Autism and ASD: Finding Balance with Technology

As you may have noticed with your own child, kids who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s, Autism, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder often become overly involved with video games or technology. These children can easily get stuck playing a particular video game, become obsessed with online games such as World of Warcraft, or spend excessive amounts of time on social networks, forums, or their favorite websites. Even children who have very mild forms of ASD can have a difficult time setting down their video games or switching off their computers when it’s time to engage in other activities.

For some parents, their first reaction to an ASD child who is spending too much time with technology is to set strict limits on when and how they access these digital toys.  While some limits may of course be necessary, it’s important to remember that many children with ASD, who are withdrawn and isolated in social relationships, find that digital media use is one of the few things that brings them pleasure and connects them to the outside world.

On the other hand, many parents of ASD children are reluctant to take technology away from their child, even when they know that it is interfering with other important aspects of their life.  For some, this is simply because they do not want to take away such an effective source of solace from the child, while others are may be avoiding the fierce arguments and conflicts that arise when they try to get their child to moderate their technology use.

While it may be tempting to either take away the offending technologies altogether, or else “give in” and let your child have unrestricted access to them, the best plan is usually to develop a balanced strategy that modifies your child’s obsession into a compelling interest that can improve some of the critical thinking and social skills he struggles with the most.

In addition to standard strategies for supervising video game and Internet use such as having technology in public areas, setting shutdown times in the evenings, monitoring appropriate content, and prioritizing schoolwork over video game play, there are many specific approaches that may help parents balance their child’s intense interests. Here are a few ideas to help you find that balance.

  • Make time for other things! This may need to be rule number one in your household if your child is obsessed with playing video games or going online. While you may choose to let them spend more time involved in digital activities than you would like, make that contingent upon doing other things on a daily basis. Physical activities and exercise, going outdoors, reading, playing board games, engaging in a hobby such as cooking, artwork, shopping, or music, and pursuing an interest in a popular topic such as the military history, a specific sport, animals, or movies need to be an expected part of a daily routine
  • Make game interests into real-world interests. Rather than allowing your child to become obsessed with an online experience or video game, help him to take this area of interest and move it outside of the game. For example, if your child is stuck in playing war games, help the child to expand his or her interest into the broader realm of history. Take the child on trips to historical places, encourage him or her to read about a topic such as the Civil War, or watch movies or documentaries with the child for further expansion of his or her interest and to provide the child with opportunities for having healthy, mutual discussions about it.
  • Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is a great deal of evidence that technologies can be extremely useful in helping children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder improve communication skills, engage in social relationships, develop better understanding of facial expressions, and improve problem-solving skills. Learn about those video games and technologies that practice skills to help your child.
  • Start early. If your child has been diagnosed, or if you suspect that the child has some form of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) , begin setting limits on the child’s use of digital technology at a very young age. Do not let children get to the point where they are spending an inordinate amount of time with these activities in relationship to other physical, social, and family activities.
  • Monitor your own involvement with digital technology. This is particularly important when you use technologies that are solitary, such as searching the Internet, playing games on your phone, sending emails, or using social media. The more of these isolating technologies that you display as a parent, the more you are modeling this type of behavior for your child.
  • Make many of your home-based digital technologies social or interactive. Insist that your child generally play multiplayer games such as WiiSports: Tennis or New Super Mario Bros.Wii. If the child is involved in online multiplayer games, insist that the child try to do so in conjunction with a friend from school, and have family game nights on a regular basis where you use multiplayer games.

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