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Virtual autism on the rise

Parents should reduce their children’s screen time on phone

While technological innovations have several advantages, there are also areas where it can harm or cause damage. One such phenomenon is on the rise in Bhutan – virtual autism.

This is a form of autism spectrum disorder that is associated with children who spend a significant amount of time playing computer games or using social media. It refers to the challenges with social and communication skills that arise from excessive screen time and virtual interactions. This condition is characterized by communication difficulties, behavioral oddities, and deficits in social interactions.

According to Dr. Nima Dorji, Medical Speech Pathologist at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), majority of children brought in with chief complaints of speech and language delays and communication issues and behavioral problems are associated with virtual autism. The data shows that over 142 cases of autism have been reported this year. However, the data on virtual autism has not been maintained since it is not an official established diagnosis and is just a condition.

He said that when children, especially those below 3 years of age, are exposed to excessive screen time, they are likely to develop the conditions. The systems include delayed language development, aggressive behavior when snatching phones, and behaviors issues with temper tantrum.

He said that children with this condition can display similar symptoms like those of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “Some children even end up using the context of the virtual in different situations. For instance, when a child wants to pass urine, they will say ‘Bla bla, black sheep.’

The condition, if left untreated, can lead to poor social skills, poor communication skills, behavior issues, and potential social isolation due to reliance on online interaction. However, the medical speech pathologist emphasized that virtue autism is curable if diagnosed early and treated with a proper intervention plan.

He said that parents play a pivotal role in the recovery process. “What we do in the hospital is just a demonstration of what parents should do at home. However, most parents are not doing it; they are relying on us only with few parents even think that child will automatically speak as they grow even they exposed to excessive screen which actually is a misconception.”

For instance, he said that as long as parents follow their advice, bring their children for regular therapy, and strictly follow the procedure, “we have a very optimal improvable number.”

“There are a few children who were completely non-verbal without even uttering a single word when brought for assessment, but with proper therapeutic stimulation and intervention, children have achieved functional communication and spoken normally.”

However, during the intervention, parents are advised not to stop their child’s screen time immediately but to gradually reduce the duration.

Currently, there are only three medical speech pathologists who deal with such cases in the country at the national referral hospital. “Technically, each child attending therapy and intervention should receive 20 hours or therapy session per week. But with the limitation in man power, we able to provide only two sessions in a week for each child.” If the case is severe, sessions are increased and also provide training to parents often.

The doctor said that when virtual autism is identified early and the right interventions are provided, the results can be remarkably positive. Some encouraging signs that indicate a child is making progress include an increase in playtime. “One of the first positive changes you might notice is a growing interest in playing activities. This newfound curiosity is a great sign that the child is starting to engage more with their surroundings.”

“Another important point is making eye contact during conversations. This development is crucial as it shows the child is beginning to connect and communicate more effectively with others.”

He said that one may also observe that the child starts speaking more or that their speech becomes clearer. “This is a major step forward in their ability to express themselves and interact verbally.”

The other signs of improvement include improvements in facial expressions or varied vocal tones, among others.

Meanwhile, the specialist said, “Excessive screen exposure doesn’t cause autism.”

By Nidup Lhamo, Thimphu