Monday, December 2, 2013

Parent Seminar: Autism and Technology

The Toxic Relationship: Technology and Autism
Parent Education Seminar
Christopher Mulligan LCSW

The Relationship Between Technology and Autism
It is widely held 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 some degree of competency in computer literacy, the importance of computer literacy in the lives of autistic children and teens has been vastly overstated. More importantly, the negative impact on cognitive, emotional, social development associated with the use of computers (and technology in general) is vastly understated or ignored altogether within the community of autism specialists.

Why Technology is Toxic for the ASD Brain
International research examining the relationship between technology and autism is showing that the enormous amounts of attention consumed through engagement with technology --  whether it be computer database searches, Facebook, watching YouTube videos, or video gaming – blocks the brain’s capacity to develop new mental processes which, in turn, exacerbates the core deficits of ASD: innovating, improvising, reflecting, anticipating, evaluating fuzzy logic, synthesizing contextual processing, insight, and empathy.

While some technologies promote higher level thinking, the majority of technology used by children and teens with ASD impedes cognitive and social development. Studies have shown that early exposure to TV, DVD/videos, video gaming, and the internet result in the brain “pruning” connections in the frontal cortex of the brain.

The ASD child’s brain develops increasingly complex and sophisticated mental processes in relationship to the environment and how they spend their time. If a child with ASD is repetitively exposed to the intense stimulation of technology, their brain efficiently “short circuits” or “prunes” neural connections in the frontal cortex of the brain  

Exposure to technology can result in the loss of executive functioning, impulse control, and critical thinking -- three necessary elements for learning. Technology exposure also results in the loss of imagination and creativity, two mental processes necessary for learning and integral for eventual success and survival in increasingly competitive work environments.

Termed “The Learning Paradox,” early use of technology by ASD children actually serves to increase deficits in joint attention, thereby decreasing the ability to be successful learners in adulthood. Research is also showing that early exposure to technology changes brain structure, chemistry, and function in areas associated with addiction. The younger the child is, and the more intense the exposure to technology, the more prone that child will be to addiction.

Research in the United States and Europe has found that youth with ASD are likely to prefer computer mediated communication over face-to-face communication due to the reduced complexity of screen-based social interaction. The absence of nonverbal communication simplifies the amount of information required to communicate. Unfortunately, youth with ASD show a much higher risk of developing compulsive Internet use than youth without ASD and report higher rates of loneliness and depression.

The correlation between computer and videogame use and depression is documented in multiple research studies in United States, Western Europe, Korea, and China. Although it is unclear whether compulsive use of the computer and/or video gaming produces depression or individuals suffering from depression are more likely to engage in compulsive use of the computer and/or video gaming, it is clear that there is a strong relationship between increased levels of depression and compulsive use of technology. At the very least, technology does not improve the mood and overall social functioning of teens with ASD and very likely exacerbates an underlying vulnerability to depression and loneliness.

Parents and educators who think that early exposure to technology is necessary for eventual success in our technological world need to take an informed and critical look at the real cost of exposure to technology. This seminar will review current research on the relationship between autism and technology and provide parents with a skills and strategies to protect their children from toxic exposure to technology.

For more information on this seminar contact Christopher Mulligan LCSW at 310-2871640.