Effective Screen Use Strategies for Neurodivergent Children

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In this installment from my ‘Ask Me Anything’ series, which you can find on my social media channels, I delve into the topic of screen time strategies for supporting neurodivergent children.

“My child has autism and he just watches TV all day. What do I do? I feel like I need to be a better parent, but it’s hard to look after him and get things done if he’s not engaged with TV or games, etc.”

I’m not a screen time extremist. I’ve been parenting almost my entire adult life, and I’ve learned that extremes, even with the best intentions, can cause more harm. So, I’m avoiding any extremes with my son.

After reviewing the scientific literature, I believe it isn’t television per se that’s problematic, but rather the content. Anything that triggers dopamine and adrenaline rushes can elevate a child’s hedonic threshold, which may predispose them to addictive behaviors later in life. It might not seem like a big deal now, but habitual high stimulation can lead them to seek out similar experiences through addictive substances or behaviors to feel “normal” as an adult.

Remember, you’re priming your child’s unconscious coping mechanisms and nervous system for life. It’s a big responsibility. Pushing the “easy button” now may lead to detrimental effects later for both you and your child.

Also, since your son is neurodivergent, it’s important to note that autistic individuals often learn better visually and audibly rather than verbally. By carefully selecting TV shows that build knowledge and skills useful in school or the community, you can significantly aid his development!

Their brains are naturally drawn to this mode of learning, but it’s important to avoid overstimulation with purely entertainment-focused content, which is common in many TV shows and video games. To enhance learning, try to spend a few minutes every half hour or so discussing and reinforcing the concepts shown on TV with him. This approach helps bridge the learning from the screen to real-life application.

Video games present a unique challenge when it comes to controlling content, as many are specifically designed to be addictive. Their interactive nature can deeply engage players, often through systems that reward frequent engagement and quick response, thereby increasing the risk of habitual use. This design strategy exploits the brain’s reward system, making moderation difficult. As a result, I would avoid video games like the plague with my child.

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