April 20 (UPI) -- Spending more time playing -- and limiting their screen time -- may help reduce risk for developing autism-like symptoms as they age, a new study has found.
Children who watched television and videos by the time they were 12 months hold had 4 percent more symptoms reminiscent of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, by their second birthday, according to research published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
The researchers note, however, that risk for being diagnosed with ASD was about the same, the researchers added.
"We are not saying that the relationship between screen exposure and developing autism symptoms is a causal one," co-author Dr. David Bennett, a professor of psychiatry at Drexel University, told UPI. "In fact, at this point we have the chicken-and-the-egg problem of not knowing whether emerging behaviors of autism -- like poor eye contact -- lead some parents to experience a less positive time with their child, and subsequently play with them less and use screens more, or whether children with a genetic predisposition might be more likely to develop autism symptoms in the context of being exposed to more screen time and less social engagement."
About 1 percent of the global population has ASD, according to the Autism Society. Research has suggested that genetics contribute to up to 80 percent of the risk for the condition, but that increased "screen time" may also play a role, and lead to other developmental problems.
For the new study, Bennett and colleagues analyzed data on 2,152 children from the National Children's Study, a multi-center epidemiological study of environmental influences on child health and development in the United States.
Caregivers reported whether children viewed television or videos at 12 months of age, as well as the hours of viewing at 18 months of age, time they spent reading to the child and frequency of playing with the child.
Pre-mature births, maternal age at birth, child gender, household income, race or ethnicity and caregiver English-language status were factored into the analysis.
The researchers found that daily parent-child play at 12 months reduced ASD symptoms observed at 2 years of age by 9 percent. However, high screen viewing at 18 months of age was "not significantly associated" with ASD-like symptoms, they noted.
"For parents, and perhaps especially for parents of young children with a family history of autism, we would encourage them to play often with their child and to limit TV, tablet and computer time," Bennett said. "The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, recommends avoiding the use of any screen time other than video chatting for children younger than 18 months."