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How unlimited screen time works in our home & how I recommend parents approach screens with PDA kids & teens

by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

With gratitude to Amanda Diekman ( and Casey Ehrlich ( for all I've learned about this topic from each of them.


Yesterday my 6-year-old PDA kiddo spent much of the day watching his favorite Minecraft YouTubers. (Yes, he watches videos of other people playing video games. It sounds absurd if you've never done it, but it actually can be quite exciting if you live deep enough inside the Minecraft fan base).

From my desk, I heard him cracking up, jumping on the trampoline, reading subtitles, learning about his special interest, and watching other players experiment and master an endlessly creative game.

Then in early evening he popped off the computer, eyes bright, smile wide, legs ready to run, asking to go to the Arboretum.

As a PDAer, my son was born with an overactive threat response that fires off when faced with a lack of autonomy, control, or social equality.

We didn’t know about PDA & the nervous system lens for the first 5 years of his life. We compassionately parented him as best he could, but because we did not know about accommodating an underlying nervous system disability we still had pelnty of expectations, limits, and demands on him throughout the day that - looking back - were clearly too much for his disablity.

My child spent the first five years of his life enduring multiple Autistic meltdowns (which for him are the nervous system stress equivalent of a panic attack) every a day.

Imagine: multiple panic attacks a day for 5 years straight as a small child.

Last May, when our Arboretum’s apple and plum blossoms burst out in dazzling heaps of spring, my son was in deep PDA burnout. He was barely able to meet several basic needs. He could not leave the couch. He couldn’t tolerate being away from me without panicking, so I barely left the house either.

My husband and I told each other, “Our singular goal now is to help him clock as many hours as possible simply feeling safe in his body.”

It was a revolutionary goal. One that required ignoring most of society’s messages about what behaviors make a parent “good” and a child “healthy.” It required us to observe with our own eyes, ears, and intuition about what our specific child needed to be well. We dropped all screen time limits at this time. Then we watched what happened.

For the first few weeks he watched 10 hours of YouTube a day. We did not consider this a failure of our parenting. It was therapeutic rest for his nervous system after living as an undiagnosed PDA child for 5 years of his life, surviving multiple panic attacks a day.

We ignored the social stigma of screens. Instead we observed their effect on our specific child.

Months into burnout, our son started imaginative play with us, inspired by his YouTubers. His smile & creative drive began to return. Then we introduced Minecraft. With unlimited access to Minecraft our son’s confidence, imagination, play, learning, drive to mastery, access to autonomy, literacy, sense of social belonging and purpose all sky-rocketed.

After ten months of deep PDA accommodations including medication, our son’s nervous system settled into equilibrium. He now lives at a baseline level of his disability, meaning he is not in a crisis we need to address. In fact, he is thriving within the limitations of his disability.

Once our son came out of burnout, we continued with child-led screen time. Here's what it looks like for our specific child:

He still has access to YouTube, Minecraft, and creative apps on the iPad as much as he wants. There are days where he’s on them all day, and other days where we’re out on adventures all day. The morning starts with him on YouTube, which allows me and my husband some extra sleep, and the day ends with him and me cuddling watching YouTube. He takes melatonin, and - we are lucky here - he has no sleep resistance. He gets sleepy around 8pm every night, and asks to be put to bed.

Our bedtimes are easy in part because we have no conflict around screen time. If he felt I was threatening his autonomy around screens, he would stay up watching videos to push for that autonomy. If I physically forced him off a screen, it would escalate until bedtime was impossible. Occasionally he'll get in bed and then say he needs another video. No problem - he trots off an watches for a few minutes, then comes back to find me ready to read to him. Autonomy is the key to ease.

During the day doing unschooling, he naturally flows in and out of onscreen/offscreen learning and play.

With YouTube as a sort of regulating home base, he is able to flow in and out of other activities according to his natural inner rhythm, and occasionally doing something I strew.

This flow is an example of what I am calling the PDA expansion and contraction cycle.

Expansion and contraction is part of life (think in breath, out breath, waking, sleeping) but for PDAers it's more extreme and obvious. To thrive within the limits of our disability, we need lots of time in our safe place to recharge after social connection, adventure, experimentation, and risk-taking. We need this time to be without shame. For my son, YouTube specifically is an integral part of his contraction. His hyper-vigilant nervous system clocks time there feeling safe, autonomous, and at rest. Then he emerges again.

Because I innately understand the PDA expansion and contraction cycle, I know that my son’s regulated offscreen time is made possible by his onscreen time.

But I also celebrate my son's onscreen time. Screens are not a necessary evil, rather an integral part of his learning, growing, thriving, and nervous system health. This is true for three basic reasons.

  1. No conflict around screens means he and we have so much less conflict than we otherwise would.

  2. Child-led time on YouTube allows him to rest and recharge when his body needs it, and therefore his nervous system can access more of life outside our home and immediate family.

  3. The screens themselves help him access learning, play, autonomy, and skill building he wouldn't otherwise have access to without total undivided 11 attention from me or my husband every waking minute.

Here are a some examples of how my son uses screens now that he is out of burnout.

(A word before you compare this list to your own child's screen use. My kiddo is a) home full time and b) out of burnout. In contrast, a stressed child who is in school full time will likely not use screens in all these ways, and will instead use them just to rest and zone out, just as an adult will at the end of a long workday. Similarly, a PDAer in burnout may spend hours a day zoning out for months as they begin healing.)

