Use your child’s interest in electronic devices to create more social interaction.

Does your child spend endless hours in front of a screen?

Do they love to watch scenes from movies like Minions, Cars, or Frozen repetitiously? Are they in love with the “educational” app on the iPad which sings to them and invites them to press buttons and collect stickers? Do they play angry birds, candy crush or racing cars on your smart phone?

Whatever your child’s chosen activity on their particular screen, here are some ways to view this unstoppable passion they seem to have.

Electronic devices and screens provide a hypnotic, highly absorbing, compelling and extremely addictive experience for our children. Even for us as Neuro-Typical adults, we become very easily distracted by our devices and sucked in to everything that our smart phones have to offer countless times per day. Now that we are connected at the touch of a button this is all too easily within our reach. Imagine that experience to a child who is already bombarded with sensory overload and finds it challenging to connect and relate to people and Bingo – there you have it, the ultimate repetitious and exclusive activity!

It’s extremely difficult to compete with these devices. Our children are already really good at creating a hypnotic, self-stimulating, repetitious experience for themselves which also usually excludes people. These devices are machines designed specifically to do just that (to entertain and stimulate the user). Since our children on the autism spectrum are already having a challenge with creating social connections, this makes it hard for us to create social opportunities (e.g. playing a game, having a conversation, using our imagination together) and actually kills our ability to be creative.

It’s a babysitter. Yes it’s tempting to use the device to keep your child entertained or distracted when you don’t have resources or time to get things done but we have found that once our children no longer have access to the screens then they actually find other ways to entertain themselves. If you have ever had the experience of going on a vacation to a place with no internet access or satellite TV (those old enough to remember this will relate) we know that when these modes of entertainment or distraction are not there then we find other things to do. Your children will too.

Eliminating screen time gives your child a chance to choose people. 

Considering eliminating or severely reducing your child’s screen time could be one of the most life transforming moves you take to complement your Son-Rise Program and offer your child a chance to choose people. It could also be much easier than you think! This of course does not apply if your child is successfully using a communication device to get their needs met and uses it to communicate with you.

As most of you know, on a weekly basis at the Autism Treatment Center of America we run a Son-Rise Program Intensive. This is where where we host a family for the week and their child plays in our playroom the entire day for the 5 days that they are with us.

A few weeks ago we had a sweet 8 year old boy come to the intensive. One of our Son-Rise Program teachers had previously been to their home and reported that the only time he communicated to his family was to ask for the iPad. He would usually spend several hours per day on it. During the intensive they decided (with our guidance) not to give him the iPad for the whole week in order to offer him opportunities to play, interact and connect more deeply with people. On day one, he asked for the iPad over one hundred times. To which we lovingly celebrated his communication and offered him alternatives (e.g. to play with us, to write with us on a paper notepad, etc) while sweetly explaining that we had all decided along with his parents that there was no more iPad.  On day 2 he asked for the iPad over 50 times to which we did the same. On day 3 he asked for the iPad a handful of times, to we all responded in the same way to. By day 5, he no longer asked for the iPad. During the intensive, his social skills blossomed and he began to engage with use more, playing at times for up to 40 minutes with our staff. He used more language, started to smile and laugh with us and became more physically affectionate with us, putting his arm around us and getting close to us. This was groundbreaking!

Now let’s think about all the amazing ways we can bring our children’s motivations (from their screens) and bring them in to them playroom. 

  1.  Do some research and get familiar with your child’s experience.
  2. Print out some material for you to study and also bring in to the playroom. This could include pictures of their favorite characters that you can place on Popsicle sticks, masks of those characters, hats, etc. You may even have some dress-up clothes lying around that could help you resemble them. If your child has favorite topics they like to read about or watch tutorials on (e.g. the solar system, garbage trucks, toilets, dinosaurs, etc), find out some facts about these things and print off some interesting info they might not know. If your child, likes video games, print out the logo of the title of the game and its characters and glue them on to a piece of posterboard. Draw some buttons on it that will activate the sounds to the game.
  3. Create a simple activity you can do together using some of these things that are directly from the screens. Think of a way your child can participate in this game with you (perhaps they can physically participate, verbally participate, or just attend to you as you keep entertaining them).

