“Virtual Autism” May Explain Explosive Rise in ASD Diagnoses

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Some children who have been diagnosed with autism or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) could dramatically benefit from not being exposed to electronic screens.

New clinical case studies have found that many young children who spend too much screen time—on TV’s, video games, tablets and computers—have symptoms labeled as “autism.”1 When parents take away the screens for a few months the child’s symptoms disappear. The term for this phenomenon is “Virtual Autism” or autism induced by electronic screens. The term “Virtual Autism” was coined by Romanian clinical psychologist Dr Marius Zamfir.

Romania witnessed an astonishing rise in autism among youngsters in a children’s hospital. The cause was unknown, so one psychiatrist dug into the activity logs the hospital collected on all admitted patients. In those records he found a strong trend: children presenting with autism were spending four or more hours a day watching some kind of screen: television, computer, tablet, or phone. Today in Romania, treatment of autism by screen withdrawal is considered routine and has public support.2

We are seeing a startling rise in autism diagnoses in the United States, a trend that has parents, teachers, and mental health professionals puzzled and concerned.

These statistics from the Center for Disease Control paint a stark picture of the rising rates of diagnoses:

In 1975, 1 in 5000 children were diagnosed with autism.

In 2005, 1 in 500 children.

In 2014 (the most recent CDC numbers), 1 in 68 children.

The latest government survey of parents suggests that today the number of children living with autism may be as high as 1 in 45. That means that today in the United States a child is 100 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children in 1975.

What’s going on? What is behind the exponential rise in the diagnosis of autism? Does removing electronic screens from the lives of at least some young children decrease their risk of autism or even reduce their symptoms after they have been diagnosed?

Two French doctors with expertise in child development, Dr. Isabelle Terrasse and Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda, have created an excellent YouTube video that provides some answers. The video is called: “Screens: Danger for children from 0-4 years old” (in French with English subtitles). They made the video based on case studies at Dr. Ducanda’s clinic.. Their intent is to warn parents and health professionals about the rising tide of “Virtual Autism” and to propose solutions. Their research found that some children between the ages of 0 to 4 who were diagnosed with autism benefited from eliminating their exposure to electronic screens.

Dr. Ducanda and Dr. Terrasse looked at children who had been diagnosed with autism at hospitals. (In France, this is where children are typically diagnosed with serious problems.) These children’s symptoms entirely disappeared one month after eliminating their screen time. “Virtual autism” is the term they used to describe this phenomenon. The researchers concluded that screen time hindered these children’s brain development and prevented them from developing a normal social life.

In the video, Dr. Ducanda points out that children’s TV shows teach the child to repeat words without knowing what the words mean. A child can count, but the child doesn’t know what the numbers mean. For example, the child can repeat the number three. But if you ask the child: “Give me three pencils,” the child cannot do it. When shown a picture and asked a question like “What is the little girl doing?” the child simply echoes the words “What is the little girl doing?” instead of answering the question.

Children learn the meaning of words through social interaction—by playing with real objects and having someone look at him and talk with him. A mother says “Put on your coat and we will go out for a walk” which is associated with the action of putting on a coat and going for a walk, giving the words context and meaning. A child learns about the world by manipulating a toy with his hands, feeling it with his mouth and throwing it on the ground. The child’s brain registers the connections.

A small child’s brain cannot develop without this sense of touch and interaction. Light and noise from electronic screens capture a child’s attention, but they do not lead to healthy brain development.3

Indeed, screens are so alluring that it’s difficult for the child to turn to something else. In short, he becomes distracted by the screen and addicted. The screen also isolates the child from human interactions which are necessary to communication skills and language development. Even worse, the noise and light from screens—even cartoons—can generate painful emotions that the child can barely cope with. These feelings can lead to violent and aggressive behavior in a young child.

What is striking about the explosion in diagnoses of autistic spectrum disorder is that it correlates with the increased use of television since 1975 and the digital revolution. In 1975, a typical family had one television screen in their home. Today, with the digital revolution, families often have 10-15 screens. Besides ever-larger TV screens we have desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones and video game players. Tablets are advertised in toy catalogues for babies as young as six months old.

Young children are exposed to screens far more than what is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Academy recommends that children under the age of two not be exposed to screens at all and that older children be limited to two hours a day.

Interestingly, the exploding rise in autism affects children in all rich countries—and only in rich countries. From the perspective of Virtual Autism, it makes sense that countries that have not experienced the digital revolution have not experienced exponential increases in autism diagnoses because their young children are not spending time in front of screens. Dr. Ducanda noticed that after her “autistic” patients spent a month in Africa, without screens, they came back with no symptoms.

If screens are removed from some children with an autism diagnosis, the child’s brain development can return to normal. He begins to play like never before. He returns to normal development. Based on the small studies, we cannot conclude that this is true for every child. But based on mounting numbers of clinical case studies, it is certainly true for some children. Although scientists have not found a genetic link for autism, some children may be predisposed to develop symptoms of autism.

In one French case study, a father who displayed Asperger-like symptoms in his own childhood “treated” his severely autistic 2 1/2 year old by removing screens (which he was watching four to six hours a day). The father also began intensive play sessions with his son. The young boy fully recovered.

Clearly, removing screens from the life of a young child is not an easy task for parents. The child will have tantrums. The rest of the family will be inconvenienced with the television turned off. In my own practice, I’ve had parents object to keeping the TV set turned off in the evening because they like to watch their favorite programs to relax after they come home from work. I’ve suggested to these parents that they record the shows they like and watch them after the children are asleep.

