When psychiatrist Leo Kanner first described the behavioural syndrome he termed early infantile autism in 1941, the term autistic began being used to describe a wide variety of developmental disorders. With common symptoms such as verbal and non-verbal communication problems, poor social interaction, emotional deficits, and repetitious behaviour, children are often diagnosed as early as two years of age or younger though some autistic patients can go undiagnosed for much longer.
There is also continuing controversy regarding how autism is caused. While autism appears to have a strong genetic component, environmental factors have also been implicated. This includes exposure to heavy metals during pregnancy as well as different types of infection. Despite attempts at implicating other factors such as vaccination, prenatal stress, exposure to pesticides, and diesel exhaust, all of these supposed links have been largely disproven.
Whatever the cause for autism, the number of autism cases has risen over the past two decades th0ugh whether this is due to changes in diagnostic rules, greater public awareness of the disorder, or some more sinister reason seems open to debate.
But can smartphone use lead to children developing autistic symptoms? Dr. Iain McGilchrist, a former teacher of literature at Oxford University who has since retrained as a medical doctor, is arguing that children as young as five are showing reduced empathy and impaired ability to read facial expressions, two characteristics often seen in autism patients.
In an interview with The Telegraph, McGilchrist argues that the rising use of mobile technologies are depriving children of the face-to-face interactions they need to develop normally. "Children spend more time engaging with machines and with virtual reality than they used to in the past, where they don't have to face the consequences of real life," he said. "In virtual environments they don't have to interpret the subtle cues of real-life environments like when they are playing with children in the woods."
McGilchrist said that some teachers are reporting that a third of the children they teach are showing problems reading facial expressions or paying attention in class. When asked about possible causes for the rise of children with these kind of problems, they suggested that the rising influence of mobile technology may be to blame. As more parents are relying on televisions or computers to keep their children preoccupied, they are less likely to engage directly with them and this can result in children losing out on vital childhood experiences that promote social skills. Describing this trend as "quite worrying," McGilchrist suggests that parents need to stop multi-tasking and spend more time with their children in constructive social activities.
Other child experts are not so worried however. Dr. Nadja Reissland, a Durham University psychologist, maintains that autistic behaviour in children can have many complex causes. To understand why children are having more difficulty reading emotions, it is important to look into their home environment, particularly for children from different cultures who may have difficulty talking about what they are feeling.
Still, as smartphones and other mobile technology applications become an important part of young children's lives, the question of whether there is a link between these devices and autistic symptoms will likely be answered soon enough.