Why Gaming can be Beneficial for Autistic Children
As the parent of an autistic child, I am always on the lookout for activities that will help stimulate and engage my son. He is now really into gaming on his switch. This interest was minecraft. He has now moved onto Fortnite. While many people frown upon excessive screen time and video game playing, for autistic children they can provide unique benefits. As parents we have discussed and wrestled with ourselves about allowing too much screen time, whether his new special interest is taking over and other concerns. To counteract the negative views of screen time put forward my the media I have written this post mainly to get my own thoughts in order. Here are a few reasons I will try and fully support my son’s gaming habit:
The Benefits of Gaming
Games teach problem-solving skills. Many popular games like Minecraft and Roblox require strategic thinking to gather resources, build structures, and complete objectives. For autistic children who may struggle with complex problem solving, executive functioning and engaging with learning in traditional ways, games provide fun, low-pressure ways to strengthen these skills that hopefully can apply to real world situations in the future.
Games create opportunities for social interaction. Multiplayer games in particular give autistic children a chance to interact with other kids and form connections. My son has formed friendships with other players that he talks and collaborates with regularly. While he may feel awkward interacting in person, the buffer of the game makes conversation and teamwork feel much more natural for him.
Games stimulate the brain. Fast-paced action games that require hand-eye coordination, quick decision making, and adaptation to changing conditions have been shown to stimulate the release of dopamine and strengthen neural connections in the brain. For autistic children who crave mental stimulation, games can provide an engaging source of cognitive challenge and reward.
Gaming: Inspiring New Interests and Talents
Games inspire new interests and talents. Many autistic children develop intense interests in certain gaming titles, characters, or stories which can lead to greater passions and talents. My son has become obsessed with the game Fortnite, watching videos online, drawing the characters, learning to do intricate dances from the game. His gaming interest has inspired his creativity in other areas of life.
Games reduce anxiety and improve mood. The immersive quality of video games has a calming, mood-boosting effect for many with autism. During stressful times, a gaming session can help shift my son’s mind from anxious thoughts, providing a sense of control and competence. The escapism of games leads to improved happiness and self-esteem.
While video games are often criticized and blamed for increased aggression or lack of social skills, for autistic children they seem to have the opposite effect. With moderation and parental involvement, games provide mental, social and emotional benefits for kids on the autism spectrum. So the next time you see an autistic child deeply engaged in their game, don’t judge—their brain and well-being will thank you!
What if the Interest Becomes Too Much?
Here are some tips for handling an autistic child who becomes obsessed with video games:
- Set clear limits around screen time and gaming. While video games can provide benefits in moderation, too much of a good thing can be problematic. Set limits to ensure your child still engages in exercise, social interaction, and other activities.
- Monitor the games your child plays. Make sure the games are age-appropriate and that your child is not engaging in addictive in-app purchases or messaging with strangers. Some games are designed specifically for children on the autism spectrum.
- Encourage your child’s interests outside of gaming. While their gaming passion may inspire creativity, help them pursue other hobbies, social activities, and learning opportunities away from the screen. Engage them in conversations about their other interests and strengths.
- Ensure gaming does not interfere with sleep or daily tasks. Set a curfew for technology use before bedtime and set clear rules that chores and responsibilities must be completed before gaming sessions. Lack of sleep or dropping grades are signs that gaming is becoming a problem.
- Praise your child for non-gaming achievements and social interaction. Provide your child positive reinforcement for healthy behaviors and interactions that do not involve video games. Focus on rewarding balance and moderation.
- Set a good example with your own technology use. Limit your screen time, put away devices at mealtimes, and engage in hobbies and social interaction yourself. Model the kind of balance you want to see from your child.
- Seek professional help if needed. If your child’s gaming becomes an addiction or obsession that interferes with daily life, talk to their doctor. Therapy and counseling may help address underlying issues fueling the unhealthy fixation on video games. The earlier obsessive gaming is addressed, the better.
With patience, limits and the right support system, an autistic child’s interest in gaming can be balanced for maximum benefit. The key is encouraging moderation and praising your child’s healthy interests and achievements both on and off-screen.
What does the research say about Autism and Video Games?
