Video Games: Friend or Foe for Autism?

Autistic children play video games more than siblings but spend less time socializing

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) One of the key symptoms of autism is difficulty dealing with most social situations. Autistic children therefore often seek out activities by themselves, such as playing video games.

A recent study found that autistic children spent more time playing video games than their typically developing siblings.

The autistic children also showed more problematic video game playing behaviors. Their behaviors were more addictive and may have caused them extra stress.

The children with autism spent about the same amount of time watching TV as their siblings. But they spent much less time with social media and socializing with friends.

"Ask your pediatrician about activities for autistic children."

The study, led by Micah O. Mazurek, PhD, of the University of Missouri Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, looked at video game use, leisure time and screen time among children with autism.

The authors surveyed the parents of 202 children and teens with autism about the children's use of video games and television.

These responses were compared to the parents' answers about the video game use and TV time of 179 siblings of the autistic children.

Among the autistic children in the study, 54 percent were diagnosed with autism, 27 percent were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and 17 percent were diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD NOS).

The researchers found that TV viewing time was similar among the autistic kids and their typically developing siblings.

The autistic children watched an average 1.9 hours of TV on weekdays, compared to 1.7 hours for their siblings. On weekends, autistic children watched an average 3.1 hours a day, compared to 2.7 hours watched by their siblings.

However, the researchers found that the autistic children spent more time overall on screen-related activities than on non-screen-related activities, like reading, doing homework, spending time with friends or playing sports.

Children with autism spent an average of 4.5 hours a day on screen-based activities, compared to 2.8 average hours a day on all the other activities combined.

Much of this extra screen time was spent on video games. Autistic children spent an average two hours per weekday and 3.1 hours each weekend day playing video games.

Meanwhile, their typically developing siblings spent an average 1.2 hours each weekday and 1.7 hours each weekend day playing video games.

The autistic children also spent much less time socializing with friends. Boys with autism spent 0.4 hours a day with friends, compared to 1.8 hours daily among their typically developing brothers. Autistic girls spent 0.2 hours a day with friends, compared to 1.7 hours a day for their typically developing sisters.

The researchers also gave the parents questionnaires that specifically measured the extent to which video game playing among their children was "problematic."

Problematic video game play behaviors refer to addictive behaviors, such as being unable to stop playing, losing sleep to play, lying about or trying to hide video game playing or becoming irritable or aggressive if interrupted while playing.

The researchers found that both boys and girls with autism had moderately higher scores on the problematic video game assessment.

"Among the most commonly reported problems were spending more time playing video games than with friends or family, thinking life would be boring without video games, thinking about video games even when not playing, feeling upset when not able to play, looking forward to the next gaming session and having trouble disengaging or stopping him/herself from playing," the authors wrote.

The authors said these results suggest that video game playing may become too much of a preoccupation for autistic children and/or may cause them additional distress.

"Given their tendency to engage in restricted and repetitive patterns of activity, children with ASD may be at particular risk for developing problematic, or addictive, game play patterns," the researchers wrote.

However, more research is necessary to understand better how video game playing affects autistic children, the authors wrote.

The study also looked at social media use and social video gaming among the autistic and typically developing children to see if autistic children got more social interaction through screen-based activities.

However, the results showed this was not the case. Among the autistic children, only 15 percent of boys and 6.5 percent of girls played video games once a week with other children.

More than half of the autistic children had never played video games with other people and the majority (76 percent of boys and 90 percent of girls) had never played online multiplayer games.

Similarly, autistic boys spent only 0.2 hours a day on social media, compared to 0.8 hours a day among their typically developing brothers.

Autistic girls spent an average 0.3 hours a day on social media, compared to 1.2 hours a day among their typically developing sisters.

The authors said more research is needed to understand the influence of different screen time behaviors on autistic children.

"The authors provide much-needed information about the potential effects of video gaming specifically in children with autism spectrum disorders, a question on the minds of many parents," said dailyRx expert Glen Elliott, MD, PhD, a clinical professor at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

"However, it is important to emphasize that they merely catalogued what is happening in this study, not whether spending lots of time on video games is good or bad for children with autism spectrum disorders—or children generally," Dr. Elliott said.

"Their results indicate that children with autism spectrum disorders find games more compelling than using the Internet to interact with others or simply watching TV passively, not an especially surprising result but perhaps not true for all children with autism spectrum disorders," he said.

"As often happens, their results raise as many questions as they answer, but it is a great start to exploring an area of considerable importance to families," Dr. Elliott said.

The study was published in the June issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The research was internally funded, and the authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 12, 2013
Last Updated:
August 7, 2013