Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

April 18, 2013 Volume 34, No. 27

Thompson Center research studies offer practical insight for parents


Children with autism more likely to become obsessed with screen-based media use, studies suggest

Several recent studies by researchers at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Disorders might eventually help children with an autism spectrum disorder lead better lives.

Micah Mazurek, a clinical child psychologist at the Thompson Center, has completed two studies suggesting that children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — which includes autism and Asperger syndrome —are more likely than children without the malady to become obsessed with video-game playing and watching television.

Mazurek studied screen-based media use among 202 children and adolescents with an ASD and 179 of the children’s siblings who have no developmental disorder. The ASD group spent more time playing video games and watching TV. Meanwhile, the typically-developed children spent more time in physical activities and on social media such as Facebook. The study will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

In another study by Mazurek of 169 boys, problematic video-game use was associated with oppositional behaviors, such as arguing and not taking directions. This paper was published in February 2013 in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

“Because these studies were cross-sectional, it is not clear if there is a causal relationship between video-game use and problem behaviors,” said Mazurek, an assistant professor in the School of Health Professions. “Children with ASD may be attracted to video games because they can be rewarding and visually engaging, while not requiring face-to-face communication or social interaction. 

“Parents need to be aware that, although video games are especially reinforcing for children with ASD, these children may have problems disengaging from these games,” he said. 

Tapping into what these children enjoy about the experience could help researchers and clinicians develop effective therapies.

Scientists had already determined that propranolol — an anti-anxiety medication — is effective treatment for some children with autism in curbing anti-social behavior or improving communication. Neurologist David Beversdorf and neuropsychologist Shawn Christ, both Thompson Center researchers, have conducted a study suggesting that propranolol might also be used to treat the memory lapses of children with ASD.

In a study of 14 Thompson Center patients, propranolol increased working memory performance, while having no effect on a group of 13 participants with no autism symptoms.  

“People with autism spectrum disorder who are already being prescribed propranolol for a different reason, such as anxiety, might also see an improvement in working memory,” Christ said. The study appeared in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

Read a profile of the Thompson Center's new director here.

— Jesslyn Chew and Kate McIntyre