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Why I hate Tablets for kids with Autism

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As a SEIT or one on one interventionist have you ever come in and found your students with autism on a tablet and found it impossible to get them off? Children on the autism spectrum, particularly if they’re nonverbal, might spend tons of time on screens, and it can seem impossible to get them off. Yet we cannot eliminate tablets altogether from their lives, because many need them as a communication device. Today we are going over what I consider proper use for tablets for children with autism, and how to talk to their parents about reducing screen time. 

Many people use iPads or tablets as an incentive for their students to do their work, or to help get them through a difficult situation. 

Now I’m not knocking anyone for trying to use screen time to help get a child through something scary. I once knew a child who was terrified of the bathroom. The only way he was able to go inside was if cartoons played the whole time. 

Kudos to his parents for figuring out a way to get him to go into the bathroom to brush his teeth rather than letting him get a million cavities.

But I have also worked with students who are on their tablets from dawn to dusk, constantly overstimulated and incredibly difficult to reach. 

In these cases, I make some rules. No tablets outside designated times where it was appropriate or needed for communication purposes. 

However, since no one else enforced that rule, the students hated me. I was the mean lady who came over, took away their tablets, and tried to get them to play board games.

In my experience, 90% of the time tablets are not being used appropriately for children with autism. 

I hate tablets. Except not really. 

What I really hate, is when people let my students spend all day on technology rather than having them engage meaningfully with the world around them. 

In this post, we are going to go over how to talk to parents about tablets and productive recommendations.

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There is no firm hard answer to this question because each child with autism is different, and tablets can be life-changing for a lot of them.

I remember someone who’d been working with students with communication problems for years telling me she cried when the iPad was released because she knew it would be earth-shattering for people with disabilities.

And she was right.

Tablets are amazing because they are lightweight and easy to transport. You can download communication apps to it, which allows nonverbal people to communicate and interact with the world in a less cumbersome manner. 

Truly remarkable. 

Obviously, that population has to have a tablet for communication purposes, and that is wonderful. 

However, that tablet should really only be used for communication purposes. There should not be any games or internet surfing happening on that device. 

Most families are good about this, and the tablet with the communication app has no other games or apps besides what comes with the iPad. 

However, many then go out and buy a second cheaper device, for their child to play with. 

There is nothing wrong with screen time. I love screens. I own a Nintendo Switch. (Breathe of the Wild anyone?) 

However, when children with autism are on their devices all the time, it becomes problematic.

When you’re spending all your time playing video games, you aren’t interacting with others, learning social skills, learning to amuse yourself, or engaging in imaginative play. 

It’s all about finding balance. I never recommend using a tablet as a babysitter or endless source of entertainment for a child with autism.

If there is a child in your life who uses iPads constantly, don’t worry. They aren’t broken and no one has ruined them. 

“They aren’t broken and no one has ruined them.”

My Infinte Wisdom

Bringing up something about a family’s lifestyle that you think is detrimental to your student’s progress can be a delicate subject.

Always approach the subject nonjudgmentally and with compassion.

Remember what these parents and caregivers have been through with their children. They no doubt had to spend ages advocating and dealing with endless doctors and psychologists, and school officials, all while battling to get these services.

Of course, they care and love their child with autism.

Also, they aren’t doing anything wrong. They just need help to make a more ideal environment for their child.

Approach it as a conversation. You’re a team. You both want this child to grow and flourish. 

Do not bring any judgment into the conversation. Allowing kids unlimited access to tablets is a common move for busy parents. A lot of kids spend tons of time on tablets, not just the ones with autism. 

Ask about how often their child uses technology and for how long. Ask if they think that amount of screen time is helping their child or if they’re concerned about it in any way.

Ideally, they’ll ask you, for your thoughts, and express your concerns in a caring, calm, and professional manner. 

Stress that you understand how this has happened, reiterate that it is a common problem, if it’s one you’ve seen before say so. Chances are if they’re getting defensive, it’s because they think you’re saying they’re a bad parent. So make it clear how much you respect them.

Work with them to come up with a plan to cut down on their child’s screen time. If you are unsure about what to recommend, take a look at what I tend to tell parents about screen time. Use anything that applies to your case.

  • Communication Tablet is not restricted in any way but has no other games or programs on it.
  • Play Tablet is not to be used as an incentive to complete work. 
  • Play Tablet may be used at designated times and only in public spaces.
  • Video Gaming systems (Switch, Xbox, Playstation) are to be put in public spaces. Solo playtime is limited to an appropriate amount of time. Playing a game socially with a physically present friend or family member is not time-limited.
  • Provide alternative solo activities for a child to do on their own for when they need alone time. (Puzzles, drawing, or books are good)

For more information on a SEIT’s relationship with parents, check out this blog post!

You want to create a space that makes it easy for your student to interact with the world. 

You don’t want to make a space that encourages internal anti-social behavior. That is not an area where your student can learn and grow.

Make sure the rest of the team and family know this is the goal. Create recommendations and rules for creating this space together. 

This is not going to be an easy process. I don’t recommend telling a family to go cold turkey on all screens. That is setting everyone up for frustration and failure. 

Work with your student’s family to come up with a plan that works for them. Help them implement it in any way you can. 

Also, remember to be positive and supportive when dealing with a student’s family. Even though tablets can be frustrating at times, they truly were revolutionary in the lives of people with disabilities. Don’t hate the tablet. Work to change how it is used.

Find me on Instagram and let me know about how you deal with students with autism who overuse their tablets! 

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