Here are some examples of some of the types of things you could do:

  • Saving characters: Bring cut out pictures of your child’s favorite characters from their favorite movies or TV show into the playroom. Tape them up on the walls and in various different places around the room. Use a small cardboard box and prop the 2 flaps at the top (that you open the box with) and tape them together like a roof. This box will be the characters home. Cut out a door on the box, and even some windows if you are feeling adventurous. If you don’t have a box handy, just use a plastic bin or small empty trash can with a lid to represent your house. Have fun entertaining your child by driving a pretend car around the room to collect the characters and bring them back home. You could go on different rides (e.g. train ride, boat ride, horse ride) to collect them. Use the character voices along the way to make it fun and familiar to your child.
  • Dress-up and act out scenes: Grab some dress up clothes that resemble the costumes or hair of your child’s favorite people. Study a particular scene to the movie or video game and learn it by heart if you can. If not, print out the lyrics or lines and bring them with you to the playroom. Entertain your child by acting out the scene. If your child plays games on their screens then bring in a posterboard with the characters and buttons from the game glued on to it in the same arrangement as you see on the screen (e.g. Angry birds with the logo and the catapult, etc). Press the buttons on the poster board and act out the sound effects to that game. If it’s a music video they like, bring a microphone and sing the song or attempt to do the dance moves of their favorite star.
  • Interview an expert: If your child has an Asperger’s diagnosis or a High Functioning Autism diagnosis then this game would be suitable for them. Using the facts about their favorite topics that you studied, pretend to be an expert on the topic they love and hold an interview (using a puppet or stuffed toy) to interview you with a microphone and talk about different facts. For example, “interview with inventor of the most common garbage truck” and then answer questions on the make, model, dates invented, etc. You could also try being a character from a movie, who can tell you other character names, traits, catchphrases, jokes, etc.

The main thing that will support you during this time is the belief that what you can offer your child might not be exactly the same as what they are experiencing first hand from the screens, but if you have fun and enjoy yourself then you will always be able to offer them an alternative. So then when (and even if) your child asks for the iPad, phone, TV, etc, sweetly celebrate them and offer them a different twist on what they are looking for (e.g. “Thank you for telling me you want Mommy’s phone. We don’t have the phone right now, but hey, I have a giant Angry Birds game that we can play together!” Let yourself reflect on what an amazing act of love this is. How remarkable it is to be able to offer their brains a chance to be more able to engage with people. To support them in their challenges and to inspire them to initiate more verses being stimulated by the screen.

We believe in you and just know you can do this!

Article By: Becky Damgaard
Son-Rise Program Senior Teacher

One Response

  1. Steve Keyser says:

    Hmmm so you think parents in normal families have time to play with their kids – every time the kids ask for a screen? That’s Literally all day long. “sure honey let’s play” I don’t need to clean, shower, take kids to school, sports, get groceries, cook food, clean up after meals, get kids showered, dressed, help with homework….

    The second issue – what’s your end game here? How long do you expect to hide screens from your kids? Maybe if we move into a cave in Antarctica we could get away from screens. Yea. That’s realistic.

    I get the issue. You want their attention to help teach social skills. However your solution is a non starter in the real world. Only in full time therapy available to the 1% of the 1%.

    Finally I would say, stop with the screen time hysteria. Screen time hysteria is completely unsupported by any published research. To the contrary recent published research reports better cognitive function and social skills by kids with heavy screen time, My child has asd very poor fine motor skills (can’t write) and has a hard time with social play. His screen time (keyboard) improves fine motor skills, teaches him to spell, write using a keyboard (without keyboard writing he could not function in a normal classroom), and he has learned how to socialize with children playing games together in the same room. All from screen time. All of which can and is performed in a normal household setting.

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