Autism and Video Games, Good Playmates?
A hallmark of autism is difficulty with social interaction and communication, and therapy typically involves trying to boost these skills. But what if activities that seem antisocial, namely screen-based technology such as video games and computers, can help children with autism spectrum disorder? Could video games be good playmates?
Video games may be good therapy
The latest research indicates that 1 in every 88 children has autism spectrum disorder, and this one statistic presents untold challenges to families, schools, and society as a whole. In the scramble to develop and initiate effective ways to treat autism, one of the many approaches to emerge concerns the use of screen-based media, as it's been noted that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) spend most of their free time avoiding social situations and instead engaging with computers and video games.
While on the surface this may not seem like a productive way for children with autism to spend their time, a group of experts met recently to discuss how video games and other screen-based media such as iPads can be beneficial for young people with autism. The roundtable discussion, which was arranged by Dr. Micah Mazurek of the University of Missouri, included autism researchers Dr. Cay Anderson-Hanley, Dr. Zachary Warren, and Dr. Sarah Parsons.
The use of video games to treat children with autism certainly falls into the category of "novel treatment paradigms" which Dr. Warren noted are urgently needed to provide "substantially more efficacious individualized impact on the core deficit of ASD." Dr. Parsons agreed, pointing out that most of the literature has focused on early interventions for young children, leaving little exploration into how to help older children and adolescents.
One answer could be video games. Mazurek explained that "our recent research indicates that screen-based activities (including video games and television) are preferred activities for children and adolescents with ASD." Video games may be a positive intervention for young people with autism because
- They are structured, which can help children with executive functioning skills (e.g., planning, organizing, mental flexibility), which are difficult for kids with autism
- They are visually stimulating, and many people with autism spectrum disorder have good visual perceptual skills
- They provide immediate and frequent reinforcement
- They can individually address sensory problems that affect many children with autism
- They allow young people to communicate verbally, using text, or via avatars
- Even though video games do not involve human interaction, "having the controllable complexity of a virtual world with minimized distractions or distresses may allow for simplified but embodied social interaction that is less intimidating or confusing for children with ASD than some complex real-world social interactions," according to Warren.
In other words, although video games may not be the real world, the games themselves can be designed and controlled so they teach and reinforce skills and behaviors. They also can be created to provide both concrete and abstract ideas and address specific challenges that face children who have autism.
Anderson-Hanley noted that "there is great potential for reliable and immediate reinforcement of desired behaviors based on interactivity between the person [with autism] and his or her virtual environment." We will likely be seeing much more research into the use of video games and other screen-based media as interventions and playmates for children with autism spectrum disorder.
Game interventions for autism spectrum disorder. Games for Health Journal 2012 Aug; 1(4): 248-53. Moderator: Bill Ferguson; participants: Cay Anderson-Hanley, Micah O. Mazurek, Sarah Parsons, Zachary Warren.