Do you know how much time your child spends on the screen playing video games? Do you know which kinds of games are detrimental or valuable to young minds? These are very challenging questions for parents, especially for parents of children with autism.
There is no question that videogames, some apps and online activities can be very valuable for children, whether for academics, or just for entertainment. When parents find an app or game for a child, it can be extremely problematic tearing him or her away from the computer, iPad or iPhone.
For all children, specifically children on the autism spectrum, the online world holds more than the typical risk. For example, some researchers in the field have found that children with autism are inclined to videogame addiction. Other researchers contend that extreme game playing can “move” a child from eccentric or idiosyncratic behavior to pointblank autistic. The highly-structured, anticipated and immersive experience of gaming, can strengthen the rigidity of autistic-type brains.
But there are also many parents, advocates, and researchers who believe that technology can help children with autism develop their strong points or strengths and address their challenges or weaknesses.
As an autism consultant, I’ve spent years investigating the way different tech tools can support or heighten behavioral challenges. During this period of time, I have done research on family technology use, habitually finding myself in the crosshairs of parents who are fervently quarreling over screen time.
Often, I discuss with parents ways technology can help their children with life skills, social skills, and basic language development. But, I’ve explored other ways technology can help address autism, especially in the area of behaviors. First, set your goals, and then determine which technologies or tools can help you get there.
Use Technology as a Special Interest
One particular autistic trait is an obsessive interest in a particular subject or object, which often holds the key to unlocking a child’s development. However, there is an on-going active discussion about whether video games can constitute an autistic special interest: Some people think they sidetrack children from discovering their true desires or represent a more peer-accepted way of chasing an underlying geeky interest (for example, by playing a rocket-building video game instead of building rockets).
I tell parents to allow their children plenty of time to play video games since they remain their greatest passion, but I try to uncover any underlying interests the games may disguise. That includes giving the child opportunities to learn more about the technology itself and introducing the child to books, events, and games that appeal to computer enthusiasts.
Use Technology as Targeted Therapy
During my sessions, I like to utilize therapeutic tools specifically designed for anxious children and/or children on the autism spectrum that teach self-regulation and social skills. However, I have had effective results by just playing a regular iPhone game with children while holding on to the phone controls myself.
This allowed me to have their full attention. After I insisted that we take three deep breaths every time our on-screen character died in the snowboarding game “Alto’s Adventure,” I found the children finally got in the habit of using breath work to manage their emotions. Some were able to accomplish this by talking about the situations of characters in games like “Broken Age,” where they slowly opened up about their emotional state in a way they’d been unable to do with a psychiatrist or psychologist.
Use Technology as Part of Your Community
The social internet has been an advantage for many autistic individuals who find face-to-face interaction painful. But, for the same reason, it is often a relaxed platform for children with autism to interact or mingle online. Parents can also use online groups for advice on many topics such as transitions and homework. Also, an online community can give parents support when meltdowns occur.
Online supports also offer the flexibility of access for many busy individuals.
Use Technology as Down Time
Many individuals on the autistic spectrum are in need of quiet time and a need to escape to regulate; screen time can be one way to achieve this result. Some parents find that the use of technology can help their children with sensory overload — whether that means listening to a story on tape (audiobook), watching YouTube, or disappearing into their games on the iPad for an hour after a hectic day. But, did you know that screen time can also have the reverse effect? Some games may be very overstimulating.
It’s important to monitor which games or activities lead to outbursts. When a game or TV show leads to an eruption, it can definitely be too overstimulating. When I work with a child who has had more than one tantrum when watching a game or show, I take it out of my technology rotation for at least six months, not as a penalty, but because I recognize that it is way too stimulating.
There is no unassuming answer to the question of whether technology helps or hinders children with autism, any more than there is an easy answer to whether technology is worthy or bad for society as a whole. As professionals and parents, we need to start looking at the influence that specific kinds of screen time have on unambiguous behaviors and individuals.
This is particularly true for people on the autistic spectrum who are extremely complex and who may lack executive functioning skills to regulate their own technology use. When we are able to identify the prospects that different kinds of screen time can offer individuals —and judiciously note the effects — we can help people on the autistic spectrum use technology as a benefit to their own progress and growth.
Randi Rentz is an autism consultant who has worked in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA since 1993. Randi has presented at The National Autism Conference at Penn State University in August 2007. She has been published in The Autism File, Summer 2008, profiled in the “Educator Spotlight” section in the Philadelphia Inquirer, appeared on PBS NewsHour and featured in Main Line Today Magazine, “Doing Good.” In addition, Randi has appeared on several news segments within the Philadelphia area. In 2014, Randi was named as a “Woman of Note” by The Wall Street Journal for her work in autism.
This article was featured in Issue 54 – Surviving Family Challenges