Digital Autism

By LaPointe, Leonard L. | Journal of Medical Speech - Language Pathology, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Digital Autism


LaPointe, Leonard L., Journal of Medical Speech - Language Pathology


Autism-which affects thought, perception, attention, and human communication-is a tragic and resistant disorder that torments the lives of children, adults, and families in increasing numbers. It is not just one disorder with a well-defined set of signs and symptoms; autism is a broad spectrum of disorders that ranges from mild to severe. In the diagnostic manual used to classify disabilities-the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994)- "autistic disorder" is listed as a category under the heading of "Pervasive Developmental Disorders." A diagnosis of autistic disorder is made when an individual displays 6 or more of 12 signs and symptoms listed across 3 major areas: social interaction, communication, and behavior. When children display similar behaviors but do not meet the criteria for autistic disorder, they may receive a diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder-NOS (PDD not otherwise specified).

Some of the signs and symptoms found on checklists for autism spectrum disorder include the following (Autism PDD, 2010):

* Sustained odd play

* Not responsive to verbal cues

* Little or no eye contact

* Abnormal ways of relating to people, objects and events

* Inappropriate attachment to objects

* Lack of social or emotional reciprocity

* Stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language

* Apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals

* Stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms

* Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

* Reduction or disinterest in face-to-face social interaction

Does that sound just a little like the nest of behaviors some of our colleagues, friends, or children exhibit with digital overuse, cell phone abuse, or perhaps even textophilia? Or maybe even the A-word has entered our heads-addiction. New words and phrases are invading our lexicons and creeping into our heads and the literature. Many of these are the spawn of technology and digital proliferation. Digital addiction. Textidents. Driving textalities. Digital autism.

Are cell phones, as some have suggested, the new cigarette (Markham, 20100? Markham outlines his reasons. People use them to have something in their hands--as a crutch in public. People use them rudely while ordering food. People drive and put themselves and others at great risk while texting or talking. Cigarettes and cell phones are very annoying to others in restaurants or in other public spaces where noise pollution is an unwanted annoyance. Markham continues the cigarette analogy. When you get in your car, you reach for it. When you are at work, you take a break to have a moment alone with it. When you get into an elevator, you fondle it. Cigarettes? Cup of triple espresso? None of those--it is the cell phone, another festering addictive substance of modern life. Experts say it is becoming increasingly difficult for many people to curb their longing to hug it more tightly than most of their personal relationships. For some it has supplanted or greatly diminished personal face-to-face social exchanges with those strangers (cashiers, fast-food workers, hostesses, barbers, dog whisperers, monkey trainers) with whom we would chat or exchange social pleasantries in predigital days of yore.

Early warnings have been sent up previously (La Pointe, 2010). However, the problem is not going away; it is increasing and changing our social communication habits and probably our brains. Consider that as recently as 1987, there were only 1 million cell phones in use. Today over 200 million Americans carry them. Almost three-quarters of American households have at least 1, and many have 3 to 5. Seventy-five percent of teens aged 13 to 16 have one. Grammar school and preteen children increasingly badger their parents for the latest in mobile technology so they will not be social outcasts and thrown among Ralph and Piggy in the Lord of the Flies. …

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