Watching TV, movies, and playing some computer games trains our brain to be passively attentive. With these activities, we can pay attention easily, but effortlessly. The more we do these activities, the more “wired” our brain becomes for passive attention—these pathways get stronger and stronger. Then, when we want to concentrate on something like listening, reading, thinking, it is more difficult to do these active brain activities. We are unable to focus on something less than interesting, and we are unable to attend fully for longer periods of time. Imagine then how difficult it becomes for children with autism spectrum disorders to pay attention after brain training in passive attention. Many things we ask a child with autism to do are not immediately meaningful. We ask a child with autism to attend and think despite a sensory system that demands a great deal of mental energy. Most of us are not burdened with so much sensory processing difficulty. It takes a lot of mental effort for a child with autism to do this and we may make it impossible if the child’s brain is wired for passive attention through many hours of TV watching, computer game playing, repeated movie watching. If we use movies, tv and computer games to fill the unstructured time for these kids, then we are only making it harder for them to concentrate in the long run. Over-riding the brain patterns created by these passive activities is particularly troublesome with kids on the spectrum because they have visual pathways that are already strong and tend to be the main mode of their processing.
I have also noticed lately, and discussed with Tahirih, how many children on the spectrum “switch” into their fantasy world of TV or movie when they become cognitively fatigued. This is when we hear the child repeating lines and noise sequences from favorite shows or movies. I have a nine year old boy with high functioning autism that I have the pleasure of working with each week in a social skills group. I often demand much from this child as it occurs after a full school day and includes topics which are uncomfortable to discuss such as bullying, and angry emotions. I can always tell when he has reached his limit as he will begin to talk to me like I am part of his video game or TV show. I give him a few minutes to share that with me, jump a bit on the trampoline, and then I have him back for more instruction. This blog of thoughts on this topic is not written to pass any judgment on kids or families because there is also value to having some down time for you and your child. I write this to encourage you to think about why TV, videos and games are so attractive to children, how they impact learning, and why we want to help your child fill the time differently.