Using Video Games and Technologies in a Clinical Practice: The Power of Technology for Kids with Autism

Parents of kids with ASDs are concerned with their children’s digital media use. In general, kids affected by  Autism Spectrum Disorders are very engaged with technology albeit in a different manner from their typically developing peers. Studies suggest that  many children diagnosed with ASD become overly focused on their video game play, have difficulty in transitioning from video game play to other activities, and may display argumentative behavior in an effort to have access to more video game play. There also appears to be a relationship between the amount of video game play for children with autism or ADHD and inattention that suggests the more inattention a child displays, the more likely he is to play video games for extended periods of time

Kids with ASDs are more prone to excessive, repetitive,  or addictive behaviors-screen time included. Clinicians working with the 6-8% of kids with a diagnosable Internet Gaming Disorder need to pay careful attention to these concerns and should not plan on using games and technology as a part of their treatment protocol. For many kids with ASD, the following chart describes why video games can be a powerful tool for engagement, effort, and progress in therapy.


Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Video Games and Other Digital Media
May be inflexible or rigid and struggle with changes or making mistakes. Video games help kids practice being flexible in a safe and engaging environment by learning the rules of the game through trial and error and guided discovery.
Often are unaware of social cues and convention. Massive Multi-player Online Games are particularly good for becoming part of a group and require that players learn the “customs” of the game world, allowing kids with Autism to socialize in a more comfortable environment.
Often display poor fine or gross motor coordination. All video games practice some degree of fine and gross motor skills, particularly those with motion controls.
May become vulnerable to bullying, while not understanding when they are being teased or how to protect themselves. Many online multi-player games contain the same types of social interactions a child will find at school–both the good and the bad. However, parents can sit with their child (without the other players knowing) to help coach them through any difficult social interactions that may occur.
Often do not share common interests with peers. Most kids play at least a few video games, so having a knowledge of gaming will give kids with Autism a topic of conversation to use with their peers.

However, as seen in some of the research, clinicians need to use digital media very carefully while working with kids affected by Autism. Here are some of the concerns and cautions for clinicians and parents around the digital media use of kids with ASD.


Cautions Solutions
Because children with ASD often struggle in social relationships, they can become overly drawn to single-player games or immerse themselves on the Internet. Require that your child predominantly play multi-player games and games that facilitate social interactions. Kids with ASD may find that they’re more readily accepted by their peers in these games, as they have more skill at identifying social cues in game-based communication than in translating nonverbal cues.
While social gaming can be helpful for kids with ASD, they may become so comfortable in these online social settings, that they lose sight of the importance of face-to-face communication. Carefully monitor how much time your child is spending in these online social settings, and always make sure to use them as an opportunity for practicing face-to-face communication skills. Ask your child questions about specific online social interactions, and have him try to explain how such an interaction would play out in the “real world.”
Kids with ASD are also easily obsessed and may perseverate on playing a particular game beyond the point where they gain any benefit from it. Encourage your child to play a variety of games and even a variety of different genres and game-modes. Playing many different types of games will help him improve his flexibility, and lessen the likelihood of becoming obsessed with just one game.


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