There is some research on autism and gaming. Some of the findings include:
- Many autistic individuals engage in video game play. Gaming interests seem to be higher in autistic children and adults compared to neurotypical populations. This may be because games provide structure, predictable rules, and a special interest area that many autistic individuals find engaging.
- Action-based video games in particular seem to be popular with autistic gamers. This may be because these games are highly visual and reward quick thinking and problem-solving. They can also be played alone or with others, depending on the individual’s social preferences.
- Gaming may improve some skills in autistic individuals, such as visual-spatial skills, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility. However, excessive gaming could also potentially lead to problems with social isolation and less time spent on other developmentally important activities.
- Multiplayer online games have the potential to provide social benefits for autistic gamers. Some research shows autistic gamers feel less social anxiety and more social connectedness when interacting with others through the medium of an online game. However, risks of online bullying and negative social experiences are also present.
- Virtual reality and augmented reality gaming may provide opportunities for autistic individuals to practice social and life skills in simulated environments. Some research is exploring the potential benefits of VR and AR for autism education and therapy.
- Family-based video game play may provide an opportunity for shared enjoyment and bonding between autistic children and their parents or siblings. This could benefit family relationships and the well-being of autistic individuals.
What are the risks?
Some potential risks of excessive video game playing for autistic individuals include:
- Social isolation. Spending too much time gaming can lead to less time engaging in social interaction and relationships. This is a particular risk for autistic people who already face challenges with social skills and connection.
- Lack of physical activity. Excessive gaming is associated with sedentary behavior and less time spent exercising or engaging in physical play. This can have negative health effects and impact motor skills development.
- Sleep problems. The stimulation from playing video games before bed can make it harder to fall asleep. This can lead to chronic sleep deprivation and fatigue.
- Anxiety and depression. Although gaming may temporarily decrease anxiety and boost mood, excessive long-term use is linked to increased risks of anxiety, depression, and poorer emotional well-being.
- Aggression. Some research shows a link between playing violent video games and increased aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This risk may be higher for autistic individuals who are already prone to emotional and behavioral challenges.
- Poor time management. Excessive gaming can lead to problems limiting play and transitioning to other life tasks like schoolwork, jobs, social plans, and family activities. This may be more pronounced in autistic youth and adults.
- Addiction. For some autistic gamers, excessive use of video games may become an addiction or compulsion that is difficult to break. This can have significant negative life impacts and may require treatment to address.
- Sensory issues. Certain features of video games like loud noises, bright lights and colors, may exacerbate sensory sensitivities and overwhelm autistic individuals. Prolonged exposure could lead to more severe sensory challenges over time.
While gaming may have benefits when balanced, too much video game play poses risks to the health, well-being, relationships, and development of children. Moderation and close monitoring of screen time and gaming behaviours is recommended.
Many autistic individuals engage in video game play:
Mazurek, M. O., & Wenstrup, C. (2013). Television, video game and social media use among children with ASD and typically developing siblings. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(6), 1258-1271. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1659-9
Action-based video games in particular seem to be popular:
Engelhardt, C. R., & Mazurek, M. O. (2020). Video game access, ownership, and time spent gaming in children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 24(3), 710-720. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319891715
Gaming may improve some skills but can lead to problems:
Mazurek, M. O., Shattuck, P. T., Wagner, M., & Cooper, B. P. (2012). Prevalence and correlates of screen-based media use among youths with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(8), 1757–1767. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1413-8
Multiplayer online games have the potential for social benefits:
Kuo, M. H., Orsmond, G. I., Cohn, E. S., & Coster, W. J. (2013). Friendship characteristics and activity patterns of adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 17(4), 481-500. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361311416380
VR and AR may provide opportunities to practice skills:
Newbutt, N., Sung, C., Kuo, H. J., Leahy, M. J., Lin, C. C., & Tong, B. (2016). Brief report: A pilot study of the use of a virtual reality headset in autism populations. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(9), 3166-3176. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-016-2829-2
Family-based video game play may benefit family relationships:
Autism Focused Intervention Resources & Modules (AFIRM). (n.d.). Using Video Games in Intervention for Children with ASD. https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/using-video-games-intervention-children-asd