The journey of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for both those with the diagnosis and their families, is often marked by hard-won mile markers, winding turns, and unanticipated roadblocks. For many kids with ASD, online games can both free them from the pressure of social interaction and yet ironically, also help them develop social skills, as they sharpen other important abilities along the way.
Understanding more about ASD and what builds bridges to independence and success is increasingly important. According to the Autism Speaks website, in March 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data on the prevalence of autism in the United States and identified 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Jennifer Miller, reporting for Penn State News a year later in April 2015, wrote an article titled, “Researchers Find Parents of Children with Autism Embrace Video Game Use.” She interviewed Penn researchers Erinn Finke, assistant professor of communications sciences and disorders, and Benjamin Hicker, assistant professor of recreation, park and tourism management. They found that “…video game use among children with ASD could potentially aid them in building relationships with children who do not have ASD.”
According to Miller, the researchers, who also included Eileen McLoughlin, used an online survey to “gather information from 152 parents who have children with ASD between ages 8 and 12.” Results were published in the April 2015 issue of Language, Speech, and Hearing Services. The original intent of the study was to determine parental attitudes about their kids’ involvement with video games, and whether those attitudes varied based on severity of ASD symptoms.
Ultimately, wrote Miller, “Finke and Hickerson want to create intervention programs that help children with and without ASD develop meaningful relationships through a shared interest in mainstream video games.”
For an inspiring and detailed account of what online games can mean to a child with ASD, visit the Autism Support Network website and read Liz Becker’s “With Autism, a Game Is not Just a Game.” She lovingly, somewhat achingly describes the early online gaming competitions between her son with ASD and his brother without this learning disability, and her growing awareness that for her son with ASD, “…losing was an assault on his very being. Losing made him feel inadequate – less.” Yet learning to both win and lose and hearing enough times that “it’s just a game,” eventually brought immense rewards. To her delight, with coaxing and support, her son with ASD gradually moved from playing online games to more social, interactive games with the rest of the family.
Some kids with ASD, suggests other research, tend to overuse technology and may even be especially vulnerable to video game addiction. Experts concur that it’s important for parents to monitor online activities to be sure kids are learning and growing vs. simply isolating. Liz Becker’s active involvement with and supervision of her son’s online gaming provides a great example.
Dr. Randy Kulman, Ph.D., offers further support for the role of video gaming in helping those with ASD. Kulman is the founder and president of LearningWorks for Kids, “an educational technology company that specializes in using video games and interactive digital media to teach executive-functioning and academic skills.” (Executive functions are skills used to organize and act on information.) On the Learning Works website, in an article titled, “What the Research Says About Video Games and Autism,” Kulman noted that “Kids affected by autism are significantly more attentive and motivated with computer-assisted instruction.” He also cited research by Goh and colleagues that describes “strategies where games can improve socialization skills for kids affected by autism.” Yet another positive Kulman described is that “games and apps have potential to reduce repetitive behavior.”
AnywhereTeacher.com, the online destination and digital playground for kids ages 2 to 8, recently released from School Zone, has more than 850 entertaining and educational activities. It can keep kids—both those with and without ASD—busy learning and playing for countless hours, at a variety of levels, for just pennies per day. Plus, a 7-day trial is completely free. With a subscription, parents can easily monitor kids’ use, and many of the activities allow for multiple players. AnywhereTeacher is also available as an Android app, iOS app, and Windows download.
With the supervision and involvement of parents, online video games can playfully help kids diagnosed with ASD maximize their potential –a beautifully simple approach to a complex challenge.