Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Watching TV, Movies and Video games—The True Enemy!

Guest Blogger:
Every time I pick up a new study or read a neuroscience journal, I am reminded about how much our culture has changed our attention span. We are constantly bombarded with visual and auditory stimuli-pictures withinpictures, audio with quick changing visuals, and no time left for the imagination to fill in the gaps. We rarely have “quiet time” that is truly quiet. We have cell phones, digital planners and gadgets, music players that travel with us, and we are rarely “unplugged” in any way anymore. This is not helpful for a child with autism.


Watching TV, movies, and playing some computer games trains our brain to be passively attentive. With these activities, we can pay attention easily, but effortlessly. The more we do these activities, the more “wired” our brain becomes for passive attention—these pathways get stronger and stronger. Then, when we want to concentrate on something like listening, reading, thinking, it is more difficult to do these active brain activities. We are unable to focus on something less than interesting, and we are unable to attend fully for longer periods of time. Imagine then how difficult it becomes for children with autism spectrum disorders to pay attention after brain training in passive attention. Many things we ask a child with autism to do are not immediately meaningful. We ask a child with autism to attend and think despite a sensory system that demands a great deal of mental energy. Most of us are not burdened with so much sensory processing difficulty. It takes a lot of mental effort for a child with autism to do this and we may make it impossible if the child’s brain is wired for passive attention through many hours of TV watching, computer game playing, repeated movie watching. If we use movies, tv and computer games to fill the unstructured time for these kids, then we are only making it harder for them to concentrate in the long run. Over-riding the brain patterns created by these passive activities is particularly troublesome with kids on the spectrum because they have visual pathways that are already strong and tend to be the main mode of their processing.

Often, these movies or games become a child’s obsession. These obsessions may tell us something about the child’s creative insights and the child may develop new motivational topics. However, if allowed to participate in these obsessions for too long, the child on the spectrum becomes increasingly disengaged socially and environmentally. The child can re-create the movie or game mentally and “check out” of more demanding social or environmental interaction without even meaning to do so. Too much time on these visual obsessions can increase opiods in the brain, the feel good chemicals, and not only is it easier for the child to obsess on movies or games than on harder real-time interaction, it is it is biologically rewarded.

I have also noticed lately, and discussed with Tahirih, how many children on the spectrum “switch” into their fantasy world of TV or movie when they become cognitively fatigued. This is when we hear the child repeating lines and noise sequences from favorite shows or movies. I have a nine year old boy with high functioning autism that I have the pleasure of working with each week in a social skills group. I often demand much from this child as it occurs after a full school day and includes topics which are uncomfortable to discuss such as bullying, and angry emotions. I can always tell when he has reached his limit as he will begin to talk to me like I am part of his video game or TV show. I give him a few minutes to share that with me, jump a bit on the trampoline, and then I have him back for more instruction. This blog of thoughts on this topic is not written to pass any judgment on kids or families because there is also value to having some down time for you and your child. I write this to encourage you to think about why TV, videos and games are so attractive to children, how they impact learning, and why we want to help your child fill the time differently.

1 comment:

Angela said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your remarks about TV and movie viewing and autism. I am a speech pathologist in a private special ed school and work with students age 14-21. Almost every one of my students is obsessed with one or more movies, tv shows or characters and sometimes I feel we are fighting a losing battle when we try to engage them and improve communication skills. I wish parents were guided early on to keep their children away from this media bombardment. I think they would make much more progress!