Is Your Child Getting Stuck On Electronics?

Is your child getting stuck on electronics?  The IPad specifically, is becoming increasingly popular with children with Autism and can be a great teaching tool for children.  The problems come in when the child becomes seemingly “obsessed” with the Ipad, unable to tolerate it being removed and having temper tantrums when the device is controlled in any way.  If your child experiences these difficulties, the following is recommended.  If they are not yet there, instituting some of these suggestions might keep it from happening.

The most important thing is to recognize that the Ipad can be a self-stimulating device or a “stimmy toy”.  If the child is performing the same action over and over to get the exact same results then they are “stimming” on the device rather than using it functionally.   Since this is an automatically reinforcing behavior, the more they engage in this type of behavior, the more they will do it in the future.  If the child is focused on the device in this manner they are not discovering or learning new things and aren’t “available” to learn from other things in the environment.   Like any other “stimmy toy”, the Ipad should only be used WITH an adult.  The adult should closely supervise and engage with the child to to play games, participate in learning apps and share enjoyment in the activities.  Never allow the child access to the device by themselves.

Establish a turn taking routine with the child.  If the child already has difficulty giving up the device, start with an app they’ve never seen before.   The reason for this is that the child won’t yet have established a specific routine or “habit” with a new app and motivation to control it shouldn’t be as strong.   Start the app and model how to play.  If the child shows any interest, let them play but keep control of the device.  (so they can’t quickly switch to their favorite!)   If the child does not show interest, try a different app until you find one they appear motivated to play (I download LOTS of free apps to try before purchasing).  Once you find one they show some interest in, take turns engaging.  If the child has no trouble allowing you to take a turn, take a quick one and let them take another turn.  If they have difficulty or exhibit any maladaptive behaviors, be sure to wait until they calm down before allowing their turn.   If they ever begin to “stim” (see above) on the device, interrupt and take your turn.  If they have extreme difficulty, let them know that you see it’s too hard right now and put the device away.  At this stage, never allow the child to even hold the device.  The goal here is for the child to learn that they will be allowed access to the device only if they play WITH you and they play appropriately and functionally.

Once the child is tolerating taking turns with a less preferred app, start the same procedure with their FAVORITE app or the one they had previously stimmed on.  Again, if the child has any maladaptive behavior, the device goes away.  Keep trying frequently (5-10 times a day) but be consistent with your response to both appropriate use of the device and how you respond if the child demonstrates any maladaptive behavior.  Remember to keep control of the device and just allow the child to play.  He/she gets more frequent and longer turns if he plays appropriately and allows you to play.  He gets fewer and shorter turns if he/she has difficulty giving up the device or engages in self-stimulatory behavior with the device.  If he engages in more severe maladaptive behavior, the device goes away.

Once the child is tolerating turns with their favorite apps and is using the apps appropriately, begin allowing the child to hold the device during their turn.    Repeat the procedures above to make sure they’re giving the device to you willingly when it’s your turn and are engaging with the app appropriately when it’s their turn. 

All parents need a break sometime and parents often tell me that the Ipad is one of the only things their child will do independently.  If they play appropriately and have no difficulty giving up the device, this isn’t a problem for short periods of time when parents are busy or during long car rides.  After raising 4 kids I know we all need a break sometimes!  The important thing is that the child is playing appropriately and not stimming on the device.  If this is your goal, take some time after the last step to monitor your child.  Give him/her the device, ask them what they want to play or set the app you want them to use then tell them they can play for a specified period of time and walk away.   It might be helpful to use a timer or some sort of visual to indicate how long they can play and give warnings when the time is almost up.   Stay close enough to see the child.  If they begin to stim on the device, jump in and take a turn until they’re calm then let them have it back.  Make no change to the timer.  Again, the child gets more time if they play appropriately and less if they stim.  Repeat until the child is playing appropriately for the designated time period and tolerates giving up the device when the timer goes off.  If the child has significant difficulty giving up the device after the warning has been given and the timer has gone off, still put the device away. 

Watch the child carefully during play.  For some children, electronic devices are very over stimulating.  Notice your child’s behavior while he/she plays.  Do you see increased body tension?  Body posturing?  Increased sounds?  Flapping or finger movements?  How soon after engaging with the device does this begin to happen?  If it happens as soon as the child begins playing, this device might not be the best thing to use for independent play.  It would be better to reserve the use of the device for teaching/playing with an adult.  On the other hand, if the child doesn’t begin these behaviors until 10-15 minutes into the game, you will learn to limit playing with the device to a lesser time.

Each child is different and their ability to benefit and learn from the Ipad will be different.  If these suggestions don’t work for your child, your child may need more specific intervention suited to meet their unique needs.  Some additional “hints” include:

1)      If you’re using the Ipad as a communication device, don’t have other apps on the device or move your communication device to an exclusively used Itouch with a speaker case.

2)      If your child always gets “wrong” answers when you know they know the right ones, look at the error sound the app makes.  It might be very reinforcing for the child.  You can typically turn off the error sounds in the settings menu.

3)      Limit movies on the device if your child tends to rewind and watch the same segment over and over.  Limit movies to a TV with a DVD player out of reach so you can have more control.

4)      Choose apps that might have some reinforcing sensory stimulation for correct responses to increase the likelihood the child will play with the device appropriately.

5)      Once a skill is learned on the Ipad, make sure it’s generalized to other types of stimuli found in the natural environment to promote generalization and make the skill functional.


Tracy Vail,MS,CCC/SLP

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