Navigating the Screen Time Tightrope: Balancing Tech for Kids with Autism

screen time and kids with autism

Parent Perspective: The Pros and Cons of Screen Time for Children with Autism

There is no escaping technology. The children we’re raising today live in a world vastly different from our childhoods. Gone are the days of endless outdoor play and hours of choreographing talent shows to mixed tapes (or, for those younger, burning CDs). The only interaction many of us had with video games as kids was playing the Oregon Trail on the classroom desktop computer. While we lament what our children may miss, there are undeniable benefits to living in a more technologically advanced society. 

The debate over whether screen time has adverse effects on children with autism is ongoing. I do not have the clinical data to take a stand either way. However, as a parent of a child with autism, I have firsthand experience navigating screen time. I’ve noticed both the pros and cons of screen usage. Here, I share some insights into managing screen time and offer suggestions for determining your approach. 

It’s beneficial to carefully consider how you integrate screens into your home—whether it’s an iPad, cell phone, laptop, TV, Kindle, video games, or even a smartwatch. Planning allows you to establish boundaries and anticipate challenges, guiding you toward a balanced approach that works best for your family.

screen time and kids with autism

Pros of Screentime

​​There are numerous benefits for neurodivergent children using various devices and technology, especially those created specifically for kids with autism, speech delays, or other developmental challenges. Here are some ways screen time may be beneficial for your child:

Technology can be a talking tool – Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

Technology can provide a means of communication and self-expression for non-speaking children with autism. Many AAC programs are available on devices like iPads and enable non-verbal children to communicate effectively, opening new avenues of expression that might not otherwise be accessible. Some popular AAC tools include:

While there’s concern that AAC might deter verbal communication in speaking children, studies show the opposite. AAC may be a valuable option for communicating when children are fatigued. Some individuals find it easier to express themselves more fully through AAC, complementing their verbal expression. Technologies developed by major software and hardware speech manufacturers (not all AAC is installed on an iPad) serve as tools to enhance communication, which is a significant advantage.

Technology can be a learning tool — Educational Apps and Games

Technology is a powerful educational tool, offering thousands of apps and games tailored to various learning needs and interests. Whether your child has an aptitude for a specific subject or needs to develop in a particular area, chances are there’s an app to help them. Here are just a few examples of apps for different areas of learning, including reading, literacy, science, coding, and memory games: 

Even games like Minecraft allow kids to learn spatial awareness and design 3-dimensional spaces in an animated realm. When choosing apps and games for your child, focus on those that align with their interests and areas where they can grow.

Our educational system has embraced the use of technology in classrooms as an effective learning tool. As parents, we can do the same. It’s a matter of selecting the right websites and apps for your child. 

Technology can be a social and saftey tool — Text Messaging and Video Calling.

Not all technology prevents connection and socialization. In fact, some types of technology allow us to interact in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Text messaging and video calling allow children, including those using AAC, to socialize with family and friends safely and meaningfully. Contrary to isolating, some technologies facilitate social interaction.

Digital communication methods provide vital social connections, enhancing communication skills and even offering a way to communicate with a parent or caregiver if they are in a potentially unsafe situation. The following resources help parents keep their kids safe in social settings:

Technology can be a creative tool — Photography and Social Supports.

Many autistic children have a visual inclination and enjoy capturing and reflecting on images. Whether taking photos themselves or exploring pictures on a caregiver’s phone, photography can help them understand their world and relationships.

 Additionally, photography and video can support applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy by creating visual supports and social stories, aiding in learning and vocabulary development. Here are some app ideas for fostering creativity and visual supports:

Technology can be a tool for entertainment.

We can’t ignore the upsides of using technology for entertainment. Many of us tend to view using technology for entertainment as a downside to screens. However, there are moments when we need our kids to sit still and be entertained. There isn’t a mom out there who hasn’t expressed a sigh of relief as they hand their child a phone while waiting at the doctor’s office. 

While often viewed negatively, technology can provide essential entertainment and relaxation. Whether calming a child following an extended therapy session or allowing them to unwind after a day of school, screen time offers familiar and predictable activities that may help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation for kids. Here are the favorites in our house:

Cons of Screentime

Now, let’s look at the cons. Many of us are probably very familiar with the consequences of technology and screen usage, whether through personal experience or a fear that it’s becoming a big problem we can’t control. Screen time effects are a real concern. Understanding what we’re up against as parents can help us decide our non-negotiables as well as give ourselves some grace when screens introduce challenges we didn’t expect. 

