Every child learns better while they are having fun. In schools today, there has been an increase in using devices in classrooms when teaching. Parents and caregivers have also been using devices at home to play or engage with their children through videos, games and mobile applications. For both children who are neurotypical and those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), devices are extremely effective in catching their attention, especially with the wide variety of educational games and engaging songs and videos. However, when left unattended to their own devices literally, exposure to the screen may pose threats.
Research studies have reported that a higher percentage of individuals with ASD interact with devices during their free time as compared to their neurotypical peers (Mazurek et al., 2012). Also, children with ASD tend to use devices a lot longer than their neurotypical peers, thus leading to high screen dependency (Dong et al., 2021). In order to examine screen dependency, it is crucial to see if it interrupts their daily living, causes frustration when they are unable to get screen time when they want, and if it hinders their holistic development (motor, language, social, emotional, cognitive).
Pros of devices
There are several positive aspects of device usage for children with ASD. Augmentative and alternative communication apps promote communication and independence. The assistive technology allows for them to express their needs and initiate interactions through visual cues (e.g. pictures, words, and sign language), especially for those who have difficulties in verbal communication. In addition, devices provide various alternative ways to learn academic concepts and social skills at an appropriate pace since devices can be personalised and adapted according to their interests and functional levels. Technology can make learning more fun and engaging, thus highlighting the efficiency of using devices to teach (Yousif, 2021). Moreover, when used appropriately, devices can also assist in calming down when in distress, such as through the use of music, videos, and games that are familiar to them.
Cons of devices
However, too much screen time or when devices are used inappropriately can cause negative effects for children with ASD. When they have high screen dependency, they may lose interest in other activities, whether in learning or even in playing games and with toys. When presented with games and toys, they may have limitations in toy operating or playing with others (Dong et al., 2021). Additionally, too much screen time has also been associated with overstimulation (flashing lights and colours), sleep disturbance, difficulties in emotional regulation (fast response time when interacting with these technology as opposed to having to wait in real life interactions with people and objects), and low attention span (Dong et al, 2021, Wu et al., 2016).
Such specific issues will result in bigger problems in the future if not intervened early, such as how emotional regulation difficulties may lead to aggression. Furthermore, due to the sedentary nature of sitting or lying down while using devices, lower physical activity level or significantly less movement on a daily basis will inhibit motor development (Dong et al., 2021). Also, in the case of non-interactive games or videos, there would be less opportunities for interactions with others, which can impact the development of social skills and language.
What can be done
Although too much screen time can pose potential threats to children with ASD, devices can be beneficial as mentioned when used appropriately. Here are some recommendations:
Set a limit, assign a maximum number of hours in a day (i.e. 2-3 hours split up)
Fix a routine, set time slots where they can have screen time and also no screen time for at least 30 minutes before bedtime (i.e. 11am-12pm, 3-4pm)
Use screen time as a reinforcer for desired behaviours or finishing tasks (i.e. doing one page of a worksheet → 3 minutes of screen time)
Fill days with other activities apart from screen time (i.e. bring them for outdoor walks, play with toys or other children, art and craft, sing songs and dancing without videos)
Use interactive and educational games, videos, and apps that allow for socialisation (i.e. pausing video and asking them to find or point at an object, colour, shape)
Monitor everything they are doing or watching (i.e. always set a specific set of videos or apps that they can use, and be near them)
All in all, devices can be beneficial to children with ASD when used appropriately, while too much usage can be detrimental to their development. While devices can act as easy pacifiers and efficient in engaging children to learn skills, we still need to be present to monitor the information they absorb and guide them through different ways that they can interact both with the game or video and with others who are around them. With that, I hope to see more ways that devices can be used to encourage children’s learning and how everyone can be more involved during device usage.
Written by Alisha
Dong, H. Y., Wang, B., Li, H. H., Yue, X. J., & Jia, F. Y. (2021). Correlation between screen time and autistic symptoms as well as development quotients in children with autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 140. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.619994
Mazurek, M. O., Shattuck, P. T., Wagner, M., & Cooper, B. P. (2012). Prevalence and correlates of screen-based media use among youths with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(8), 1757-1767. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1413-8
Wu, X., Tao, S., Rutayisire, E., Chen, Y., Huang, K., & Tao, F. (2017). The relationship between screen time, nighttime sleep duration, and behavioural problems in preschool children in China. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 26(5), 541-548. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-016-0912-8
Yousif, M. (2021). Blended learning through an interactive mobile application for teaching autistic kindergarten students. Artificial Intelligence & Robotics Development Journal, 1(3), 132-146. https://doi.org/10.52098/airdj.202138