Video games a mixed blessing for autistic children, survey says

While many parents of autistic children have concerns about video game play -- overuse can lead to obsessive behavior -- the games largely help serve emotional, social and intellectual needs, researchers say.

By Allen Cone
A study in Belgium found that video game play by children with autism can beneficial, especially the more involved parents are with their children's play -- including actually playing the games with them. Photo by superanton/Pixabay
A study in Belgium found that video game play by children with autism can beneficial, especially the more involved parents are with their children's play -- including actually playing the games with them. Photo by superanton/Pixabay

May 9 (UPI) -- When an autistic child plays video games several hours a day, parents often see this as a mixed blessing: The alternate reality is an effective way to handle emotional, social and intellectual needs, but overuse can lead to obsessive behavior.

After surveying 244 parents of young children and adolescents on the autism spectrum in Flanders, Belgium, researchers concluded these fears can be alleviated with effective parental controls and joining them in the screen time.


The findings are being presented this week at the International Society for Autism Research's annual meeting in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

On average, the children of the respondents played 2.45 hours a day. Ninety percent of the game players were boys, who preferred games that involved adventure, action and violence over more passive games.

In an online survey, parents reported on the frequency, duration, game characteristics and children's preferences. This included looking at the negative aspects of game play -- called obsessive passion, as well as the positive aspects -- called harmonious passion.


Parents also reported on the ways they handle game play, as well as their own attitudes on video games.

"We noticed in our research that youth with higher scores on harmonious passion also had better relationships with peers, family life, but also less depressive symptoms and more well-being," Dr. Sarah De Pauw, a psychology professor at Ghent University in Belgium, told UPI. "Also, they had lower scores on the negative outcomes. Harmonious passion was only modestly linked to obsessive passion, which means that these two tendencies are important to take into account."

Other studies haven't found a correlation between playing the games and exhibiting violent behavior in real life. A 2004 study by the U.S. Secret Service found that only one-eighth of school shooters regularly played violent video games.

Other research found that those without autism played for about 1.9 hours per day -- about a half hour less than those with autism in the Flemish study.

"One surprise was that the quality of passion for gaming was only moderately associated with the frequency and duration of time spent on videogames," De Pauw said. "Also, harmonious games were also only moderately associated with obsessive gaming."

De Pauw prefers using the term "obsessive passion," or videogame overuse, to avoid the common mantra that "videogames can damage your physical and emotional health."


"Having an obsession is not good or bad -- as such," she said. "In the current societal discussion on video game overuse, the emphasis on the dark side -- video game addiction -- is a bit out of proportion and a more balanced perspective is needed. This is also found in this research."

The survey found that placing limits and restrictions on use can have positive results.

According to the survey, parents of younger children exert more restrictions on gameplay than parents of older children.

"This confirms the idea of ambivalent feelings in parents of children and adolescents with autism," De Pauw said. "On the one hand, they are highly concerned about the overuse of their child, but on the other hand, they also endorse that videogames serve a significant number of emotional, social and intellectual needs of their child with ASD."

The study revealed just 33 percent of parents play video games with their children, and parents who play games with their children reported fewer negative outcomes.

She said there was "preliminary evidence -- no causal relations" that when parents are actively involved in the gaming experiences of their child with autism, their children might be better off.

DePauw said the findings needs to be further examined, but that "this study suggests that when a parent takes an effort to tune in into a child with autism's passion for gaming might help to develop more adaptive and healthy gaming habits."


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