If you’re raising a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you know that some skills don’t come as easily to them. Struggles with communicating, learning, adapting to change, planning, controlling impulses, huge emotions, and sensory overload are common. You may wonder if digital media — such as TV, video games, tablets, and apps — will help with these skills or create more challenges.
Digital media devices can be useful tools to help children express themselves, learn social skills, and even stay organized. But most any parent knows how strong a pull videos and fun game apps can have on kids. Since core autism symptoms can include extreme focus or repetitive activities, the worry is whether children with autism may be even more likely to spend too much time on digital devices. This could cause them to miss out on chances for socializing, creative play, and healthy essentials like exercise and sleep.
A few studies suggest children with ASD develop more excessive media use habits during childhood, and spend more hours playing video games as teens. Research hasn’t yet looked into whether children with autism use tablets and smartphones more, but rising numbers of U.S. children own their own mobile devices.
Do the AAP media use guidelines apply to kids with ASD?
As pediatricians, we certainly think so. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) media guidelines offer solid advice for all parents. For example, we encourage parents to:
- Make media use a shared experience, rather than something kids do alone.
- Create “unplugged” times and spaces in the home, so that plenty of talking and undistracted play can happen.
- Limit entertainment media to 1 hour a day so that kids have enough time to play, get outside, and get enough sleep.
The AAP Family Media Plan is an online tool that helps parents create plans for each family member to balance media time, family time, and healthy activities. While these strategies are helpful for all children there are extra steps parents of children with ASD can take.
More media use tips for parents of children with ASD
- Switch it up. When kids seem “stuck” on a particular show or app, encourage them to watch a new show with you, or take turns playing a favorite app or game together rather than playing it by themselves.
- Learning opportunities. When kids really love a media character to a repetitive level, use that interest to help with new learning goals. For example, teach them to count, learn colors, or recognize emotions through their favorite characters.
- An eye on time. Use visual timers with graphics to help kids follow limits on tech and other preferred play. Set out the daily schedule on a visual schedule app. Most children with ASD respond better to visual prompts that let them see how much time is left, rather than verbal reminders.
- Rewarding experience. Instead of using media as a calming tool when things are getting too stressful in the house, make a plan to use it as a reward for behavioral goals. Extra time to play their favorite game can be a prize for learning a new skill like potty training, for example. Another approach is to allow a certain number of minutes of tech time per day — say, half an hour — but add more minutes when your child shows positive behaviors that you’re working on.
- Screen the options. If you don’t like the way your child acts after watching a show — for example, more active, aggressive, or self-stimulatory — eliminate that show from the rotation.
- Body language. For children who quote scripted speech from media programs, try videos with nonverbal characters (Pingu, for example, or Curious George).
- Your attention, please. Although it’s exciting to see how well kids can “focus” on their tablets, it is important to know that a game’s attention-grabbing bells and whistles, reward systems and auto-advance features, are specifically designed to keep kids playing longer. In other words, it’s the app, not the child’s brain, that’s doing most of the work!
- What about “brain training” games? A few studies show that special “brain training” computer games may boost kids’ attention and working memory during computerized tasks. But that doesn’t mean the effect carries over into school work and other daily activities. To build attention span and skills to help finish tasks, hands-on play and behavioral therapies are the most effective. Currently, no apps or games are proven to help attention span; in fact, we worry that they may worsen it.
- Get creative. Show your child that digital devices are not just for streaming videos and other idle activities. Install creative apps such as stop-motion animation or simple computer coding apps such as Scratch, Jr. Write stories featuring your child or a favorite character when planning for events or outings that you think may be challenging for your child. Consider biofeedback or relaxation apps to help children learn skills to help calm themselves.
- Minding multiplayer mode. Children who struggle with social skills sometimes are drawn to multiplayer online video games, since this type of social interaction feels more comfortable to them. This should be discouraged due to safety and privacy concerns.
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