By and large, children and adolescents on the autism spectrum spend more time on digital media devices than their typically developing peers. The reason that children with autism may be more drawn to screens could be because they provide a repetitive and predictable interface that engages them in their specific interests. In the real world, they would be expected to read body language, social cues, and engage in the back and forth volleys of conversation — and that’s hard work for children whose primary deficit is in social communication and imagination. Face to face interactions become anxiety-inducing for many children on the spectrum so it is understandable why they prefer to interact with the screen.
The core features of autism spectrum disorder place the population at risk of improper and overuse of digital media devices, which might result in harmful consequences. However, the compelling nature of these devices might be motivating for children on the spectrum to engage in digital learning or even in technological interventions. This article discusses the drawbacks of improper use of digital media devices, and how educational apps can be used to teach at home.
Drawbacks of Improper Use of Digital Devices
The improper and overuse of digital media devices is associated with several detrimental outcomes, many of which could disproportionately affect children with autism as a result of the unique interplay of the disorder and the immersive nature of digital media. One of the areas impacted is the quality and duration of sleep. All things equal, children with autism already experience more difficulties with sleep compared to matched typically developing peers. However, using a digital device before bedtime has been shown to suppress melatonin levels, worsening these sleep difficulties prevalent in children on the spectrum (Wood B., et al., 2013). Even when matched with children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, bedroom access to digital devices is more strongly associated with disturbances in sleep in children with autism (Engelhardt C.R., et al., 2013).
As more studies begin to emerge on the use of digital devices, a few have examined its impact on social skills in typically developing children. These findings are highly applicable to the autism population. One particular study found that 11 year-olds who spent 5 days at an outdoor camp in the absence of any digital devices performed remarkably better at interpreting non-verbal cues and reading facial expressions than the control group who had unrestricted access to their digital devices at home (Uhls Y.T., et al., 2014).
Aside from negatively impacting a child’s social-communication development, improper use of digital devices also interfere with their cognitive development. Findings show that increased screen time is correlated with inattention, off-task behaviour, lower grades and impulsivity (Pressman R.M., et al., 2014) — many of these are pronounced areas of difficulties for children with autism. This means that the negative outcomes associated with the improper use of screen time would disproportionately, and more adversely, affect children on the spectrum. However, despite the risks associated with digital devices, their immersive interface can be leveraged to more effectively engage a child in the classroom or even in a one-to-one therapy setting, improving outcomes for the child on the spectrum.
Use of Educational Apps for Learning
Technology has been used to assist children with autism for many decades, beginning with early Augmentative and Assistive Communication devices to promote communication in those with pronounced delays in language development. Children with autism can potentially learn better from technological devices than from in-person instructions (Moore M., Calvert S., 2000) and educational apps form part of the multitude of technological solutions that support such learning.
There are several educational apps for a wide range of functions that have proven useful to children, parents and educators alike. One of such apps is ‘First Then Visual Schedule’. It is an activity planner that provides the child with a structured and customisable daily visual schedule, displaying present and upcoming activities for the day, providing predictability for the child who might otherwise be anxious about unannounced changes to their routines. Other educational apps such as ‘Jolly Phonics Sounds Adventure’ promote early literacy skills by teaching simple reading and spelling using picture stories and phonetics. In the app, the child can also spell out the word being flashed while it is sounded out through the speakers, jointly helping them develop verbal skills.
Given the interplay of autism and the allure of digital media, it is good to be conservative and critical when introducing it to your child, setting clear boundaries around the type of media consumed and the frequency of use. However, many benefits can be reaped from carefully incorporating it in teaching literacy skills, numeracy skills and even social skills.
Written by Jacelyn Lee.
Wood B, Rea MS, Plitnick B, et al. Light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression. Appl Ergon 2013;44(2):237–40.
Engelhardt CR, Mazurek MO, Sohl K. Media use and sleep among boys with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or typical development. Pediatrics 2013;132(6):1081–9
Uhls YT, Michikyan M, Morris J, et al. Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. ComputHum Behav 2014;39:387–92.
Pressman RM, Owens JA, Evans AS, et al. Examining the interface of family and personal traits, media, and academic imperatives using the learning habit study.Am J Fam Ther 2014;42(5):347–63.
Moore M, Calvert S. Brief report: vocabulary acquisition for children with autism:teacher or computer instruction. J Autism Dev Disord 2000;30(4):359–62.
Gwynette, M., Sidhu, S., & Ceranoglu, T. (2018). Electronic Screen Media Use in Youth With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Child And Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics Of North America, 27(2), 203-219. doi: 10.1016/j.chc.2017.11.013