Autism Guide: How to Handle Screen Time

By sandra.caplesc…, 26 October, 2021
Child sitting between his parents at night, with a screen turned on.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we live and how we work. We spend many days and months cooped inside our homes, with a lack of human interaction. While communication is possible through technology, it’s not the same thing as going out with friends. We still need to socialize and, while adults can manage it better, kids suffer the most.

School is not yet physically possible, so non-autistic and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) need to take online classes. This means that they are exposed to screens every day. Sure, screens are a part of today’s reality, and we depend on technology to communicate, solve our problems, and have everything at our fingertips. Still, this shouldn’t be a barrier towards reducing the use of electronic devices during the day.

Why should you reduce screen time?

Parents of children with autism know that they struggle with repetitive and obsessive behavior. This makes it difficult for them to communicate or interact with others, and they have problems learning or controlling impulses. Of course, digital devices are helpful tools, but for an autistic child, a video game has a strong pull. One that can keep him glued to the screen for hours without realizing what he’s doing wrong. This can lead to harmful sedentary lifestyles devoid of physical activity. Furthermore, it can lead to missed opportunities to grow, obesity (which can turn into serious issues like diabetes), and sleep problems.

What Is Screen Time?

It basically refers to the time spent watching TV or movies, and playing video games on computers or gaming consoles. There are different types of screen time:

ACTIVE

It refers to any video games on phones, tablets, computers, etc. Active screen time means that the person interacts with the media.

PASSIVE

The child does not actively engage with the media. It refers to watching television, movies, or videos, where the child is passively involved with the media.

EDUCATIONAL

It can be both passive and active, and it relates to the amount of learning time that happens during screen time. Educational screen time is specifically designed to develop skills such as reading or comprehension. Also, some games give children the opportunity to build creativity and problem-solving skills. A lot of TV shows are educational and expose the child to nature or animal documentaries. However, screen time is mainly considered “entertainment.”

How Does Screen Time Affect Health?

Nowadays, each child has a personal mobile device. Of course, they are tempted to spend time on screens. According to the National Institute of Health, kids spend an average of five to seven hours a day using screens, which is greater than the total amount of time they spend in the classroom.

Unfortunately, this generation also suffers from anxiety, depression, and other mental issues. While significant factors are contributing to these health problems, screen time is also one of them. In addition, it lowers a child’s psychological well-being. Many teens have demonstrated an inability to finish tasks, are often distracted and not curious about certain things, and have difficulty making friends.

Today, around 91% of kids play video games, and many show signs of addiction. For children with autism, this is true. A few studies suggest that autistic children develop unhealthy habits because of their obsessive behavior. Since it affects them more than normal children, this can severely affect their ability to communicate or pay attention. A brain with autism is less resilient and more sensitive to the harmful effects of screen time than other people and less able to recover.

Moreover, according to research, if a baby is exposed to blue light early, he can show autism-like symptoms when he's two years old. This new phenomenon is called “virtual autism.” The child shows signs of speech difficulty, and he is only soothed by watching his favorite cartoon. While the correlation between screen viewing and lack of social engagement as signs of autism is not clear yet, screens can still raise autism symptom risk.

Learn more about What Is Virtual Autism?

5 Reasons Why Autistic Children Are More at “Risk”

  1. They have low melatonin, leading to frequent sleep disturbances. Screen time suppresses melatonin and disrupts sleep. Melatonin helps regulate the body clock and brain chemistry and balances the immune system.
  2. Children with ASD overstimulate. They exaggerate their emotions, can’t regulate them, and respond to stress in unhealthy ways. Screen time increases stress and induces hyperarousal.
  3. They have communication deficits. People with ASD can’t understand social cues, read facial expressions or body language, and have low empathy levels. Screen time hinders the development of these skills.
  4. Autistic children are prone to anxiety. Screen time is often associated with the risk of social anxiety while also contributing to poor coping skills.
  5. Children with ASD are more likely to become addicted. Many autistic individuals are attracted to technology and have a high chance of being obsessed with video games and porn. Male teens can develop romantic delusions fueled by a lack of practicing in the real world and isolating themselves.

What You Can Do

"How can I limit my child's screen time?" you might wonder. A child spends up to seven to ten hours glued to the screen, so it's essential to take a break and do some physical activity. When school's over, put the devices away (out of reach) and plan something fun to engage your kids in other activities.

Of course, you can't eliminate screens since we live in the 21st century, but you can still influence your child's behavior. You can equip them with the tools so they can manage their behavior better and create healthy habits. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Children under two should not be exposed to blue light;
  • Children from two to twelve years old should spend one hour on devices;
  • For teens, two hours per day.

Putting limits on screen time can also help the parent keep an eye on what children are experiencing. However, remember that you can also be affected by screen time.

Here are some tips that can help you handle screen time better:

Create a Routine

A home is a less structured environment than a school. In the summer season, your kid spends a lot of time at home. Now that he’s free, your child spends more time in front of the screen unless you do something about it.

Your child needs to have something to do and keep him busy. Create a kid-friendly agenda filled with outdoor activities and family vacations. But be careful: children with ASD like routine, and any disruption can send them into a meltdown session. Tell your child if you have any plans for the day so he knows what to expect. Involve your child in your schedule as much as possible, but make sure to establish boundaries around screen time. Designate a time when your child can use their devices so that the child can understand your expectations.

Time Their Screen Time

Most children with ASD are visual learners, so using a timer to indicate the duration of screen time will make a difference. Your child will know exactly when to stop or how long he can play. Always remind your child when the time is up, and remember to reward appropriate behavior with prizes. Another piece of advice is to decrease screen time gradually and add activities that don't include a device. You can also limit screen time to when there are no social activities, like when you are cooking dinner.

Plan Engaging Activities

You can start by making a list of alternative activities to pick from. These activities should be appealing for your child, but you know your little one best. If you want to switch it up, you can "recycle" your kid's toys. This means taking any tangible item your child interacts with, sort them, and cycle through them. Restricting access to old toys makes the child interested in them again after not playing with them. It also saves you from spending money on new toys.

When planning activities, remember to include physical activities. Children need to lead a healthy life, not a passive one. And be there for your kid. Don't let them on their own while you do something else. Engage in the activity, especially if they refuse to do it. You are their most incredible role model, and seeing you switch off devices will instill good behavior. Slowly introduce them to the tasks, even if they watch at first. It might take a while, but in the long run, your child will develop healthy habits and good social skills, as well as find the balance between screen time and the real world.

ALSO: don’t let your child have screen time before bed. Replace it with a calming activity at least 30 minutes before bedtime. As you know, screen time interferes with sleep, so you should read a story before going to sleep or take a warm bath. This way, your child will be calm and produce the necessary melatonin for a good night’s sleep.

READ MORE: 10 Fun Sensory Activities for Children with Autism

Change the Environment

Remove any computer, TV, or tablet from the bedroom. Make them available only in shared spaces, where you can supervise the content your child is exposed to. This way, you'll also be able to monitor your child's screen time more efficiently. Moving batteries or charges in locations that only adults can access will encourage social interaction.

Get Started

While it doesn't feel easy, there are ways in which you can make screen time more tolerable. The key is to stay calm and be patient; changing behaviors won't happen overnight. With time, your child will show less interest in video games and be attracted to other activities. Of course, you can come up with your own strategies as each autistic child is unique. If you're in a slump, talk to your child's therapist for suggestions. Together, you will find the best approach to helping your child with ASD develop the skills they need to grow.