Dr. Nicole Beurkens
It’s no secret that kids struggle to keep their screen time to a reasonable amount every day without extra supervision and encouragement. This is even more often the case for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In fact, over 50% of children with ASD aged 6-17 exceed the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time recommendation of 2 hours or fewer per day. Issues with overuse and addiction to devices can be an even bigger concern for children and teens on the spectrum than for typically-developing kids.
At the same time, many children and teens with ASD benefit from devices, especially when used for communication, socialization, and educational content. There’s a delicate balance that has to be found between using devices for productive activities like learning, and using them for leisure or avoidance of other life activities. Parents need to be aware of the potential benefits and risks in order to make the best decisions about managing device use for children with ASD.
There’s a delicate balance that has to be found between using devices for productive activities like learning, and using them for leisure or avoidance of other life activities. Let’s take a look at how we can help children on the autism spectrum benefit from the positives of technology and avoid common screen time problems.
What kind of screen time is okay for kids with ASD?
Identifying which types of screen time activities benefit your child is the first step in improving their device usage. For kids with ASD, electronics can be an excellent option for improving or providing an alternative to verbal communication. Some kids also find that videos or games can help them process social interactions and experiences at their own pace, which improves their social skills in real life settings. Spending screen time this way has a very different impact on a child as compared to playing video games or watching TV. Communication and socialization focused activities help them to learn and grow, whereas TV, video games, and social media (when used excessively) do the opposite. When considering the amount of screen time to allow each day it’s important to remember that how a child spends time on devices should weigh heavily in this decision.
Of course, this still doesn’t mean we should allow children to spend unlimited amounts of time in front of a screen, even when it’s learning-focused. Even these beneficial activities need to be done in moderation. However, knowing which activities have a positive and negative impact on your child helps you set the right limits on screen time, and create a schedule or plan for your child that helps them take advantage of their devices without going overboard.
What device use is most problematic for children with ASD?
As much as it’s important to recognize all of the amazing things electronics can do for our kids, we also have to avoid falling into bad habits that can end up creating more problems for them in the long run. In fact, existing research is quite clear on the risks of digital device use for children, ranging from privacy issues to obesity and reduced sleep quality. Children and teens with ASD can be particularly susceptible to the negative effects of excess or uncontrolled screen time.
3 common digital mistakes parents of children with ASD make
- Letting your kids have screen time before bed. Screen time before bed is clearly linked to reduced sleep quality in both children and adults. Using devices reduces the amount of melatonin produced by the brain, which is an important hormone for sleep, and over stimulates the brain. Both of these effects make it really difficult to sleep without taking a good break from electronics first. This is even more important for children with ASD, as they already tend to have significantly greater sleep problems than children not on the spectrum.
- Leaving your kids in front of the TV while you get dinner ready, fold some laundry, or just want some quiet time. Doing this on a regular basis can become a problem. It takes away from their time to be creative, help around the house, or connect with each other. Remember that it’s good to be bored sometimes, and we don’t always have to spoon-feed our kids activities to do at all hours of the day, even though they may prefer that. For children with ASD this is very important, as they tend to require more practice and guidance with daily living tasks, communicating with others, and learning to play than children without this condition.
- Having no clue what our kids are watching. Monitoring what kids are watching or playing on their devices is also a very important part of parenting in the digital age. It’s our responsibility to make sure they aren’t playing inappropriate games or watching inappropriate content online to protect them and keep them safe. Children with ASD can be more vulnerable to scams or bullying online, as well as inadvertently accessing inappropriate content, so it’s especially important to provide protection for them in their online activities. There are a variety of easy-to-use apps that you can put right on your phone that allow you to block certain types of content, set daily usage limits for your kids, and more. I use and recommend Qustodio for exactly this purpose, and it has worked wonders for many families at my clinic who have children with and without autism!
3 tips to help children with ASD balance their screen time
The most important thing to remember is that even beneficial screen time activities can be problematic if not balanced with time spent in other activities and interactions. Here are a few helpful tips for finding and keeping the right balance when a child has ASD:
1. Come up with a plan and implement it consistently
One of the easiest ways to start working towards a healthy balance of screen time and other activities is to plan out when your kids are allowed to use their electronics. For children on the spectrum it’s often best to lay out this plan clearly and stick to it consistently, as change can be more difficult for these kids to handle. Create clear boundaries around when and where they can access devices, how they can be used, and what the time limits are. Involve them in coming up with the plan if appropriate given their age and developmental level.
2. Take a break from screens before bed
The best way to avoid sleep-related issues is to set aside a certain amount of time before bed for non-electronic activities. It’s best to allow at least an hour for the brain to start producing melatonin and calming down before bed. Create a bedtime routine that involves activities like reading a book or puzzle, listening to a mindfulness or sleep story, taking a warm bath, etc. during that time instead of having your child use devices right up until they fall asleep.
3. Engage in activities with your child
It’s so tempting to let kids go on their devices while we complete chores around the house, especially if they are resistive to helping with those activities. But children on the spectrum need to be routinely engaged in everyday life activities in order to learn valuable life, communication, and relationship skills. Try slowly introducing them to the tasks you’re doing, even if they just watch at first, and eventually they can take a role in helping. This process may take time, but it will be well worth it in the end as they develop better social skills and healthy habits, as well as finding balance between screen time and real world activities.
While it may not feel easy, helping children with ASD achieve a healthy balance between productive screen time and non-screen time activities is critical for their development and well-being. We want to see our children happy, so it can be tough to face the backlash when we start to limit one of the few things they seem to enjoy. However, we have to remember that by focusing on the beneficial aspects of screen time, and reducing the problematic ones, we are helping children on the spectrum build better skills and healthier habits for a lifetime.
Further reading and resources
- Are your kids getting enough sleep? (Dr. Nicole Beurkens)
- Let’s celebrate the positive side of tech! (Qustodio)
- How to keep your kid’s online searches safe (Qustodio)
- 25 awesome brain breaks for kids (Dr. Nicole Beurkens)
- Signs children may be experiencing online bullying – and what to do if they are (Lauren Seager-Smith, Kidscape)