Autistic individuals may look to video games as a way to cope with negative affect and autistic burnout – PsyPost

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A recent study uncovered why so many individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions are fond of video games as a pastime. The new findings suggests that individuals with autism spectrum conditions may play video games for escapism, specifically self-suppression escapism when experiencing negative moods and self-expansion escapism when experiencing positive moods.

The study, which appears in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, adds to existing knowledge about the purpose of video games for those with autism.

The authors of the new study defined escapism as “an act that shifts the focus of attention from an unpleasant reality to a pleasurable unreality.” The research examined two types of escapism, self-suppression and self-expansion.

The self-suppression style of escapism refers to “engagement in activity, including gaming, to suppress negative emotions, considered as an avoidance of discomfort strategy related to negative affect (Stenseng et al., 2012, 2021).” Self-expansion escapism “facilitates autonomy, competence, and relatedness,… and harmonious, autonomous engagement.”

Research has found that those with autism spectrum conditions seem drawn to video games as an opportunity for escape and for a chance to be in control. In addition, playing video games can function as interpersonal interaction practice when those with autism spectrum conditions play collaboratively. Anna Pyszkowska and colleagues intended to investigate the positive and negative motivators for video gaming in individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions.

Participants were recruited from neurodiversity societies in Poland. Participants were required to have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, be over 18 and play video games at least one hour per week. One hundred and eighty-nine individuals fit the criteria and agreed to participate.

Participants took measures of escapism, gaming motivation, autistic burnout, affective outcomes (a measure of typical mood), and hedonic tone (capacity to experience joy). Statistical analysis of this data revealed that those with high levels of negative affect or autistic burnout were more likely to play video games for self-suppression reasons. In addition, repetitive behaviors, the decline of cognitive and motor functions, failure to engage in self-care, and behaviors intended to avoid emotions were all related to self-suppression motivations for gaming.

Those scoring high on the measure of hedonic tone (or how able they were to experience joy) were more likely to report that self-expansion was the reason for their video game endeavors. Self-expansion as a motivation for video gaming was also related to a desire for mastery.

Acknowledged limitations include the absence of a control group. Consequently, we cannot conclude that these results are unique to the gaming or autism spectrum conditions. Additionally, the study had significantly more females (105) compared to males (50) or nonbinary (34), consequently, we cannot know if gender has an impact on results.

Despite these concerns, the research team feels their work was a meaningful addition to what is known about gaming motivations and autism spectrum conditions. Understanding what may motivate a person with an autism diagnosis to spend time video gaming may help practitioners determine if gaming is used to cope with challenges that could be addressed and treated in a therapeutic setting.

The study, “Determinants of escapism in adult video gamers with autism spectrum conditions: The role of affect, autistic burnout, and gaming motivation”, was authored by Anna Pyszkowska, Tomasz Gąsior, Franciszek Stefanek, and Barbara Więzik.

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