Should Kids with Autism Play Video Games?

Should kids with autism play video games?

Parents frequently ask me should kids with autism should play video games. I give them a qualified “yes” accompanied by a few important caveats.

There are many compelling reasons why children with autism should play video games. Video games and other technologies have been proven to be very powerful tools for teaching children with autism skills such as language, communication, and cognitive flexibility. At the same time, excessive game play has been shown to increase inattention, oppositionalism, and repetitive and addictive behavior.

When parents and educators use these technologies in a responsible and supervised manner, there can be tremendous benefits to children affected by autism. Both anecdotal and research-based data describe how children with autism are drawn to video games and other digital media. In part, this may be a result of the visual nature of screen-based technology. Compared to learning in a social setting, gaming is usually a far less stressful environment for learning new skills.

Children with autism have visual-spatial strengths that draw them to video games. For example, they can find hidden figures (a skill useful in many puzzle video games) more readily than many of their peers. Children with autism also tend to thrive under the structure and immediate feedback that gaming provides.

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Until recently children diagnosed with autism could not also be diagnosed with ADHD. However, recent revisions to the diagnostic code along with  the observations of hundreds of clinicians reveal that many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder also display significant problems in sustaining their focus and attention. There are compelling data from both research and observation that children with autism are extremely focused when using screen-based technologies. Ultimately, there is little question that children with autism may learn more efficiently when using computer-assisted instruction compared to a traditional teacher-centric classroom.

While video games and technologies can be powerful alternatives to teaching academics, translating screen-based learning into real-world problem-solving skills remains difficult. At LearningWorks for Kids we focus on the process of generalization, or using digital technology to develop useful, real-world skills. We need knowledgeable and engaged parents and educators to help transfer game-based skills effectively into classroom and home-based skills. Our LearningWorks for Kids game and app guides provide activities to practice thinking skills used in games or apps to help children affected by autism develop real-world skills.

Here are a few strategies that can help children affected by autism generalize game-based skills into real-world skills:

  1. Encourage kids with autism to play popular games that their peers also play. This will help them to coordinate play dates and other opportunities to get together.
  2. Be knowledgeable about the games a child with autism is playing.  Connect the games to experiences in the child’s daily life. For example, learn a little bit about how construction takes place in Minecraft, then point out new homes or buildings that are being constructed in your neighborhood.
  3. Encourage children with autism to be reflective about their game play. Ask them how they solve particular problems, overcome obstacles, or make decisions in a game. While this metacognitive process may be difficult for children affected by autism, it is important to encourage reflective thought by getting children to talk directly about their game play.

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