Virtual autism is a phrase formulated in 2018 by Marius Teodor Zamfir, a Romanian psychologist. He found that children, 0-3 years, who stared at screens for over four hours a day, had “sensory-motor and socio-affective deprivation”. This activated “behaviours and elements similar to those found in children diagnosed with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]”. Three areas were studied: social, language, and cognition.
The analysed group consisted of 110 children, and has piqued the interest of psychologists, teachers, and occupational therapists, who are encountering a host of behavioural changes in children now joining school. Autism is a pervasive development disorder, meaning it affects all areas of early childhood development, including speech, sociability, play, and skill development.
Aarti Rajaratnam, a Salem-based child psychologist, says it’s not about focusing on how to keep children off screens and demonising screens, but on what is natural for infants, babies, and children. “The nervous system is not ready for screens,” she says, adding that there is no substitute for human interaction. “A parent or sibling blowing bubbles and a child reaching out to touch them is not the same the a simulated video game on a tablet.”
Children at this age learn a variety of skills as they discover their bodies, simple objects, and the voices of family members. “By using screens as a substitute for self-soothing or as a distraction, we are destroying five levels of learning,” says Rajaratnam.
These include interoception (awareness of body cues), sensory learning that is not restricted to the visual, muscle memory to enable a lower-level skill to progress into a higher-level skill, emotional learning, and other forms of learning (including school work, regulation, and problem solving).
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For a child who has been spending long hours in front of screens and is showing signs of uneven development, there are a combination of ways of reversing the prognosis. Zamfir talks about a range, from play therapy and psychomotor stimulation therapy to language stimulation and cognition behaviour therapies.
This reset needs to be structured by professionals (child psychologists and occupational therapists), feels Rajaratnam, but not restricted to the therapist’s office. “It is about changing the home environment to be more stimulating — letting babies be idle and not having to engage them all the time. Remember, like when parents would let a child pick up a lady’s finger, pry it open, and stick it on the wall,” she says.
The point is to allow for a natural discovery of the world around.