Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have social skill deficits that can affect their ability to play with others. Because of this, they often pursue more solitary and sedentary activities. Kids with autism may also have narrow interests, so they may spend much of their time doing a single activity that they like, such as watching TV or playing computer games.
Unfortunately, a lot of screen time interferes with a child’s ability to learn new skills and acquire the social skills necessary to play with others. Screen time close to bedtime can also make it difficult for a child to fall asleep.
Although screen time can hinder development, removing screen time altogether or decreasing it drastically may lead to problem behavior for children with autism. If you feel you need to reduce your child’s screen time, use the following steps to help make the transition more successful.
Goal: Limit screen time throughout the day and remove screen time prior to bedtime
Step 1: Create a daily schedule and routine. A consistent schedule provides predictability by letting your child know what to expect throughout the day.
Step 2: Include a variety of activities for your child in the schedule. Your child’s schedule should include interactive activities that she enjoys and is able to complete.
Step 3: Limit screen time to windows of time when social activities are not possible. Screen time should be limited to times when others aren’t available to interact and assist with social activities. For example, caregivers may allow their child time on the tablet or computer while they are making dinner.
Step 4: Place preferred activities after less preferred activities. Screen time can become more of a reward for completion of less preferred activities, such as cleaning up toys or finishing dinner.
Step 5: Use a timer to indicate duration of screen time. Your child should know exactly how long she has to play with a device or watch a program. A timer can be used to indicate when screen time will end so your child knows what to expect.
Step 6: Decrease screen time gradually. It is recommended that you begin to gradually reduce screen time by selecting certain activities, such as play time with mom or mealtime, when screen time is not available. Then, you can gradually add more activities that don’t include the screen so that the change occurs over time.
Step 7: Replace screen time before bed with calming activity. Screen time at bedtime can interfere with sleep, so remove screens from your child at least 30 minutes before bedtime. You should replace screen time with a calming activity like reading a book or telling stories.
Once your child has other activities scheduled, she may become less interested in the screen time and begin to show preferences toward other activities. This provides the opportunity to further decrease screen time with an increase in play, social or physical activities.
It is important to note that some screen time, especially those focusing on skill building and learning may benefit your child.
For more information and ideas about how to stay active with your child with autism, read our Strong4Life blog.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.