Are Video Games a Special Interest Area for Children with Autism?

A common focus of children with autism and Asperger’s is their intense fascination with video games. Approximately 90% of children and adults with Asperger’s Disorder will have an all consuming “special interest area” (SIA) in which they will have a vast array of knowledge. According to Hans Asperger, these special interest areas often enable them to achieve “quite extraordinary levels of performance” in the things that interest them the most. While excellence at playing video games may not be the most vital area in which to excel, there are many potential ways to convert an SIA in video games to academic knowledge, improved social relationships, and future vocational skills.

When most people think about the special interests of children with Autism and Asperger’s, they think about odd, narrow, and often obscure areas of interest like light switches, statistics, industrial fans, or train schedules.  Some people describe these special interests as compulsions; however, they are different in that children with Autism or Asperger’s truly enjoys their interests and do not try and resist it as they would with a compulsion.

To the degree that children with Autism or Asperger’s have a special interest that is readily shared by the neurotypical (regular) world, they are more likely to be accepted and be able to communicate effectively. So while there are many children with Autism or Asperger’s who may have a special interest in the areas such as video games, the Civil War, Pokemon cards, or airplanes, the fact that others may be interested in these areas makes it possible for them to be able to fit in and communicate more readily. However, when one digs below the surface, we will often find that even these special interests have a very narrow, obscure flavor to them. So that a child with Autism interest in video games is essentially about the main character in a specific first-person shooter game and does not extend to other video games or play activities.

Many parents have expressed concerns about their children with Autism or Aspergers having an overriding interest in video games, and in particular violent video games. A study of children with Autism conducted by Mary Ann Winter-Messiers revealed many of the teenage participants identified video games as their special interest area. However, when interviewed in depth, they revealed that they played video games in order to fit in with their peers because their peers would reject their true special interest area. The authors identified this practice as the “masking” of special interests and that they used popular interest as a social bridge to their peers.

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Teenagers with Autism recognize one of the important issues about having a popular special interest area: while it might serve to help them in developing an area of expertise and eventually even a vocational skill, choosing a popular area of a special interest area is useful as a social tool. Special interest areas also appear to help children with Autism and Asperger’s Disorder in a number of other areas. Winter-Messier’s research team identified improvement in body language and eye contact when an individual was talking about their special interest area. They also reported a reduction in self-stimulation and distractibility when talking about their special interest area. Social communication increased in fluidity and fluency as they became more at ease while discussing their special interest area. Adolescents also demonstrated “heightened social sensitivity” in being able to recognize peer’s subtle cues when the special interest areas where discussed. Although typically these adolescents were negative about themselves, they frequently spoke positively about themselves in relationship to the special interest area and were able to deal with intense sensory stimuli more effectively when involved with their special interest area.

This study demonstrates how special interest areas may have a number of very positive aspects for children with Autism and Asperger’s Disorder. There are, however, a number of strategies that can help transform these special interest areas into tools that can vastly improve a child’s life. First, it is very helpful to help your child to expand upon their special interest area so, for example,  they might take a narrow interest in Civil War generals and make it into a broader interest around the Civil War and military history. A second idea is to nurture their interest by showing how this interest has an impact on broader society. Again using the example of the Civil War, taking them to different battlegrounds or museums to learn more about the weaponry and the people that were involved in the Civil War could be useful. Helping them to use their special interest area in projects and school work can be advantageous.

If video games happen to be your child with Autism special interest area, consider a number of other strategies to make them more productive and useful. Increase the amount that video game play is social in nature so that the majority of their video game playing is with others and not as a solitary exercise. Secondly, have them increase the range of the types of games that they play. If they love playing first person shooters such as the Call of Duty series, encourage them to play other genres, perhaps even those that have some violence such as Final Fantasy XIII and Zenonia 2 but that may practice a skills such as Flexibility and expose them to other types of activity.

Also encourage them to intersperse some exergames such as Kinect Sports Season Two:Tennis into their video game play so that they are getting some physical exercise while they are playing games. Try and get them to play multi-player games with their friends coming over to your house to play with them in a face-to-face setting. Finally, learn more and recognize how children with autism special interest can be a source of self-esteem and improved social and emotional functioning. Use it as such to help your child to make gains in other areas of their life.

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