Interesting Ways Real-Life Interaction Can Help Kids with an Autism Diagnosis

The buzzing sounds, the bright colors, and the interactivity accompanying any elevideo gamkesctronic game can be hypnotizing and addicting for children struggling with symptoms of autism.While there can be educational benefits to some online games and apps, children with this type of brain disorganization become hyper-stimulated by electronic devices, negatively impacting their cognitive and social development.

Interesting Ways Real-Life Interaction Can Help Kids with an Autism Diagnosis

As entertaining as electronic devices may be for your child, it is important to limit the amount of time your child spends gaming with them. Instead of playing with potentially harmful electronic gadgets, encourage your child to play and interact in real life with real people and tangible toys.

How Electronics Disengage the Brain

With nearly 40 years of clinical experience and working with thousands of children worldwide, staff and clinicians at the Family Hope Center help parents who have children diagnosed with autism progress cognitively and socially.

Typically the brain stem and the limbic system are the parts of the brain that are more ‘reactive’ than thinking parts and are responsible, among other things, for basic emotions, integrating experiences, sensory integration, primary reflexes, short-term memory, and subconscious and conscious attitudes toward food and sexuality.

Kids enthralled by a game may have a look of quiet concentration on their faces; however, they are not engaged in constructive learning. As parents, our concern should be to prevent their brains from becoming over-stimulated by electronics. If children and teens habitually play these electronic games, they will experience sensory overload and their brains will have to compensate. This cause and effect cycle can prove to be particularly harmful to children with an autism diagnosis.

Mesmerizing electronic games provide the player with rewards or penalties in the form of sounds and images to communicate and reinforce to the player that he or she has succeeded or failed in the game. This negative/positive stimulus releases dopamine into the brain, which triggers a feeling of anxiety/euphoria, even if only for a fleeting moment.

The player gets a chemical high and will want to find this high again and again. Consequently, the brain will develop a pattern and will want the player to get the high back. These dopamine releases and subsequent chemical highs can become addictive. In fact, the addictive nature of electronic games has caused the World Health Organization to add gaming disorder as a behavioral addiction to the International Classification of Diseases, noting it can lead to severe isolation and lack of human connectivity.

Electronic games can be especially addictive to children with an autism diagnosis, specifically those who tend to enjoy predictability and repetitive behaviors. The predictable nature of dopamine spikes that result from electronic games will become extremely gratifying. On the surface this may not seem like a bad thing—after all, they are enjoying themselves, right? However, an obsession with reward-triggering dopamine releases limits children from getting involved in other slower, more constructive social-centered activities.

We have seen that children with an autism diagnosis have disorganization in specific parts of the brain stem, limbic brain, and frontal cortical areas. The limbic brain links directly to the frontal brain, which is responsible in part for decoding and comprehending social interactions. Because of the disorganization in this limbic area of the brain, children with an autism diagnosis already have challenges with interpersonal learning and communication.

When children are addicted to electronic devices, their brains become wired to be satiated only by high reward dopamine experiences found in electronic games, shaping their preference for screen-style interaction over the human face to face interaction. Over time, this will significantly compound their difficulties with human, variable interaction and relationships.

Emphasizing Play Time

Playing with a family member or friend yields far greater benefits, both developmentally and socially, than an electronic device ever could. Many children with an autism diagnosis struggle significantly to interact with other people, which explains why they are even more reliant on the solitude of predictable electronic games and experiences.

While kids may prefer this style of play, parents should encourage children to spend more time playing games with tangible objects and familiar people. This type of organized, fun and interactive play geared to the neurological organization of the child invites social, cognitive, and communicative development by allowing children to learn how to negotiate, collaborate, and cooperate with another person.

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How Can Parents Help Steer Their Kids Away From Screens And Toward Real-Life Playing?

Create family limits for screen use:

It can certainly be difficult cutting out screen time from your child’s day, especially if he/she is accustomed to tapping on his/her devices for hours at time. Gradually decrease the time limit and window for screen time and replace with more interactive time.

Encourage regular socialization:

Parents can structure their child’s playtime with a family member or friend, so it occurs on a regular basis. Through pre-planned playdates, your child will learn to love playing with real people rather than online avatars.

Determine the right types of tasks, interactive toys, and social games to play with your child:

Try introducing different toys and games that promote playing with another person, taking turns, or communicating. For some children parents should follow their child’s lead in figuring out what kind of play is best for him/her. Other children need more guidance and structure as they learn to play.

As parents, you are in control of your child’s time spent in isolating, electronic gaming activities. You have the ability to help your child develop life skills through brain development simply by playing together. While the rewards of real-life playing may not be as instantaneous as those of a video game, they encourage more healthy brain development for healthier futures.

This article was featured in Issue 94 – Daily Strategies Families Need

Matthew Newell

Matthew Newell is the founder and director of The Family Hope Center. The Family Hope Center, an international center dedicated to the development of children diagnosed with special needs and developmental delays, provides parents and families with knowledge and resources to achieve an optimal level of function and quality of life for their children.