Parents may need support for this change of lifestyle.  In some cases they might need support from a therapist or social worker knowledgeable in child development. But when parents do make the necessary changes, and spend more time with their child in interactive play, the effects can be amazingly beneficial. This is true for any child. And if a child is at risk for autism or has already been diagnosed, there’s even more motivation for parents to try screen removal for a month or so to see if the absence of screen time produces results.

* * * * *

Editor’s note: On September 12th, Marilyn Wedge and psychologist Gretchen LeFever Watson will present a MIA Continuing Education webinar on non-drug interventions for youth diagnosed with ADHD. Register here.

Show 3 footnotes

  1.  Oestreicher, L. The Pied Pipers of Autism—How TV, Video, and Toys Cause ASD. 2011: Merced
  2.  Cytowic, R. “There is a New Link between Screen-time and Autism.” Psychology Today, June 29, 2017.
  3.  Heffler, K.F. and Oestreicher, L.M. Causation model of autism: Audiovisual brain specialization in infancy competes with social brain networks. Medical hypotheses, 2015.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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78 COMMENTS

  1. I have no doubt that much ‘autism’ diagnosis today is as bogus as a three dollar bill, and so, therefore, your categorizing some instances of ‘autism’ as ‘virtual’ is entirely appropriate. I’ve seen it suggested, given the “epidemic” in ‘autism’ that it is said we are currently experiencing, that much on the upper end of the spectrum, that is, what they used to call “Asperger syndrome” and “high functioning” ‘autism’ is, as you say, ‘virtual’. On the downside, I can’t but think that we could lose quite a few future MIT grads with the wide spread use of what you have put forward as a remedy.

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    • Autism and Asperger syndrome are just two terms that mean the same thing. So people who have been (correctly) labeled with Asperger’s are Autistic. There’s no such thing as high- or low-functioning it’s all just autism. Meeting traditionally recognized milestones of success, such as having a family and a high-paying job, are entirely compatible with being Autistic. That doesn’t mean those people are “less Autistic” than others, and in fact saying it does is quite insulting to both the people who do and don’t meet those milestones.

      Medical injuries such as mercury poisoning, which happen to superficially look similar enough to autism to get misdiagnosed, are just that, superficially similar in appearance, while being 100% unequivocally “not autism.”

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      • I kind of just think everything is a best guess here. The “autism” rates have shot up dramatically enough for people to speak of an epidemic in recent years. My take on the matter is that this upsurge is due to the fact that they are calling people “autistic” today that they wouldn’t have been calling “autistic” ten years ago.

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  2. Marilyn:
    I completely agree that increasing time spent on electronic screens by kids is a huge part of the autism epidemic. I would like to add that increasing time addictively spent on screens by their parents, other caretakers, and siblings, which prevents eye contact and social interactions even if the child is available and trying to connect with them, is also part of the problem. I believe this problem starts right after birth; Due to the availability of formula bottle feeding, parents can feed their babies while focusing on activities on their cell phones, ipads, or laptops, which they can do at the same time. These early parent-child intense bonding, eye-contact, and physical-contact interactions, are probably the first steps which are necessary to pave the way for successive social and behavioral developmental stages. If they never really happen, then the whole process will likely be blocked. I, myself, though, am glad that bottle feeding was available when my kids were babies, since it was an amazingly enjoyable experience to be looking into each other’s eyes as I was feeding and holding them. I could sense the bond developing between us as this was occurring. It’s a shame that some parents nowadays don’t get to experience just how enjoyable/rewarding this is, due to all the electronics and the virtual world having become so dominant in our lives, or due to not being able to be with their kids enough since they have to work to support them..

    And thank you for your wonderful book “A Disease Called Childhood”, which had a huge impact on me. Just the name of the book itself conveys so much of the wrong that has been done by my field, and how the medical model is a complete farce.

    Lawrence

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    • Thank you for raising the important point about eye contact. Donald Winnicott said that in healthy child development, a baby sees his reflection in his mother’s eyes. Today, a baby or young child is more likely to see his reflection in his mother’s smart phone or tablet.
      Thank you also for your kind words about “A Disease called Childhood.”

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      • Marilyn:
        Another, general question raised by your article, is – Who is raising America’s children in the electronics era? Is it video games, the shows they watch, and whatever internet activities they do, rather than their own parents? Or even worse, is childrearing a domain taken over by psychiatry, once parents become convinced that any normal trials and tribulations they encounter are signs of their child’s “brain disease’, and so they turn things over to doctors and their “curative” medications?
        Lawrence

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        • This is a great question. I just got out of a session in which an 11 year old girl had been plagued by “fears” that she or her parents might die of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. This girl had been mis-diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety disorder 6 years ago and had been taking taking 2 stimulants and Zoloft when I met her 2 months ago. As it turns out, she was getting the “fears” from watching TV commercials. Her parents were puzzled and confused by what the psychiatrist kept telling them “She has disorders”), but they felt they had no choice. The girl is entirely off meds now and according to her parents her “true personality” is coming out–an outgoing, unworried and happy 11 year old. I see that as well. This is one of the saddest things about drugs–they alter the personality so that a child feels distanced from her true self. Children should not watch commercial TV at all. I tell that to all parents. And yes, even the most caring and involved parents are entrusting their children to psychiatrists, and any virtually-induced worries are attributed to brain disorders.

