Parents and autism therapists have long noticed that many children and teens with autism become deeply engaged with video games and other forms of screen-based media. Indeed, many therapists and “app” makers design autism-friendly video games around this tendency.
Two new studies suggest that caution may be warranted.
"We found that children with ASD spent much more time playing video games than typically developing children, and they are much more likely to develop problematic or addictive patterns of video game play," says University of Missouri psychologist Micah Mazurek, Ph.D.
The lead author of both studies, Dr. Mazurek is a co-investigator at the university’s Thompson Center, one of 17 sites in Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.
In one study, Dr. Mazurek looked at time spent on TV, video games and social media in children ages 8 to 18. She compared the habits of 202 participants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to those of 170 typically developing siblings. Those with ASD spent over 60 percent more time playing video games and watching TV than all non-screen activities combined. Boys with autism spent an average of 2.4 hours a day playing video games. Girls with autism spent an average of 1.8 hours. By contrast, their typically developing brothers spent 1.6 hours playing video games; the sisters, less than an hour. The children with autism spent relatively little time using social media.
Participants also completed the "Problem Video Game Playing Test," which assesses behavioral addiction to video games. Compared to their typically developing siblings, the children and teens with autism had higher levels of problematic, or addictive, video game use. Related behaviors include getting angry when interrupted from games, having trouble stopping game play when necessary and generally spending more time with games than with friends and family.
“Parents need to be aware that, although video games are especially reinforcing for children with ASD, children with ASD may have problems disengaging from these games," Dr. Mazurek says.
In another study, Dr. Mazurek tracked the behavior of 169 boys with ASD. She found an association between excessive video game use and increased oppositional behaviors. Such behaviors include arguing, refusing to follow directions and aggression. However, an association does not prove that one causes the other, Dr. Mazurek cautions. She plans to pursue further study to clarify her findings.
On the positive side, video games show promise for helping individuals with ASD overcome social and communication challenges. “Using screen-based technologies, communication and social skills could be taught and reinforced right away," Dr. Mazurek says. "However, more research is needed to determine whether the skills children with ASD might learn in virtual reality environments would translate into actual social interactions."
“Video games can be useful for teaching social skills and other behaviors,” agrees Autism Speaks Senior Vice President for Scientific Affairs, Andy Shih, Ph.D. “But we need to be sure that technology use is balanced with experience in the real world.”