UAE: “Did too much lockdown TV make our 19-month-old son autistic?”

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Could too much TV cause a baby to develop autism?
Could too much TV cause a baby to develop autism?
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Could watching too much TV over lockdown have caused a child to develop Autism Spectrum Disorder? This is the question a reader wrote in to Gulf News, asking for advice from the Parenting team:

“Please help us to seek advice as we are so heartbroken,” the parents wrote.

“Our son is 19 months old. He is such a very cute toddler but is already displaying the following signs of autism:

  • He doesn’t answer to his name.
  • He doesn’t point with his fingers.
  • He flaps his hands.
  • He plays on his own and laughs with himself. He doesn’t play with anyone else at home.
  • He cannot talk and does not make eye contact.
  • He doesn’t sleep through the night.
  • He now refuses solid food, whereas he used to take it before.

“We managed to take him to a therapist around where we live. We were told he has the signs but that it cannot be diagnosed until he is 3 years old, but the signs are obvious and we have been advised to start therapy.

“We never saw this coming. No one in our family has this. Our daughter is Neurotypical. This situation has left us confused and heartbroken.

  1. Can we wait until he is 3 years old before we begin the therapy? (We didn’t see this coming at all and cannot handle therapy cost especially during this period).
  2. He started watching a lot of TV during the lockdown when he was 8 months old. (Like 5 hours a day). Could this have been a factor? If it is, can he snap out of it as he grows?
  3. Can he still grow up to live a useful and independent life?
  4. How do we handle the emotional trauma this is causing us?”
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Gulf News spoke to Nipa Bhuptani, director of the Applied & Behavioral Training Institute (abtinstitute.org) in Dubai and founder of the Autism Support Network, Abu Dhabi, who specializes in working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“Autism is a spectrum; it is not a linear disability across all domains” explains Bhuptani. “Although autism is described to have similar characteristics, each person with autism is very different from the other. These factors make autism difficult to understand and treat.”

Autism ‘red flags’ emerge as early as 16-18 months, says Bhuptani, although the signs alone are not enough for a diagnosis. “Autism is not diagnosed by a test but by observation of the child’s behaviours, thus it takes an experienced clinician or a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians to assess and diagnose.”

Although the parents say they were advised that autism cannot be diagnosed until the age of three, Bhuptani disagrees and says that a diagnosis can be made earlier “The age at which a diagnosis is possible may vary depending on various factors; but if red flags are prevalent then intervention is recommended. The signs listed by the parents are some of the red flags of autism, but they are not enough for a diagnosis on their own. A much more in-depth assessment would be required to ascertain the diagnosis of autism or otherwise.”

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Nipa Gandhi Bhuptani is the founder of Autism Support Network
Image Credit: Supplied

Here, Bhuptani shares her answers to each of the parents’ questions:

Can we wait till he is 3 years old before we begin the therapy? (We didn’t see this coming at all and cannot handle therapy costs, especially during this period)

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“Early intervention is key,” emphasizes Bhuptani. “It is important to note that there is immense evidence that the earlier the intervention, the better the results. It is crucial for parents to get training and be involved in therapy as much as possible. The principles of the therapy and similar activities can then be carried forward at home, during everyday situations.

“Your dilemma is very understandable, and many parents are facing similar difficulty with therapy costs.

“You do not need a diagnosis to begin intervention. Please see a Developmental Pediatrician for advice. Your information about the age at which a child can be diagnosed in the UAE is not correct.”

He started watching a lot of TV during the lockdown when he was 8 months old. (Like 5 hours a day). Could this have been a factor? If it is, can he snap out of it as he grows?

“As you do not have a diagnosis yet, it is not possible to say. Screen time does cause young children to begin avoiding interactions and become addicted to passive watching.

“Reducing or removing screen time is a good first step at this point; but it is equally important to replace that time with opportunities to play, have fun, communicate and engage with others. Hoping for him to ‘snap out of it’ iss a risky option as you are losing crucial time at a point when intervention can be very effective.”

Can he still grow up to lead a useful and independent life?

“People with autism may be able to lead quite independent and fulfilling lives, or they may require a very high amount of support all through their lives, or they may be somewhere in between. It is not correct to make a generic statement about persons with autism; just the way it is not for any other person.

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“However, everyone has the potential to learn and grow. When provided the correct environment and opportunities he will be the best he can be.”

How do we handle the emotional trauma this is causing us?

“This cannot be easy on any parent. Please take time to acknowledge the pain. Reach out to others with similar experiences, and to those whom you trust in your family or friends group. Talk about it, and seek help. Some books that may help you are ‘An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn’ by Sally Rogers, Geraldine Dawson and Laurie Vismara, and ‘The Joy of Parenting’ by Lisa Coyne.”

If you have questions about issues related to parenting or pregnancy in the UAE, please email us at babyandchild@gulfnews.com.



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