Neuroscientist Links Autism with Internet Use

Neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield of Oxford University has created a firestorm of controversy by correlating autism with increased computer use amongst children. She contends that the use of social networking Web sites is altering children’s brains, creating shorter attention spans, an expectation of instant gratification and a lack of empathy (i.e. “autistic-like traits").  She proceeds to point out that individuals with autism are particularly drawn to using computers speculating, “Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,'” she added.

Her notions are irksome at best. The real threat of social networking sites is not an inducement of “autistic-like traits," but the encouragement of passive aggressive behavior amongst young people who use the medium for cyberbullying purposes, effectively creating a world of real human interaction and an environment where anything goes. Numerous tragedies have unfolded in which teens have committed suicide after their personal lives were invaded and shared exponentially through someone hitting the “send” button on a computer or cell phone. 

But none of this has to do with true autism. And I grow tired of the phrase “lack of empathy” being ascribed in a blanket manner to individuals with autism. We have already heard from Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen that autism is tantamount to evil because evil is a lack of empathy. He attached qualifiers, yet the message remains. 

Granted, people on the autism spectrum have trouble reading social cues and can inadvertently ride roughshod over people’s feelings, not out of malice, but out of obliviousness. But we also know that their affective empathy is so keen as to be overwhelming. It’s not that they don’t feel for others, they feel too much. 

Greenfield backtracked about implying that Internet use induces autism after scorching criticism that it was actually more awareness and better diagnoses that account for the surge in cases (that theory’s too facile as well). But no one zeroed in on her implication that “normal” teens can regretfully become “autistic-like” from computer overexposure. 

Facebook has actually been shown to be a positive for teens with autism, providing a kind of social crib sheet and helping them track names and faces of other kids at their school. I have teen twins on the spectrum and while neither of them use Facebook, they are active members in online communities centered around their special interests. One of them maintains a blog about politics and philosophy that connects him to very heady thinkers, while the other participates in science discussions. They both have incredibly long attention spans when it comes to their special interests.

Yes, there are dangers and drawbacks to the Internet. Yes, it requires an effort to balance on screen time with real world interactions and experiences. But there’s a baby in that bathwater that need not be thrown out.


Susan Moffitt is the mother of high functioning twin sons with autism. When not advocating for them, she pursues her multiple creative passions of fine art,
piano composition and writing. She is the author of "Upstream," a compilation of poetry, fiction and anecdotal tales that deal with raising twins
with autism. For more information, visit