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It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. For success, the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new, untrodden ways. -Dr. Hans Asperger

Autism has a lot to teach the world, but most of us don’t have any idea about the nature of the condition, outside of sound bites we hear on the news. The autism spectrum describes a wide array of symptoms. Some individuals “on the spectrum” are quite high functioning, while others have significant cognitive challenges. The main signs and symptoms of autism involve problems in the following areas :

• Communication – both verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (unspoken, such as pointing, eye contact, and smiling).
• Social – such as sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation.
• Routines or repetitive behaviors (also called stereotyped behaviors) – such as repeating words or actions, obsessively following routines or schedules, and playing in repetitive ways.

A recent study, announced a few days ago, featured data about the screen preferences of children with autism spectrum disorders (ADSs). Given the above symptoms, it should come as no surprise that, when given the chance for screen time, children with ASDs choose television and video games over social and interactive media, such as e-mail, online chatting, and Facebook. This preference for socially-isolating screen time could interfere with children’s socialization and learning, researchers warned. The study appears online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

While socialization represents a key area of concern for parents of children with an ASD, today’s tendency toward cyber-mediated isolation should leave all parents worried. Autism is, as Dr. Asperger asserted, a predisposition to turn or stay away from the world. While I agree with him that this tendency does bring some great gifts, it also imparts significant liabilities. We have a population of young people that increasingly “relates” to others through cyber media, and we do not yet know the long-term consequences of this trend.

I continue to be concerned that our young people, not just those with ASDs, are undergoing a neuronal pruning. Like a gardener who fertilizes and stakes certain plants, while weeding out others, the brain is constantly building networks of synapses, while pruning out redundant or unneeded ones. I suspect this process is at work in our collective cerebral garden; the neural networks involved in social interaction are suffering. I worry that significant swaths of society are growing up without the tools they need to successfully navigate the complexities of human relationships. While folks with ASDs have a neurological challenge that makes social interaction difficult, many “neurotypical” people CHOOSE to isolate.

My fears for the future are rooted in a growing body of scientific research. A study done in the United Kingdom, for example, found that young males who spent several hours playing online, role-playing video games exhibited the same personality traits as people with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The more time people spent playing these games, the researchers found, the more likely they were to show three specific traits usually associated with Asperger’s syndrome: neuroticism and a lack of extraversion and agreeableness. People with high levels of neuroticism have a propensity toward persistent negative states, such as anger, anxiety, and frustration. Low levels of extraversion and agreeableness correspond to a mindset that is unsuited to positive and mutually-beneficial interactions with others. The fact that excessive video games can produce these tendencies shows that they impact the brain, at least temporarily. What is unknown is whether or not this impact can become permanent over time.

Texting is another cyber medium that presents a potent challenge to young people. Research shows that conversation involves more than just words: 7 percent is the actual content of your message, 38 percent the tone of your voice, and 55 percent body language. Overly reliant on texting, today’s teens miss a good deal of conversational clues. Effective communication requires all three components; a text message automatically eliminates two of them. The result is miscommunication and a total breakdown of conversation, which will impact adult relationships, especially professional and romantic ones. The University of Calgary recently reported that texting also has a negative impact on people’s linguistic ability to interpret and accept words. While texting does involve lots of new abbreviations, it is a communication medium characterized by “rigid linguistic constraints.” Participants in the study who reported higher levels of texting had an associated lack of openness to new words, suggesting that the medium does not lend itself to expanding one’s vocabulary. It disturbs me to think that texting may well be limiting our competence with language and interpersonal communication.

Some would say that digital technologies have transformed our lives, while others would view them as agents of destruction. I see both the positive and negatives, but urge our society to take a more honest and circumspect look at the dark side. I began this discussion with autism because I see a parallel between the social challenges faced by people with ASDs and the self-imposed social isolation that is often the result of cyber media. I wish to underscore that ASDs are conditions rooted in neurobiology, and that video games, cell phones, and the Internet can isolate us so much that some of the same social challenges characteristic in ASDs are appearing with greater frequency in the general population. What worries me most is that we are changing the wiring of our brains, favoring neuronal networks that involve socially-isolating behaviors over those required for face-to-face interaction. Incidentally, I do actually agree with Dr. Asperger. I have known some incredible people with ASDs, one of whom is the architect of this website!

