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Many teenagers with or without an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) love video games. In fact, previous research has shown that adolescents with ASD are more likely than those with other types of disabilities to spend most of their free time playing video games. One study even found that children with ASD spend significantly more hours per day playing video games and have significantly higher scores on a measure of addictive use than their typically developing siblings.

However, while studies have shown that excessive video game play leads to problematic behavior in typically developing teens, there has been little to no research, up until this point, that examines if video game use also leads to problematic behavior in kids on the autism spectrum.

In “Video game use and problem behaviors in boys with autism spectrum disorders,” two researchers at the University of Missouri set out to answer this question. Their study focused on the amount of time spent playing video games, problematic game play patterns, and video game genre. The researchers analyzed surveys completed by parents of boys between the ages of 8 and 18 who had an existing autism spectrum diagnosis.

Their results indicated that the average time spent playing video games was 2.4 hours a day. Researchers found no significant correlation between daily hours of video game play and inattention, hyperactivity, or oppositional defiant behavior.  The “action” genre (e.g. Star Wars; requires players to use quick reflexes, accuracy, and timing to overcome obstacles) was the most popular among the boys, followed by “platform” (e.g. Super Mario Brothers; involves traveling between levels of play by jumping, running, and climbing) and “shooter” style (e.g. Call of Duty; focuses primarily on combat involving projectile weapons, such as guns and missiles) video games.

However, the researchers did find that boys who primarily played “role-playing” games (e.g. the Pokémon series; casts the player in the role of one or more “adventurers” who specialize in specific skill sets while progressing through a predetermined story line) were significantly more likely to exhibit oppositional behaviors than those who did not.  Furthermore, educational and sports games predicted less oppositional behavior and the boys who play sports games most frequently also exhibited less hyperactivity.  Interestingly enough, video games that featured more violent game play did not emerge as a significant predictor of either oppositional behaviors or inattention.

In sum, findings indicate that the genre of game being played (specifically role-playing games) was a more reliable predictor of problematic behavior than the amount of video game play time. The researchers concluded that since children with ASD tend to engage in restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRBs), they might be at higher risk for developing addictive game play patterns. Furthermore, preoccupation with video games and trouble disengaging from them may serve as precursors for disruptive behavior.

Mazurek, M.O. & Engelhardt, C.R. (2012). Video game use and problem behaviors in boys with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism SpectrumDisorders, 7(2013), 316-324.