Articles

Video Gaming and Neurodivergent Youth

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that more than 90% of children between the ages of 2-17 play video games.

With the indisputable popularity and prevalence of video gaming and virtual play among our youth comes the ongoing debate surrounding the impact of video gaming on youth well-being and development. Much of the research has focused mainly on neurotypical populations, neglecting to investigate and report on the experiences of video game engagement among neurodiverse youth. Studies that have included neurodiverse populations have primarily reported the negative outcomes of video game usage. This raised concerns for parents and educators and fueled efforts to reduce gaming and screen time. Additionally, researchers have used a neuro-normative lens when studying video gaming use among neurodiverse youth. The benefit of gaming is viewed by how much it helps neurodiverse youth conform to neuro-normative behaviour and values.   

However, a growing body of research suggests new insights in this area.  

New Insights and ADHD

41.4% of children and adolescents with autism spend most of their free time playing video games versus 18% of youth in the general population. (Mazurek, Shattuck, Wagner, and Cooper, 2013)

A study conducted in 2021 (Masi et al.) similarly showed that youth with ADHD spend much more time playing video games compared to other children their age. Since neurodiverse youth are spending significantly more time engaging in video gaming compared to their neurotypical peers, it is worth understanding the unique impact of this engagement on their well-being.  

The above study also showed the severity of video game compulsion paralleled the severity of ADHD symptoms of impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity. It is important to note that ADHD has a neurological basis and is not caused by video games, but having ADHD may be a contributing factor to disordered gaming. This highlights the importance of developing healthy gaming habits and avoiding excessive use.  

Games are not inherently positive or negative, but if used excessively and other priorities are neglected, they can become detrimental. Studies have shown benefits to gaming in areas like task-switching and task prioritization, common struggles with ADHD. Other benefits include improved hand-eye coordination, increased spatial awareness, and visualization skills. Strategy games improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The educational benefits of video games are widely documented. These include improved math, reading, social, and language skills and a better ability to set goals.   

Autistic Adolescents

A recent study (Pavlopoulou, Usher, and Pearson, 2022) interviewing autistic adolescents with diagnosed learning differences (dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD) found three central themes emerged in the data: 

  1. Agency and sense of belonging, 
  2. Emotional regulation, and  
  3. An acknowledgement of differing perceptions that young people and their caregivers have of gaming.

When allowed to express their subjective experience, autistic adolescents reported a great sense of autonomy, and the level of agency felt in the game was associated with positive enjoyment. Gaming allows them agency and recognition as experts, allowing them to acquire skill development and knowledge and use this to guide decision-making. Gaming can be interactive and creative. It gives players a space to express their own thoughts and choices. Furthermore, gaming gave them a safe outlet for negative emotions, a distraction, and a way to escape fears and struggles in other areas of life.  

Conclusion

These studies illuminate the importance of including perspectives of neurodivergent youth in research about their interests and well-being. Online video games provide a shared space for neurodivergent youth to socialize with others with shared interests. They foster teamwork skills as players work together with others to complete quests. Cooperative multiplayer gaming fosters the development of social skills, group organization, conflict resolution, and working together toward a common goal.   

It is important not to focus on intervention and normativity when discussing the use of video games. Neurodiverse individuals have valuable insights into monitoring their mental health and well-being, particularly as these adolescents emerge into adulthood.

Katie Tsafantakis, Instructor

LDS is a community of dedicated professionals who write collaboratively. We recognize the contribution of unnamed team members for their wisdom and input.

Research

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3536490/#R30

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314502455_An_Exploration_of_Friendships_and_Socialization_for_Adolescents_with_Autism_Engaged_in_Massively_Multiplayer_Online_Role-Playing_Games_MMORPG

https://madisonhouseautism.org/social-media/video-games-and-autism-helpful-or-harmful/ 

https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjdp.12424

https://www.getinflow.io/post/adhd-and-video-games#video-game-based-treatment-for-adhd

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fped.2021.632272/full

https://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/15272/1/187769_5405%20Griffiths%20Publisher.pdf

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36587018/

https://jpaap.ac.uk/JPAAP/article/view/517