30 Responses to “Autism, Video Games, and Social Skills: Lessons Learned”

  1. Gary says:

    Hey Kevin, my 24 year old daughter was diagnosed with ADD as a child ( by a school counselor ) and put on Ritalin or one of those drugs for most of her life and it caused her to have seizures and now she has to take a very expensive med to prevent those. I swear, if doctors where fire fighters, they would use gas to fight fires.
    My 8 year old son, I’m afraid is becoming a cyber junkie so I’m reading you book now.

    • Kevin says:

      Gary, these medications are very strong, and some people, like me, seem to be very sensitive to them. I appreciate your remarks; they argue for vigilance and awareness of ADHD medications. If your son is 8, I am glad you’re reading the book now. If you think he is a junkie now, just wait until the teens years. Please let me know if there’s anything more I can do to help.

  2. Mary says:

    Kevin, thanks for this angle. It shows how a sociological shift might well be a cerebral one! ADHD, addictions (including Internet addiction), and many other mental health conditions do involve those pesky frontal networks. It is important for people to keep that in mind! There are commonalities that link them all together.

    • Kevin says:

      Mary, you are most welcome. You have commented before and you always add to the discussion, whether on ADHD, Internet addictions, or the brain! Thank you.

  3. Parker says:

    Dear Kevin,

    I really enjoyed this article. I found it quite informational and intriguing. I myself am a teen who is a texting addict who plays lots of video games. I never realized the actual breakdown of a conversation. I completely agree that only 7% of the conversation is the actual content. When I am texting someone, often the message that I am trying to convey doesn’t get across because the receiver can not always tell my tone of voice. Therefore, they do not get the true meaning of my text. I think texting today is a good way for getting quick messages across. However, I realize that too much texting can hinder someone from being able to grow sociably. I appreciate your words in this article and I will definitely take them into consideration in the future. I also want to add that I read your book “Cyber Junkie” and it really helped me with me video game and internet addiction. Thank you for all your help.

    • Kevin says:

      Parker, I appreciate your honesty. Such self-revelation helps us all. If you need any support in these matters, I am at your disposal.

  4. tyler says:

    Kevin, great article! For myself, it is the “positive reinforcement” one receives from games that is so addicting. An hour or two on the xbox may result in the accomplishment of ten or so “objectives.” Each time the gamer completes a task, he or she is rewarded with a prize (more points, upgrades, etc.). Much more significant, however, is the figurative pat on the back and sense of accomplishment that one receives as well. Due to their relative ease, a majority of games create a greater sense of achievement for children and adolescents than they would typically get from school or extracurricular activities.

    There are two major problems that develop with this line of thinking. First of all, for many games, these “achievements” are never ending. A person could spend a lifetime trying to check off each challenge instead of focusing on problems the gamer may have in their real life. Furthermore, if a game is finally mastered, another is sure to come out soon after presenting an entirely new “opportunity for success.” The second issue is that none of these achievements have any real world value or application (assuming there is no zombie apocalypse in our near future!). As a result demonstrated by your article, an increasing number of people are walking around with great hand eye coordination but don’t know how to have a conversation with one another.

    • Kevin says:

      Yes, Tyler, one does tend to get on a treadmill with these games, and the never-ending pursuit of “rewards” can eat away at important aspects of life. This problem becomes much worse when an individual struggles with executive function deficits like ADHD, AS, and other conditions. Thanks so much four your useful remarks.

