others if their children wind up with virtual autism. Though it behooves all of us to take it very seriously.
An over exposure to screen time can happen for many reasons. Sickness in early childhood, not being aware of the realities of the danger, and other situations outside of the parents’ control can all be factors.
Just as an autism diagnosis isn’t the end of the world, a virtual autism diagnosis isn’t either. Children’s brains are resilient. A little bit of care, and a lot of work can help reverse the effects of early screen exposure, and make a huge difference in your child’s autistic like symptoms and behavioral issues.
Eliminating screen exposure, spending quality time with parents and caregivers, hands-on learning, playing and social interactions can all go a long way.
Cristiana BĂLAN, Virtual Autism and Its Effects On the Child’s Evolution https://www.afahc.ro/ro/afases/2018/43-CristinaBalan.pdf
Hermawati, D., Rahmadi, F. A., Sumekar, T. A., & Winarni, T. I. (2018). Early electronic screen exposure and autistic-like symptoms. Intractable & rare diseases research, 7(1), 69–71. https://doi.org/10.5582/irdr.2018.01007
1.Bedrosian, T. A., & Nelson, R. J. (2017). Timing of light exposure affects mood and brain circuits. Translational psychiatry, 7(1), e1017. https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2016.262
2.Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Norway : 1992), 97(7), 977–982. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x
Miller, V., & Gomez-Nicola, D. (2014). How can we exploit the brain’s ability to repair itself?. Expert review of neurotherapeutics, 14(12), 1345–1348. https://doi.org/10.1586/14737175.2014.985659