I have a love-hate affair with the x-box or more specifically, my son’s x-box. On the one hand it gives him an opportunity to interact with his school friends. On the other hand, he becomes so obsessive about it that it is hard to prise him off it even to do the most ordinary of human things such as eating and toileting. Many a time we’ve had a cross legged child, blushed with discomfort, desperate for the toilet or one who has forgotten to eat because the attraction of the box has been so great. It is a constant battle to encourage him to break away from his x-box and to have a go at other things, a battle that takes on a new intensity during the summer holidays.
Now that his classmates have broken up from school, my son has even more reason to stay holed up in his bedroom playing strategic games with his friends. If he had his way he would, I am sure, spend every hour of every day on his x-box only occasionally appearing for some nourishment or a last minute toilet break. Of course I am sure that this scenario is being played out in many teenagers’ bedrooms across the land except that not all of those teenagers have the challenges of autism.
Because my son is autistic he has very strong interests which are very hard for him to let go of particularly when he is midway through something; he has to see a level or a game through before he is satisfied enough to stop what he is doing. Even getting him to pause so that I can ask him something is difficult so it’s not a case of simply asking or telling my son to get off his x-box and do something else. Neither can I banish his gadgets because to do so risks challenging behaviour, a meltdown even, which is not fair to him (or us) and even if I was to banish the box what would my son have to play with? There isn’t much he can access. His autism means his life is challenging: poor coordination and stamina means many sports are difficult for him and social and sensory issues means it is hard mixing with other people in noisy and crowded places. He also has the added complication of an anxiety disorder which for a while caused his life to become restricted to the home. Even though he has now improved enough to leave the front door, his life is still limited to only going to town or the local park and he is still unable to get to school. His x-box has therefore become a link to the classmates he never sees and his computer is a way he can express his creativity as he navigates his way through the world of minecraft.
Sitting with him and talking with him as he creates his minecraft masterpiece, I am amazed at how knowledgeable he has become. I may not be able to have ordinary conversations with my son and indeed there are days when he can’t communicate with me at all but there are times when I am able to enter his world and when I can see that playing games is not as mindless as some people make out. He is developing skills which are beyond anything he could personally achieve on the football pitch or in the classroom. He is also exhibiting characteristics such as focus and determination something that we are seeing a lot of as we watch the fantastic sportsmen and women at the London Olympics. Indeed it is interesting to note that the great Michael Phelps who has recently accomplished 20 Olympic medals, has ADHD, the qualities of which have gone some way to his recent success (read more here).
However I still feel under a lot of pressure to restrict my son’s gaming. We are often told that spending too much time on gadgets is not good for our children mentally or
physically and we must monitor their time spent on them. I agree that children need fresh air and exercise and to do other things apart from gaming but this advice rarely takes on the perspective of the autistic child whose life is challenging and restrictive. So I try to ignore the pressure to banish the x-box and the computer in favour of the ‘outdoor’ life and do what is right for my son. This means recognising that technology is important for my son’s well-being but not to allow him to spend every minute of every day on his gadgets to the exclusion of all else. It is a challenge, I admit, and some days I have lost to the power of the x-box. Then there are the days where I have been able to get him to do things such as cooking, playing board games or going to the local park. They might not seem very exciting but for us it means we’re exposing our son to a bit more variety and to the world outside our home which means we’re keeping our son’s agoraphobia under control.