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          • Marilyn:
            The drugs sedate away the child’s thoughts, moods, and impulses, and the electronics keep occupied whatever is left. Without sufficient challenging environmental stimulation, what will cultivate their development of the skills, abilities, and effective coping tools needed to succeed as adults? Here again, psychiatry has falsely answered that question, by claiming that maturation (the learning of executive and social skills, and of ways to manage moods/temper) is hard-wired genetically into children’s brains. This tricks parents into thinking that how they raise their kids doesn’t matter, since it won’t affect how they turn out. My clients nowadays mostly worry about whether they will hand down their “mental illness genes’ to their kids, whereas years ago, they worried about whether they would be good enough parents. The medical model has thus likely harmed most children’s upbringings in America.
            Lawrence

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          • Sounds like she may have been having delusional adverse effects, which either stimulants or SSRIs can cause. The commercials may have provided the material (most commercials are very much anxiety based), but I doubt she’d have had this reaction without the “help” of the drugs. And as usual, the doctor completely discounts the idea that the drugs could be causing this, despite it being on the label and despite this behavior never occurring before the drugs. Wouldn’t you expect to get BETTER with the right treatment, even if you totally buy into the “medical model?” Baffling!

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      • I always acted ‘weird.” My parents took great pains to socialize me by reminding me to look people in the eye and observe other social cues and nuances. (May have led to my social phobias later.)

        A friend suggested I get diagnosed with Aspergers to cancel out my Bipolar 2 “diagnosis.” I patiently explained to her that’s not how it works.

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  3. I’m sensitive to EMF and need to be really careful about wi-fi, phones etc. I cannot use a smart phone at all. We went back to wires for computers and don’t have cordless phones etc in our home. Made a huge difference. There are a lot of things in our environments that sensitive folks have problems with. It’s an issue of over-stimulation and it affects folks anywhere on the spectrum and also a lot of people who are drug injured by psych meds and others who deal with sensitivities associated with various chronic illnesses and autoimmune issues etc. One can develop better tolerance over time by healing issues with the body I’ve found but it’s still something some of us need to be very careful about.

    Another author here on mad in america named drug damage that acts like autism “pseudo-autism” — I noted a long time ago now that I have a lot in common with autistic folks too. Sensitivities get manifested in a lot of different ways these day.

    See: When Modern Medicine Made Me More Autistic – Mad In America https://www.madinamerica.com/2017/04/when-modern-medicine-made-me-more-autistic/

    and

    “Pseudo-Autism” as a result of psych drug injury (another consideration in protracted withdrawal syndrome from psych meds) – Everything Matters: Beyond Meds https://beyondmeds.com/2017/04/10/pseudo-autism/

    Anyway, back to EMF stuff..it’s not just the screens that are a problem…when I shifted to a non-attached keyboard (stopped using the keyboard that came with my laptop) … that helped me so immensely it blew my mind. I am by no means alone in this…I know lots of folks impacted like this.

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    • I would go further and say that the harmfulness of kids being on wireless devices for many hours a day is caused by the technology itself, and not just the lack of personal and physical interaction, and is not just specific to the segment of the population who have special environmental sensitivities.

      There are thousands of studies that show the damaging effects of wireless radiation on human health, including our brain function and cognitive abilities. In the last year or so, this problem has increased exponentially, with the advent of 5G cell towers (sometimes called small cells). In the past, cell towers were generally kept away from areas where people lilved, worked, and went to school, but because technology is now running amok, and the immense power of Big Telecom to over-ride local government’s choices about tower placement, these mini towers are now being put throughout residential neighborhood and next to, or on top of, schools.

      the amount of radiation is no less than the old macro towers and actually is much more destructive, because of the much higher frequencies used by 5G. (The small cells use both 4G and 5G.) It has also been extensively documented how much more harmful exposure to emfs (electro-magnetic fields) is to children who have thiinner skulls and developing brains. You can find studies and/or discussion about this at http://www.ehtrust.org, another site by physicians for safe technology (i forget their web address) and http://www.bionitiative.org.

      The best introduction to this whole topic is the article by two leading environmental writers, Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie, which appeared in the Nation Magazine a couple of years ago. The title is “How Big Tech convinced us that Cell Phones are Safe.”

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  4. I’m not sure I’ll catch everything that’s wrong with this article, but I can try.

