Using Video Games to Teach Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Kids affected by high functioning, or Level 1, autism have some difficulty with “soft skills,” including social skills, communication, and adaptive behaviors. They may also have problems with sustained attention and effort, connecting classroom learning to the real world, and executive-functioning skills (things like organization, planning, metacognition, social thinking, and flexibility). Traditional classroom methods for teaching children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may be ineffective because these social, communication, attention, and executive-functioning issues interfere with children’s ability to maximize their cognitive skills in the classroom.

One of the most effective ways to improve these soft skills is through the use of digital media such as video games and apps. Characteristics of digital media such as multimodal feedback and the ability to adapt a challenge to individual mastery levels lead to engagement and practice.

Teachers routinely notice the contrast between the enthusiasm and persistence for learning with digital tools as opposed to with traditional educational strategies in kids affected by autism. Educators are also recognizing that success for children affected by autism often requires practicing problem solving, communication, and executive functions as a prerequisite for teaching academic skills. Teaching children affected by autism with video games is one way to accomplish this.

The use of video games designed specifically for kids affected by autism in the classroom is becoming an increasingly accepted approach for improving communication and social skills. Games and apps such as Go-Go games, ChoiceWorks, and Proloquo2go were designed to help with tasks such as communication, scheduling, and learning visual-differential skills and are often best suited for kids with Level 2 autism, who require “substantial support.”

Level 1 kids can benefit from playing popular games that they will be able to play with their typically developing peers. Games such as Minecraft, Draw Something 2, and Portal 2 practice many of the social and communication skills that can help kids with autism. While these games are often difficult to integrate into the classroom, homework assignments in which children with autism play these games with classmates can be helpful. Apps such as Calm and Cove Music Journal, which can help with self-control, can easily be used in the classroom.

However, educators need to be aware that games are NOT enough to teach soft skills to children affected by autism and to view games and other digital media as tools for practicing these skills. It is the role of educators and parents to help kids affected by autism transfer (generalize) these skills from the game to the real world.

There are several important things to keep in mind when using digital games as teaching tools for children with autism. The games are exciting and motivating for students but have the ability to overshadow the “bigger picture.” Game play needs to be positioned as a fun way to learn and can be helpful as an opportunity to practice and apply skills elsewhere for students who are invested in improving a specific skill. Games should not be used as a reward for work completion. Modeling and think-aloud strategies about the skills used in a game need to be encouraged (see our LearningWorks for Kids game and apps guides). The use of video games for many kids affected by autism is a way to “catch them where they are” that can improve attention, motivation, and executive functions.

There is increasing interest in the use of popular, commercial, off-the-shelf video games for the treatment of autism, as well. Some schools have begun using the Xbox Kinect for improving social and gross-motor skills. Because many video games require the use of and practice skills such as flexibility, self-awareness, and self control, they may also be very powerful teaching tools for the development of these skills in children affected by ASD. Specific classroom strategies for using popular games to improve these skills can be found right here on our website. Children’s motivation, level of sustained interest, and willingness to overcome frustration in order to beat the games may make these effective tools in improving the lives of children affected by autism.

TeachTown is a computer-assisted instructional intervention that utilizes applied behavioral analysis to improve social/emotional, academic, and adaptive skills in children with ASD. The program is designed for students with ASD who are between the ages of 2 to 7 years developmentally. TeachTown helps develop adaptive skills such as understanding household vocabulary and money identification, along with social and emotional skills such as understanding emotion synonyms, gesturing, and emotion causes.

TeachTown uses applied behavioral analysis (ABA) techniques for the development of social and language skills. The program uses computer-assisted instruction with computer-based rewards of playing with animated pictures in between trials. It employs a discrete trial model where students respond by selecting an image in response to an instructional cue. The correct response elicits a positive statement such as, “You did it,” while an incorrect response is followed by presentation of the correct response.

Some of the more powerful features of TeachTown are strategies for generalization of skills. Multiple exemplars are used within the program, with each skill or specific piece of content-based knowledge that is presented replicated with an array of images and words to describe it. For example, if children are learning to recognize an airplane, they see a variety of images portraying pictures of airplanes to help them generalize the content or feeling.

Perhaps even more important are the non-technology based activities to improve generalization of skills. TeachTown provides teachers with motivating activities that practice the skills being taught in the computer-assisted instruction with classroom or home-based activities.

Research conducted with TeachTown suggested that TeachTown enhanced social-communication skills and decreased inappropriate behavior. A later study that included 90 students in a special education classroom found that children who averaged 23 hours using the TeachTown software made a variety of social and emotional gains. The results suggested that students in the treatment condition made significantly greater gains than the control group on 7 out of 10 learning domains on the Brigance Inventory of Early Development II. Furthermore, the more time they spent on TeachTown basics, the higher the score was on this measure.

Overall, the TeachTown research describes the promise of the use of computer-assisted instruction in improving  social/emotional and learning skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The data suggest that this type of program can reduce the need for one-on-one teaching with these children and be suitable for a variety of special needs students rather than just those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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