Five Answers about Screen Time for Kids with ADHD or ASD

Screen Time for Kids with ADHD

Parents of kids affected by Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are often confused by advice given to them about managing their kids’ screen time. On the one hand, their kids often appear to be highly engaged, happy, and developing an expertise in their game play and screen time. Conversely, they also struggle to stop playing or transition to other activities or appear to become highly irritable after screen time. This is even more confusing during the COVID-19 quarantine, when most kids are stuck inside, confined to their home without their normal array of in-school and extracurricular activities to keep them busy. Family harmony can be rare if parents and children with ADHD or ASD are home together 24/7. 

Parents may wish to relieve some of this tension by letting their kids with ADHD and ASD have more screen time than usual. I would support this in the short term, with VERY clear caveats that it is a temporary change. While it may be more difficult to return to normal screen time expectations with these kids since they often struggle with transitions, this is the best strategy to cope with current circumstances

Here are five additional answers to questions that parents of kids with ADHD and ASD have been asking about screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic:

How does the reported increase in screen time during the quarantine affect children with autism and ADHD? 

Each child affected by autism and ADHD is unique. By definition, we describe kids affected by autism on a “spectrum” that has many variations in symptoms and severity. Similarly, a combination of the listed ADHD symptoms seen in the DSM-V indicates that there could be as many as 250,000 presentations of ADHD. Therefore these children do not have a specific way of reacting to an increase in screen time. However, we know that these children benefit from engaging in regular exercise, being outdoors, and participating in hands-on play. To the degree that an excess of screen time takes away from these activities, we might expect some negative effects. It is very common to hear parents describe their kids affected by ADHD and autism as having difficulty with transitions and displaying increased irritability when they spend too much time on screens.

What can parents of kids with ADHD and ASD do to prevent the overuse of screens?   

It is more difficult than ever to prevent the overuse of screens during the quarantine, when kids and adults are generally stuck inside. However, there are tried-and-true methods to combat this, starting with increasing other activities. I advise parents to work even more diligently in maintaining a healthy Play Diet for their children, which requires the creation of expectations that children engage in physical, social, creative, and unstructured play. A healthy and balanced Play Diet is a simple but powerful strategy because it puts the focus on involvement in other forms of play. Parents need to put in the time, effort, money, and enthusiasm to get kids away from screens and can do so with a healthy Play Diet.

Why might kids with ADHD and ASD have difficulty in keeping attention to screen-based learning when they usually love to play on screens?

I have heard from parents and educators that many kids with learning issues are struggling with online learning. This may seem counterintuitive, in that anecdotal reports and recent research indicate that kids with attention, learning, and social-communication disorders love playing video games or watching television, sometimes to the point of addiction. These children may have great difficulty in transitioning away from screens, often displaying highly irritable and angry behavior when forced to do so. Perhaps most noteworthy is that parents notice their children’s intense engagement with the screen. It can be difficult to get these kids to shift their focus away from a screen without either shutting off the electronics or standing between their face and the screen. 

  • However, with the online homeschooling that is the norm during the COVID1- quarantine, many parents of kids with ADHD and ASD are reporting difficulty with keeping their kids’ attention to screen-based learning. I believe that the content, presentation, and level of stimulation of most remote learning programs being used during this time do not engage these children in a similar fashion to typical video games, YouTube videos, or television programming. This suggests that educators need to examine the tools they are using for online learning with this population of children.

    Interestingly, it may not be the screen-based nature of instruction that is causing difficulty for kids with ADHD and ASD. Previous research using what we would now call primitive applications such as Math Blaster indicates that kids with ADHD often perform better on computer-assisted learning than in a traditional classroom. Parents routinely observe kids with learning issues spending more time and effort on simple math and reading phone apps than they do on their homework. I suspect that a combination of the lack of individualized attention, the length of instruction, and the nature of the online learning materials may not be well suited to the needs of many kids with ADHD and ASD.

    What are some of the tools parents can use at home to make remote learning a more fun and efficient experience for their kids affected by ADHD or ASD?

    While the content of remote learning programs may not be a great fit for many kids affected with ADHD or ASD, parents may be able to intervene. In an ideal home-based online teaching program, a parent or instructor would be available to guide and provide feedback to the student. This structure would benefit most kids but is necessary for kids with ADHD and ASD. When parents are unavailable, it might be useful to focus on teaching kids executive-functioning skills directly so that they become better at self-management. By teaching executive-functioning and social-emotional learning skills, we also help these kids to develop problem-solving capacities for self-direction to use effectively in the classroom. Having these skills may help them to remain more focused in their work. 

    While many of the SEL and executive-functioning training programs are designed for traditional classroom use, our newest program, LW4K LIVE, is a small group, video-game-based, online executive-functioning training program that is available through Outschool.com. We use games such as Minecraft, Fortnite, and a variety of shorter games to teach children executive-functioning skills. LearningWorks for Kids instructors engage small groups of kids in projects that require the use of specific executive functions or social-emotional learning skills. The goal is to make game-based learning into real-world skills by using strategic teaching and generalization strategies. This type of online teaching has the advantage of being a small group that uses a variety of engaging games and technology to keep kids focused and build skills.  

    With educators no longer physically present, are children with ADHD and ASD more susceptible to being distracted, and what can we do to compensate?

    Without additional support from parents or aides, classroom teachers will not have access to the modifications and instructional strategies used in the classroom. While kids who are given movement breaks in the classroom may take the same movement breaks at home, getting them to return to their desks may be far more difficult. It’s also more difficult for teachers to give individualized instruction online to a child. Even if they are able to use the technical capabilities of video conferencing to have a one-on-one conversation, they can easily lose track of what everyone else in the classroom is doing.

    Children with ADHD and ASD frequently have difficulty attending to activities that do not inherently interest them. Thought leaders on the topic of ADHD often refer to it as a disorder of intention rather than attention, suggesting that brain mechanisms and neurobiology underlie the capacity to maintain effort and interest on certain tasks. In contrast, kids with ADHD and ASD can display an intense focus on selected activities, most notably screen-based media. This suggests that tailoring online teaching to a child’s interests is even more important in remote education of children with ADHD and ASD.

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