Video Games and Autism: Watch for Overuse

How to set limits and make games positive
Video Games and Autism: Watch for Overuse

Contributor: Thomas Frazier, II, PhD 

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With their rapid-fire action and constant reinforcement — through points and level progress, for example — video games can be more engaging and engrossing than everyday activities.

A  study from the University of Missouri finds this is especially true for boys diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These children spend much more time playing video games than their typically developing peers.

In a study of 150 children, published in Pediatrics, researchers found that boys with an ASD or ADHD had more access to video games and a greater tendency toward problem behavior when playing them. In turn, their attention suffers.

“Don’t see video games as an enemy. See them as an opportunity to build other skills by using them as a reinforcement tool.”


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Thomas Frazier II, PhD

Director, Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health, Center for Autism

A predictable virtual world

In the study, role-playing games — games in which players assume the role of a developing character in a large world — tended to be particularly time-consuming.

I can understand this. What happens in these virtual worlds tends to be predictable. Press buttons, take actions and you get expected results. It is easy for boys with autism to get wrapped up in the consistency and predictability — not to mention the visual appeal.

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However, the real world is not so consistent or predictable. That’s why it’s so important for children with autism to practice social skills. Rather than sitting in front of a screen for too long, children with autism need to be interacting with people, sitting at the dinner table engaging with family and learning social skills in every way possible. The virtual world is no substitute for interaction with real people.

Use video games for good

If you’re a parent, do not react to this research by tossing video games in the trash, especially if your child loves them. Don’t see video games as an enemy. See them as an opportunity to build other skills by using them as a reinforcement tool.

Make video game time — in small chunks so your child does not get too wrapped up — a reward for something positive. Set a schedule, for example, by saying that after a child spends an hour engaging with family, he or she can play a video game for an appropriate amount of time, such as 15–30 minutes.

Reinforcement and rewards often work wonders in children with autism, so you can make sure their love of video games is helpful rather than harmful.

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