Video Game Obsessions in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"How can I get my son (high functioning autistic) to focus less on his favorite video game (Call of Duty) and spend more time doing other things? He is truly obsessed with war games. It's all he ever talks about."

One of the hallmarks of ASD level 1, or High Functioning Autism (HFA), is the child's tendency to be obsessed with particular topics. He might want to constantly talk about video games, race cars, cartoon characters, movies, or even bugs. 
It can be very frustrating for parents and teachers to deal with an obviously bright, articulate youngster who is somehow "stuck" in one particular frame of reference.

How can you get a child on the autism spectrum to have less obsessive thoughts and ideas? The honest answer is: You will not be able to entirely eliminate them. Some HFA kids will gradually leave one special interest behind, only to quickly fixate on a new one.

There are two ways to classify these thought-consuming interests. Some are considered "primary obsessions," and others are "secondary interests." Often it's difficult to tell which of the two you're dealing with.

Primary obsessions are intense enough that it is very difficult to get the youngster to think of anything else. The obsession monopolizes conversation and daily activities. It may also interfere with schoolwork. The youngster is consumed by the thoughts.

Secondary interests are a challenge and are somewhat obsessive for the youngster, but ultimately can be managed. Not only that, but secondary interests can be used as motivators to help the boy or girl succeed in school or improve behavior. 

Here are some suggestions:

1. Working with your son's teacher, use the "favorite" topic to promote learning. If he likes war video games, apply them to math problems (e.g., "If there are 5 tanks on the battlefield, and then 7 more line up, how many tanks in all?"). Art projects that teach different techniques could involve the topic. Science experiments could address the topic in some way. Reading can be promoted by providing your son with books on the topic. Use the interest as a starting point, and then build upon it, slowly expanding his areas of interest.

2. Use the topic to motivate good behaviors. Buy a book associated with the topic. Your son can read it when homework is finished, or after sitting quietly. Perhaps allow him to watch a movie on WWII when he's completed a job around the house.

3. Reward your son for making conversation that is correctly related to what's going on at the moment (something other than his special interest). For example, if your son looks at the sky and says, "I see an airplane," and that's a comment which is appropriate and in the moment, then immediately respond with attention and praise (e.g., "You're right! I see it too! Look, it's very far away. You've got good eyes. Do you think you'd like to fly in a plane someday?").

4. Give less of a response to random, meaningless comments about the obsession. If your son mentions the obsessive topic when it has nothing to do with what's currently going on, either don't respond, or act confused. For example, gently reply, "We're not on the topic of video games right now," or "why are you talking about that?" If your son becomes agitated, give a simple "ummm hmmm" with little eye contact. Then ask him a question, which requires him to engage in the present activity or conversation.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

