Video Games and Defiance in Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Video games can be the best friend of parents of children with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, providing these youngsters with opportunities to sustain their attention and engage them for lengthy periods of time. For instance, access to games and apps may reduce conflicts amongst siblings on a family road trip. Video games may also appear to make a child with autism or ADHD relatively happy and content. However at the same time, oppositional behavior and defiance in autism spectrum disorders and ADHD can be exacerbated by the allure of video games, often observed when a child is told to stop their game play, which for many children routinely results in arguments, whining, and repetitive pleas for more play.

By their very nature, children with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD have difficulty in transitioning from one activity to another, including getting started on tasks such as homework, chores, or getting ready for school in the morning. They may also struggle to stop an activity such as watching a television show, reading a book, or finishing an art project. In a recent article in “Pediatrics,” Mazurek and Engelhardt described how children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have particular difficulty disengaging from video games. Video game characteristics such as the requirement for physical and cognitive involvement; the variety of stimuli (including video, sounds, words, and actions) and the clear and immediate feedback that they provide can result in intense focus and attention. Children with autism may find it even harder to disengage from games before they have completed a level or beaten the game.

Defiance in autism spectrum disorders is not an uncommon phenomenon. So, developing a clear set of strategies around these transition times is important for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD who become oppositional  around the use of video games. It is crucial to help these youngsters learn how to disengage not only from video games but also from other activities.

Strategies that may help you reduce defiance in autism spectrum disorders and ADHD around video-game use include:

1.) Practice and reward appropriate disengagement from fun activities. Use clear and meaningful consequences and rewards when shifting from play to homework or from hanging out to getting ready for bed. This will help your child recognize that you “mean business” when you tell him it is time to stop playing video games. Game-play transitions are very difficult for children affected by autism because players often need to retrace their efforts if they are interrupted. Traditional strategies such as giving a 10-minute warning, using a visible timer, or having another fun activity to which to transition may help. Children affected by autism or ADHD may also benefit from having a specific routine where they regularly go from video-game time to another routine activity.

2.) Own the technology. Purchase a tablet or laptop for yourself and be very clear that permission (given freely for set amounts of time) is necessary to use the hardware. This can be especially helpful with younger children if it is well established. Some children with ADHD and ASD may be very persistent and perseverate in an effort to get their video games from their parents, so a highly-structured routine needs to be set up. Discuss any exceptions such as more time for game play on weekends, vacations, or an extended family road trip in advance, giving fair warning as to extra technology time and connecting it very clearly to vacation or other family events.

3.) Set limits at a young age. The sooner appropriate and effective limits are set, the more you will be able to reduce oppositional tendencies about video-game use with a child with ASD or ADHD. The best limits are not elimination but reasonable-use strategies, so that children are not “starved” from an activity in which their peers are engaged. Teaching your child with ASD or ADHD to use video games and  technology responsibly is seen as a difficult but worthwhile task.


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One thought on “Video Games and Defiance in Autism Spectrum Disorders

  1. One thing to be aware of with video games is that saying “turn it off now” can be the equivalent of ending their art session by ripping up the drawing they worked hard on. They may insist on finishing a level, not to keep playing, but because they haven’t saved yet and if they don’t finish the level the can’t get to a save point and save the last 3 levels they beat. Turn that off now and then they back talk and don’t get to explain while the parent doesn’t understand the concept of a save file is now seen as disobedient when the child is trying to explain that what you are asking of them is to throw away an hour and a half worth of work because you don’t have the patience to wait 5 min. And when the back talking of five more please is seen as defiance and the situation is adversarial and they already have communication problems they especially have trouble using their words to explain the issue. This issue can be resolved by coaching the child to remember to save or setting a timer giving them a good half hour to wind down and prepare for the next activity (it takes me about a half hour to transiton. Even as an adult, going from hello sun to take a shower to get dressed to have breakfast involves a good hour and a half of transition between the activities which only take about an hour, and this is me intrinsically motivated to kick but, not about pleasing some authority who is trying to fight which adds that much more slowdown). I have a lot of issues with video games because my parents told me that I needed to go to sleep instead of play video games and since I didn’t have the skills to budget my time and my fight or fight keeps me in unthinking panic mode until all the other humans have been solidly asleep for several hours, and the only time I can experience having fun (or learn or focus on anthing) is when not distracted by the other humans to me “it’s time for bed” was interpreted as you are not allowed to experience joy or even learn (school learning was impossible. I can’t think while sitting in a chair because it is painful. I’m glad I taught myself to read before I began school because I’d otherwise be illiterate. Before video games in just stayed awake all night reading which is why I got decent grades despite not receiving an education, but when I discovered a video game in the family computer my parents started to interfere with my sleep schedule. This was when I was 12 and I was always a straight a student and one of those delight to teach kids, but as soon as they started to tell me to go to bed (not because of anything other than that they were prejudiced against the idea of staying up all night playing video games when they weren’t even aware enough of my behaviour to know that that was within my normal sleep patterns (once when I was 7 they they away my flute at 3 am and got grumpy about me being loud, but they always knew I was often up 2 or three nights a week out of boredom and it not being time to sleep when I never got a chance to wind down) I all of a sudden was having trouble keeping up in school and angry outbursts. Because my life was now hell. The only things enjoyable, my hobbies, were gone. I feel like being told to lay off the video games ruined my life. Then, they don’t even realize what they did and rub it in your face asking when you’re 16 and just waiting to die at that point why don’t you get into computers and you start to scream at them about how you’re computer illiterate now because when you were coding the html for your fanfiction page at 14 you were told to go to bed too many times and stopped writing and stopped coding and stopped feeling.

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