Autism and Video Games

As if parents weren’t concerned enough about their child’s video game playing, new research shows that children and teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are even more likely than their peers to develop problematic gaming habits, according to a study appearing in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders and a similar study published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Study author Micah Mazurek, an assistant professor of health psychology and a clinical child psychologist at the University of Missouri, said that problematic behaviors may include trouble quitting a video game, being intensely preoccupied with video games, having strong negative emotional reactions to stopping game play, and playing games at the expense of other activities.

"Children with ASD may be attracted to video games because they can be rewarding, visually engaging, and do not require face-to-face communication or social interaction,” Mazurek said in a press release. “Parents need to be aware that, although video games are especially reinforcing for children with ASD, children with ASD may have problems disengaging."

A Closer Look at Game Playing Behavior

Mazurek and her team studied screen-based media use in more than 200 children with ASD and their 179 typically developing siblings. They found that kids with ASD spent more time playing video games and less time on social media. Children with ASD also spent more time watching TV and playing video games than participating in sports and social activities.

A similar study of more than 160 boys found that problematic video game use was also associated with oppositional behaviors, such as refusing to follow directions and engaging in arguments.

“In these studies, we were interested not only in how many hours per day children play video games, but also in the nature of their game play patterns,” Mazurek said in an interview with Healthline. “We found that children with autism spectrum disorders spent more hours per day playing video games, and that they had higher scores on a measure of problematic, or ‘addictive,’ game play than typically developing children.

“These patterns of play can be especially detrimental for children with autism, given that they already face challenges in social participation and other activities,” Mazurek said.

Video Games and Future Screen-based Therapies

While these studies highlight the negative effects of video game play on children with ASD, Mazurek said her research also provides another, more positive insight.

“I think clinicians and researchers should approach this issue creatively in order to capitalize upon children’s interests in these technologies,” she said. “In fact, there are a number of researchers who are developing new virtual-reality and game-based interventions to teach and reinforce positive communication and social skills in a way that is especially engaging for children with autism. Other labs are examining the use of ‘exergaming’ to increase physical activity and reduce repetitive behaviors for children with autism.”

However, because these studies were cross-sectional, Mazurek said her team was not able to prove that video game play causes negative behaviors, and that further research is needed before an effective screen-based therapy can be developed.

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