Can Videogames Help Kids with Autism?

Posted by in Blog on Jul 19, 2012

Can Videogames Help Kids with Autism?

By Chris Jaech

By now it’s well known that the number of reported cases of autism in the US has been rising rather dramatically for the past 15 years or so. It’s unknown if this is due to an actual increase in the prevalence of the disorder or if public awareness is simply increasing, resulting in more positive diagnoses. Whatever the case, the CDC reports that 1 in 88 children in the US have some form of autism.

While there is no cure for autism, it is possible for some children to recover. This should come as no surprise given what we now know about brain plasticity. The brain is fully capable of rewiring itself to adapt to new situations at any age, but never more so than in childhood. It seems like the games and learning community should be jumping on this opportunity to use games as a tool for treating autism. Unfortunately there is disappointingly little actual research on the topic, despite how promising it is.

At Steuart W. Weller Elementary School in Virginia, teachers are working with autistic students using the Kinect. In addition to using titles like Kinect Adventures to teach the kids teamwork and coordination, students can use the Kinect to record what they call “social stories.” As students stand in front of the Kinect, avatars of them appear on-screen, mirroring and recording their movements and speech. Students then record videos of their avatars explaining how to act in certain social situations that they might have trouble with. Then, when faced with a difficult situation, the students can play back the appropriate videos—from their smartphones, let’s say. As one of their teachers says, “Students with special needs sometimes…know what they should have done differently [in a social interaction], but the problem is getting them to do it in the moment.” Often, resistance to change is a major problem for autistic kids, so it helps to give them a static (and therefore safe) environment in which to learn about social interactions, a decidedly non-static topic.

Of course, the other side to this argument is that maybe the environment games provide is too safe. In an article for one Donna Grosser expresses concerns that autistic children can become addicted to games because of how appealing (and unlike the real world) that static environment is. She points out that many in fact do become “obsessively focused on video games and [unable to] converse on other topics or detach from thoughts related to them.” However, I would opine that the saying “all things in moderation” applies here. Even Ms. Grosser points out that “when played excessively they can obstruct valuable social learning opportunities.”

I say it’s my opinion because really, there isn’t all that much research to suggest that video games are either good or bad for children with autism disorders. Maybe the best thing to do is to combine aspects of video games and social interaction to form a greater whole. The point is, we need more studies and experiments on the subject before anyone can say for sure.