    1. The increasing trend of Autistic people being identified as such is in no way “explosive” this is fearmongering.
    2. There is no reason to say Autism Spectrum Disorder, just “autism” will suffice.
    3. There are zero autism diagnoses. You cannot “diagnose” something that is not a medical condition.
    4. ASD is just the medicalized name for autism there is no need to present autism and ASD as two separate options.
    5. Autistic people generally benefit from BEING exposed to screens. You are advocating against accommodations at best and for active child abuse at worst.
    6. How much screen time is “too much”? You can ask 100 parents and get 100 different answers. Clarifications, people, they are important.
    7. You have used the word “symptoms” without specifying what disease they are a symptom of. If we haven’t verified that there even is a disease, we cannot confidently call them symptoms.
    8. While I don’t have access to the abstract, considering the title “How TV, Video, and Toys Cause ASD” I don’t find your first reference to be a credible source.
    9. If a child stops being Autistic after a few months of technology deprivation, then they weren’t Autistic in the first place.
    10. “autism induced by electronic screens”? That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
    11. At first, when reading the title, I thought “virtual autism” meant “non-autism things that look superficially similar to autism and get misdiagnosed”. Now that you have clarified it to mean “autism induced by electronic screens”, I must say you are using the term incorrectly. If that is also what Dr Marius Zamfir meant by “virtual autism”, then he too was using his own term incorrectly.
    12. “Romania witnessed an astonishing rise in autism” Citation needed. Ironically that paragraph actually has a citation, but it doesn’t justify the section I’ve quoted.
    13. “Children presenting with autism were spending four or more hours a day watching some kind of screen.” The correct conclusion, if we even believe that this evidence is really conclusive, is to say that autism causes screen time.
    14. “Today in Romania, treatment of autism by screen withdrawal is considered routine and has public support.” That is horrifying. That is child abuse. That’s not something wrong with the article, but the fact that the article fails to point out the abusiveness is.
    15. “startling” more fearmongering.
    16. Autism statistics have gone up with the same amount of time delay after each new DSM release. If mental health professionals are still “puzzled”, those professionals are incompetent.
    17. Center*S* for Disease Control. That’s a nitpick, but I am going for “everything.”
    18. “stark” more fearmongering.
    19. Diagnoses aren’t the problem, it’s the “behavioral interventions” that come after.
    20. Citing the rising CDC estimate is not only fearmongering, it’s also (21) a cliché.
    22. Okay, 1 in 45 children have a cat named Autism that they are living with, but how many children are Autistic?
    23. “What is behind the exponential rise in the diagnosis of autism?” Answer: New releases of the DSM. I’ve solved the mystery. No need to write these articles.
    24. Non-medical things don’t have “risk factors.”
    25. Non-medical things don’t have “symptoms.”
    26. Citing psychiatrists as experts on autism is a logical fallacy.
    27. “rising tide” fearmongering
    28. “Solutions” is literally the word that Nazis used to describe prevention of the Jewish problem.
    29. No operational definition provided for the word “benefited”
    30. No follow-up period needed one month will suffice. Much peer review. Very science. Wow.
    31. No operational definition provided for the word “hindered”
    32. No operational definition provided for the word “normal”
    33. All language development including that of non-Autistic children has a period where words and their meanings have not yet been connected. For some words this persists into adulthood, as demonstrated by this author’s misuse of the word autism.
    34. The second example of echolalia doesn’t support the point made by the first example. This is simply bad writing technique.
    35. No operational definition provided for the word “healthy”
    36. Considering the amount of media attention bogus autism causes get, I have serious doubts about the study in reference 3 having found the real one.
    37. Needing to take a break is not the same thing as addiction.
    38. Computers are used more often to create human interactions than to prevent them.
    39. If screen time is painful why would children keep doing it?
    40. Violent and aggressive behavior is not autism.
    41. There’s that “explosion” word again.
    42. There’s that “disorder word again.
    43. Correlation is not causation.
    44. Video game players are not screens they are humans.
    45. There is an exponential rise in the author’s use of the word “exploding”
    45. Countries that do not have as many screens also do not have as much psychiatric diagnosing this is called a coincidence.
    46. Normal normal normal I still have no idea what this word means.
    47. Non-medical things don’t have “symptoms.”
    48. The word “treated” is correctly put in scare quotes but diagnosis and symptom aren’t please try to be more consistent.
    49. There is no such thing as severely Autistic any more than there is severely female.
    50. “Intensive play” is an oxymoron.
    51. Recovered from what? You can’t recover from autism because it’s not a disease.
    52. Old man yells at cloud.

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    • I applaud you for speaking truth over this atrocious article. My son will be 4 in October and did not have hardly any “screen time” until he was over 2 1/2. He would not engage when I tried to teach him new things by getting on the floor with him or taking him outside. He only knew a handful of words and would hum as a form of communication. I tried everything until I decided to see if he would try playing with an educational app. I was astonished at how well he engaged. He’s receiving in-home therapy and also had his screen time. We are making progress!! This article needs to be removed since it holds no credibility and that is sad coming from a person who acquired a PhD. Autism can’t be cured!! It IS a way the brain functions. And these people who are commenting about how their child was suddenly “cured and neurotypical” after removing screen time need to understand that their child was never on the spectrum to begin with.

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    • Thank you for responding to this irresponsible stigmatizing nonsense. I’m shocked this woman has a PhD, and disgusted that she uses it to inflict great harm, blame, doubt, and recrimination on the parents of neurodiverse children.

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  5. This article isn’t even really *about* autism, the author is just using Autistic children as punching bags because that’s how casually the Mad community throws us under the bus. But the main point is that technology is scary and we should all be Amish. “Screens cause autism” is just this week’s variation of “screens are bad because the old man who yells at cloud is scared.” This is the same fearmongering bullshit people used to say about the radio, and before that, books with pictures in them, and before that, regular ass BOOKS. People like you have been wrong about the same thing for CENTURIES. New technologies cause change. GET OVER IT.

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  6. My son was diagnosed with ASD and we removed screens based on my wife’s experiences as an Early Interventionist with a family she serviced and removed screens. We followed their lead and did the same and our son is now nuerotypical or normal. He was addicted to screens constantly spun around and other ASD symptoms. Now he loves to learn about butterflies, sharks, and jump on trampolines and get dirty in the creek behind our home; like a 6 year old boy should. This article is true it can work! If not we are all destined for the world of Ready Player One and The Walking “Virtual” Dead.

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        • Could it be sometimes present as a collection of expressions? Like some mental health “diagnoses” there’s no solid blood test for it right? Maybe sometimes it is an expression of the environment someone is in. It could also not be helped entirely by the removal of devices but probably by the increase in positive social attention. It is possibly not even anything to do with screens but someone really not being cared for. I have an autistic friend and I think he’s super cool but he struggles like anyone else with anxiety. The “fixes” for our struggles may lie in radical acceptance. Weirdly enough removing devices may give parents hope and allow them to act kindly so a kid can grow up without as much stress.

