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Children with autism more preoccupied with video games; does treatment option lie there, too?

Published: Thursday, April 18 2013 4:35 p.m. MDT

A report in Scicastssaid that 64.2 percent of the children and teens with autism spectrum disorder spend most of their free time using solitary screen-based media such as video games or TV. Only 13.2 percent spend time on interactive media like email or instant messaging.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Children and teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) watch more screen-based media and are more apt to be preoccupied with video games than are their peers, according to research that included surveys and observation. Now experts wonder if there are treatment options to be found there as well.

"Many parents and clinicians have noticed that children with ASD are fascinated with technology, and the results of our recent studies certainly support this idea," said Micah Mazurek, an assistant professor of health psychology and a clinical child psychologist at the University of Missouri, in a statement announcing the study. "We found that children with ASD spent much more time playing video games than typically developing children and they are much more likely to develop problematic or addictive patterns of video game play."

A report in Scicasts said that 64.2 percent of the children and teens with ASD spend most of their free time using solitary screen-based media such as video games or TV. Only 13.2 percent spend time on interactive media like email or instant messaging.

For the study, Mazurek looked at use of screen-based media by 202 children and adolescents with ASD and 179 who did not have it. Children with ASD, he found, spent more time with video games and less time on social media such as Facebook, compared to typically developing children.

The study, “Television, Video Game and Social Media Use among Children with ASD and Typically Developing Siblings,” will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Another study by Mazurek, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, this one involving 169 boys with ASD, found that "problematic video game use was associated with oppositional behaviors," including not following instructions, as well as arguing. What they could not tell, said Mazurek, was whether there is a causal relationship between video game play and the behaviors. "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. Parents need to be aware that, although video games are especially reinforcing for children with ASD, children with ASD may have problems disengaging from these games.”

The question is whether video games and screen-based technologies could be used to teach those with ASD better communication and social skills. It's not known, she said, whether such lessons would translate into real-world improvements for those who have ASD.

In January, she wrote a piece exploring that possibility, for The Scientist. "Despite the potential benefits of these technologies, however, our enthusiasm should be tempered with caution. Carefully controlled research is still needed to demonstrate that interventions delivered in these formats are effective; to establish that skills learned and demonstrated in virtual environments can be generalized to real-world settings; and to examine how the outcomes compare to those of traditional face-to-face interventions."

She also said researchers would have to be on the alert for potential negative consequences.

ABCNews recently wrote about a different pairing of video technology and autism. A Vancouver-based video game designer, Taylan Kadayifcioglu, headed a team that created "Auti-Sim," a video game demonstration designed to show what it's like to live with one of autism's common features, hypersensitivity.

ABC's Gillian Mohney describes the game, which can be played online, like this: "As the user walks around a playground, other children laugh and play on the equipment. However, anytime the user gets too close to the crowd, the situation becomes overwhelming. Suddenly, the children’s laughter turns loud and cacophonous and their faces become abstractly distorted. The user can then escape the situation by moving to a quieter, more secluded area of the playground."

It was created, she wrote, as part of Vancouver's Hacking Health Hackathon, which teamed health professionals and game designers to use a 12-hour collaboration to take on a health issue using computers.

An expert told Mohney that the hypersensitivity of autism varies but can include discomfort in clothing, inability to eat foods with certain textures or sensitivity to light.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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