R: Mr. Zamfir, what about this name of Virtual Autism?
MTZ: Autism is not a disease. For example, we do not have until present any test (genetical, blood or imagistic test, etc) to identify autism. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder of neuro-biological origin, more precisely a disorder of neuronal connectivity (certain areas in the brain have too many connections or they have less neuronal connections). A series of behaviours and characteristics to be found to the children in case are called autist disorders (TSA). Based on clinical observation, every instrument (psychological test) used to evaluate autism identifies the existence or the absence of this behaviour, so we can determine the diagnosis. Similarly to the „classic autism” this behaviour also appears in „virtual autism”, precisely for this reason we called it autism. Anyway, more than 75% of the cases that come to us for a consult have been already diagnosed with TSA by psychiatrists. We used the term virtual as there was a direct causality connection between the the excessive consuming (over 4-5 hours/day) of virtual environment (smartphone, tablet, TV, laptop, etc) and the TSA specific behaviour. Initially, in 2013, I used the term of autism process, in the first paper in the field I have published; however, in 2014, in all conferences, I used the term Virtual Autism.
R: Which is the difference between „classic autism” and „Virtual Autism”?
MTZ: Certainly, details are to be found in the above mentioned study, but shortly, the difference is based on recovery. Children who presented an excessive consuming of virtual enviornment, aged 0 to 3 years old, recovered 4 or 5 times more efficient, compared to the children who did not use the virtual enviornment; the number of children integrated in the general education system, at functional and adaptive level, was almost three times larger, to the children who presented consuming of virtual environment.
R: I know you support a large campaign to promote Virtual Autism, mostly in online environment. Have you had any opposition from the parents who had a child with autism and they knew they did allow their children to watch TV, for example?
MTZ: Certainly, there were a lot of parents and even specialists in the field who refused and will continue to refuse to believe there is a Virtual Autism. As I have mentioned before, we call autism a series of elements of behaviour or characteristics, but few people understand there are multiple and different causes behind these behaviour. For example, we know in present that more than 1,000 genes are involved in autism, but it is not necessary these genes are „out of order”, but they express differently. Genetical expression is influenced by the environment or by the epigenetic factors, as we call them.
I have begun my observations in 2007, when I had a child patient whith whom I associated this Virtual Autism. Though, I began to gather standard data, paricularly since 2012.
As I mentioned above, I noticed this opposition even among specialists, some of them professors at the university; therefore I had to make some longitudinal films in certain situations and I interviewed parents, in order to demonstrate the existence of Virtual Autism.
Recently, for example, I have had two cases of 6 months old children (from Suceava and Tulcea); Not being aware of future implications, parents allowed these children to use tablets and mobile phones about 4-6 hours/per day, since their babies were 4 months old (when the diversification was introduced. When the children were 6 months old, parents noticed the impact of these electronic devices, meaning their children seemed not to hear anything, they were no more interested in their grandparents and parents’ voices and presence, they had some repeated stereotype behaviour and they seemed to live in their own world. In that very moment, parents realized something was wrong about their children and began to search for online information on the subject. They found the Facebook page Stop Virtual Autism and they got in touch with me. Therefore, they eliminated any electronic device from their children’s life and they noticed major and rapid changes. Further on, the children are on suveillance and we hope the impact will be minor, taking into consideration their very young age when parents identified the problem and the plasticity of children’s brain. This category of cases allow us to understand the need for the present campaign.