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  7. Many years ago, I worked in special ed and noticed that many students were wrongly diagnosed with autism. As a result, I question the claim that for the kids that taking the screen away allegedly help, really had an accurate diagnosis.

    And before anyone flames me for doubting the validity of autism, I don’t. I am friends with many people on the autistic spectrum and definitely understand the issues. I also have similar type issues.

    Anyway, I will stop here since Daniel has done a great job in summarizing the issues. By the way, I find it ironic that if biological psychiatry had posted an article like this, everyone would be all over it. But yet, when a non psychiatrist like Marilyn does, it is accepted at face value without critical analysis.

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      • A lot of young people are proud of being called autistic I guess. Beats licking ice cream in Youtube videos for attention. Or eating Tide Pods. And as screen junkies they see limiting a toddler’s screen time as worse than starving or exposing to the elements.

        I prefer fitting in and refuse to get an evaluation. Hate being viewed as a freak!

        If I can act normally in public and “pass” that’s what counts. The System sucks at integration. Whether labels or pills.

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  8. What the hell is this article, It’s not really autism so much as it is not enough social activity. You see, when people don’t have enough practice their skills start to decline they just need some practice and also. IN WHAT EXTREME CIRCUMSTANCES DOES THIS HAPPEN. The parents have to do something wrong for such circumstances to happen.

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  9. I got rid of my TV over 20 years ago and have not watched it since. I developed a strong dislike for it, then a complete intolerance. I can’t believe people even sleep with the thing yapping away! I cannot tolerate much of radio, either. Computer is a good thing so long as I am typing. I cannot see the point in passively watchig youtubes. I credit “no TV’ as one reason why my mind is sharp, I have sharp hearing, am generally happy and am physically fit.

    Plus cable is a complete waste of hard-earned disability check, let’s face it. That’s ironic since the only reason I’m still on it is no one will hire me.

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  10. Marilyn,
    Thank you for highly important and profound article.

    I have been screaming the same message from the rooftops for the past 10 years. Finally, I am not alone fighting this battle!

    I am an Occupational Therapist. I have been treating kids with autism for more than 10 years and I have been observing the same phenomenon on a daily basis in my practice. I have seen a transformation in many of my clients once technology removed from their lives and replaced with activities specifically selected to meet a child’s developmental needs. Once parents, teachers, pediatricians see the drastic changes in a child’s social/emotional/communication development, they think it is magic, but it is just common sense! In some kids, we see the changes within days of a child’s lifestyle modification.

    Obviously, there are and always have been kids with “classic” autism which is not related to technology overuse. I work with many incredible parents who do everything they can to help their children diagnosed with autism, including eliminating technology, and despite their best efforts, their children continue to exhibit symptoms of autism as their symptoms are not related to early exposure to technology. Nevertheless, in either “classic” autism or “virtual” autism, elimination of technology from a child’s early development is crucial, but in cases of “virtual” autism, it makes a drastic difference.

    Visit my blog where I also write about the negative impact of technology on a child’s nervous system http://www.YourOT.com
    Victoria

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    • Thank you so much for for sharing your story with us. I am new here and my husband and I are desperate to get in touch with someone that can give us some information. I am reaching out to people that can give us advise on virtual autism. We have a 2.5 yr old boy showing signs of ASD and he has been expose to screen time for a very long time. I am ashamed and scared. I will like to hear from someone that has had experience on this. My email is [email protected].
      Thank you

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  11. Victoria, thank you so much for sharing your experience of how many so-called ASD kids change like “magic” when screens are removed. You are assuredly not alone, although most of the willingness to speak out about the topic is among European mental health professionals.
    As you say, there is of course classic “autism” not related to technology use. In my clinical experience, these children can be helped by framing their problems as developmental and treating them with intensive family therapy, speech therapy, and at times occupational therapy. Actual autism, in my view, affects about .5 percent of children or less. Anna Freud once said “If a child can play, the child is not autistic.” I think that is a good rule of thumb.
    Please stay in touch and feel free to share your case stories.
    Marilyn

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  12. Anna Freud was wrong, and I think you are making a mistake by quoting her. All Autistic children can play and the vast majority do. However, intensive therapies such as ABA (Autistic conversion therapy) may use selective punishments to condition a child into neglecting their own need to play. That might be the pattern you observed.

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  13. Daniel

    Do you think too much screen time for some children could be harmful and how do you think it should be limited if necessary?

    And BTW, I find your views on autism to be very provocative, challenging, and educational; although I am not sure I agree with the entirety of your analysis.

    Richard

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    • Too much of anything can be harmful. And I do mean anything. A few months ago I staged a protest against a hate group selling hyperbaric oxygen chambers as a miracle for cure for various ailments and non-ailments, because it’s not only snake oil but dangerous snake oil. The procedure delivers, demonstrably, medically, too much oxygen.

      While I can technically concede the point that there is such a thing as too much screen use, I still have to retort with the question of why we are focused on screens? No parents are expressing concern over too much paper time, or too many books, or any other arbitrarily limited learning tool. And yet there is a much stronger body of evidence than there is on screen time, pointing to harmful effects of excessively prescribed homework.

      Children and consent together always make a nuanced issue, but we can at least ask if the intervention is being done for the benefit of the child, or the convenience of the parents. If the goal of the intervention is make a child not Autistic any more, or not display observable behavior that overlaps with autism, then it is certainly only for the convenience of the parents.

