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The impact of screentime on children with autism

How do children typically learn?

Before we dive into screentime, it’s important to understand how children typically develop.

From birth, babies are hardwired to look at and attend to faces – particularly their primary caregiver which is in most cases their mothers.

When babies look at the faces of others, they are learning about the world around them – whether something is dangerous or safe and what is important to pay attention to. And you can see that when you interact with babies.

They will look at an object and they will look back at you and then back at the object, and then back at you.

What are they doing?

They are trying to get more information about that object. What is it called? Is it something interesting? Can I play with it? Can I eat it? All of this information is being absorbed from a baby even though it seems like they are not doing much.

As the baby develops, they have learnt a lot of information about the world around them but, perhaps more importantly, they have learnt that they can learn just by observing other people like their primary caregivers.

Research shows that this observational or vicarious learning is the primary method of learning in young children and explains why daycare and preschools play such an important role in their development.

What happens in children who are raised on screentime?

So what happens when parents stick their children in front of the TV or Ipad for hours on end each and every day?

In these cases, what you will find is that children stop looking at faces and therefore they don’t receive all this important information about the world around them. As a natural consequence of not looking at faces, they also don’t have fewer opportunities to develop and practice appropriate social skills.

A child lacking in social skills tend to have delays in communication and play skills

And this is where we are seeing autism-like symptoms in children who are being raised exclusively on the ipad/phones and TVs.

Autism, as we know, is primarily a social-communicative deficit. Meaning an autistic child has difficulties communicating and interpreting the communication of others in a social-emotional capacity.

What can we do about it?

The best thing to do if you have a child who has spent the majority of their early years in front of a screen is to simply limit screen time and spend more time playing with your child.

Make your play fun and exciting; really exaggerate your facial expressions and your tone of voice. This draws the attention back onto your face and you are effectively teaching them the importance of facial expressions.

Another important consideration is that something will need to replace screen time when you don’t have the energy, time or the capacity to play with your child.

In other words, something needs to fill the void that screen time previously occupied. This is where most parents struggle. Children who spend a lot of time in front of the screen often don’t have the playskills and play ideas to sustain independent play for long periods of time.

Without a screen and without another person supporting play, a child suddenly has an empty block of time with nothing to do.

To help a child develop their play skills and build up their repertoire of play ideas and interests requires intentional teaching at first.

This is the reason why many parents complain that their child has all the toys in the world but doesn’t play with any of them – they simply haven’t been taught what to do with those toys.

The best place to start to encourage independent play in a child with minimal play skills and ideas is in gross motor activities.

Nowadays, it is relatively inexpensive to purchase climbing frames, balance beams, tunnels, tents and crash mats – most of which can be folded or stacked neatly then packed away when not in use.

Most children enjoy climbing, crashing, crawling and exploring physical movements and they don’t place a large demand on a child’s language, social and cognitive skills.

Does that mean screentime is bad?

Not quite. If you are strategic with how you use screentime, you can supercharge your child’s social skills rather than limit it. And the answer lies in cartoons.

Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Pokemon, Transformers, Cinderella. All of these are still just as relevant today as they were 10 or 20 years ago. In the case of Spiderman it is 60 years while Superman is over 80 years old. The enduring power of these cartoons and their central characters is not an accident.

They all tap into an innate desire within all of us to be just like them.

When I point this out to parents, they all say “I don’t know what cartoon to let my children watch”. Guess what? You don’t need to know because the answer can be found in shopping centres.

Not in the shops as such but on the t-shirts of children and the merchandise that is being stocked. As I write this article, a new range of Transformers is being (re) released – the Beast Wars series. It is no coincidence that there will soon be a movie released based on the series.

Although it is targeted at adults, you can bet that children will also be flocking to see it.

What is the strategy?

Now before you all go out and let your children watch cartoons for hours on end, remember that the key is to be strategic.

There is a typical sequence of types/genres of cartoons that children will find interesting at a particular age. This sequence maps neatly to the developmental ages of children. More specifically, the cartoons that children watch are in many ways a reflection of their language and cognitive levels.

Again, to get an idea of what is most appropriate for your child’s age, pay attention to what other children your child’s age are wearing and playing with.

Once you have an idea of what shows to watch, sit down and watch it with your child.

Actively try to build an interest in the shows. Use the same intonations and phrases as the characters. Once your child has an interest in those cartoons, purchase one or two sets of toys. After watching an episode, encourage them to go play with the toys.

At first, they may just re-enact the episode. You will probably find that after a while, they will start to add their own spin to the story. Imaginative and creative play.

Also consider dressing them up in their favourite character and send them into school like that. Other children will gravitate towards them and want to play with them.

The costume acts as a visual prompt or a reminder to stay in character.

All of a sudden, you’ve taken something that is perceived as being detrimental to your child’s development and turned it into something that will help them develop their social skills and play skills.

For more information contact us or with more help on how to play with your child read our blog

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