Minimizing Screen Time for Kids With Autism

Balancing screen time with other activities can be difficult, but it's not impossible. The Clinical Director of Gateway Pediatric Therapy's Bingham Farms location offers advice for parents of kids with autism.

Today’s youth scroll on screens more than they build with blocks – and it can be tough for parents to balance their child’s leisure time. For children on the autism spectrum, it’s even harder to decrease screen time, particularly if they struggle to play.

“When kids already have traditional play skills, you can enforce a balance without teaching them other things,” says Ashley Zink, the Clinical Director of Gateway Pediatric Therapy‘s Bingham Farms location, “but when it comes to kids with autism, you often have to teach them those play skills.” And that’s where the biggest challenge comes in. So how can parents help with play skills and increase interaction? Here, Zink offers some tips and advice.

Teaching play skills

One effective method for teaching play skills is to use your child’s preferred device as a reward for engaging in other activities. For example, you might start by playing with a Lego set and asking them to help you put the blocks together. After your child performs a few actions, you can reward their participation with access to the iPad.

In this way, you can limit screen time while simultaneously encouraging new forms of play. Not only can you motivate your child to try something new, but you might even help them realize they enjoy playing with new things.

Model the way

For many children, including those on the autism spectrum, the best way to teach a new skill is to model it for them. Get involved by sitting down and playing with them, showing them what to do and creating opportunities for the child to be independent.

“The best way to do this is in small, purposeful steps,” Zink suggests. Some kids might respond well to a model, while others might need you to physically help them if they are struggling to complete an activity. “Make sure that you are keeping your expectations reasonable and you’re celebrating and rewarding those small steps along the way,” she adds.

Consider their interests

Whether it’s a certain cartoon or that one thing that a child can really fixate on, sometimes kids on the spectrum have really strong, narrow interests. These interests may provide an opportunity to capitalize on and introduce something new. “It can be so beneficial to incorporate their interests in,” Zink suggests.

For a child who loves Paw Patrol, for example, you might try to find different playsets, coloring pages and other activities that are related to the television show, but outside of your child’s usual preferred choices. Or you could use their favorite Paw Patrol play figures to promote more interactive or imaginative play, she says.

Increase engagement

Admittedly, it can be challenging to learn how to interact with your child once he or she knows how to play, Zink says. “When your child is playing, be available and be interested. Rather than asking questions, make comments about their play and show excitement for what they are doing,” she says.

Questions can often be met with silence, so turn your questions into statements. That way, you can keep the activity fun and interactive, without always looking for a specific response.    

Create a schedule

“If you’re teaching new leisure skills and feel like your child is ready to be more independent, it can help to incorporate a schedule that they can follow on their own,” Zink advises.

Most adults use some type of schedule to organize their days, and this same type of structure can benefit children, as well. For example, you might create a simple picture schedule that lists out a few different activities in a sequence. Depending on how many steps are included, you could build in screen time as a break between other activities or use screen time as the last item in the schedule as a reward for completing the entire sequence.

And remember: even though screens tend to be a preference for all kids, including those with autism, it’s not the only way they can have fun. You just have to be open to teaching new activities and finding the right balance – and that balance is different for every family.

April is Autism Awareness Month. To find events in your area to be a part of this celebration of understanding and acceptance of those on the autism spectrum, visit the blog section of Gateway Pediatric Therapy at

For more information on Gateway Pediatric Therapy, visit


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