Autism and Screen Time: Why I Wouldn’t Stop Screen Time

I recently got a question from a speech pathologist on one of my private Facebook groups about autism and screen time. She asked how she could support a family in reducing or eliminating screen time for their two-year-old with autism. They were watching up to four hours of TV a day.

Before I get into my stance on autism and screen time, I just want to remind everyone that all of our leisure skills are automatic reinforcement. Shooting basketballs into a net until you score is a leisure activity. And it’s a form of automatic reinforcement. Also, playing the violin by yourself until you can hit the right notes, play time, watching reality television or video, or reading a book are also leisure skills that are automatically reinforcing.

Autism and Screen Time

It’s hard to reduce or eliminate screen time for a child with autism who lacks language skills, play skills, and leisure activity.

I remember when Lucas was first diagnosed at three years old. We started with ABA therapy. Our Lovaas ABA consultant came in and the first thing out of my husband’s mouth was, How do we get Lucas to stop watching so much TV? He’s just obsessed with watching Barney for hours and hours a day. Our consultant said something that really caught my attention. She basically said that screen viewing was Lucas’ form of stimming. And that if we limit screen time or take away the TV without replacing that behavior with some other skill, we might have more problem behaviors. And different problem behaviors because he was going to need to fill his time spent somehow.

It was either letting Lucas watch Barney or chance that he might start leaving the house, writing on walls with a pen, or climbing on the furniture. All the things he did when he wasn’t engaged with something. She really planted the seed that perhaps screen time wasn’t as bad as my husband was thinking. And over the years, both as a parent and professional, I see families really struggling with this. And now, we’re not only dealing with TV, but we’re dealing with iPads, computers, iPhones, iPods. Kids in general have a lot of screen time.

Don’t Eliminate Screen Time Right Away

I don’t think it’s necessary to reduce or eliminate screen time right away with children with autism. The screen time will be filled with other things. A full assessment and plan need to be developed. Clients with very poor leisure skills and no play skills may rock or bang their heads on hard surfaces. I had one little boy who was only two who banged for three hours a day. He had an open lesion on the back of his head when I first started consulting— that’s how under-stimulated he was. And we can go from that low-level stim to children whose daily play is just repetitively putting straws in a bottle or building blocks repetitively for hours.

Positive Uses of Screen Time

If I had my choice between having a child build the same thing over and over again or watch an episode of a children’s TV show, I’d actually pick the screen time. I think there’s more language involved and help with social interaction. With the show, there’s potentially imitation and learning the character’s names. If you can watch TV with the child or engage with them with iPad apps that are developmentally appropriate, that’s great too.

And I know as a parent there are times when you have to get things done. You have to get a shower or put a load of wash in. You have to turn your back or cook dinner. And you need something to engage your child so that they aren’t getting into dangerous situations or doing repetitive behaviors. Things like hitting their head or rocking or repetitive play.

I’m not advocating that two-year-olds watch four hours of TV each day. But I am realistic to know that screen time isn’t all bad. Especially before we can teach our children with autism the skills they need to replace that screen time. If you have more questions about autism and screen time, come take my free workshop at marybarbera.com/workshop. Hope you enjoyed this video blog and I’ll see you next week.