Video games for children with autism or ADHD are a potential source of great learning opportunities. However, at the same time, video game play can present a host of dangers and the potential for problematic use among children with autism, ADHD, and other psychosocial and emotional difficulties. The research on autism and video games including a recent article by Micah Mazurek and Christopher Engelhardt published in “Pediatrics” studied the impact of video games on children with autism or ADHD. This study compared video game usage among children with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and typically-developing children not diagnosed with these conditions.
Their findings were similar to the anecdotal reports about the use of video games for children with autism or ADHD from many parents. That is, that many of these children become overly focused on their video game play, have difficulty in transitioning from video game play to other activities, and may display argumentative behavior in an effort to have access to more video game play. There were also other interesting findings that may help parents deciding how to manage the use of video games for children with autism and ADHD.
One finding of interest in the research on autism and video games is that children with autism tend to have particular difficulty when they use role-playing games such as Pokemon. Role-playing games have particular features such as high reward schedules (including virtual rewards such as scores, achievements, and in-game items) and social rewards (such as peer attention) that may foster a preoccupation or an intense interest in the game. In addition, role-playing games have the potential to be more time-consuming than other games, because players must create and maintain characters over time and have the option to explore open-ended virtual worlds, possibly increasing the likelihood of problematic use patterns. These role-playing games appear to be more closely associated with addiction.
The researchers also found a relationship between the amount of video game play for children with autism or ADHD and inattention. This correlation does not indicate that video game play for children with autism or ADHD causes inattention, but that the more inattention a child displays, the more likely he is to play video games for extended periods of time. This might be partially explained by the uniquely engaging aspects of video games for children with attention difficulties, relative to their experience with other types of play and interaction.
Another finding in the research on autism and video games is that boys with autism or ADHD may have greater in-bedroom access to video games than typically-developing children. The authors hypothesized that children with autism or ADHD are more preoccupied with games, resulting in them asking for more access to video-game consoles or computers in their room, possibly leading to more problematic use. They also suggest the possibility that the parents of children with autism or ADHD may offer increased access to these media “as a means for managing difficult behavior.”
While this study may cause alarm amongst some parents — especially those who are rightfully concerned about their children with autism and ADHD’s use of video games — it is also important to recognize that these technologies offer a great deal of potential benefit for learning academic, social, and problem-solving skills for children with autism and ADHD. The research on autism and video games also supports the use of video games and other technologies to improve communication and academic skills in classroom settings. Children with autism and ADHD are often able to share their interests and experiences with their peers while using video games, creating a bridge into improved social relationships.
Video games and other technologies are not going to disappear. Parents who decide to eliminate any technology from their home will not be able to prevent their children from using these technologies in the school setting, or with their peers. Nor would this be a good idea, as the use of technology offers many opportunities for learning and a bridge for communication and understanding of others. Technology is a “virtual” necessity for access to information and learning, and provides training for digital literacy skills that are needed in the twenty-first century.
Based upon the recent research on autism and video games, we’ve developed some simple, common-sense strategies useful for parents of children with autism and ADHD concerned about their children’s video game use:
l.) Set limits. Recognize as early as possible that clear limits need to be set and maintained for the use of video games during the week and during vacation time for many children with autism and ADHD. The sooner these limits are set, the more effective they are likely to be. Parents may need to be more rigid in this type of limit setting for this population of children.
2.) Keep it out of the bedroom. A very simple and useful technique is to restrict all digital-media access to public areas in the home. Realistically, this may be more difficult with teenagers (who are likely to have mobile and cell phone access), but given that many children with autism and ADHD are developmentally behind their peers, we suggest keeping this rule in place at least until the age of 14.
3.) Emphasize and expect other forms of play for your child. While video games are a particular lure for children with ADHD and autism, due to their unique needs and disabilities, it is imperative for parents of these children to find alternative activities that they will enjoy. This may require allowing your child to engage in another activity that, as a parent, you might not want to encourage, such as dirt-bike riding, wearing a lot of makeup and jewelry, skateboarding, watching documentary television, learning to use power tools, or doing tricks on BMX bikes. Expecting and emphasizing physical activity and exercise needs to be part of a daily routine. The more a child is engaged in other forms of play, the less time he will have to engage in playing video games.
4.) Be selective. Avoid digital play that involves the types of games that have been most closely identified with problematic use. Behavioral addiction and oppositional behavior may stem from such games. This requires that parents educate themselves on different game genres and offer other types of games as an option to their children. Some data suggests that MMOs and RPGs may not be a good fit for autistic children, but sports and education games may actually help with self-control. We also suggest active games that foster physical activity and social interaction, such as Wii Sports Resort, Kinect Adventures, Kinect Sports and Sports Champions.
Our Series on Autism in the Digital Age:
- What is the Newest Research on Autism and Video Games?
- Video Games and Defiance in Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Understanding Technology and Autism
- Autism and Technology: A Match Made for the 21st Century
- Improving Social Skills in Autism and ADHD
- Family Activities for Autism, ADHD and Digital Media
- What Is the Impact of Video Games on Autism and Attention?