Unplug: Tips For Parents To Help Students With Autism Get Off Electronics

The Problem

Spending excessive time with electronic technology can be an issue for all students - with or without autism. 


But individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are at particularly high risk for two big quagmires--spending too much time on video games and other electronic technology, and being unable to disengage. Both generate a cascade of negative consequences including increased social isolation and family conflict and decreased opportunities to socialize and practice social skills. Academics, hygiene, and physical health can also deteriorate.  


A Perfect Storm

In individuals with ASD, many powerful reasons converge to make a perfect storm. Perseveration, inflexibility, and cognitive rigidity are hallmark features of ASD. Video games and other media are intensely rewarding. They allow users to self-soothe and self-regulate, boost self-esteem with welcome experiences of competency, and place little demand on (weak) social skills. The fast pace and intensely stimulating nature of video games appeal to those individuals with ASD who also have attention deficits. These factors set the stage for compulsive use and overuse.


The Family Suffers

Parents try lecturing and logic, begging and pleading, threats and guilt. They feel angry, confused and inadequate in the face of these spiraling, no-win scenarios. They are bewildered by the tantrums, tears, defiance, and near panic they see in their son or daughter. Family relationships are undermined by increased strife and reduced social opportunities, which affect the entire family.


What to Do?

First, Adjust Your Beliefs

  • Change your mindset and radically accept that what you are currently doing isn’t working.
  • Embrace the idea that creating motivating (rewarding) alternatives will work better than punishment.

Generate A List of Alternatives

  • Engage your son or daughter in making a list of alternative leisure activities they would be willing to try out.
  • Create natural incentives for completing the list by making the activity fun, engaging, and visually appealing.
  • Require that he or she complete the list to re-gain access to preferred electronics.
  • Engage the entire family in supporting this project.
  • Non-athletic activities such as chess, theatre, drawing, collecting, or reading, and non-team sports such as swimming, fencing, or track may be more rewarding for students with ASD.
  • Repetitive or structured activities such as a gym work-out may appeal more than unstructured activities.  
  • Consider sensory factors.
  • Draw on skills such as rote memory, fact gathering, and music.

Help Your Son or Daughter Choose 1-3 Items From the List

  • Work together and make it fun.
  • Assist with practical considerations such as budget, time, and motor skills, ability to follow rules, and tolerance for competition.  
  • Remind him or her of his or her special talents and skills.
  • Incentivize your child or teen by granting access to preferred activities once 1-3 items have been selected.

Pair Natural Incentives with Chosen Leisure Activities

  • Walking or hiking can be paired with a healthy snack or the promise of a surprise, such as a new joke, or new music on the iPod, or, if the activity is swimming, a fluffy new towel with a preferred logo on it.  
  • Use tangible incentives--your son or daughter can earn points toward something he/she wants by participating in the new activities.
  • Be sure to build in face-to-face time with a parent.  

And Here's the Punchline... 

Flip the status quo. Parents should take ownership of the electronics both literally and with the use of parent control systems. Explain to your child or teen that he/she will earn controlled access by participating in the new, chosen activities. For example, if your son or daughter agrees to try swimming twice a week, then he/she earns access to preferred electronics X number of minutes per week. Finalize the deal, but keep the upper hand.  


Do You Need Some Help? 

Many parents easily set up a behavioral program on their own. Some parents seek out the support of a behaviorally oriented psychologist or other mental health professional if they’re not sure they can do it on their own.  


Wrapping Up

Tired of arguing? Have you noticed it doesn’t work? Positive, reward-based approaches that systematically enhance another’s motivation to establish new habits and behaviors are easier, more effective and a lot more fun. This approach can work for anyone you’d like to help -- typically developing students or otherwise. Give it a try.

About the Author

Dr. Elizabeth Roberts is the Director of Clinical Support Services at College Internship Program (CIP), a comprehensive transition program for young adults on the autism spectrum and with learning differences.


Links: Parental controls over electronic technology


MacMullin, JA, Lunsky, Y, Weiss, JA (2016) Plugged in: Electronics use in youth and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Autism vol. 20(1) 45-54.

About College Internship Program

The College Internship Program is a comprehensive transition program for young adults on the Autism Spectrum and with Learning Differences. Our Mission is to inspire independence and expand the foundation on which young adults with Autism, ADHD, and other Learning Differences can build happy and productive lives.