For any parent, it can be difficult to establish rules regarding screen time and video game play for their children. On one hand, video games can encourage problem-solving skills, have been linked to increased creativity and imagination, and can be a great source of socialization for both children and adults alike. On the other hand, video games can seem like a distraction from the “real world” to parents who grew up in simpler times; and especially for adolescents with autism, gaming can become a source of addiction.
It has been found that 41.4% of adolescents with autism spend the majority of their free time gaming, whereas only 18% of their neurotypical peers can say the same. There are a number of reasons for this. For example, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may be less likely to want to participate in team sports or clubs after school. Because every sport or club meeting is a social event, some children with ASD may find them extremely exhausting. Some children may also find that it is easier to make friends online, either through voice channels or via messaging back and forth. Within a virtual setting, children need not worry about making eye contact or assessing nonverbal body language. It is also much easier to interact and converse with peers when there is a clear task at hand, like building a fortress in Minecraft, for example.
For parents of children with ASD who are struggling to determine how much time, if any, their child should be spending on video games, we laid out a list of pros and cons for you. As is the case with many issues regarding parenting, there is no short answer, and, in fact, it all depends on the needs of the child.
Video games can be a huge source of stress relief for your child
For a child with autism, a lot of time can be spent in “defense mode”. This means that sensory information, such as sounds, visual cues, and feelings within the body take the forefront of the mind, with emotional responses to those stimuli (like anxiety, anger, and depression) often feeling unmanageable, or out of control. After a long day, it is important for children to have a safe, non-judgemental space in which they can decompress, and this can make a critical difference in the mental health of a growing adolescent. Video games feel especially safe for people with autism because they are completely controllable. Anything from the landscapes to character design to sound setups can be altered within the parameters of a game, and can help to make a person who so often feels out of control feel grounded in the present moment.
Video games can be a great source of family bonding time
As with any hobby or “obsession” your child may have, a great way to initiate bonding is by getting a little into it yourself. Playing video games with your child can become a wonderful weekly routine you both look forward to, and can be the source of many great conversations. This is also an effective strategy for limiting gameplay: instead of ripping away the video games when it’s “time to do something else,” which can often cause meltdowns and build resentment, sit down with your child and ask to play the last few rounds with them. Over time, this practice makes your child feel as if they’re in your world, and that you’re in theirs. Essentially, it shows them that in your company, there is a safe, non-judgemental space as well. You may find that taking this extra time to learn about the things your child likes can lead to a decreased need to “escape”, or in this case, a decrease in video game usage altogether. If you have extended family or friends making visits to your house, gaming can also be an amazing way for your child to connect with them, as well.
Video games can help your child form new friendships
For children who may spend less time conversing face-to-face with peers, online gaming is a great way to facilitate interaction. Most games have some sort of goal to be accomplished, which makes for an easy subject of conversation. Games that require teamwork can provide a safe space to work in a group without the heavy social demands of other team-based activities, such as organized sports. Children can also play/talk with friends who might live far away, or meet new friends through online gaming communities. Even outside of the living room, video games can be discussed with others to form friendships and serve as an acceptable topic of conversation.
Children can be easily “sucked away” into the gaming world
Because children with ASD have an increased susceptibility to addiction when it comes to video game usage, experts have found that the best way to maximize the benefits of video games is to simply play alongside them, or use gaming to foster offline relationships (family, friends) rather than online ones. While online friends can, in many cases, be just as wonderful as friends made in real life, for those with ASD it is important to maintain a healthy balance.
It can be difficult to set a time constraint
For many people with autism, gaming is considered a hobby– not just a way to pass the time. For this reason, it can be difficult to negotiate a time constraint with a child who genuinely sees their video game console or PC as a means to cope (because often, it is). The best course of action, we’ve found, is to create a Behavior Contract with your child. This is a written agreement between parent and child that outlines a specific behavior, a set time by which it must be completed each day, and a resulting consequence (positive or negative) depending on compliance. A document like this is most helpful when your child plays a role in writing it alongside you (See Writing A Behavior Contract Here). Children with ASD usually prefer highly specific guidelines for behavior and predictable outcomes rather than vague rules and consequences.
Not all games are created equal
In a study from the University of Missouri that examined the effects of video game usage on the behaviors of boys with ASD between the ages of 8 and 18, it was found that the greatest predictor of oppositional defiant behavior was the genre of game being played, rather than the time spent playing it. The study also aimed to observe whether hyperactivity and inattention were also related to video game usage. Results found that there was no significant difference in the behaviors of boys who preferred to play “action” genre games (Like Lego Star Wars, for example), “platform” games (e.g. Super Mario Brothers; involves running, jumping and climbing) and “shooter” style games. However, researchers did find that boys who preferred to spend their time playing “role-playing” games (e.g. Skyrim, World of Warcraft, and Pokémon) were significantly more likely to exhibit oppositional behaviors than boys who preferred other genres. Educational and sports games, on the other hand, were a predictor of decreased oppositional behavior, and boys who played sports games were found to exhibit less hyperactivity. Contrary to the belief that violence in video games is a predictor of oppositional behaviors and inattention, there was no link found between games that featured more violent game play and antisocial behaviors. Nevertheless, parents should use their best judgement and guide their child towards games that align with the family’s values.
Which Video Games are Most Beneficial for Autistic Children and Teens?
- Otsimo Special Education (app): While not necessarily a typical video game, this app is great for children who are just beginning to learn language skills, social skills, or self-care, regardless of diagnosis. The app requires parents to first fill out an evaluation of their child, fine-tuning the curriculum based on specific needs and age range. It’s then organized into two sections: one for kids to play games, and one for parents to see data on activities.
- Minecraft: Best for solo play or for playing with friends in real life; involves exploring worlds, building and mining (recommended for ages 8 and up).
- Autcraft: An online Minecraft server designed for children with autism with administrators to stop bullying as well as plug-ins to stop destruction of other people’s properties (recommended for ages 8 and up).
- The Sims 4: An incredibly helpful game for learning emotions and financial responsibility (recommended for ages 12 and up).