      I am aware that some of the writing styles I choose are provocative, however I don’t agree that the views themselves are. At least not in this context. The mission of Mad In America is (paraphrased) to challenge the dominant paradigm of psychiatric care. Attempting to “cure autism” because well, that’s the label you’ve been given and it’s a mental illness so we better get rid of it, does nothing of the sort. As one Facebook commenter pointed out, there is nothing scientific nor social justice in this article, and the part that is psychiatric is pro-psychiatry. All we’ve accomplished here is continuing to alienate Autistic people from the Mad community, keeping the world less safe for both Autistic people and Mad people.

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      • Thanks for the response.

        Just to clarify my use of the word “provocative,” I meant that in the positive sense of the word, in that I do believe we need to be “provocative” in today’s world in order to effectively challenge an oppressive status quo.

        I do wish the author of this blog would respond to some of your challenging criticisms so we could all learn more through a back and forth type dialogue on this important topic.

        Richard

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        • I could be wrong, but it doesn’t appear that Daniel has any interest in dialogue. He seems to be in full attack and defend mode. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he seems to be fighting a ghost enemy from battles in his past as Marilyn is CLEARLY NOT disparaging real autism or anyone in that community. This article is about a pseudo-autism that can be fixed simply by giving children the attention and love they need. That’s a huge difference from the little I know of people who have genuine autism.

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          • I think I have a weird thing about Autism being now in a very special category that may be ill-defined to me. Do you want it to be a intrinsically to being thing, like the color of my hair that I can’t change unless I dye it for instance? I’m having trouble hearing “you cannot cure Autism” as a phrase because of what happened to me in being bipolar for awhile. Late in my treatment I heard over and over that something has always been off about me and I will never be normal. It was phrased as the chemical imbalance thing, which I’m now sure is garbage.

            I’m not sure the Autistic community is doing themselves a long-term favor by dividing people into segments of “neurotypicals” and not. I’m not sure if it 100% true but I personally much more love the idea that we are all strange in an actual banal way that no one person is really out of place.

            I am pretty sure if you put anyone in isolation and deprive them of sleep you will see the side of them that does not appear typical. That’s a strong indicator that the opposite may exist.

            You put anyone in a loving truly supportive enviornment and they eat, drink and sleep well I strongly suspect behaviors would look different.

            There’s still a lot that’s weird and wonderful about me. I could still be a psychic or do synesthesia art, write poetry…. But I enjoy the freedom not to have to express all of it immediately.

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  14. Hi Marilyn,
    I just wanted to thank you so much for spreading awareness on this phenomenon that is happening with with our young children.
    I work in the field of early intervention serving many children with ASD diagnosis as a specialty. While working with a child over 3 years ago that had red flags for ASD the parents decided to remove screens of their own desire due to their feelings that he was more interactive when screen media was off. This child made more progress in one month at age 2.5 than I had ever seen during my time working with children this age level with this severity of symptoms, that it was just mind blowing to me. The family continued to remove screens from his view over the next several months and all symptoms of ASD resolved and he presented with only a language delay that resolved several months later.
    I was then able to replicate these same results with my own son at age 3.5 that had a diagnosis of ASD by removing screens from
    his view and again placing emphasis on social interaction. In a matter of months, he was no longer showing signs of ASD and just again like the child mentioned early exhibited only a language delay. We had him retested at 9 months after removing all screens reutilizing the ADOS test and he no longer scored for ASD.
    Both my son and this other child I speak of both had high amounts of screen media their first few years of life. Both were given huge amounts of social interaction time in replacement of the screens when they were eliminated. I do believe that there is hope for many of our young children experiencing these same symptoms or diagnosis that had the same history of high exposure in early childhood. I have yet to recommend it to a family that hasn’t seen extremely positive results very rapidly. No matter what therapy is being used…in my experiences it truly seems to make it more effective.
    My own son was going to 8 therapy services weekly with very little and slow progress. Once screens were removed, within weeks he had begun meeting goals he had been working on for months on end with little progress.
    I hope to provide awareness to providers and parents by sharing the AAP’s recommendations for screen time before two in one of the links below and the harmful nature that over exposure can cause on early development as well as the association that was found over 10 years by Dr. Michael Waldman et.al in the following link to the article, “Does Television Cause Autism.”
    I hope that by providing these resources along with your article and other’s testimonies, that more families with this high exposure and early history may learn of this free therapeutic method, that removing screens during a young child’s life that has ASD or is exhibiting signs of ASD can help them to achieve their maximum potential.
    My son was once given a diagnosis of low IQ and ASD at 3.5 years old and within 9 months scored in normal IQ range and no ASD using the same testing tools. He continues on this same tragectory now that his screen viewing is highly montored and many other social activities are in place. Thank you so much for your work to make this available so more families and children can benefit from this knowlege and method that is free to everyone. I have no doubt that true “classical autism” exists, but doubt that that rate and increase is what we are experiencing today based on my experiences and understanding of the literature.
    Lori Frome
    https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Why-to-Avoid-TV-Before-Age-2.aspx
    http://www.nber.org/papers/w12632

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    • Dear Lori,
      thank you so much for sharing your story and all the useful information. I am so happy to hear that your son is doing so well, thanks to your interventions. I hope your story reaches the eyes of many parents whose children have been diagnosed with ASD and are struggling to find solutions. Removing screens, though it might inconvenience a family in the short term, is so much better than having a child struggle for the rest of his life. Thank you also for bringing up Dr. Michael Waldman’s (et alia) important work on the topic of TV and “virtual autism.”

