What Is the Impact of Video Games on Autism and Attention?

There have been a few recent studies relating higher use of video games to inattention in children with autism and ADHD. These studies are “correlation” in nature, meaning that there is no causal evidence that playing video games increases inattention in children with Autism and Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. Rather, they inform parents that problematic game-play use, defined as playing for an increasing number of hours and displaying signs of oppositionalism, are associated with symptoms of inattention in children with ASD and ADHD.

In addition to the hypothesis that playing too many video games directly causes inattentiveness,  there are many other possible explanations for this finding. Children who already struggle to sustain their attention to non-technological play activities and to traditional schooling may find the highly-stimulating, ever-changing, multi-modal approach of video games to be far more engaging than do other children. As a result, these children play more than their peers. Many autism and ADHD children fall within this population.

Another explanation turns the causative relationship around, meaning that it could be that excessive video game play drives that lack of social interaction and engagement. By spending an excessive amount of time playing video games or using other digital media, children tend to isolate themselves, lose the capacity to focus or develop interest in other areas, or become socially withdrawn and choose not attend to, or interact with family or peers.

Self-esteem may also play a role. Many children with autism and ADHD experience very low self-esteem when faced with challenges at school, extracurricular activities, or anything in which they may feel judged by others. Success and failure in video games, particularly non-social games, is a personal experience that allows the player to proceed at his own pace, allowing him to achieve mastery and to experience a higher degree of success. Rather than engaging in other activities in which he finds himself to be unsuccessful and experience negative feedback, a child with autism and ADHD may choose to isolate himself in his own private world, instead. Solitary video game play and television are the two most common discretionary activities of children diagnosed with autism and ADHD.

For many parents, the reports of the connection between inattention and increased video game use is a source of confusion and conflict. There are compelling data describing how children with autism and ADHD are more engaged, attentive, and learn more academic, problem-solving , and social skills from digital presentations than from traditional teaching. There is also increasing support from the educational community that suggests that video games and digital media are incredibly powerful sources for learning academic content. In my personal practice, it is common for parents of children with Autism and Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder children to offer comments like, “My child couldn’t have attention problems. You should watch him play video games.”

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The potential of video games and apps to enhance the sustained attention and effort of children with autism and ADHD has been demonstrated across a variety of studies. While the recent research suggests caution in the case of children who overuse these technologies, a realistic approach takes into account the learning potential, opportunities for social engagement with peers, and the need for digital-literacy skills for twenty-first century jobs.

We suggest that parents of children with Autism and Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder set appropriate limits on their children’s gaming. To help , here’s some simple, effective strategies for managing the use of digital media in assisting their children in the development of social, emotional, and academic skills.

Tips for Managing Your Child’s Video Game Use:

1.) Put work before play. Require that your child complete all of her homework, chores, or other responsibilities before being allowing her digital play time. By making her postpone these fun activities until after her work is done, she won’t be able to use digital play as a means of procrastination.

2.) Get moving. Exercise has been shown to improve focus and learning in children with attentional problems. Tell your child to go out and run around before playing video games, and then play active games such as Wii Tennis or Kinect Adventures

3.) Play serious games. Use “healthy” video games and technologies to engage your child with ASD or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Video game characteristics such as immediate and multimodal feedback, guided discovery, and matching challenge to levels of mastery make them incredibly engaging. Working with your child to find games that help them to understand issues such as world hunger, the environment, and healthy eating can capture their attention and at the same time give your child access to important skills and content.

4.) Master memory. Play games that practice and improve working memory skills. Improving working memory is directly related to a reduction in inattention and is likely to help your child to follow directions more effectively. Games that directly challenge and practice working memory skills include Wario Ware, Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros.

Our Series on Autism in the Digital Age:

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