A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2021 | Number 2, Volume 35

TV, videos affect language skills in young kids with ASD

A new study raises concerns about the effects of extensive television and video watching on the development of receptive language in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). 

The study, by Elisabeth Fridberg and colleagues, collected data on the development of 3,227 two- to five-year-old children with ASD. The researchers asked parents to assess the children’s development quarterly for three years. 

Using this data, the researchers assessed both expressive and receptive language. Expressive language involved such skills as using one or two words at a time or carrying on a conversation. Receptive language, in contrast, was defined as “complex language that uses modifiers, spatial prepositions, and fictitious situations, which require visuospatial mental integration rather than memorization.” (As an example, they cite the ability to understand the meanings of the phrases “cat on a mat,” “mat on a cat,” and “big black cat on a tiny wet mat.”) This ability to combine and recombine novel mental images at will is called prefrontal synthesis, or PFS. 

The researchers report, “Longer video and television watching were associated with better development of expressive language but significantly impeded development of complex language comprehension.” On an annual basis, they say, “low TV users [40 min or less of videos and television per day] improved their language comprehension 1.4 times faster than high TV users [2 hours or more of videos and television per day].” At the same time, they note, “high TV users improved their expressive language 1.3 times faster than low TV users.” However, they say, the difference in expressive language between the two groups was not statistically significant. 

Comparing the development of PFS to the development of motor skills, the researchers say, “Just like it is impossible to acquire muscle control from the passive watching of sports programs, it is equally impossible to develop PFS from the passive watching of cartoons and fairytales.” Much as children need to be physically active to develop motor control skills, the researchers say, they need to actively develop PFS through such activities as conversations and storytelling. 

They conclude, “The results of this study complement existing evidence in neurotypical children: Passive video and television watching does not develop PFS. Critically, passive video and television watching may be particularly detrimental for young children with ASD who may have a shorter critical period for PFS acquisition.”


“Watching videos and television is related to a lower development of complex language comprehension in young children with autism,” Elisabeth Fridberg, Edward Khokhlovich, and Andrey Vyshedskiy, Healthcare, 2021 (free online). Address: Andrey Vyshedskiy, Biology Department, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, [email protected].