Here's how my son uses YouTube, one of his special interests:

  • He rests and recovers from social interaction, which means he is less likely to burn out socially again.

  • He exercises on the couch and 3ft trampoline.

  • He belly laughs.

  • He literally taught himself to read from the subtitles and now reads far above grade level.

  • He feels connected to “his YouTubers,” which provide creative role models for him.

  • He watches other Minecrafters socialize and gets ideas for onscreen and offscreen play.

  • He explores dates & math. I woke up one morning to him bursting into my room calling, “MAMA! I need to GRAPH my YouTubers by how many followers they have!” So we spent the morning making bar graphs.

  • He taught himself how to navigate & troubleshoot the back end of the YouTube studio.

  • He regulates his nerves so he can eat.

  • He delights in mastering massive amounts of information about Minecraft.

Here's how he uses Minecraft the game itself, which is another special interest:

  • He thinks like an engineer - facing a challenge, trying a solution, testing it, iterating, and trying again.

  • He plans and then practices executive functioning making his plan happen.

  • He reads and does basic math within gameplay.

  • He connects with my husband through coding mods

  • He practices emotional regulation when he bumps up against the constraints of the game or the limits of his skillset.

  • He clocks countless hours being creative and having huge amounts of autonomy. This is pure gold for the PDA nervous system.

  • He connects with other Autistic people on Autcraft, a Minecraft server for Autistics & family members.

  • He has a sense of belonging to a global community of players.

  • He connects socially and interactively with me and my husband.

  • He has occasional playdates with family friends' kids while they are all on the same server, but in their own houses.

Oh, and by the way, my son’s autonomy on screens means I have hours to work and care for myself while being home full time with a PDA 6-year-old who cannot yet tolerate more than 45 min of childcare once in a while. This blog post and my sanity? Made possible in part by YouTube and my child's autonomy.

Parents of PDAers kids are often worried that if they allow their child or teen unlimited access to screens they will just sit in front of YouTube all day.

When clients say this to me I tell them they are likely right. But then I point out that if their child sprained their ankle over-exercising, they would allow them to rest that ankle. Screens are, for many PDAers, a way to rest an overextended nervous system. Just as with a sprain, denying that rest will cause further damage. The key is to start from the (correct) assumption that all children are hardwired for learning & growth. From there we can trust that as the PDAer recovers from burnout, they will start their own natural expansion and contraction cycle again. They will naturally want to take risks and learn and stretch, likely both on and off screen. But this is only possible if their nervous system recovers first.

As Casey Ehrlich points out, the research on kids and screen time is done with an average population of children. PDA people are nervous system outliers. Different things work for us than the general population.

My point is not that unlimited screen time is good for all PDA kids. My point is to ignore the social stigma around screens and instead watch your specific atypical child through a nervous system lens.

Track their ability to access basic needs, over time. Track the joy behind their eyes, over time. Track their ability to stay out of threat response. Track their ability to connect with you, including through screens. If you kiddo is in burnout, remember that recovery often takes a year or more. Watch for tiny signs of healing.

For some PDAers, the way they use screens can cause dysregulation or get in the way of sleep. If that’s the case, here are some ideas:

  1. Strew other activities they will find engaging. PDAers tend to love novelty, creativity, pleasurable sensory experiences, and physical manipulation of things. Whatever you try, don't push it or the PDAer will likely reject it as a way of asserting autonomy. Say a sentence about it at most. Leave it where the kid can see it. My kiddo started playing with legos as he came out of burnout because I left some out close to his screen.

  2. Collaborate, and honor your kid/teen's expertise. If you can talk things over with your child or teen, you might mention in a calm connected moment that you noticed they get upset/dysregulated sometimes when they are, say, playing a certain game. Say a statement like "I wonder what is making those moments hard for you." Amanda Diekman tells a story of how one of her kids was dysregulated every time they played a favorite game, and a conversation revealed it was simply set to the wrong level!

  3. Look for moments of natural flow off the screen. Instead of time limits, work with a natural ending... At the end of a life on a game. At the end of a video on YouTube.

  4. Have something else compelling to bridge the child/teen's attention to. Remember we are Autistic, and moving our attention is hard unless self-directed. The less abrupt the shift the better. So for example, "I see that video is over and I'm available if you want to work on that engineering set."

  5. If you weigh the pros and cons, and decide it is worth the nervous system stress to physically force a child or teen off a screen in the hopes that setting the limit will help them regulate in the long term, do so in a moment when you have internal resources available. Be prepared for a fallout in your relationship with them, and don't take it personally. Know that you are making difficult choices within constraints of the reality of your family.

  6. Screen limits are not all or nothing. Some families will have child-led screen time during the day, but have a family practice of stopping screens around a certain time in the evening. Just remember, if your PDAer is part of making the rules, they have a lot better chance of being able to follow them. Nothing top-down feels safe to a PDAer... unless we are on top!

  7. Remember that whatever "works" now may not work forever. Hold solutions lightly.

  8. Breathe in compassion to your own heart. You are parenting a kiddo with a nervous system disability. If you're a biological parent, you or your child's other parent are likely Autistic or ADHD as well. This is hard. You are not alone.



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