Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Are autistic young people more vulnerable to gaming addiction?

Cyber bullying and sexual predators. These are the twin evils parents are told to be mindful of when an ever-growing chunk of their child’s life is spent online.

And while no one can doubt that these threats are real and sinister, particularly for autistic youngsters who may be socially naïve, they are not the only online menace.

Four years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognised gaming addiction as an illness.

And over the years, several groups of researchers have concluded that young people with autism are more vulnerable to the condition.

The curtains are always drawn, blocking out the sun; yesterday’s meal is festering on an unwashed plate and another day is devoted to being hunched over a console in disengaged isolation.

It can become a familiar story for young autistic people who take refuge in the safety of the gaming world which they find easier to navigate than social situations.

The dangers of in-game purchases

Susie Breare’s son Michael almost lost his life savings – £3,160.58 – on an iPad game. Breare says Michael, 26, who is autistic, has a learning disability, cerebral palsy and complex epilepsy, became dependent on gaming for entertainment and education.

Breare says physical activities open to the able bodied are not an option for Michael, who is paralysed on his right side, struggles to walk and is partially blind.

Michael racked up the charges between February and May of 2019, while playing Hidden Artifacts – an adventure game where you find lost, stolen, or hidden artefacts and work through puzzles.

Breare said her son has no grasp of the value of money and does not understand the difference between a 50p coin and a £10 note.

Michael spent the cash by making in-app purchases of loot boxes, which can give game characters weapons and armour.

Retired accountant Breare, 65, from the Isle of Wight, believes autistic people are more susceptible to becoming “obsessive” about games.

She said: “They are totally vulnerable. They don’t have any concept of when to stop. Michael has no concept of money so when it comes up as an in-app purchase he just presses ‘yes’.”

Breare said Michael, who moved into supported living several years ago, would have become addicted had he been left to his own devices.

She said she tried to resist using parental controls to block the in-app purchases because they would have prevented him reading news stories online.

Breare eventually recovered the money after contacting her MP Bob Seely, who wrote to the app developers Gaming Realms.

What does the research say about gaming and autism?

There is no general consensus on whether autism and gaming (and internet) addiction are linked; while some scientists believe there is a clear and definite association, others are less convinced.

Research by Dr Frank Paulus of Saarland University Hospital in Germany, found that autistic children and adolescents “seem to be an especially vulnerable subpopulation for gaming disorder”.1

Paulus’ 2019 study found that while autistic youngsters played games for longer, they spent less time talking to other gamers.

He found autistic people preferred playing alone rather than in the company of others, and played less frequently in multiplayer mode. Furthermore, Paulus found levels of gaming disorder symptoms were higher in autistic boys.

Similarly, research in the US by Dr Micah Mazurek and Dr Christopher Engelhardt found autistic people are more likely to get addicted to games.2

Their most recent research in 2017, published in PeerJ, found autistic adults devote more time to gaming and showed more symptoms of “video game pathology” than typically developing peers.

The researchers said the “highly restricted interests” and “preoccupations” that define autism may result in “compulsive patterns of game-play”, and this may have a damaging impact on “overall functioning”, leaving autistic people more isolated from “social and community activities, education, and employment.”

The researchers said addictive gaming may exacerbate co-occurring symptoms of autism like mood, irritability and anxiety.

The research team concluded that the relationship between autism and gaming addiction was “strong” and this area should be an “important focus of clinical attention”, and Mazurek of the University of Virginia, has said she and colleagues have done a “series of studies” and “found very consistent results across different samples”.

However, last year, a Canadian study led by Claude L Normand found the proportion of “problematic internet users” with autism was “very similar to what has been found in the general population”.3

Normand’s research suggested the “prevalence of gaming disorder in autistic adults may be quite low, and no higher than in the general population.”

In Normand’s work, just two (3%) of the 65 autistic adults included in the study showed enough symptoms to suggest a gaming disorder.

Gaming as a force for good

Gaming can also have a positive influence on people’s lives, and autistic youtuber Daniel M. Jones believes gaming can be a force for good, particularly for young people with autism.

Jones, 37, from Anglesey in North Wales – who also advises teachers, psychologists and parents on how to deal with autistic youngsters – said he met friends through gaming in his teenage years that he is still in touch with decades later.

He bonded with them over gaming, but their friendship and connection grew and became the main focus when they started meeting socially.

He maintains that autistic people game to release the feel-good hormone dopamine, and if they were not getting dopamine from time spent on a console, they would look for it through some other hobby or interest that would become an obsession.

He said: “There’s no exception to addiction habits because all humans are dopamine seekers anyway. The difference is with people who are autistic or have ADHD is that they have a tendency to be more obsessive towards collecting dopamine because we burn through dopamine quicker.”

Jones says autistic people may find it easier to make connections with other games in online worlds as they feel as though they are in a safe and familiar environment.

When one therapist came to him while struggling to make headway with a group of autistic youngsters, he advised her to create a Minecraft account and do the therapy session while playing the bestselling building game.

He said the psychologist immediately began making tremendous progress with the autistic youngsters she had been struggling to reach.

Despite this, Jones, who also has ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), warns that spending too much time gaming can have a negative impact on children.

Jones therefore suggests imposing time limits on the amount of time children and young people spend gaming, as he does with his own five-year-old son.



  1. Paulus FW, Sander CS, Nitze M et al. Gaming Disorder and Computer-Mediated Communication in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Z Kinder Jugendpsychiatr Psychother. 2020;48(2):113-122.
  2. Engelhardt CR, Mazurek MO, Hilgard J. Pathological game use in adults with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder. PeerJ. 2017 Jun 26;5:e3393.
  3. Normand, Claude & Fisher, Marisa & Simonato, Isabelle & Fecteau, Stephanie-M & Poulin, Marie-Hélène. A Systematic Review of Problematic Internet Use in Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2021.

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