New research suggests that substantially reducing the amount of time that young kids with autism spend watching screens could lead to fewer symptoms of the developmental disorder.

In a small pilot study, the parents of nine children with autism ages 18 to 40 months were asked to limit their kids’ screen time to a maximum of one hour per week. Meanwhile, the parents were taught about screen time and child development and were provided with one hour of in-home support each week for their children for six months.

Initially, all of the kids in the study spent at least two hours each day in front of screens. On average, they went from 5.6 hours per day of screen time before participating in the study to about 5 minutes per day.

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Each child was assessed at the beginning and end of the six-month study period for autism symptoms, functional behavior and development. In addition, participating parents responded to questionnaires about their stress and perceptions of the intervention.

After six months of less screen time and more social engagement, the researchers said there were “significant improvements” in both core autism symptoms and parent stress levels, according to findings published recently in the journal Pediatrics International.

“Though more work is needed, including a randomized controlled trial of the intervention, this is the first prospective study of its kind involving screen reduction in children with an autism diagnosis and high screen viewing,” said Dr. Karen Heffler, a researcher at the Drexel University College of Medicine and the lead author of the study. “These findings support retrospective studies and case reports that suggest rapid improvements in autism symptoms with screen reduction in addition to usual therapies.”

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