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        • It’s got to be hard to know right? Many professionals said I was broken forever after my parents divorced, then eventually gave up and said it was my genes and I will pass it on. You can change epigenetics with enviormental factors. You possibly expose a kid to enough loneliness and neglect by interacting mostly with screens that could change them fairly fundamentally. Same things happens with repeated trauma. However I think you could heal from either later with a supportive enviornment. So like it may not be permanent state of affairs. That’s basically what I experienced. I wasn’t Austic diagnosed but they thought about it because I was way off the radar on being able to function in society for quite some time. I was not “neurotypical.” However…I made large changes mostly through luck and perseverance and am solidly recovering and pass as normal if I want to. Normal may not be real but it is an idea you can exhibit in order to not scare strangers. I like having that option. I’ve heard from many fruitcakes that we never stop believing weird things but just get good at faking it. Maybe we shouldn’t. I am honest now if people ask but there were certain aspects of my previous behavior that restricted me in a way I am now glad to be free of.

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  15. From this to the Chinese “digital detox” boot camp the step is short.
    Anyway, they both rely on the same idea, they share the same aim.
    When I was a child, I used to spend all my time reading books. There was no internet, no much TV (I’m not from USA, maybe the digital boom arrived a bit later here). At first, it was sheer curiosity and joy. I didn’t need anything else than books. Oh, and nature too. While other children were playing in the school courtyard, I was alone in the grass looking for insects and little stones. Then it (the books, the nature) became also a refuge, a way to handle the stress, the fear, the frustrations from first bullying episodes.
    I was diagnosed with autism and schizoaffective disorder.
    What you don’t understand is that the point is not the screen exposure, as the problem is not the stimming. Videogames and internet can be a strong interest, a passion, as stimming is self-expression of joy or anxiety or other emotions. The “problem” is only when there is too much stress to handle, too many bad emotions.
    I’m not sure exist something as “virtual autism” and “true autism”. As many neurotipical stims when they are nervous, so they could became obsessed or find a refuge in a single activity forgetting the world outside. You are focusing on the wrong thing, you are focusing on the finger instead of the moon.

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    • Very well said! I was trying to convey something like this. I’ve only recently learned ways to address emotions that actually solve things and reduce stress. I almost got a cancer diagnosis and looked upset… obviously…Dr. asked if I was ok and I said NO. Immediately asked if I wanted an anti-anxiety medication….for a real problem! It’s actually quite rare I’m finding out that people reliably know ways to relate to difficult emotions. It’s actually pretty easy. Don’t label them as bad and try to feel them accurately. What is your body bothered by exactly? Then decide to do a thing about it now or later. Then the emotion fades away for me. I felt miserable but reacted with relief because it felt relaxing compared to happiness and it disappeared too quickly lol!

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  16. a) this is Romania. Eastern Europe is very bad at diagnosing autism in general; b) these were children who apparently were long-time in a children’s hospital – why? presumably because they were institutionalized as autistic (or developmentally delayed) before being given screens; c) of course autistic children will prefer spending time in front of a screen rather than playing with other children – it’s kind of the definition of autism; d) autistic children benefit from screens, which in many cases is their only way of communicating with each other and other people (see augmentative and assistive communication devices); e) for that reason, depriving autistic children of screens is not making them non-autistic, it is just making them more isolated and thus should be seen as a human rights violation; f) France is an equally bad example, where autistic children are treated with psychoanalysis and “packing” and mothers are still blamed as refrigerator mothers – never trust a French psychiatrist; g) how many 4 year olds, autistic or not, would do more than repeat words without knowing what they mean? seems perfectly age-appropriate; h) there are not less autistic children in non-rich countries, there are simply less psychiatrists in poor countries (often only one or two adult psychiatrists in an entire country and no child psychiatrists at all) – that’s why less children are diagnosed there; i) that said, of course parents should spend as much time with their autistic child as possible and build a relationship with them, on the child’s terms, respecting their autistic identity and interests, using screens to communicate with the child if necessary

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  17. This is like saying that we have rising levels of paraplegia because people’s legs go to sleep when they sit for long periods of time. Total nonsense. Lack of social interaction resulting in lack of social skills is called Reactive Attachment Disorder, and is treated in a different way than autism because it is about taking someone who is not autistic and reconnecting them with who they really are, socially, rather than teaching them how to navigate a world, which is not designed for their neurology and needs, by denying themselves access to their natural selves in pubic.

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  18. Hello

    Dear Marylin Wedge

    I am kindly typing from France (where, contrarily to what you asserted in another article, there are quite a lot of people with ADHD, though the beautiful doctrines of Freud and co that still permeates psychological field, and healthy educational custom of four meals per day being obviously insufficient in eradicating this condition).

    I want to kindly notice you, first, that reliable autism diagnosis are made in CRA (Centres Ressources Autisme), not in hospitals, and that the belief Ducanda holds of being able to “cure” CRA diagnosed autistic kids only pertains to her own (delusional ?) misinterpretation of a single-lined sentence in a phone conversation.

    Then, in utter opposition with your statements, there have been no “case studies” made by peer-controlled scientific authorities. Maybe because what Ducanda and Terrasse are putting forward is NOT study based. All what we have are clinical observations coupled with Bucarest-coming theories that the recent rise in autism cases has to do with the development of digital technology use.

