Does autism make video game-related problem behaviors worse?

By Rebecca Israel, MS and Charles Li, MD

June 01, 2020

  • Children with autism are more likely to engage in nonsocial media, like video games and television.

  • The higher rates of video game-related problem behaviors may be due to greater access and more time spent playing.

Autism and Video Games

Data & Analysis

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition affecting 1 in 59 children in the United States. ASD can be described using four main developmental and behavioral categories: social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. Every child exhibits different strengths and abnormalities in each category.

One of the marking symptoms of ASD is a struggle with communication and social skills. In the age of the internet, researchers have studied the effects of media use on childhood development. Studies have suggested that video game play habits may negatively affect communication and other social skills. What’s more, video games may cause a rise in problem behaviors like inattention and opposition behavior (hostility, disobedience, etc.).

ASD and nonsocial media

Children with ASD are more likely to engage in nonsocial media use than typically developing children. One reason for this may be the appeal that nonsocial media has for children who struggle with social skills. Video games and other nonsocial media mediums may offer children with ASD a break from communicating with others and an escape from an overstimulating environment.

ASD video game study

A study was put together to examine how boys, ages 8 to 18, used video games and how specific game features relate to problem behaviors. Parents answered questions about their child’s access to games, time spent playing, and ASD symptoms.

Autism & Video GamesStudy Setup

How do kids with autism play video games?
study method

1. Recruit

Reach out to families with children with and without ASD.

2. Survey

Survey parents on their children's video game habits.

3. Compare

Compare video game habits between children with and without ASD.

Time spent playing video games

Researchers compared how many hours a day each group spent playing video games on average. Researchers concluded that daily video game hours may be a predictor of problem behaviors.

Autism & Gaming Time

Boys with autism play more video games than boys with ADHD and typically developing boys.

Time Spent Gaming

Boys with Autism: 2.1 hours a week

2.1h

Boys with ADHD: 1.7 hours a week

1.7h

Typically developing boys: 1.2 hours a week

1.2h

Top Questions and Answers

PVGT Score

Participants were given a Problem Video Game Playing Test (PVGT) score, which ranged from 20 to 100. The higher the PVGT score, the more severe the problem behaviors associated with video games. Behaviors that would be considered problematic in this scenario include game addiction, hyperactivity, inattention, and opposition.

Based on these scores, researchers said that boys with ASD had more problem behaviors associated with video game use. Inattention, in particular, was the most apparent. However, these behaviors do not directly correlate with ASD symptoms. This could mean that, while boys with ASD may be exhibit more video game-related problem behaviors, the behaviors themselves are not different from other boys without ASD.

Video Game Issues & Autism

Problem Video Game Score

Children with autism

41.2

Typically Developing Boys

29.6

20

100

The problem video game test (PVGT) estimates problematic video game use on a scale of 20 to 100. Children with Autism have a significantly higher problem video game score.

In-room video game access

Lastly, parents reported whether or not their child had access to a gaming system in their room. Interestingly, a greater percentage of boys with ASD had gaming systems in their rooms compared to boys without ASD. The reason for this is unclear.

Autism & Video Game Access

Parents of autistic children are more than 3x as likely to allow video games in their rooms.

In room video game access

Boys with Autism

43%

Typically Developing Boys

12%

Parents of typically developing young boys claimed to live in a higher income bracket than the parents of ASD boys. Nearly a fifth of parents with ASD children lived below or around the national poverty line. Therefore, having a higher income does not increase the likelihood of having an in-room gaming system.

“It is possible that their preoccupation with games results in increased access. Alternatively, greater access may lead to more problematic use or preoccupation.”

Mazurek et al

Parents with ASD children may be more likely to allow access to video games as a means of distraction, a way to prevent tantrums, or controlling other disruptive ASD symptoms.

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