    • Essie says:

      Douglas Miranda / Meu pai é fumante, e como esse hábito puxa outros, bebe cerca de “uma garrafa” de café sozinho ao longo do dia. Ele diz sempre que Jesus está com ele 24 horas por dia. Agora que eu tô entendendo isso0#823&;Gostei deste comentário ou não: 8

  5. edward says:

    Hi–thanks for the column. definitely share your concerns about the effects of online ‘living’–however, not sure I agree with your take on the UK study. According to the article, the researchers’ conclusions wasn’t that gaming might be contributing to asperger-like symptoms; but rather that those with aspergers might be more likely to become addicted. not a healthy outcome, to be sure, but not quite the case that gaming was leading to symptoms. Sorry to nitpick!

    • Kevin says:

      The study did not look at Asperger’s folks, nor did it set out to measure Asperger’s traits. It simply used the big five personality dimensions to look at the personality traits of gamers, and re-initiated personality interviews at certain intervals of play, noting changes in these personality dimensions, then comparing those to baseline data previously acquired. What is noteworthy is that NON-ASPERGER’S folks started to exhibit personality profiles often associated with the condition, as a seeming consequence of gaming. Now, more study is needed but many other studies have shown increased neuroticism especially. And yes, while the study did not study folks with Asperger’s, those individuals seem at particularly high risk for excessive cyber behaviors of many types. Thanks so much for weighing in. How did you find out about the blog?

      • edward says:

        Thanks for the detailed response. Realize part of the problem is that I’m looking at an article ABOUT a study, when I should be looking at the study itself. Do you happen to have a link to it, or to some of the other studies you reference? Thanks!

        • Kevin says:

          The link I had no longer works. I have tried to get a copy of the study, but not succeeded. the link that used to work had very detailed information. If I can get hold of the study, I will forward it on. Thank you!

  6. Beth Heath says:

    I cannot agree more. I just heard a short blip on the radio, discussing the rate of deaths due to texting are increasing. Not only because of texting and driving, but people are walking themselves into dangerous situations, To be so engaged that you walk off a bridge! That’s just nuts! Rare I know, but we all bumped into that person at the mall.

    Just look around, the next time you are in a waiting room or poolside at a hotel, nobody is exchanging conversation with the person next to them any more. We lose out on those simple exchanges that allow us to show our humanness to others. An extrovert myself, I have a difficult time keeping to myself when people are around. I almost feel rude if I interrupt their techno moment.

    My family and I are constantly trying to balance how much we are using technology and have those moments of intimate interaction. In today’s world it is a necessary assessment, so that we don’t alienate one another.

    • Kevin says:

      Beth, you make some useful points. Yes, it is difficult to limit one’s use of technology, but the payoff is better relationships, better family time, and, long term, better social skills.

  7. Joel Katz says:

    Thank you Kevin for reminding me of the much greater social interaction of my generation. Rather than watching soap operas on the 13″ black and white TV, the girls played hop scotch, roller skated and talked about which teacher or movie star with whom they had fallen in love; the boys played outdoor sports 365 all day long until one yelled “dark.” The scope of symptoms and diagnosis of autism has expanded significantly over the past 30 years, but I want to assure you that it was an extreme rarity during my childhood which would confirm many of the points that you and your readers have made.
    Joel

    • Kevin says:

      Joel, your historical perspective adds much to the discussion. Was ADHD something you remember hearing about? Do you have any friends who, in retrospect, might nowadays be labeled as ADHD?

  8. Mary Antonelli says:

    Kevin, I really like what you have done here. You have shown that our behavior has neurobiological roots. So often with mental health issues, like Autism, ADHD, and others, people presume that the manifesting behavior is a CHOICE. I think we need a whole lot more awareness around mental health issues in this society. There just exists so much misunderstanding…and prejudice!

    • Kevin says:

      Mary, I wholeheartedly agree. It is so easy for those not experienced in afflictions of mental health to project willfulness onto those who suffer from them. With ADHD, I have seen so often people presume laziness. That one kills me. Folks, ADHD is a condition of the brain. It involves circuits of the brain that do not function optimally, and so leads to the troubling behaviors. Autism is not a choice either. Yes Mary, we need a sustained campaign of awareness. I think, however, that progress is being made. By the way, Internet addictions are also not taken seriously. That is something I am also trying to change.