•    Anonymous said... A nine year old that plays video games and surfs the net for hours does not become a computer programmer or video game maker. They become 25 year olds that play video games and surfs the net all day. The electronics allow them to be non-verbal, non-social, and obsessive, all the things that are comfortable for my 16 year old. He can control his environment and is confident and competent within the world of the game. I found that he is more social and plays well with other kids at his level, especially other aspies. I took the video games away completely and internet time is at the end of the day as a reward for good behavior. Some days this really sucks and he turns from aspie to a-hole. But he has friends, he plays some sports, and can be social. You have to make them uncomfortable so they will be comfortable in the long run.
•    Anonymous said... By the way, words written out of grief of mama heart, not to frustrate anyone who posted on the set limits topic. And I meant "advice".
•    Anonymous said... Explain how video games can be addicting. Compare and contrast to something else that is addicting. Then ask how will they know when playing their game becomes a problem for them. What are the signs they see? How can they monitor themselves? Do they need a timer set for instance...All children on the spectrum unwind with video games but they must be taught to self monitor themselves and balance that with outdoor activities.
•    Anonymous said... I appreciate the "set limits" thoughts BUT, my 9 year old Aspie is ONLY interested in video games, computers and electronic devices. I get frustrated with the onslaught of advise to replace the activity because in the case of autism, sometimes you simply cannot. We had him in play therapy since he was a tiny toddler and he has NEVER EVER played. So yes...I homeschool...then he has chores...but by afternoon when all is done there is literally nothing else that can occupy his time. Outside stuff? No. Legos, puzzles, coloring, cars, board games, books...absolutely no interest. If you take away the electronics (which of course I have done a million times), he simply doesn't replace it and he does nothing (and that hurts a mama's heart). I had to rant a bit here because I am up to my eyeballs in advise that doesn't work and it is very frustrating. I wish my son could learn to love other activities (and it is not that we don't try - he starts archery class tomorrow) but it is what it is sometimes.
•    Anonymous said... I think Erik has hit the nail right on the head. You can't help your children by doing things that make them comfortable, especially when they have Aspergers. Most day-to-day things make a kid with Asperger's uncomfortable and the only way to help them grow is to push them out of their comfort level and do the things that don't come naturally.
•    Anonymous said... My boy is more violent and less caring for others especially his siblings when he has been playing fast action video games. We completely banned him from them over a year ago and his behaviour has much improved. He was a little upset, but he knows they affect him and get him into trouble, so those times when he is logical it's easy enough to get over the reasons why which he's accepted. thereare plenty of other games he can play, even some educational ones, he loves maths games.
•    Anonymous said... my boy loves anything to do with games and the internet! too... think I let him play on them too long myself... But then he says you like Facebook and being online too Mom!... He's right it is very addictive.... kids can't just go play outside like I did as a kid, that's why I let both my kids be online and on games more then I should.... Wish my kids could have the freedom that I had..... Say la vie... Goodluck will def be reading the comments
•    Anonymous said... there are a lot of jobs in video games, computers and electronic devices. is he interested in taking them apart and putting them back together? enroll him in computer class or take him to video game conventions for socialization. buy him books or check out books at the library about the video game. get the call of duty lego sets. embrace the obsession. he may outgrow it and appreciate that you accepted it or he may turn the obsession into a career.
•    Anonymous said... try introducing him to sports games, like NBA 2013 or FIFA which is a fun soccer game- my son switched from Halo and Call of Duty to the sports xbox games and loves them.
•    Anonymous said... We also have limits on time for video games. It's my sons down time after school. He gets 30-45 mins depending on what events we have for the evening (homework, etc). I don't let him earn the time but we have a printed schedule that he helped create that I refer to if I have a problem.
•    Anonymous said... We set a daily time limit on video games. He has to do chores to earn the time.
•    Anonymous said... When you take the video games away and he doesn't replace them, how much time are you giving him to choose something else? Maybe he hasn't gotten bored enough. He's old enough, in spite of his condition, to make the choice to be bored. Though it may be upsetting to you to see him "doing nothing" its not hurting him a bit. Adults go to meditation retreats and do nothing for days on end, and its considered a good thing. My son likes to do two things - legos and TV. Due to discipline issues, I took both away for a week. The first day was HELL, I can't believe we made it a day, gradually we did things he didn't normally do and it turned out to be not so bad.
•    Anonymous said... Wow this is my son to a tee, he to is addicted to "call of duty" on his xbox. i hate it he will play al day and have the night if i let him. he is 14yrs old, and was into legos for awhile but he's starting to outgrow them. i just worry in the future that it will be more important then the things he needs to do like school or work. im finding it very hard to set limits.

*   Anonymous said... I didnt see this thread and just posted about this same issue. Its sooo hard. My daughter is getting 'lost' in the world of Pokemon and i do get her interested in other things but Pokemon are everything to her. They are real to her and she relates to them. Its excluding other things. I know its a result of her trying to organize her world and feel safe but i want to help her feel safe somehow without always needing them. i hired her a babysitter over the summer i knew was aware of pokemon but little did i know the 21 year old girl was still obsessed with them herself and it put my daughter over the edge! i feel like she gets angry that i'm not a big pokefan myself. its almost like her and the pokemon vs the world. sad. i wish there were a better way to help her with her anxiety. i get her outside a lot and spend time with her and have done everything i can to get her socialized/friends. i advocate for her at school (but still believe its her big stressor) and i know that there are changes in our life that are hard. i got her a counselor but all she talked about there was pokemon and she didnt connect with her... thanks for letting me vent

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