Family Activities for Autism, ADHD and Digital Media

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All this week we’ve been discussing recent studies concerning the relationship between digital media and children diagnosed with autism. Data identifies watching television and playing video games as common interests for individuals within this population, but some of these studies have also raised serious concerns about the potential for problematic or addictive video game use amongst children with ASD and ADHD. Specific types of video games, such as role-playing games and first-person shooters, appear to be especially associated with addictive patterns of use amongst these children.

Repetitive behaviors, such as excessive video game play, limit the range of other real-world activities for children with autism spectrum disorders, and can be a valid cause for concern for parents. One characteristic trait of children with ASD is difficulty in shifting activities, and can be characterized by over-focus on something of great interest or high stimulation.

Interestingly, the same characteristics and concerns that are seen in possible addictive use of children with autism and ADHD are also part of what makes them such potentially great tools for learning.

For example, studies of children with autism using the game Teachtown suggest that children with autism do well largely because of their level of engagement and capacity to sustain attention to the services game-based technology, in contrast to traditional teaching. Similarly, children with ADHD have been demonstrated to perform much better on computerized versions of specific neuropsychological tests, in contrast to typically-developing peers, who perform at the same levels in the traditional, paper-and-pencil versions of the same test. Again, this suggests that the engagement, immediacy of feedback, and level of stimulation from digital technologies can engage the attention and may improve the learning of children with ADHD and ASD.

The contrasting reports suggest that parents of children with autism and ADHD need to proceed cautiously when using digital media with their children. However, it is important to recognize that caution and cessation of digital media are not the same. In today’s world many opportunities for socializing and sharing interests occur electronically and  the need for digital literacy for twenty-first century jobs suggest that it is a disservice to eliminate technologies for children with autism and ADHD. However, the image of a child isolated in his bedroom, starting at a computer screen for hours on end, and being totally withdrawn from face-to-face interactions with his family or peers is quite frightening and a greater risk to children with autism and ADHD. As a result, parents need to understand the addictive potential of video games and digital media when identifying activities for Autism Spectrum Disorders and ADHD.

Tips & Activities for Autism Spectrum Disorders

1.) Go on a family “Play Diet.” Model and make other forms of play a priority in your family. Devote more time to having regularly scheduled play activities such as going to the gym, playing board or card games, listening to music, going on hikes, and making meals together. Engage in other regular exciting activities for autism spectrum disorder or ADHD such as going on day trips to museums, historical sites, or even clothes shopping at an outlet mall. Find alternative activities that are engaging and make these activities part of family expectations.

2.) Make digital media social. Encourage family activities with alternative technologies. Digital media plays a large part in children’s life today, and will likely be an important component of their future education and employment.  However, an obsessive interest in a single game or technology is counterproductive for all kids, especially those with ADHD or ASD. Expand their interests by having them arrange a family movie night using digital streaming services like Netlfix or Hulu Plus — complete with with pizza, popcorn, and candy. Have a family contest to see who can use a typing program, like Burning Fingers, to become the fastest keyboarder in the house. Create and sustain a family blog with assigned roles such as writer, photographer and designer. Embrace their interest in technology and have them interact with others, and help them see that there is other digital media where they can have fun and learn, while still interacting with others.

3.) Encourage sports and educational video games. Studies suggest that sports and educational video games are associated with less oppositionalism and hyperactivity amongst children affected by autism. Educational games have the benefit of teaching academic content in a fun and engaging fashion, as well. Sports video games have been demonstrated to actually increase the amount of time that players engage in real world sports, too, and can improve executive functioning skills while nurturing a healthy interest in real-world sport — and interest that may serve to help the child share an interest with their peers.

Our Series on Autism in the Digital Age:

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