Why Do Video Games Appeal to Children with Autism?

Parents and therapists frequently observe that children affected with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are drawn to playing video games. While we do not have any research evidence that children with ASD play at the same rate as their typically-developing peers (of whom 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games), there is no doubt that video games appeal to children with autism. There are legitimate concerns about children with ASD’s involvement with video games, due to their tendency to be drawn to repetitive, perseverative, and asocial activities. However, there is also increasing evidence that video games and other digital technologies can be a highly-effective teaching tool.

Several studies comparing traditional teaching methods with those using digital technologies have found that computer assisted programs were more effective at improving language and cognitive outcome measures in children affected by autism. The studies suggest that the greater improvements seen with computer assisted learning is a result of higher levels of motivation and attentiveness with games and game-like technologies. Anecdotally, many parents of children affected by autism report the use of video games and computer and tablet access as a powerful reward for appropriate behavior.

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Of course, most children affected by autism do not play video games because they think that they are good for learning. Instead, they are drawn to them for a variety of other reasons, including:

1. Computer and video games do not have to involve social factors, which may make them a more comfortable interactive experience for some children. Online games and tools such as Xbox Live require playing with others but take out some of the stress of face-to-face interactions which may be a good step for children with autism.

2.  Many (although certainly not all) games provide an opportunity for persistent and predictable play and expectations.

3. The child can determine the pace of the activity of the game, which allows for some repetition and control of the environment.

4. Games are fun and can be chosen either for their intrinsic appeal, their challenges,  or for their relationship to a specific interest of the child.

5.  Autism does not preclude a child’s desire to fit in. Video games and apps are very popular, so children affected by autism who want to connect with their peers often choose to play the same games as their peers.

At LearningWorks for Kids, we seek out and review games that are beneficial for children on the autism spectrum. Check out our page about Play Diets to learn more about balancing your child’s play time. Then read about the games we’ve found that help build executive functions in kids with ASD, and how to apply these exercises at school and at home, on our playbooks page.

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