Autism & Gaming: How Obsessions Lead to Addiction

The other day I was reading an article discussing the negative impact gaming can have on people with Autism. It got me thinking about trends I am noticing from the Clients I have who both have Autism and some form of Gaming Addiction. As a gaming addict with autistic traits, I have to watch myself carefully, so I do not become addicted. Most of my Clients with Autism have had a difficult time managing their gaming, with most becoming addicted quickly. Addictions often do not start out as something all consuming. For people with Autism, obsessions often lead to addiction.

What Are Obsessions?

Many people with Autism have obsessions, which is another way of saying a strong interest in something. Obsessions can include something general, like astronomy or something specific, like a type of game or activity. As most children with Autism are highly intelligent, they will often spend countless hours researching and learning about their obsessions. Asperger’s Syndrome has been called the “little professor” disorder, as children with Autism often like to inform and instruct others about their obsessions.

Obsessions often last a while, often for a couple of months or longer. During this period, it’s hard to get the child to talk about anything outside the obsession. Social interactions suffer, as the child will ignore the interests of others. Many Autistic children do not understand the viewpoints of others, and will not understand how their obsession may not be as attractive to someone else. Over time, obsessions will change, causing the cycle to repeat.

Why do Autistic people have obsessions? My personal theory is they want something to focus on, to drown out the negative stimulation they feel throughout the day. Most autistic people do not experience the world as neurotypical people do. Often senses are heightened for people on the spectrum, sometimes to the point of pain. I have seen autistic children cry and scream at the sound of a loud noise, as the sound was literally painful. By focusing attention away from the stimulation, the experience of pain is lessened. In a way, obsessions are coping skills needed to function.

Are Video Games Addictive?

While some would argue addiction can only be chemical, this viewpoint is quickly being abandoned. Behavioral addictions, including gambling, sex, and gaming, are full blown addictions just like drugs and alcohol. I recently wrote an article about gaming addiction, and how it is addictive and can be for anyone. In short, video games can be highly addictive and in some cases dangerous, especially to someone who has an addictive personality.

Video games are addictive due to the stimulation they provide. The more immersive, the more addictive they will be. The more realistic the graphics, the more realistic the experience. With the advent of virtual reality, gaming addiction is going to skyrocket over the next ten years.

For someone who has problems living in the real world, someone who has problems socializing, video games offer the perfect escape. Video games provide social interaction and an environment that can be controlled and manipulated. For someone with Autism, who has problems interacting with others and controlling the real world, video games are the solution.

The Beginnings of Addiction

How does addiction begin for the typical child with Autism? Just like anyone, they start with the initial exposure. At the beginning the child will play the game, often not thinking much about it. There may be resistance at first as many children with Autism have problems trying new things. They will begin the game and start to enjoy the experience. At first, the game may be played on and off, especially if the game is challenging. Interacting with others who play the game may help the addiction along, depending on the amount of social interaction the child wants. Over time, the child will begin to feel good while playing, and start to see things they enjoy in the game.

They will start to make goals they wish to accomplish. These goals may be in line with other children, such as beating a difficult level or obtaining something within the game. Often these goals may be different than a neurotypical child. The autistic child may want to play a particular level over and over due to the animations or sounds within the level. I treated one Autistic child who liked to play Super Mario Brother’s three over and over due to the music on one level. He would play this level 10-20 times in a row, over and over for days. When an autistic child likes an activity, they rarely can get enough of it.

The Transition From Obsession to Addiction

One the child had found a game they like, and an activity or goal they want to accomplish within the game, often the obsession will turn into an addiction quickly. They will begin to demand access to the game, no matter the time or place. It can be at 4 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning; they will want to play it. If they do not have access to the game, they will be thinking about it and plan their time in the game. They will talk about the game to all who listen and will become angry if denied access to the game. This is why most gaming addictions continue, as the parents do not want their child yelling and screaming and will give in to the demands.

Managing the Addiction

If a child is Autistic and addicted to video games, how can it be deal with? Most parents do not know how to stop the addiction and often make it worse. The first step is to determine what the child is addicted to. If the child likes a specific game, what is it about the game they like? Is it the sounds, graphics, gameplay? Is it interacting with others? The best way to find this out is to watch them play the game or to play it with them. While this may sound risky, the more information learned about the addiction, the greater the chances of beating it. Once a parent knows what they enjoy about the addiction, alternatives can be found. Parents should start doing other things with their child and start spending a significant amount of time with them. At first, this may be difficult for both the child and the parents, however, in time, both will become used to it.

Patience

If you have ever had an addiction, as yourself: how long did it take to recover from it and move on? Most likely it took a long time. It will be no different for an autistic child. In fact, it will be more difficult and take more time. Children, in general, do not understand how to moderate and control their behavior. A child does not understand why it is bad to eat sweets for every meal, or why they cannot stay up all night playing video games. Add autism to the mix and patience will be required. During this period, parents need to give their child time to change and to not expect perfection. Give yourself realistic goals. Do not expect the addiction to be gone in a week or even a month. It may take years and constant monitoring by the parents. Autistic children eventually become adults, and their behaviors and addictions will continue unless parents work on them now. Parents who are impatient or demand their child to change will only build resentment within their child, which will make the addiction worse.

In Conclusion

There is a very fine line between addiction and obsession. For someone who has Autism, it is even thinner. As a child, parents need to be an active part of their child’s life and invest their time into playing and educating their child. This includes playing video games and spending time learning about their obsessions. The more interactive a parent is with their child, the better the child will learn. This is particularly the case for a child with Autism. If someone is an adult and has autism, they will need to actively monitor their behavior, as obsession can turn to addiction quickly. As someone who is a recovering gaming addict, I have to control my behavior consistently, or I will become addicted. For anyone with an addictive past, this will be true.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

 

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Nathan Driskell

Hello, my name is Nathan Driskell and I am a Licensed Professional Counselor – Supervisor in the Houston / Cypress area specializing in the treatment of Internet Addiction & Asperger’s / Autism. I work with children, adolescents, adults, couples & families.

You can reach me at my website or call me directly at 832-559-3520 if you have any questions. Thank You!
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