When gadgets become babysitters

My firstborn, Matin, turned two a few months ago. Our Matin is a typical boy who is playful, laughs when he is tickled, whines when he is hungry and is grumpy when he is sleepy.

But while children his age were already speaking in full sentences, he was only using simple words like “wow” and “yay”. This made us a bit concerned.

Like many new parents, we resorted to Google and started searching for information on toddlers with delayed speech. So many opinions, but most alarming of all was the word “autism”.

We introduced Matin to gadgets at an early age, much too early. From as early as six months, he would watch YouTube videos for hours on end every day. If he did not have an iPad or handphone with him, his eyes would be fixed on the telly.

My excuse as a working mum was that I had no time or energy to entertain him myself.

Having read so much about autism, we started seeing signs of it in Matin. The fear of him having autism became worse after I gave birth to my second child. Matin started throwing a lot of tantrums and was more difficult than usual, signs I took as traits of autism. But looking back, it might have been just his way of seeking attention since I was always occupied with the baby.

Matin was on YouTube morning and night as I found it difficult to cope with two kids. I shoved the phone at him at every opportunity, just to keep him quiet, not realising the danger. His sleeping pattern changed drastically – he would fall asleep at 5am rather than the usual 11pm.

He also started behaving aggressively. His tantrums became more frequent. He was not eating well and was losing weight. The panic came when he did not respond to me calling him. Apparently, this is a red flag sign for autism. Things came to a point where Matin seemed to be in his own world.

On the advice and recommendation of older relatives, we took Matin to see Dr Yong Junina Fadzil in May. After monitoring him for an hour, she told us that Matin showed signs of mild autism such as not responding to his name, speech delay, tantrums and lack of eye contact.

She advised further tests. First was a hearing test; this was normal. The next test which was the autism diagnostic observation schedule (Ados) would be in June.

In the month before the Ados, we cut him off from gadgets and television, took him for outdoor activities and spent more time with him. I even engaged a play centre which arranges home-based play and activities for children.

After a few sessions with them, there were noticeable changes in Matin.

We also enrolled him in a playschool, which helped a lot. The principal said the speech delay could be because Matin had not been exposed to others his age. After close to a month in school, we saw more improvements.

He now smiles more at strangers and can even approach them. His vocabulary has increased and his appetite has doubled.

A week before his Ados assessment, we took him to see child psychiatrist Dr Norharlina Bahar. She did not detect any symptoms of autism but advised us to proceed with the assessment as it would help confirm whether Matin was autistic.

The day finally came for the Ados assessment. It took nearly two hours, a long and anxious wait for me.

Alhamdulillah, Matin was not autistic.

Instead, he was diagnosed with isolated speech delay. The doctor advised us to fill his time with outdoor activities, as playing outdoors with other children was important for his social skills.

Nowadays, when I see parents shoving their handphones or iPads at their toddlers, I feel like telling them about the damage it did to my Matin.

Young parents out there, it may be tiring – no, it is tiring to have kids and entertain them. But our parents took care of us without gadgets, therefore so can we.

Tengku Nabilah Tengku Ismail is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.