Screen Time and Autism Spectrum Disorder: What to Know and AvoidTips for parents of children with intellectual or developmental disabilities for how to manage screen time

Time in front of screens is impossible to avoid. In the ever-expanding world of technology, parents find themselves navigating the intricate balance of allowing their children to benefit from screens while ensuring developmental essentials are not compromised.

For parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs), such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the challenge is heightened, demanding even greater caution in their approach to screen time.

What Parents Should Know about Screen Time and IDDs

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents avoid screen time for any children under 2 except for video chatting when connecting with family (e.g., calls with grandparents). From 2-5, screen time should be limited to one hour per day of high-quality educational programming, ideally with parental involvement and guidance.

What experts agree on is that they don’t want young children, with IDDs or not, parked in front of screens.

While guidelines are not expressly different for young children with ASD or other IDDs, experts encourage parents to be especially vigilant. The relationship between screen time and development in children with ASD and IDDs is not fully understood, but some believe that these kids may be more vulnerable to the effects. Research has shown that it can have a negative impact since children with autism are sensitive to stimuli. They may also experience sleep disturbances, and research has shown that screen time before bed affects sleeping patterns. It’s also been shown to hinder the development of language and skills necessary for social interactions.

One critical thing parents should keep in mind: what’s not happening when children are engaged with screens. That’s interaction with toys, their families and the world around them, which they need as part of their development process. The two-dimensional world of screens – even with programs designed to help children with language, sharing and other skills – just isn’t the same.

What About Screen Time for Healthcare or ASD Treatment?

In general, experts say that internet- or telehealth-based therapy isn’t for young children. However, it is ideal for training parents and caregivers. Telehealth training with parents can be just as effective as in-person training, adds efficiency and can increase access while lowering costs. For parents who have had to shuffle schedules and caregiving duties in order to make in-person appointments, it’s very convenient.

Another benefit of telehealth for parent training is naturalistic observation. The provider can give directions to the parent and observe the child in their own home. With the provider present only by screen, they may be able to observe behaviors that wouldn’t happen in person.

Tips for Parents

Parents of small children with ASD or IDDs have a lot to juggle already. A few tips can help them navigate screen time management more easily:

  1. Set limits and stick to them – One thing that can help with children is to give them a warning a few minutes before screen time ends. A timer can help the child understand how much time is left.
  2. Make screen time a reward – Screen time can reward completing other activities, such as cleaning up or finishing dinner.
  3. Remove screen time before bedtime – To help with healthy sleeping patterns, remove screen time at least 30 minutes before children start preparing for bed.
  4. Model healthy screen time behavior – If children see their parents constantly surfing on phones and other devices or zoning out in front of the TV, they may mimic the behaviors. Show them what responsible use looks like. Particularly for very young children, engage in educational, high-quality content with them to help them understand what they are consuming.

While more research remains to be done, much of what is understood about young children and screen time tells us that moderation is key. Excessive screen time can be harmful to normal development, especially for children with autism or other IDDs.

It’s tempting to use screens to entertain, calm or distract. But young children’s screen time should be carefully managed and monitored. Parents can also set an example by showing their children healthy patterns in using phones, television and other devices.

About Catalight

Catalight breaks down barriers and biases to create a more equitable world so people with developmental disabilities can choose their path. Catalight provides access to innovative, individualized care services, clinical research and advocacy. Through the work of affiliate partners, Easterseals Hawaii and Easterseals Northern California, Catalight and its family of companies support people with developmental disabilities and their families to support them across their care journey.

The Catalight family of companies is one of the largest behavioral health networks in the nation with more than 8,000 practitioners serving 14,000 clients and families every day. Backed by more than a decade of experience and a multidisciplinary team of clinicians, we are reimagining the way people with developmental disabilities and their families experience healthcare. Catalight’s goal is to ensure that individuals and families receive timely access to evidence-based treatment, including naturalistic developmental and language-based services, applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy and speech therapy.