      • Mary Antonelli says:

        Kevin, while it is ADHD that has touched my immediate family, I am also an advocate for expanding awareness on mental health issues like autism, bipolar disorder, and others. Of course, I have two sons who are not only ADHD, but also video game addicts, so I have to deal with that problem as well. “Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap” has been a God-send to our entire family. Thank you for all you do, Kevin.

        • Kevin says:

          Mary, it looks like we’re both online now, and I really appreciate this nice back and forth. I have though about having forums, maybe I need to think about re-initiating that. I am glad the book has helped you. I have one coming out this June on ADHD: Movers, Dreamers and Risk-Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD. I think you will definitely enjoy it.

  9. Kevin says:

    Thanks for connecting up. :-) We should probably link to each other’s blog; what do you think?

  10. Brett says:

    Kevin,

    You bring up a lot of good points, and one of them really struck home for me.

    When I was spending 16 hours a day either on the computer or staring at my smartphone texting non-stop, I noticed an inability in myself to carry on face to face conversations in “real-life.” It was incredibly frustrating for me because, based on my extensive on-line interaction and conversations, I KNEW I had so much to say. The most disheartening part was that my mind would simply be “blank” the entire time. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the self-confidence to speak up, or anything else that would traditionally be associated with quietness, I simply couldn’t think of anything to say – EVER. The clever, quick-witted person that I was when I was on-line seemed to disappear everytime I was forced to have “normal” conversations.

    Looking back, it makes perfect sense that my brain had adjusted from ~15 years of primarily speaking my mind in the form of texts and typing. It’s nice to know that when I felt like my mind wasn’t “fully open” during real-life conversations, there was a reason for it.

    Since I’ve quit on-line gaming, have limited my texts to 25 a day, and only have computer “screen time” for 2 hours a day, I’ve already begun to reap the rewards socially. I find myself able to carry on conversations in person with just about anyone, and have been able to come out of my shell and be the same person in real-life that I always was when I was on-line.

    Hopefully more people get the message!

    -Brett

    • Kevin says:

      Brett, your honest sharing is so appreciated. You not only demonstrate the dangers, but also show the possibility of personal growth and transformation.

  11. Maria says:

    I’m a teen in high school and may have an idea as to why the internet is to addictive. You can easily mask your face while doing anything online. You can create your own universe with a single click. And so kids who tend to be already depressed are already online.

    So much of a teens life is already connected with the internet. Phones make Facebook, Twitter easily accessible. These kids go home and need to get online to do homework. They get distracted. Check Facebook. And next thing you know they are somehow on a page dedicated to Internet Memes at 3 AM. Websites market to teens short attention spans and need to being looking at something.

    Of course there are probably underlying problems here. For example with me, my parents would come home tired, make only small talk with me , and go to bed. What would I do to fill in the time my parents did not spend with me? Internet. Video Games. Anything online to fill in the communication I did not have with my parents.

    And it is a parents responsibility to recognize the symptoms of an internet addiction. For anyone interested, I write for a blog and there is an article listing symptoms and consequences of this cyber dependence.

    Feel Free to look:http://www.radicalparenting.com/2012/02/14/cyberdependance-signs-your-child-might-be-addicted-to-the-internet/

  12. Shelby says:

    You make a really interesting point Kevin. i wonder if, as you fear, our brains and developmental processes are indeed shifting. i think this article not only touches upon autism but also on ADHD. Thanks for all you do.

  13. Michele Renaud says:

    What a very insightful post Kevin! It seems that many ASD individuals are already “different” and do not necessarily function as the accepted “norm” or accepted forms of functionality as dictated by society. Where there is ADD/ADHD, Autistic/Autism/Aspergers both High or Low Functioning, the worries you convey are the worries that have become as such due to an overwhelming technological plethora that coincides with what is or is not the cookie cutter status quo of individuality. Thank you for sharing with your readers both your conditions, your expertise, and your opinions on subjects that matter for everyone…

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