Children affected by autism tend to be very engaged – sometimes too much so – with video games. How can parents leverage the video game engagement of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) into opportunities for learning? Can video games help children with autism function better?
Video games have the potential for improving the academic, social, and emotional functioning of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Research conducted in 1996 suggested that children affected with ASD were attracted to computers for three primary reasons: computers involve no social factors, computers are consistent and predictable, and children can take control and determine the pace of activity. Ten years ago, one study found children with ASD were involved in screen-based activities with television and computer games more than with other leisure activities. In this study, 41.4% of children affected by ASD spent most of their free time playing video games, compared to 18% of typically-developing children.
Children with ASD may display specific visuospatial strengths, often seen in neuropsychological testing, that draw them to video games. While there are legitimate concerns about the potential for overuse and addiction to video games among kids diagnosed with autism, there are also unique characteristics that make them great tools for teaching.
When one considers the differences of children with autism, it becomes evident how characteristics of digital media and video games can be helpful for them.
Characteristics of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
|Characteristics of Video Games and Other Digital Media|
|May be inflexible or rigid and struggle with changes or making mistakes.||Video games help children practice being flexible in a safe and engaging environment through learning the rules of the game by trial and error and guided discovery.|
|Are often unaware of social cues and convention.||Massive Multiplayer Online Games are particularly good for becoming part of a group and require that players learn the “customs” of the game world, allowing children with autism to socialize in a more comfortable environment.|
|Often display poor fine or gross motor coordination.||All video games practice a degree of fine and gross motor skills, particularly those with motion controls.|
|May become vulnerable to bullying and not understand when they are being teased or how to protect themselves.||Many online multiplayer games contain the same types of social interactions children find at school, both the good and the bad. Parents can sit with their children (without the other players knowing) to coach them through any difficult social interactions that may occur.|
|Often do not share common interests with peers.||Most children play at least a few video games, so having a knowledge of gaming would give children with autism a topic of conversation to use with their peers.|
Traditional strategies for teaching children with autism focus on social, communication, and adaptive skills. Interventions include direct instruction in social skills; occupational and physical therapy to help with sensory integration and motor-coordination problems; and training in communication skills such as listening, making eye contact, and reading nonverbal cues. Family and individual therapy may also be helpful.
One newer area of focus is on executive-functioning training to improving cognitive flexibility and adaptability. Many children affected by autism experience difficulty with the executive functions–or thinking skills–of flexibility, self-awareness, and self-control. Video games provide opportunities for developing fluid problem solving and cognitive flexibility due to the necessity to learn from mistakes. The skills of self-awareness and self-control required in many socially-based games may encourage children to want to learn these skills so that they are included with their peers.
Video games alone will not teach these skills to children affected by autism. Video games must be viewed as another tool in the toolbox of strategies to help these kids. Video gameplay for such children requires close monitoring but has great potential benefits. Part of the potential is based upon a child’s interest and engagement with video games.
Our team at LearningWorks for Kids has developed an innovative online program designed to use video game play to help children affected by autism. Click here to learn more about getting your child involved.
Featured image: Flickr user JD Hancock