Technology can prevent real, authentic social interaction.

While technology can promote social interaction, it can also isolate your child. When a child is given a device to use whenever and however they want, it can become a real danger. Setting limits around the time and exposure your child has to screens may prevent this from becoming an insurmountable problem.

If your child tends to stim on a screen, it prevents them from staying present. Whether they are compulsive swipers who can’t stay engaged with one show or activity, there may need to be certain restrictions. The Guided Access functionality on an iPad helps those kiddos who like to bounce from app to app and video to video. Or, if your child repeatedly watches the same movie, it may be time to expose them to different shows or activities. These are examples of behaviors an ABA clinician may be able to implement into your child’s programming. Don’t hesitate to reach out and ask your ABA provider, such as ABA Connect, for help. 

Technology can be overstimulating.

Many kids with autism tend for their sensory systems to become overloaded. If this is your child, watch how they react to high screen usage. Factors contributing to sensory overload include the device’s volume level, screen brightness, and whether it is used in a dark or brightly lit area. Consider what types of videos, songs, and apps get your child hyped up. Directing them toward content that creates a more calm and regulated nervous system response, such as slow, repetitive music and lower-volume videos, may help them stay within their window of tolerance. Here are some possible apps to help calm your child:

Technology can be an alternate reality.

Some kids prefer to live in a virtual world rather than a real one. Games that include virtual reality (VR) simulate real-life experiences, which may be more exciting or enticing to your child than their actual environment. However, spending time outdoors in nature offers an antidote of sorts. Mother Nature operates at a much slower pace than we do. During a hike or bike ride, your child may begin to experience a healthy contrast to the fast-paced realm of technology. Engaging with nature may enable their nervous system to mimic this slower pace.

Also, consider how videos with compelling storylines may become replacements for reading a book. There is something unique and beneficial in forming pictures to a story within your child’s imagination. When technology prevents kids from spending time outdoors or reading, they miss out on engaging with their environment meaningfully. This may be a sign that it’s time to step back from technology.

Moderation with Screentime

Like many things, there’s no hard and fast rule for approaching screen time with your child. Perhaps the best approach is moderation. 

  • Set limits. 
  • Encourage the types of technology that lead to connection. 
  • Stay engaged in what your child is watching or using. 
  • Try not to feel guilty if your child uses technology more than you would like. 

Sometimes, in life, things aren’t quite where we want them to be. Knowing where we want to be can help us get there with a plan and a good dose of patience. 

Our Journey with Screen Time

My son didn’t show much interest in screens, whether a TV, phone, or iPad until he was four or five. I actually wanted him to engage with technology because I knew an AAC device could be a helpful tool for him to communicate. 

Working with a speech-language pathologist and an assistive technology expert, we presented him with different AAC programs. He wasn’t interested. Also, he had not yet developed a pointer finger, which is essential to a touchscreen device. I recruited an occupational therapist to help him form one. It didn’t matter what she did; he showed no signs of being able to isolate his finger. Until he discovered YouTube Kids on an iPad! Everything changed from there. 

Watching entertaining videos was a gateway to making technology more functional. My son didn’t start showing interest in using his “talker” (what we call is AAC device) until he first experienced immediate gratification from swiping around on YouTube Kids and PBS Kids. In that respect, I am incredibly thankful for handheld devices. Yes, they can become detrimental to real-life engagement, but overall, they opened up my son’s world in a whole new way. 

Every child’s journey is unique. Maybe there’s something different—another way your child can grow and expand through technology. Remember, technology can be very engaging and motivating. If you need ideas for how to use a device or application to help your child grow, ask your child’s BCBA or ABA clinician. They may have ideas for how to use screens for their greater good. 

What are your biggest questions or concerns about screen time usage with your child? 

We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. If you found this post helpful, please feel free to like, share, and follow us for more insightful content on autism and ABA therapy.

If a positive, play-based approach to ABA appeals to you, we invite you to reach out to ABA Connect. The friendly team at ABA Connect is always ready to help answer your questions.

Disclaimer: While I am a consultant writing on behalf of ABA Connect, my child is not a current client. The views and experiences shared in this blog post are entirely from a parent’s perspective. My goal is to provide informative content and insights based on my personal experiences, as well as interviews conducted with the staff at ABA Connect.

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