Autism & Screen Time

OPhoto: Child looking at a tabletne thing medical science in Houston and around the world does know about autism is that the brain structure is unique. That’s important information to have because it means certain things affect kids on the spectrum differently and one of them is screen time. Pediatricians warn all parents to monitor and control how much time a child spends in front of the TV or computer, but the autism brain is sensitive to hyperarousal, making it more of a concern. If your child has autism, then screen time management is critical.

Autism and Technology

There is a real upside to allowing kids on the spectrum to enjoy time playing games or watching a favorite show. Electronic play offers repetitive patterns and uses predictable interfaces, so these kids are drawn to it. The high stimulation factor makes it ideal for individuals that are not always excited by face to face interactions, too.

The electronic diversion is a common tactic for parents because it helps autistic children shut out other, more upsetting, things going on in the room. A study conducted by Washington University researcher Dr. Paul Shattuck found that children with autism are 41 percent more likely to be a high user of video games and other screen-based entertainment.

The Downside to Screen Stimulation

The things that make this time fun are also why parents need to limit it. Put simply, their brain tends to remain engaged long after the screen time ends. There is clear evidence to suggest that the autistic brain has altered synaptic connections. In other words, it’s wired differently.

Children, in general, are sensitive to the neurological stimulation that comes from watching TV or play a video game. Add to that the neurological differences that come with autism, and electronic activities have a significant impact.

How to Limit Screen Time

Start by understanding what is meant by “screen time.” This covers:

  • Television
  • Computers – desktop, laptop and tablet
  • Handheld devices like a mobile DVD player
  • Video games – TV, computers and handheld consoles
  • Smartphones

It doesn’t really matter what your child is doing on these devices – even social media is considered overstimulation.

Your goal is to set limits by creating a plan and sticking to it. The current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics are:

  • Avoid screen time for children under the age of 18 months. There is some concern about electronic stimulation serving as a trigger for autism, although that theory requires more study.
  • Limit screen time to one hour a day for kids ages 2 to 5
  • Use your judgment of kids over the age of six, but set workable limits and monitor use.

Parents with kids at risk or already diagnosed with autism can follow a similar pattern and make adjustments to meet your child’s specific needs. At least one study shows that boys with autism are especially susceptible to electronics-induced sleep problems, so make the evening before bed family time only.

All parents need to control screen time use for kids, but when your child is autistic, you have special concerns to consider.