If you have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you know that they see the world in a different way. They live in the moment. They crave predictability. They are passionate about what interests them. They often are highly tuned into the details around them.
As a developmental behavioral pediatrician, I evaluate children for autism, follow their progress over time and help coach their parents on supporting everyday challenges and finding the best therapies. In our clinic visits, media comes up — a lot! Media is a common concern for all parents. Here are some ideas about media that can specifically support children with ASD.
Use media to help with everyday skills. Many children with ASD are strong visual learners, meaning the world makes more sense for them in pictures and shapes than it does through words (or people’s ever-changing facial expressions!). Therefore, children with ASD may love using visual media, which can feel more intuitive to them. For these reasons, use tablets for more than entertainment and maximize use of the device with tools that help with everyday skills. Find visual timers, visual schedules and social story apps that can help your child with everyday skills. In addition, watch shows like Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood, which can help kids with everyday problems, like trying new foods or stopping playing when asked. Research has shown that when parents watched Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with their children with ASD, the children showed better social-emotional skills, probably because parents coached them through tough moments with Daniel’s songs.
Media can help kids connect. Children with ASD want to connect, but the nuances of social communications (making eye contact, facial expressions, responding when spoken to, etc.) don’t always come easily to them. Once children find an easier way to communicate, such as through an augmentative/assistive communication program on a tablet, they are usually excited to keep using it. I also have patients who use media to compose music or design comics, which allows them to connect with other kids with similar interests. Having a weekly movie night for watching favorite funny movies or playing video games together as a family can provide shared enjoyment and connection.
Focus on your child’s interest. Many of my patients are passionate about trains, dinosaurs, plate tectonics — you name it! — and look for any way to learn more about their specific interests. If your child likes watching videos about his favorite topics, I recommend finding kid-friendly platforms, set a time limit and watch together. Then, look for unplugged play activities based on their interest. Sometimes, diving into your child’s passion can help you meet your child where they are and provide great opportunities to connect.
Media can help in stressful situations but it’s not always the answer. New places, people, foods and activities are overwhelming, but media is predictable. Some children use their tablet as a calm-down tool that they can take to any new or stressful place. By watching predictable videos and games, children can control the stimuli around them — rather than interacting with the new stuff. As I tell my patients, this is fine for brief periods, especially if it’s a stressful situation like a blood draw. But, in general, media isn’t always the answer. We want all children to learn to meet the challenge of handling new things and calming their bodies and brains down.
Empower your child to transition from media use. Because children with ASD can be very focused, they can have a hard time switching to the next activity or task. Transitions are challenging, especially from media. I recommend turning off autoplay, using timers or teaching your child to turn off their own program or game when time’s up (which can be reinforced through behavioral therapy). In addition, find programs like Curious George that encourage kids to explore and do things in their world after the show has ended.
Avoid excessive media or media before bedtime. Insufficient amounts of sleep, physical activity and creative play are already a problem for many children with ASD. Excessive media use, or use before bed, can further exacerbate these problems. It can feel impossible to set limits when you’re a stressed-out parent, but try to make one change at a time — maybe a new bedtime routine and behavioral plan for staying in bed or maybe working with therapists to help your child build coordination skills for sports — and aim for small reductions in media use over time.
Some parents prefer almost no media use at all for their child with ASD, and this is fine too. Children with ASD learn best from playing with real people, over and over again, to build the social, communication and behavior skills that don’t come easy to them — and digital media can’t replace this. However, like all children, children with ASD will encounter digital media throughout their childhoods, and it is important to help them understand, think critically and become media savvy.