Children on the Autism Spectrum and Video Game Addiction

According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Bolton, video game addicts show the same personality traits as kids who are suffering from Aspergers (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). These young people find social situations stressful. The study has fueled concerns that video gaming may lead to a rise in mental health problems like depression.

During the study, researchers examined nearly 400 gamers (most of whom were male). The subjects were questioned about how much they played video games (researchers did not specifically test participants with AS or HFA during the study). The research revealed that the higher the time the participants spent playing video games, the more likely they were to show 3 specific traits usually associated with an autism spectrum disorder: (1) neuroticism, (2) lack of extraversion, and (3) lack of agreeableness.

This outcome suggests that children on the autism spectrum may have a higher likelihood of becoming video game addicts, because it allows them to escape into a world where they can avoid face-to-face interactions. In addition, these kids may be prone to addiction to MMORPGs (massive multi-player online role playing games).

Children and teens on the autism spectrum often can’t make eye contact and fail to pick up social cues (e.g., boredom in others). The researchers say that tends to isolate them and can trigger depression, which video games may encourage.

Treatment for AS and HFA usually consists of improving social skills and breaking repetitive behavior, the very things video games discourage. Video games don’t prepare these young people for interacting with real people. Also, as an older teen or young adult, video game addiction is known to cause problems with motivation, going to college, and finding employment (you can’t walk into a college or job interview and say that you are really good at playing Xbox).

While most people associate addiction with substances (e.g., drugs or alcohol) therapists recognize addictive behaviors as well:
  1. If the person does not get more of the substance or behavior, he becomes irritable and miserable.
  2. The person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him going.

Compulsive gaming meets these criteria, and many therapists have reported seeing severe withdrawal symptoms in game addicts. They become angry, violent, or depressed. If moms and dads take away the computer, their "special needs" youngster may sit in the corner and pout, refuse to eat, sleep, or do anything else.

Unlike substance abuse, the biological aspect of video game addiction is uncertain. Research suggests gambling elevates dopamine, and gaming is in the same category. But there's more to addiction than brain chemistry. Even with alcohol, it's not just physical. There's a psychological component to the addiction (e.g., knowing you can escape or feel good about your life). The addict is trying to change the way he feels by taking something outside of himself. The cocaine addict, for example, learns, I don't like the way I feel, I take a line of cocaine. For gamers, it's the fantasy world that makes them feel better.

The lure of a fantasy world is especially pertinent to online role-playing games. These are games in which a player assumes the role of a fictional character and interacts with other players in a virtual world. An intelligent youngster who is unpopular at school can become dominant in the game. The virtual life becomes more appealing than real life.

Too much gaming may seem relatively harmless compared with the dangers of a drug overdose, but video game addiction can ruin lives. Kids who play 4 - 5 hours per day have no time for socializing, doing homework, or playing sports. That takes away from normal social development (e.g., you can have a 20-year-old adult child still living at home with the emotional intelligence of a 12-year-old … he's never learned to talk to girls …never learned to play a sport ...never learned to hold down a job).

Spending a lot of time gaming doesn't necessarily qualify as an addiction. Most people play games safely. The question is: Can you always control your gaming activity? According to the Center for On-Line Addiction, warning signs for video game addiction include:
  • Feeling irritable when trying to cut down on gaming
  • Gaming to escape from real-life problems, anxiety, or depression
  • Lying to friends and family to conceal gaming
  • Playing for increasing amounts of time
  • Thinking about gaming during other activities

In addition, video game addicts tend to become isolated, dropping out of their social networks and giving up other hobbies. It's about somebody who has completely withdrawn from other activities.

The overwhelming majority of video game addicts are males under 30. It's usually kids with poor self-esteem and social problems. They're intelligent and imaginative, but don't have many friends at school. A family history of addiction may also be a factor.

Unfortunately, many - if not most - parents of kids on the spectrum view their child's constant game playing as self-soothing behavior with few - if any - negative consequences (e.g., "he's entertaining himself ...he's not hurting or bothering anyone ...he's happy"). But what parents fail to realize is that, as the clock tics and the years pass, their child is losing opportunity after opportunity to develop emotional muscles (a big problem with the disorder anyway - but exacerbated by years of gaming).

If you're concerned your youngster may be addicted to video games, don't dismiss it as a phase. Keep good documents of the youngster's gaming behavior, including:
  • How the youngster reacts to time limits
  • Logs of when the youngster plays and for how long
  • Problems resulting from gaming

You need to document the severity of the problem. Don't delay seeking professional help. If there is a problem, it will only get worse. Treatment for video game addiction is similar to detox for other addictions, with one important difference. Computers have become an important part of everyday life, as well as many jobs, so compulsive gamers can't just look the other way when they see a PC. It's like a food addiction. You have to learn to live with food. Because video game addicts can't avoid computers, they have to learn to use them responsibly. That means no gaming. As for limiting game time to an hour a day, I compare that to an alcoholic saying he's only going to drink beer.

The toughest part of treating video game addicts is that it's a little bit more difficult to show somebody they're in trouble. Nobody's ever been put in jail for being under the influence of a game. The key is to show gamers they are powerless over their addiction, and then teach them real-life excitement as opposed to online excitement.

(It should be noted that we are only recommending "abstinence" for the child who is truly an "addict" -- and it will be up to parents to make that determination.)

==> Preventing Meltdowns and Tantrums in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

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