Reducing Screen Time (and Replacing With Play!) for Your Child With Autism

Electronic device addiction is a real thing and it can counteract a lot of the skills you’re helping your child with autism build. An expert BCBA from Healing Haven shares tips for reducing screen time.

As a parent of a child with autism, you understandably want your child to be calm and happy. And, when they have an electronic device such as a tablet in hand, they tend to be just that: calm and happy. But, as study after study shows the negative effects of too much screen time, parents may worry about how these electronic devices impact their child with autism. Reducing screen time may even seem like an insurmountable task.

“It’s not just TV that’s the problem anymore,” says Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA and Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, a Madison Heights-based ABA therapy center for kids and teens. “Smartphones, gaming systems, devices — there’s so much technology nowadays. But the research shows the same results. With increased screen use, there’s an increase in obesity, depression and anxiety, and for our kids with autism, screen use has been shown to decrease a child’s ability to gain social skills, it interrupts their language development and inhibits their ability to focus and pay attention,” she says.

Parents who have negotiated with their child who wants just “10 more minutes” with their favorite device will recognize the level of addiction that screens can create. “Use of devices can activate the reward pathways in the brain and that’s why you see addictive behavior when the device is removed,” Dr. Thomas explains. “There can be an increase in problem behavior and that can be challenging. If the parent doesn’t recognize the addiction, they may just give the device back to their child because they know that it will make them calmer.”

If you want your child to spend more time engaging socially or in active play, reducing screen time is a positive way to achieve this goal. And, this effort could help your child’s ABA therapy be more effective, Dr. Thomas says.

“If your child is on the autism spectrum, they may already have difficulty with their attention, language and social skills. Screen use is a barrier to practicing these skills, especially when they are looking at a screen and not making eye contact with a person or using the communication skills they are learning,” she says.

What’s more, while a child who is functionally addicted to their electronic device may carry out tasks during their ABA therapy, they’re not fully present in the moment. “The whole time they are thinking about what’s next, when they will access their device again, and that makes it difficult to make their learning opportunities fruitful,” Dr. Thomas says.

Hour by hour, replace screen time with play

To counter the negative effects of too much screen time, parents can encourage their child to engage in good old-fashioned play, Dr. Thomas says. “Unlike screen time, play encourages language, social skills and attending skills, and helps a child learn and strengthen motor skills, cognitive strength and language development. Play is the polar opposite of the continuum,” she explains.

Sure, an electronic device can engage a child for a relatively long period of time, but once a child learns how to play independently or with a sibling, the benefits are huge. “Parents may have to help with that initial hump and show their child how to build a fort or how to rake leaves and then jump in them,” she says. “It’s harder work for parents, but it’s also something parents should model as well as teach at home.”

Here are some practical tips for helping make the leap from too much screen time to plenty of healthy, active play.

  • Start with an inventory of how much screen time your child engages in daily. Then take baby steps to replace screen time with play. “If it’s six hours a day, work toward five hours a day in the first week, then try four hours the next week, three hours the week after,” Dr. Thomas says. “It’s much easier than the cold-turkey method.”
  • Recognize the effort it will take to transition your child to playing with you and, eventually, independent play. Make it easier for both of you by finding something you enjoy, too. “It doesn’t have to be complicated. Try investigating your backyard. Do some simple gardening, stomp through puddles or draw your names in the snow. Whatever you decide to do, encourage your child to entertain themselves for increasingly extended periods of time,” Dr. Thomas suggests.
  • Model desired behavior at home, Dr. Thomas says. Put down your own smartphone or laptop and read, cook or take a walk — and include your child whenever you can. “In this way, you are helping your child move in the desired direction through modeling and with some support,” she says.
  • Dollhouses, doctor kits, Legos and blocks are all great manipulatives. Tag, ring-around-the-rosy and hot potato are great old-school active games. Music can create spontaneous dance parties. Board games like Candyland, bingo, Perfection and Connect 4, even puzzles, are great for cooperative play.
  • Maximize a brainstorm by writing down several ideas and store them in a jar. Your child can select one when you have less energy for coming up with ideas for play.

“Who has more energy than children? Capitalize on this by getting them up and moving and away from screens, which will not only help with their language, cognition and social skills but also help with their mood and sleep,” says Dr. Thomas. “You can give your children this feel-good effect similar to the one they get with their screen, but in a way that is better for their brain and body.”

Discover the benefits of ABA therapy for your child or teen at Healing Haven. Visit thehealinghaven.net.

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