April is National Autism Awareness Month. It is a time when everyone is encouraged to educate themselves about autism and its effects on those that live with it and their families.
A good friend of mine, and mother of two children with autism, has said that if you have met one child with autism, then you have met exactly one child with autism. Each child is so different that it is difficult to predict what will work or what wont. As a result, parents are growing more and more interested in increasing their toolset to help their children adapt, learn, and grow. Research has begun just recently into the controlled use of video games and their therapeutic effects.
Temple Grandin Ph.D, one of the most successful high-functioning autistic persons in the world, has written about video games and their possible advantages.
- Playing games can help promote pro-social skills like turn taking and sharing
- Some games can help promote understanding of social cues (especially simulators that involve real life situations as opposed to fantasy such as the Sims).
- Video game design, criticism, and QA are all valid career paths so encouraging play might help them find a job later in life
- Fitness/Motion games can help to improve motor skills
Video games also have an advantage over other forms of media in learning because their interactive nature makes them better motivators. Jane McGonigal, a game designer and author, has written that games present vividly clear goals and provide immediate feedback to the player. There is literally nowhere else to have that sort of an unambiguous result. You either jump over the pit or you fall in. You defeat the boss dragon or you don’t.
Grandin, and others, express significant concerns regarding autistic children and addiction to video games. The harsh reality is that they are easy to fixate on and many of them present challenges with no real completion (e.g. Pac Man and other score-chase games or massively multiplayer online games (MMOs)). This is a valid concern, so parents of autistic children should make sure to educate themselves on the games they are playing and how they are played.
The caveat to all of this is that we need to treat video games differently in order for them to be enriching to anyone, autistic or not. Video games are often considered to be a solitary activity. The secret to unlocking their potential is finding ways to make gaming into a social activity and actively engaging with your child.
This article is not intended to be treatment advise. I am posting a small number of suggestions pulled from different sources and to illustrate the potential for video games to be a useful tool for parents.
If you are a parent of a child with Autism and need support please seek out your MD. But, if you are in need of support and ideas these are some resources that you can turn to.