Do Video Games Harm Autistic Children or Are They Beneficial?

Video games and harming autistic children

If your kids are anything like my kids, they love video games. So much so that they will even watch other people playing video games on Youtube. (A practice I implore you as parents to monitor, a lot of youtubers are inappropriate. Even the Minecraft Videos are largely filled with adult banter) I often question whether playing video games is good for my children given the fact that they have Autism.

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In fact, this is a question I would be asking whether they had Autism or not. Video game usage and its effects on children and teenagers has been questioned for years. I wanted to know if I was allowing something to happen in my home that would have long term damaging affects on my children. I wanted to know if there was any science backing the conclusions that others come to. I am often told they are bad for my boys and at the same time told they are only kids once, so let them play. Given the difference in opinion between parents I know, I did what I always do when I question something- I researched.

A Little Background on Autism

It is widely reported and common knowledge for parents that kids who are affected by Autism typically have three major areas of difficulty.

Those areas being:
- Communication and Language difficulties
- Social skills deficits
- Repetitive and Inflexible behaviors

Over the last several years the diagnosis of Autism has changed a bit. In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), Autism is redefined into three levels of “Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

Those levels are as follows:
- Level 1: encompassing the highest-functioning kids, or those who need some support but are generally able to function in a regular school setting
- Level 2: encompassing the more moderately functioning children, or the ones that need some level of support but are still able to function on their own, to some degree, in a regular school setting
- Level 3: encompassing the kids who require substantial support and often display “marked to severe deficits” in social, communication and behavioral control skills in all areas of life.

I open with this for a reason. Most research that you find on Autism and video games is broken down based on the levels of Autism, not the popular “high functioning, moderately functioning and severely Autistic.” Some parents are not aware of the changes that were made to the Diagnostic criteria.

So, With That Said, Are Video Games Good for Autistic Children?

The answer gets a little complicated from here. It really depends on how often you are using video games as a distraction and/or reward and what games they are playing. Studies suggest that children, especially boys, with Autism have increased access to problematic games and longer allotted game times throughout the day than their typically developing peers. That is where we as parents come in and must limit screen time and monitor games that we allow played. But what amount of screen time is a good amount of screen time? A study from Andrew Przybylski, a behavioral scientist out of Oxford University, has found that neurotypical children who play console or PC games for an hour or less per day tend to be more social and satisfied with life than kids who don’t play any video games at all. Let’s not get carried away though, I’m not saying you should let your kid play video games all night long.

In fact, the study finds that once a child is spending “three hours or more in front of their system that video games begin to take their toll.” Przybylski found that children playing that much every day are more likely to be “less happy than non-gamers, as well as more likely to have problems with hyperactivity, attention and relating to their peers.” The data could be interpreted to be the same for Autistic children.

The Benefits of Playing Video Games for Autistic Individuals

It is found that children who are diagnosed as Autism level one can readily benefit from popular games and technologies that are being used by their typically developing peers; however, video games can be beneficial to Autistic children and teens on all levels in various ways.

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Social Skills

It is also found that for the children that are diagnosed with Level 1 or 2 Autism, playing popular video games and using technology can be very useful for improving social skills. You see, video games provide kids affected by Autism with an opportunity for “joint attention and shared interests with their peers.” Kids affected by Autism may be unaware of the general social cues of others, yet when they play massively multiplayer online games, like Minecraft or World of Warcraft, they are required to learn the “social customs of the game world.” They are expected to communicate with other players of the game, be it a small talk or a full out strategy to accomplish something in the game itself. They are pushed to be social.

Likewise, it is thought that the intense interest that many kids on the spectrum have in a game such as Minecraft will make a conversation with parents and siblings a more regular routine. This gives parents the opportunity to encourage the child to practice “perspective taking” when discussing the complexities of the game. It is suggested that Kids with more “severe symptoms of Autism can improve communication by using apps such as Autismate and Go Go Games that boost skills such as identifying objects, recognizing patterns, and practicing expressive and receptive language skills.”

Practicing Flexibility and Handling Frustration

Video games also help children and teenagers with Autism to practice being more flexible and able to handle their frustrations more effectively. Kids with Autism are often “inflexible and rigid in their problem-solving, but repetitive and inflexible behaviors are a formula for failure in many popular video games.” Video games by their very nature require flexibility. You must learn from your mistakes and adapt to new challenges to defeat the game. All factors that add in to them practicing being flexible and handling their frustration. Any gamer knows that video games can get frustrating at times. The “motivation stimulated by game play” and the “willingness to persist” in the face of failure help the child or teenager to develop important problem-solving skills.

If you asked Randy Kulman, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids Handling frustration, he’d tell you that “shifting routines and getting stuck are core elements of most popular video games, making them a safe place for children with Autism to expand their capacities to practice transition skills, become comfortable in learning from mistakes, and to expand their range of activities. It is necessary that parents and educators help kids on the Autism Spectrum make connections between their game-based problem solving and real-world skills.”

Motor Skills

Another benefit of Autistic children and teens playing video games is the helpful fine and gross motor skill practice it gives them. Children affected by Autism also “often experience difficulties with fine and gross motor coordination. Video games require players to possess varying degrees of fine motor skills to use a mouse and keyboard, controller or touch screen. Active games that rely upon motion control peripherals like Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect and Nintendo’s Wii consoles can also provide gross motor control practice.”

Video Games Can Increase Motivation

Per Randy Kulman, “Another straightforward and compelling reason to use video games and technology to reach children with Autism” was identified by Christina Whalen. Whalen and her colleagues developed the computer game TeachTown to help children with Autism “improve social, emotional, academic and adaptive skills.” They found that using a computer games increased “motivation and attention when compared with traditional methods of teaching children with Autism.”

It is reported that Whalen’s observations are consistent with what others in the field have reported. Video-game-like tools are effective with children on the spectrum because they are “consistent and predictable, may involve limited social factors, and allow children to take control and determine the pace of the activity. Many kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders display strengths with visual spatial skills that make video game play an area of skill.”

In Conclusion

While it is not “unreasonable to be cautious about the possibility of inattention, behavioral issues and even addiction, there are simple strategies to help children with Autism get the most out of video games and technology without creating more problems at home and at school.” It is a fact that video games offer very powerful tools for teaching “problem-solving, social skills, flexibility in the face of new situations, and even developing motor skills.” As Randy Kulman said, “Raising children on the spectrum can be a challenge, but apps, games and devices can make reaching and teaching children on the Autism Spectrum easier.”

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