Why I Wouldn’t Stop Screen Time for Children with Autism

I recently got a question from a speech pathologist on one of my private Facebook groups asking how she could support a family in reducing or eliminating screen time for their two year old with autism, who was watching up to four hours of TV a day.

Before I get into my stance on screen time, I just want to remind everyone that all of our leisure skills are automatic reinforcement. Shooting basketballs into a net until to get score, for instance, 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, watching reality TV or reading a book are also leisure skills that are automatically reinforcing.

When we’re thinking about a child with autism, who lacks language skills, probably lacks play skills and lacks leisure activity, it becomes really tricky to reduce or eliminate screen time.

I remember when Lucas was first diagnosed and he was three years old and we started with ABA therapy. Our Lovaas ABA Consulting 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 and it’s hours and hours a day.” Our consultant said something that really caught my attention. She basically said that this was Lucas’ form of stimming. And that if we took away the TV without replacing that behavior and that time with some other skill, we might have more problem behaviors and different problem behaviors because he was going to need to fill his time somehow.

It was either watching Barney or, if we totally eliminated TV time,  he might start leaving the house, writing on walls with a pen, climbing on furniture. All those 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 and kids in general have a lot of screen time.

I don’t think it’s necessary to reduce or eliminate screen time right away with children with autism before a full assessment and plan are developed because, like I said, that time will be filled with other things. I’ve had clients who have very poor leisure skills and no play skills who are rocking or banging their head on hard surfaces. I had one little boy who was only two who banged for three hours a day and 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 who are keeping themselves busy but just repetitively putting straws in a bottle or building blocks repetitively for hours.

If I had my choice between having a child who’s two or three build repetitively, the same thing over and over and over again for an hour or watch an episode of a children’s TV show, I’d actually pick the screen time because I think there’s more language involved. With the show, there’s potentially imitation and learning the character’s names. If you can watch TV with the child, if you can 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. You have to put a load of wash in. You have to turn your back and cook or do something like that and you need something to engage your child so that they aren’t getting into dangerous situations or doing repetitive behaviors, either motor behaviors like hitting their head or rocking or repetitive play behaviors that are just going to get them kind of stuck.

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 for our kids with autism before we can teach them the skills they need to replace that screen time. Hope you enjoyed this video blog and I’ll see you next week.