KOCHI: In recent years, a concerning phenomenon known as ‘virtual autism’ has emerged, characterised by certain observations in children who spend an excessive amount of time in front of screens.
It is crucial to clarify that virtual autism is not a diagnosis like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but rather a term encompassing symptoms that resemble ASD. Although not scientifically proven, there is growing concern about how overexposure to screens would impact children’s vision, behaviour and communication, especially in those under the age of three.
As screens have become an integral part of daily life, we often use them as a means to pacify children during various activities such as eating, travelling, or exercising which inadvertently invite the risk of virtual autism. Also, with the onset of the Covid pandemic, there has been a noticeable increase in cases where children exhibit symptoms akin to autism.
Teachers often identify these children due to deviant behaviours, which can mimic the genuine neurodevelopmental disorder, ASD. Overindulgence in media and media devices has been linked to issues such as difficulty focusing on children.
Identifying virtual autism involves recognising its symptoms and understanding that it does not imply a diagnosis of autism. The key is observing behavioural changes when children are freed from screens. Positive changes are seen when kids move away from screens and interact more with the real world.
Common symptoms of virtual autism include hyperactivity, attention deficiency, a lack of interest in non-digital play, speech delays, reluctance to interact with others, irritability, sudden mood swings, and difficulty in learning new things.
Parents can help prevent virtual autism in children by promoting non-digital hobbies. Some effective tactics are: reading aloud to children before they sleep, having conversations with them, doing activities together like cooking, and inculcating other hobbies away from screens. If symptoms persist, professional treatment may be needed to reintegrate the child into real-world interactions.
The writer is the organizing secretary of OTICON-2024, the 61st Annual National Conference of All India Occupational Therapists’ Association