    The so-called “excellent” videos of Ducanda are filled with scientific vagueness (moreover, revealing her complete ignorance regarding autism symptoms and digital technologies), testimonies of “miraculous” recoveries from so-called formerly autistic children parents, and colorful assertions in which their is “no autism in poor countries”, boasting a trip to Africa as the ultimate cure for screen-alienated children and their sorry tutors.

    There is actually no scientific evidence backing it up, and she is frequently referring to studies and observations in America and elsewhere… just as you have been doing when you wrote about the overwhelming pertinence of French studies about “virtual autism” yourself. Which is non-existent.

    Between Romania, France, Algeria and Marylin Wedge, there is obviously a ping-pong game based on nothingness (apart some yet-to-be-defined observations and obscure neo-freudian ideologies).

    Also, it is a question of months before Ducanda will have to swallow her words for medical deontology unrespect.

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  19. Approaching a 100-fold increase in the rate of “Autism Spectrum Disorder” is a staggering epidemic of diagnoses! We have a substantial increase in childhood “problems with living’ but I do not believe that the problems are caused by screen time (or vaccines). I contend that the increase is substantially due to the increase in pediatric intervention in childhood since 1980, the shift in psychiatry to increased medicalization of all “problems with living”, and the substantial increase in childhood stress. Psychiatry and “childhood development” specialists are harming our children; no one can learn anything with someone watching over their shoulder, second-guessing every move!

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    • I would add that there is plenty of evidence that maternal SSRI usage is associated with increased autism rates, and that the increase in autism diagnoses corresponded to big increases in SSRI use by adults.

      Of course, there is also the loosening of “criteria” for autism and the constant seeping in of the idea that “diagnosing” kids is more effective than understanding them.

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      • I used to coordinate services for families with developmentally-delayed kids, mostly autism. There has been a loosening of the criteria, and many parents sought that dx for their child in order to force the school system to provide services; it also got them other forms of much-needed support from our agency, like respite care, specialized daycare and summer camp. So, that does explain some of it.

        But, I cannot tell you how many families had the exact same autism origin story of “My baby was perfect, hitting all the milestones, talking, affectionate and engaging. And within a day or two of getting the MMR shot, it was gone. My child has not returned.” Not just my caseload. Every caseload. A mountain of anecdotal evidence that I personally find infinitely more reliable than any official study. When you have watched the pre-MMR videos of these kids, then seen the devastation in its wake, its just undeniable that the shot is somehow implicated. I’ve seen enough evidence with my own eyes; nobody will convince me otherwise.

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        • I believe that there is some truth in your anecdotal evidence but do not understand how the rate of autism has increased disproportionate to the rate and dosage of vaccinations. Trauma causes “problems with living” and a shot of toxins can be traumatic; therefore, I believe that doses of MMR should be reduced with more frequent injections. Thank you for your community service in supporting suffering parents.

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  20. I wish I would have left this in my earlier post…here is a video of a presentation I gave of my son’s story and our journey of what is now termed Virtual Autism over four years ago to a group of military doctors and providers.
    This was before I became aware of Dr. Ducanda’s research and Dr. Zamfir’s work.
    I hope that it brings your family a sense of hope if you have a young child with ASD and his/her history was similar to that of my son and that you can see the research supporting virtual autism and a protocol I recommended as an independent early interventionist to help your young child have an optimal outcome with this diagnosis or even if they are showing red flags for ASD with a similar history. It can be utilized with a variety of therapy approaches as long as eye contact is made a top priority and the parents continue to give the child lots of social interaction at home.
    It is now being officially studied in the US. Best Wishes to all who are touched by ASD. It is my life’s work to make people aware of the topic of Virtual Autism, support families who want help for their young child using these techniques, and to give back to our community by supporting autism organizations that provide autism awareness and acceptance.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=7sKQgreRf10&feature=youtu.be

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  21. Thanks for this article. I limit my own screen time Dr. Wedge.

    Does “autism” exist? Is it bad or simply different?

    If the kid can get along with others and learn what’s needed to “adult” why do they need a label?

    Whether autism is real or not I would avoid getting my child “diagnosed.” A boy in Tasmania diagnosed as autistic with epilepsy wound up in the hospital for a seizure. A doctor–knowing he was dangerously allergic to neuroleptics–put him on massive doses that caused his brain to swell, killing him. The doctor said she would do the same thing over anyhow since he would have wound up in an institution. He was headed for college.

    My guess is a big reason for all the autistic diagnoses is an excuse to sell more drugs. And–I suspect–legally off them (indirectly) like that creepy doctor down under did.

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  22. Removing/diiminishing “screen”/tv time was it done in a a double or triple blind randomized controlled trial, APPROVED by an ethics comittee?. Has it been published in a peer review article?. Has it been replicated?.

    Assuming the answer to those 3 are positive, WHICH I SERIOUSLY DOUBT, still, one could confidently claim ONLY that the label of autism is easier to shake off in such situation. Not that autism is caused nor cured nor improved by THAT intervention.

    Specially considering precisely the overdiagnosis extensively showned in MIA and some other places, I guess.

    But!, there is a correlation, per the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that global warming led to the until recently, extinction of pirates, that correlation looks superb on a graph!, it can’t be false, right?, wink, wink, nodge, nodge…

    It even predicted, I assume, the resurgence of piracy in some places as global warming took off in a hockey stick fashion!, talk about science by the flying, with an F and A single word mind you, Spaghetti Monster’s revelations!…

    Did the flying Spaghetti Monster revealed to Al Gore?. We don’t know, it works in mysterious ways…

    Muahahaha…

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