By Kristina Marie Smelley
If you live in a household without an iPad®, Wii®, XBox®, or other game player, you are in the minority. As technology and video games permeate modern society, kids are spending more and more hours staring at a screen at home, school or on mobile devices.
For children with autism, video games are particularly enticing.
“Kids with autism are very concrete and literal thinkers,” says Dr. Erin Moran, psychologist with the Portland Autism Center. “They are drawn to video games because they are visual and provide a structure, sequence and predictability that makes sense to them and provides comfort.”
Initially, video games can have a calming effect on behavior as children hyper-focus on the screen, able to block external environmental stimuli that can cause sensory overload. Because of this, iPads and mobile game players can be an option to help avoid meltdowns, as a way to entertain during meals out or while traveling. They can also help children decompress after the school day is over.
“I have seen video games to be calming to the ASD child but with all things, balance is key,” says Dr. Paul Thomas, MD, pediatrician at Integrative Pediatrics in Portland. “I don’t think there is a certain amount of screen time that is best. If you have a child with mild ASD who functions in the real world fairly well, the more time away from the screen the better.”
Dr. Thomas recommends being consistent with screens, using them in small doses as a reward or to promote another desired behavior.
“For the more severely affected, I don’t see the benefit in restricting screen time if, at that moment, it’s the only tool you have to calm,” he adds. “It’s still important to involve them in interactive activities that involve others, as well as seek sensory integration therapy.”
Fostering social connections with peers can be a challenge for people with autism. Local organizations like the Portland Asperger’s Network (PAN) hold a monthly game night to help kids connect. Families are able to appreciate how video games can bring children with autism together, promote vibrant conversation and help with collaborative problem solving.
“My son is very verbal, but also very shy,” says Lisa Staffa, a Hillsboro mom to a 7-year-old on the spectrum. “He becomes anxious when a child comes into our house for a playdate. If I let them use the iPad together, they always use it as an icebreaker. They will play Angry Birds or Minecraft while talking up a storm. They don’t have to make eye contact and it gives them a common subject to talk about. I usually put a 10-minute time limit on it and then they move on to something else.”
Assistive technology and educational games are already helping kids with autism learn words and phrases, develop hand-eye coordination and improve executive functioning skills. Some doctors feel the future development of more educational games that teach social interaction will be very beneficial to those with autism.
However, there can be a dark side to video game use, and an obsession with games can lead to problems like increased attention deficits, difficult behaviors and addiction. Role-playing video games appear to be especially addictive to those with autism. Kids can become very angry when their game is interrupted and they are not able to stop the game or transition easily to the next activity.
“What we find is that the excitement of playing the game builds and that momentum takes over,” Dr. Moran adds. “They have a hard time disengaging from the game when asked, and screen time usually ends up being at the expense of the child being present in the moment with friends or family.”
Many parents agree, citing obsession with games, meltdowns or arguments over appropriate limits and trouble stopping play.
“My oldest son is 13, and if I knew then what I know now, I would have avoided a lot of the technology in the house for many more years,” Staffa says. “He is obsessed with technology and uses computers and tablets for playing online games, as well as iPad games. It is a reoccurring battle when we state that ‘watching time’ is over, and his habits have affected his younger siblings. Since technology is a Pandora’s box and we can’t go back in time, my hope now is that we can transition out of gaming and into learning coding and programming.”
Moderation and balance is the key, according to therapists. If video games are already an important part of your child’s life, set healthy limits by using a timer, playing at only certain times of day and being firm and consistent with the rules on technology. If your child has not been exposed yet, you may simply choose to forego video games all together or wait.
“It’s a good idea to help your child develop a hobby and fill time with outside activities, such as horseback riding, LEGO Robotics, swimming or whatever will draw his or her interest outside the home,” adds Dr. Moran. “Do what you can to draw your kids into the real world because seeing a bigger, better world will help to lessen the draw to video games.”
So how do video games affect children’s long-term health? According to Dr. Thomas, it depends.
“For those who are very mild ASD and spend all their time playing shooting games, there is lots of potential harm. What are they really learning? On the other hand, a severely impacted child who is playing an educational game that is calming and provides learning may have a more positive effect,” he says.
Many mental health professionals are very concerned about the long-term effects of playing video games. According to Dr. Moran, relying on screens for educational purposes and using them as a stepping stone to other desired activities may prove beneficial.
However, the problem is when the application of video games turns into hours of game play.
“As the obsession grows, kids withdraw into isolation preferring the video game world over real life, which has shown to lead to loneliness, depression and suicide,” Moran adds. “The growing cases of suicide in autistic adolescents is very concerning.”
It’s important to be aware of the pros and cons of video game exposure to children with autism. Be aware of warning signs such as isolation or addiction.
Most importantly, says Dr. Thomas, “use your best judgment and parenting skills, provide healthy limits, explain that we all have to do certain things to get what we want and then illustrate it for them. Teach and train them, and always remember to tell them you love them just for being alive and in your life.”
Kristina Marie Smelley is a Portland freelance writer with many years of experience in public relations and corporate communications. She co-leads a Portland area support group called REST for moms with children who experience special needs. She is married with two children, one with autism. She is also a local singer-songwriter currently working on a collection of life-skills songs for children with special needs.