Setting Limits: Should Children with ADHD or Autism Play Video Games?

In my work as a child clinical psychologist I have observed the ever-changing interests and motivations of children — especially children with ADHD or autism –over the past 25 years, from the Star Wars phenomenon, to skateboarding, Pokemon, Harry Potter, and Minecraft. And while digital technology is constantly evolving, one thing that has not changed is children’s desire to engage with it — from Mario games on the original Nintendo, to enthusiasm for social networking and texting, to the recent Instagram craze.

Children’s intense interest in these technologies has changed my own practice as a clinical psychologist and motivated me to learn as much as possible about how they use these technologies and to look for ways to make them useful and productive mechanisms in their lives. I have become particularly interested in how children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders use video games and other screen-based technology and made it my mission to examine ways that digital media may help them to do better in school and improve the skills necessary for being successful in their daily lives.

One thing is certain: these technologies are not going away. I encounter many parents who want to shelter their children from video games and social media. For parents of children with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), this is an understandable reaction. A much higher percentage of these children affected by ADHD and ASD can become overly involved or perseverate with their interests with these technologies. In addition to anecdotal evidence from clinicians and parent reports, there is much research that demonstrates how some children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders may spend more time on the Web and playing computer games than typically-developing peers, and how they have far more difficulty in disengaging from these technologies. Should children with ADHD or autism play video games?

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In my conversations with parents whose children spend far too much time with video games and other screen-based technologies, I find that I need to do more than tell them how to make their use of these technologies more productive. For children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders to whom usage of technology is a major source of satisfaction, their overwhelming desire for digital media can be a source of conflict and a major concern for their parents.

I do not believe that totally restricting a child or adolescent from technology is the answer. Not only is there evidence that children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders derive a great deal of satisfaction from their involvement in technology, but research suggests that it improves their self-esteem, enhances their focus and learning, and may improve social and communication skills in children who have difficulty in these areas. These technologies serve as a source of shared interests with their peers, often giving children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders something to talk about with their peers when they may have little else in common with them. Knowledge of video games and other digital technologies is also a key 21st Century skill, providing kids with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders a route to engaging as they grow into adulthood and allow them to find productive employment.

Nonetheless, when children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders show signs of over-involvement with or addiction to technology, setting effective limits is necessary for families. Check out the LearningWorks for Kids Play Diet to see how you can make the most of your child’s recreational time while still allowing them to play the video games they love and learn from, and get involved and help your child benefit from their video game play time with our Playbooks and app reviews. Look for later posts in this series to provide clear strategies for setting effective limits on technology use for children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders as well as other children who display similar concerns.

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2 thoughts on “Setting Limits: Should Children with ADHD or Autism Play Video Games?

  1. I’m concerned about my 13yr old Grandson who has autism, he spends a lot of time in his bedroom playing his X-Box, is this good for him?

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