Children's Voice May/June 2006

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Executive Directions
Parenting Pages
Management Matters
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Parenting Pages

Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

If You Never Start

Food for thought about video games and special-needs children.

By Ellen Notbohm

"If you never start, you'll never have to worry about stopping." It's an adage that has been with me all my life. It's how my parents talked to the teenage me about smoking; it's how our first pediatrician talked to me about spanking. It's how I explain to people why I never go to Starbucks.

And although this axiom is at work in my life, it is sometimes intuitive rather than a conscious choice. It's the reason we never had Nintendo, Gameboy, PlayStation or any other video game system in our home. There was no actual list in my head of reasons why we shouldn't let our boys, one with autism and one with ADHD, indulge in this very common contemporary pastime. I just let inertia do its job--we didn't have one, and if we never got one, we could just bypass all the fights about which games were okay, how much time they could spend playing them, whether they were interfering with homework, and of course the expense of the never-ending demand for new games and upgraded equipment.

Some years later, our original pediatrician had retired, and we were getting to know a new doctor. He really got my attention with his reaction to an offhand comment I made about not having any video games in the house.

"That is probably the single most important parenting decision you ever made for these kids."

I didn't know him well enough to know whether hyperbole was his style or if this statement was sincere in its incredible weightiness. At the time, I merely accepted it as a nice compliment, but over the years my mind would wander back to it. Seven years later, I finally asked him what exactly he meant. Did he in fact even remember saying it to me?

"Yes," came the answer. "I can well believe I said that. And I stand by it, and here's why: Video games--all video games, not just the violent ones--magnify the issues of ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, and related disorders."

You already know the arguments against video games, that they are addictive, overstimulating, and unrealistic, and that some reward socially unacceptable behavior. But the bottom line is much more subtle, even insidious. No parent or teacher, my pediatrician says, can compete with the sheer pace of a video game. Real life simply does not and cannot move that quickly, reward that quickly, and wipe-out-and-start-over that quickly. The artificial expectation it sets up for the child is insurmountable. By comparison, life in real time, at the speed of real life, is boring. Already overstimulated, the child seeks even more stimulation. The child who is already hyper becomes yet more hyper.

Of course, I can't tar all video games with the same brush. Worthwhile ones are out there. But it's sobering to confront just how actively video games can work against the very challenges we are trying to surmount when the child or student has autism, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, depression, or any other condition that nips at the heels of their social functioning, motor development, and sensory integration.

Sensory overload. Video games overstimulate the visual and auditory senses while offering no involvement of the other three. The drum-like repetitive action and artificial sound encourages perseveration. Jana Cahill, an adult with autism, tells me, "Video games are not what they used to be" and that the action has become "too real, too bright, and too fast." The games have become ever more intense, she says, and "being an autistic, the graphics give me a headache until I get used to the games."

Hand-eye coordination. You've heard the argument that video games are good for hand-eye coordination. There are about a jillion activities that do so much more constructively: drawing, puzzles, blocks, Legos and other building sets, dressing dolls, digging dirt, Nerf sports, kitchen pursuits, musical instruments, puppets, almost any craft activity or sand box pursuit, just to name a few. "I don't believe video games improve hand eye coordination," Cahill says. "If it's bad to begin with, it only gets worse."

Inactivity. "Get up offa that thing!" James Brown shouts in a 30-year-old song. We can no longer avoid the alarming information about obesity and other organic diseases that are escalating sharply among today's children who aren't active enough. But there's more: A growing body of evidence suggests that cognitive learning is directly related to physical activity. Schools that incorporate physical activity into their academic programs report increased concentration; improved math, reading, and writing scores; and fewer disruptive behaviors. My own son made marked leaps in reading, math, and general cognition immediately after learning to swim and, later, ride a bike.

Fantasy vs. reality. Distinguishing between fantasy and reality requires the ability to engage in perspective taking, something many children with special needs are notoriously lacking. That inability has ominous implications as applied to Ninja-chopping, motorcycle-crashing, machine gun-blasting video games--or any other "harmless" fantasy portrayal. Do you dare imagine what Wyle E. Coyote really looked like after he went over that cliff with a cache of dynamite?

