Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Toxic Relationship: Autism and Technology

The relationship between technology and autism
It is widely held that computer literacy skills are critically important for children, teens, and young adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (hereafter ASD). Parents of young children are informed by a wide variety of autism specialists that school achievement and achievement in the 21st century workplace is dependent upon mastering computer skills.

Although it is undeniable 21st century education and employment requires computer literacy skills, the importance of these skills in the lives of autistic individuals has been vastly overstated. More importantly, the cognitive, emotional, social and physical damage associated with the use of computers (and technology in general) is vastly understated or ignored altogether within the autism community.

Given the unemployment rates of ASD young adults in the United States (newest research reports unemployment at 50% to 75% ) who have grown up using computers since early childhood, it would seem that computers are not making a meaningful contribution to employment.

Although there are complex cultural, sociological, and economic reasons ASD young adults fail to obtain meaningful employment  I believe that daily interaction with computers specifically, and technology generally, plays a central role in blocking the development of the mental processes needed for successful employment.

Put in a different way, the interaction between the autistic mind and computer-based technology, video gaming, television, DVD-based entertainment, and handheld devices increases static and repetitive thinking, communication, and behavior, and thereby serves as an obstacle to the dynamic cognitive, social, and emotional demands of the 21st century. 
Why Technology is Toxic for the ASD Brain
If we consider the relationship between technology and the autistic mind, we can see how the attention that is consumed through engagement with technology --  whether it be computer database searches (“research” on areas of special interest), repetitively watching YouTube videos, eBay shopping, video gaming, or searching for pornography – blocks the brain’s capacity to develop new mental processes which, in turn, undermines the possibility of remediating deficits in the type of problem solving required to maintain employment: innovation, improvisation, collaboration, flexibility, grey area thinking, self-awareness, perspective taking, monitoring, and reflecting.

Ongoing use of computers, particularly Internet database searches and online gaming, produces intense and sustained states of pleasure, including euphoric experiences similar to the “high” associated with the use drugs.The autistic child/teen -- who often feels overwhelmed by the complexity of social interaction and experiences pervasive alienation from typical peers -- can use the computer to escape into an endless variety of cyber fantasy worlds.

Content consumers vs. content producers
Although the computer can be used to develop connections and create meaningful content and skills -- such as website building, blogging, posting poetry, uploading videos/short films and photo galleries, and engaging in political action   -- children/teens with ASD very rarely use the computer in any way except to reinforce rigid and inflexible neurological and experiential patterns.

Children, teens, and adults on the spectrum are content consumers rather than content producers and the content they consume is static, repetitive, limited in complexity and disconnected from the development of dynamic intelligence.
With the explosion of laptops, smart phones, handheld devices/Nintendo DS, and iPads many autistic spectrum children now have access to digital technology, including the Internet, beginning within the first months of life. The constant “techno” stimulation of the ASD brain has become so much a part of everyday life that its impact on thinking, attention and social-emotional functioning  has gone unnoticed by parents/caregivers and educators.

Whether the exposure to technology proves to be an environmental toxin for the ASD brain is a research question that has yet to be pursued. As noted above, it is difficult to imagine that the dramatic rise in children and teens diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is unrelated to the dramatic rise in home based technology, particularly the use of the home computer.

If one were to sit down and design a form of environmental stimulation that would be toxic/damaging to the ASD brain by virtue of exacerbating the core neurological deficits of the ASD brain, that stimulation is 21st century technology: laptops/the home computer gaming, internet surfing, tablets, handheld gaming devices, and video gaming.

21st century technology successfully:
1)   increases social isolation
2)   combines pleasure with social isolation
3)   decreases the need to develop reciprocal conversation skills (and encourages monologues/lectures)
4)   decreases the need to read and react to non-verbal communication
5)   provides limitless opportunities for the acquisition of static information
6)   encourages static thinking (rote application of procedures/facts)
7)   eliminates the need to develop skills in innovation and improvisation
8)   decreases need to develop collaboration/teamwork skills
9)   decreases the need to develop conflict resolution and compromise strategies
10)                      eliminates the need to develop “grey area” thinking/”good enough” problem solving (problems with no “right” answer or problems with multiple “right” or “wrong” answers)
11)                      decreases the need to develop empathy and insight (mindsight)
12)                      serves as an obstacle to physical exercise and outdoor forms of recreation
13)                      increases involvement in fantasy and decreases opportunities for three dimensional problem solving and competencies
14)                      decreases opportunities for brain growth/neuroplasticity.

When discussing the dramatic rise in ASD diagnoses, I am often asked the question: “Where were these kids 30 or 40 years ago? Did they really exist? Did we simply not see these kids?” It is certain that the range of children diagnosed has expanded – from non-verbal, intellectually challenged, with poor behavioral regulation to hyper verbal, intellectually advanced, with average behavioral regulation.  Today, the children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and/or high functioning autism have very different deficits/needs and thus we now have an expanded understanding of autism and what type of intervention is effective.

I think it is fair to say that 30 or 40 years ago the “high end” of the spectrum went largely unnoticed – perhaps they were described as shy, antisocial, odd, strange, eccentric, or “nerdy.” Because we now include children who have an abundance of language (but are poor communicators), may be intellectually advanced (but cannot think dynamically), and are often skilled at following rules (but lack resilience) the true incidence rate of autism may now be reflected in 1/88 statistic recently released by the CDC.

One thing is certain, three decades ago (and more) NO child was living inside their homes – isolated from their peers and community, sitting in front of a computer scrolling through facts/images, playing video games, looping through YouTube videos, or simply watching a scene in a DVD for hours on end.

Until such time that autism research focuses on the impact of technology on the developing ASD brain, it make sense to safeguard the ASD brain from high levels of technology exposure. Given the particular limitations and vulnerabilities of the ASD brain common sense clearly dictates that parents and educators should exercise great caution in the way in which ASD children and teens interact with any form of technology -- with computers at the top of the “toxic” list.

We need to carefully frame how ASD children/teens focus their attention so that they are able to experience emotional intimacy, feel a sense of belonging to a social community, achieve meaningful employment, and find a partner/spouse – rather than develop “techno” competencies. 

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