Writer and broadcaster

My son, who is autistic, won’t do anything but watch YouTube videos. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My 11-year-old son is on the autistic spectrum. He is fantastic, loving and bright, although he finds it hard to express himself verbally and physically. My problem is that when he is at home he will not do anything apart from watch people playing computer games on YouTube. My anxiety is that his self-confidence, already low because of the autism, is exacerbated by him not trying other things – whether it be drawing, cooking or playing – and so realising what he is capable of and building his self-confidence.

I have tried many things, such as restricting YouTube to a couple of hours but, unlike other children, he will not find something else to do. He just hangs around me asking how much longer until he can watch again, which is exhausting, especially as I work from home. I have got him to agree to an hour without any electronics after school through the responsibility agreements we have at home, but this never runs smoothly.

I am also concerned that I have pushed him to do things. He sets himself very high goals and gets frustrated when he does not reach them. I worry that the combination of these factors deters him from trying. He is an amazing artist, for example, but won’t pick up a pencil.

So you see my anxiety, but sometimes I wonder if I should just get over myself, because in every other way he is a considerate, caring, funny and intelligent boy who could be capable of anything.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. One of the best bits of parenting advice I ever got was that, just as children are on a learning curve, so are we as parents.

I had a long chat with Anna Rattlidge, a specialist adviser at the National Autistic Society (autism.org.uk, helpline: 0808 800 4104), who gave me lots of tips for you. She notes your anxiety levels and suggests you may need support and someone to talk to. You can call the NAS helpline if you need to offload or go through any of the advice here in more detail.

Talking to other parents of children with autism may also help you feel less alone (the NAS has a parent-to-parent service: 0808 800 4106). Your son is 11, so you may feel you should know everything there is to know about his autism and forget that you need a little help yourself from time to time.

Rattlidge thinks a good starting point is to help your son identify his feelings and understand himself a bit more. He may struggle with someone just talking to him, so you may need to show him visuals, either a picture or a video. Start with basic feelings, asking: “How do you feel when you’re angry?”

The aim is for him, and those around him, to identify how he feels, and for him and you to learn how best to help him with whatever emotion he is feeling. For example, with the question “How do you feel when you’re angry?” What might that look like to those around him (he may cross his arms, stamp his feet, etc)? What calms him down, what makes him feel better, and what can others do to make him feel better?

Regarding his obsession with YouTube, Rattlidge explains that obsessions are common in people with autism, because it can give them a sense of control and predictability. So it may seem a waste of time to you, but for him it is providing a useful purpose. This may also be a clue that he feels unsettled. Has anything happened recently? It could be something seemingly small, but children with autism can find even tiny changes unsettling and upsetting.

“If it’s something that is useful to him [watching YouTube],” says Rattlidge, “then you don’t want to stop it as it could make him more anxious. His behaviour would not continue unless it’s meeting a need.”

I note you say that you already seem to have some sort of agreements in place, and can see you have already tried to restrict time on the computer, but I wonder how you go about this? A visual timetable might be useful to help set these limits – something that shows him when he can go on his computer and for how long. An autism timer could be helpful, as it would allow him to see how much longer he has left, either until he can go on the computer, or how long he has left using it. Do an online search for “autism timer”.

It can take a lot of perseverance and feedback (from you to him). Rattlidge also suggests that he has “calm time” when he gets home, a period when nothing is asked of him, and that this be written into his timetable for you both to see.

Regarding his self-esteem, can you get the school involved? Perhaps, Rattlidge suggests, it could have an assembly to explain about autism and show positive role models. What is your son good at? Perhaps it could get the other children to try something your son excels at so they can see how good he is at it. That would boost his confidence. Has he met, or can he meet, others with the condition? (Visit autism.org.uk/directory for details of local support groups).

Regarding your son setting very high goals, Rattlidge explains (and I’m sure you know this, but may need reminding) that people with autism can see things as very black and white: pass or fail. They can want to be able to start something and do it straight away and this is partly because “they can have difficulty predicting what could happen next”.

Try to show him that it’s OK not to be good at things straight away, and explain to him the concept of practice. Again use visuals: maybe videos of himself when younger (he is clearly very happy with the medium of video and I think this could be used in a beneficial way) and show him that there was a time when he couldn’t walk, but that, with practice, he learned how to, ditto feeding himself, etc. See what videos/photos you have of him as a baby and use them to illustrate what you mean. Maybe also use family members – learning to drive, and so on.

Finally, Rattlidge says that a quick way of helping a child to feel they are more in control (helping to boost their confidence as well as calming them down) is to give them a choice between two things, for example “an apple or an orange” or “swimming or park”.

Additional useful links

To help you understand about obsessions and autism: www.autism.org.uk/Living-with-autism/Understanding-behaviour/Obsessions-repetitive-behaviours-and-routines/Obsessions.aspx

Visual supports: autism.org.uk/visualsupports

Social skills development: www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/communicating-and-interacting/social-skills/social-skills-in-young-children.aspx

Free printable visuals: do2learn.com


This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 8 May 2015.