Last week, a major study in video game use that compared kids who are typically developing to those with ASD and ADHD was released. The study, authored by Micah Mazurek of the University of Missouri, and Christopher Engelhardt, of the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, appears online in “Pediatrics.”This research got a lot of hype – enough to make it into several national newspapers and websites – so I feel the need to discuss it here.
In brief, here’s a decription: Participants were 141 parents of boys ages 8-18. There were three groups: parents of boys with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), parents of boys with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or parents of typically developing (TD) boys. Participants were given a series of questionnaires which measured different things, such as daily hours of video game use, in-room video game access, video game genres, ‘problematic’ (meaning ‘addictive’) video game use, ASD symptoms, and ADHD symptoms. Results showed several things, but here are the main take-home messages from the authors:
Boys with ASD and ADHD demonstrated greater problematic video game use than did boys with typical development. Inattention was uniquely associated with problematic use for both groups, and role-playing game genre was associated with problematic use among the ASD group only.
I’m going to skip over my nit-picky issues about this study, such as the fact that data relied on parental reports and not direct observations, or that the average household income level of the typically developing boys was significantly higher than the other two groups (which, in all fairness, they tried to control for statistically, but still…). Instead I’m going to focus on one phrase in the headline that does not sit well with me: “Problematic video game use.”
Anyone familiar with autism knows that most people on the Spectrum are prone to certain kinds of repetitive behaviors. These are sometimes referred to as perseveration or stereotypy. Parents often informally describe their children’s need for repetitive motions, words, phrases or type of character as “addictions” but it really is quite different from this. (Regular readers of the iQ Journals will already know about Quentin’s bizarre “addiction” to corporate logos, as I have written so much about it.) No one really knows what causes this kind of perseveration in autistic individuals and there are different theories as to how to treat it. My belief is that most clinicians would not call it “addiction” as that adds a whole new kind of mental disorder to the diagnosis, and no one really wants to do that.
In this study, the word “problematic” is used interchangeably with the word “addiction” – which to me, makes things seem even worse, but both words seem inappropriate. This study sensationalizes repetitive behaviors, which is already a pretty well-known symptom of autism. For some kids, this means video game play. For others, it is something entirely different. (Quentin, for example, dislikes playing most kinds of video games, but prefers highly visual activities such as flipping rapidly through photo albums, books, magazines, or watching videos.)
I want to point out that in this study, typically developing boys preferred first-person shooter games the most, while boys with ASD preferred role-playing games. That made me smile, because the last thing I want to think about is linking boys with autism to mass-shootings in the news. Unfortunately, another analysis revealed that ASD boys who preferred the role-playing games had higher scores for “problematic game playing,” indicating that this is the most addictive type of game for boys with autism.
But are role-playing video games “problematic” or are they actually beneficial? Last week I interviewed Stuart Duncan, the creator of Autcraft, and he described all the benefits he sees from kids with autism joining in a game like Minecraft. Perhaps the need for repetitive play is therapeutic in its own way. Perhaps role-playing games allow boys with autism socialize and interact with others in a ways that they feel more comfortable. Perhaps this kind of behavior can actually be considered culturally and socially appropriate among 8-18 year old boys, even if it does not appear that way to autism researchers.
I’m not condoning excessive video game play, but I do not like the assumptions these researchers have about the act of playing for long periods of time. If a child loved playing classical music all day, would that be considered “problematic”? If a child loves computing numbers and playing math games all the time, would that be an “addiction”? I think the researchers working with children who have autism need to rethink their intentions behind their studies before turning their results to the media to sensationalize.