Parents of children who are diagnosed with autism (ASD) may have observed them becoming obsessed with video games or technology. Children affected by autism can easily get stuck playing a particular video game, become obsessed with online games such as Fortnite or Roblox, or spend excessive amounts of time online. Even children who have very mild forms of ASD can have a difficult time putting aside their video games or switching off their computers when it’s time to engage in other activities.
The first reaction of some parents of children with ASD who spend too much time with technology is to set strict limits on when and how they access these digital toys. While some limits may of course be necessary, it’s important to remember that many children with ASD who are withdrawn and isolated in social relationships find that digital-media use is one of the few things that brings them pleasure and connects them to the outside world.
Other parents of ASD children may be reluctant to take technology away from them, even when they know that it is interfering with other important aspects of their lives. While some simply do not want to take away such an effective source of solace from the children, others may be avoiding the fierce arguments and conflicts that arise when they try to get their children to moderate their technology use.
While it may be tempting either to take away the offending technologies altogether or to give in and let children have unrestricted access to them, the best plan is usually to develop a balanced strategy that modifies children’s obsession into a compelling interest that can improve some of the critical-thinking and social skills they struggle with the most.
In addition to standard strategies for supervising video-game and Internet use such as having technology in public areas, setting shutdown times in the evenings, monitoring appropriate content, and prioritizing schoolwork over video-game play, there are many specific approaches that may help parents balance their children’s intense interests. Here are a few ideas to help you find that balance.
- Make time for other things! This may need to be rule number one in your household if your children are obsessed with playing video games or going online. While you may choose to let them spend more time involved in digital activities than you would like, make that contingent on them doing other things on a daily basis. This could include physical activities and exercise; being outdoors; reading; playing board games; engaging in hobbies such as cooking, doing art, shopping, or making music; or pursuing an interest in a popular topic such as military history, a specific sport, animals, or movies.
- Transform game interests into real-world interests. Rather than allowing children to become obsessed with an online experience or video game, help them to take this area of interest and move it outside of the game. For example, if children are stuck in playing war games, help them to expand their interest into the broader realm of history. Take them on trips to historical places, encourage them to read about a topic such as the Civil War, or watch movies or documentaries with them for further expansion of their interest and to provide them with opportunities for having healthy discussions about it.
- Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is a great deal of evidence that technologies can be extremely useful in helping children with Autism Spectrum Disorder improve communication skills, engage in social relationships, develop a better understanding of facial expressions, and improve problem-solving skills. Learn about those video games and technologies that practice skills to help children.
- Start early. Begin setting limits on children’s use of digital technology at a very young if your children have been diagnosed with ASD or if you suspect they have some form of it. Do not let them get to the point where they are spending an inordinate amount of time with these activities in relationship to other physical, social, and family activities.
- Monitor your own involvement with digital technology. This is particularly important when you use technologies that are solitary, such as searching the Internet, playing games on your phone, sending emails, or using social media. The more of these isolating technologies that you display as a parent, the more you are modeling this type of behavior for your children.
- Make many of your home-based digital technologies social or interactive. Insist that your children generally play multiplayer games. If they are involved in online multiplayer games, insist that they try to do so in conjunction with a friend from school and have family game nights on a regular basis where you use multiplayer games.