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Screen Time and Children Who Have Autism: Moderation is the Key

Technology is all around us, and our children typically use it as much as we do.  Often parents really want to purchase a tablet for their child, as they have either heard that this is very beneficial for children on the spectrum, or that a tablet can be used as a communication device for their child. If the device is being used as an educational tool with specialized apps, I often caution parents to limit 'screen time,' that is time spent engaged with cell phones, tablets, laptops, televisions or other devices.

Although these devices can have many benefits, it can be challenging to find a healthy balance between children's screen time and other activities. A Kaiser Foundation Report from 2010 suggested that elementary aged children in the U.S. used entertainment technology for 7 1/2 hours per day! This fact makes me wonder: how much screen time is too much?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend no more than 2 hours per day on devices. The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that children from the ages of 2 to 5 years have no more than an hour of screen time per day.  However, Dr. Jodi Gold in her book Screen Smart Parenting (2015)  suggests that we focus more on the content and how the technology is used than the amount of use. Although there isn't a lot of research on the impact of technology on children with autism, we do see early indications that electronics can have benefits and dangers. Many devices and programs are powerful learning tools. It is also clear, though, that human interaction is the best way to support learning, and technology should not replace social interaction. We also know that technology use reduces physical activity and affects sleep (that is, night time technology use can be overstimulating and make it harder for children to fall asleep).  There are also safety concerns related to identity theft, cyber-bullying and exposure to inappropriate content.

A limit of two hours per day of 'screen time' and parental supervision and awareness of children's technology use seems like a reasonable limit, especially for children under the age of 6.

 

The Value of Consistency in Parenting by Gabriel Canal Guest Blogger

During the 10 years I've been working as a Behaviour Consultant, I've heard the words "pick your battles" from educators thousands of times. What they mean is that if you see your chlid acting out, you have a choice to make: (a) you intervene and be consistent with the consequences you set, or (b) you simply do not intervene. No educator will tell you to set a boundary that you later cannot follow through on. Doing that could make your words lose the power they have, and could teach the child that she can get away with breaking the rules.

My experience has shown me that consistency is a key component in parenting. I am not only talking about the consistency between words and actions (e.g., if I say that I will give you a cookie, that I will deliver the cookie), but I am also talking about consistency in terms of responding to inappropriate behaviours.

Many times, in our work, we use a strategy called extinction (that is, extinction of the reinforcer that keeps the inappropriate behaviour going). In other words, extinction means that if a child misbehaves (e.g., screams) to obtain candy, we will not give him candy any more when he misbehaves. We know that if we are consistent with not giving the screaming child the candy, and if at the same time we consistently provide the candy when the child asks for it nicely, we will reduce screaming and increase appropriate requests for candy.

Many times, parents start implementing extinction plans and they find that the child's behaviour escalates (i.e., increases in frequency, duration, and/or intensity). With extinction, that increase is expected and it does not mean that the strategy is not working. After all, the child knows that screaming gets him candy, so he will try and try even harder, louder, or for longer periods of time. This is a crucial moment in the implementation of a behaviour plan that uses extinction. If a parent gives in and ends up giving the candy when the child screams louder or for a longer period of time, that parent might be teaching the child "if you want to get candy, screaming isn't enough, you need to scream louder or longer to get it."

Therefore, being consistent is extremely important when changing behaviour. We need to make our words match our actions, giving our words power and giving the child a reliable and consistent parent.

Gabriel Canal, Behaviour Consultant- Positive Parenting and Behaviour Support Program- FVCDC

What's the big deal about evidence based therapy for autism?

There is a lot of talk these days about evidence based treatment for autism. Essentially this means that recommended treatments should have enough research to support their effectiveness. Unfortunately, sometimes treatments are offered that do not have an adequate research background to support their use. That is why it is important that we remain skeptical about alternative treatments. We need to be open to potentially beneficial treatments,  but we also need to ask "Where's the research and data in support of this?" In 2009 and 2015, the National Standards Project of the National Autism Centre in the U.S. completed two separate reviews of the research on the many treatments for autism. (Please see their website here: www.nationalautismcenter.org/national-standards-project).  This is a great reference if you have a question about whether a therapy has an evidence base or not.

You can even download free copies of their reports, which list treatments as either "Established" (such as Applied Behaviour Analysis), "Emerging" with less research but some indication these treatments may be beneficial (for example, Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices are classified as 'emerging treatments'), "Unestablished Treatments" and 'Ineffective or Harmful Treatments. "  The two National Standards reports are very helpful references,  if you have a question about something you hear about as a 'new treatment." Remember, an evidence based treatment has an adequate body of well designed research behind it to show that is indeed effective. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and ask if there is any research published in credible scientific journals. Also check with the professionals on your child's team. They will definitely be able to help check out a possible treatment!