Last year, my son's social studies class had an assignment in which each student presented a short speech "in character" as a famous ancient Greek. Bryce chose Alexander the Great. ("The only name on the list I could pronounce," he said, only half-joking.) His classmate Michael chose Zeus. When I commented that Zeus was mythical, as opposed to Alexander, who was quite real, Bryce's startled reaction was, "What? Does Michael know this?"

I met up with Michael's mother at school shortly thereafter and relayed the question to her. She rolled her eyes a bit sadly and replied, "Does Michael ever know the difference between fantasy and real?"

It's something to consider if your child suffers from nightmares and can't quite tell you why.

Rewarding unacceptable, illegal behavior. Is it realistic to expect the child who struggles with perspective to understand the destructive action in a video game is "for entertainment only?" This is the part I find most scary. Games whose object is to blow up opponents or lop off their body parts give instant positive reinforcement for successful violent behavior. Worse, as opposed to TV, the child is participating in the violent activity rather than merely watching it.

The worst-case scenario: These are behaviors that, if emulated, could later land him in jail. The nuances of law enforcement are going to be challenging enough without the added handicap of pondering helplessly why some behavior is okay in a favorite game but not okay on the corner of 5th and Elm.

Social skills vacuum. Think of all the elements that go into healthy social development--engaging in positive interpersonal interactions, building a sense of worth and self-definition, expressing oneself through creative thinking and activities, being a meaningful participant in a group. Ask yourself if video games fulfill any of these for your child. Do video games help her learn to impose the self-discipline necessary to structure her time, set reasonable limits, and prioritize tasks? Do they help her learn to distinguish and choose gracefully between wanna-do's and hafta-do's, or between privileges and rights?

Language development. If language development is an urgent issue for your special-needs child or student, there are few worse friends than the video game. Played in isolation, no useful language happens at all. Even in parallel play with a friend or sibling, attention is fixated on the screen, and whatever minimal verbal exchange does takes place generally relates only to what is happening on the screen.

Regression. Does your child demonstrate social or cognitive regression following summers and extended school breaks? All skill development--reading, making conversation, taking turns at games, hitting a tennis ball, baking brownies, or tracking down the evil Super Mario double--takes practice. Extended time off from school shouldn't be time to abandon social and cognitive learning.

Do the math: Children who are in school 6.5 hours per day, 175 days a year, spend about 20% of their total waking hours per year in school. The rest of their time and instruction is the responsibility of us parents and other caregivers.

And as a parent, there's no way around an investment of your own time in whatever video game system you decide to allow into your home. Do you, yourself, understand the system and the games well enough to bail out your child when she doesn't "get it" and her frustration starts to boil over?

Will you allow only educational or strategy games and no competition games, which set up a winner/loser scenario? Are you willing to preview all games? One of the first games we were exposed to was a supposedly educational, timed math game. The child would select from multiple-choice answers while the clock ticked away. If the choice was incorrect, the game would honk and blare, "Brrrr-aaa-ppppp! You're a loser!"

Admittedly, this was many years ago, and games have come a long way since then, but so have the cheap-buck artists. Many children with learning differences struggle with low self-esteem. Some of this struggle comes from their limited ability to place things in perspective--for them, there's a winner and a loser, and nothing in between. It isn't "only a game," it's a test of self-worth.

Will you be able to veto and circumvent inappropriate games in the face of relentless resistance? That's "something you don't see on the news--a parent returning [an inappropriate] game that their underage kid bought," Cahill says. "My parents were the only parents I knew who actually bought and played the video games I chose."

A child's job is to explore the world. For kids with disabilities, that exploration may be a little more tenuous, a little more treacherous. But explore they must, and that means touching, talking, tasting, and trekking--in short, discovering. Before the 20th Century, this happened without the aid of video screens.

Long before my pediatrician had anything to say about it, the great writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did: "Talent develops in solitude, character in the full current of human life."

© 2006 Ellen Notbohm. Adapted from "Postcards from the Road Less Traveled," Autism/Asperger's Digest, November-December 2005.

Ellen Notbohm is the author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, winner of iParenting Media's Greatest Products of 2005 Award, and coauthor of 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, winner of Learning Magazine's 2006 Teacher's Choice Award. Comments and requests for reprint permission are welcome at

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