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As you may discover after perusing through æStranger.com, I’m an avid proponent of visual entertainment and specifically games & films. I believe that they can be a force for good, in improving the quality of life, education, work, and motivation.
There is a group of people who I feel can benefit the most from engaging with games, both online and offline games. This group of people is those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and their family and friends.
I’m writing this because there are people, close family, in my life that struggle with autism every day. And if you’re reading this then you either know people or are one such individual yourself.
I wanted to write this to show that gaming can be good and that it can help with supporting and interacting with those that have autism. There are enough stories on the web where it’s been proven that gaming does indeed work when trying to create a connection, and how others have used it to improve those relations and connections.
What games do well is that they create a safe and recognizable environment for people of all ages with autism to explore. And because they are safe and recognizable, concepts such as emotion, competition, win/loss, and consequence can be understood without fear. Those are important concepts to understand and even those without autism can struggle to deal with them at times.
There are of course darker sides to gaming and I’ll explore these because it’s about making an informed decision when you want to use any tool. And if you’re a parent, it’s about understanding, being engaged and doing the work, not about finding a quick fix or digital-nanny that will help with your problem.
If you’re unfamiliar with the issues around autism, then I’m going to give a quick run-down of what they are in relation to gaming. It is not a comprehensive explanation of all issues, and if you want such a run-down then I recommend searching the great number of specialist sites available on the web.
Addendum: One thing I do want to add if you are searching the web, please do take a lot of studies with a pinch or pound of salt. Many only list problems, no solutions, research a minority or one-sided view, appear to not take into account underlying parental or technological incongruities and are simply just too old to warrant useful research. Such as this article from 2013.
Children with autism develop differently than those with typical development. A strength area that arises very quickly with those that have autism are nonverbal skills. Nonverbal skills are usually those focused on visual and physical acuity. Though the underlying issue with this is that they then have regular verbal communication problems.
Gaming, therefore, is great for the skill area of nonverbal communication. As many games require a pure cognitive understanding of their framework and do not require you to talk to them to make them understand. Games such as puzzles and memory match games focus in on the visual and physical skills and are great ways to start engaging on a nonverbal level.
Though as a parent or guardian you must always be aware of the problems a lack of verbal communication can bring, especially in the virtual world of gaming. I will list some of the issues that you should be aware of that are associated with problematic video game use. And after that, I will lay out for you how games, with proper supervision and support, can overcome these problems and lead to more beneficial experiences.
You must always be aware and conscious that not all game titles are created equal. That not all are appropriate for someone with autism. You need to first educate yourself before you can use games as an educational tool.
Allowing over-engagement in games can create oppositional behavior, due to a lack of ability to disengage with the virtual world. This over-engagement can lead to an impairment in social and communication skills, and create restricted or repetitive behavior. This is because those with autism tend to develop an intense interest in a singular subject, this is where the difficulty in disengagement arises.
Though the first positive thing you should take away from that is that intense interest is an avenue for engagement if approached correctly.
A stream of game development that focuses on educational gaming is Serious Games. Some developers are creating these educational serious games that consider such things as intense interest and engagement in people with autism. These serious games can be seen as effective therapies.
The main benefit of such therapies provided by serious games is that they are cheaper and more tailored than traditional therapies. 1-on-1 treatment between a specialist and someone with autism can be very expensive in many countries around the world. And those that are more affordable are generally so because they deploy a treatment of scale and averages, that may not benefit you or your loved one with autism.
Where a game can excel in, as a 1-on-1 treatment can, is with teaching social skills. One of the hardest things for someone with autism to understand is emotion and the recognition of it.
The secondary benefit of serious games and games, in general, is that they have a quick and easy onboarding process. What this means is that people can quickly get into a game without too many barriers or obstacles stopping them from enjoying the experience.
There are no superfluous distractions for intense interests to remain stuck on. And repetitive behavior inside a game can be curbed and reframed into an activity of trial and improvement. This organically leads to encouraging and improving a flexible behavior pattern, which can help with cultivating social engagement if approached correctly.
Cultivating social engagement and connection I imagine is at the top of yours and everyone else’s list when dealing with those that have autism. Unfortunately, Serious Games are still too few in number to offer enough of a selection or progression path to help with children, teens, and adults in various stages who have autism.
However, the gaming industry as a whole is booming, and the selection of regular games is truly enormous. One of the best game types for helping with social skills are games that focus on co-op play or multiplayer. The Guardian has a lovely story of how a co-op game helped a parent connect with their autistic child. As long as you take an active interest in their interest and engage as well, then the gaming experience can be a positive one.
Other game types of note are building and construction games. These are very attractive and effective because that have clearly defined tools, do not have time pressures, so no adrenaline is created and the goal is often the enjoyment of creation. Therefore, there is no over-stimulation to achieve a goal that may cause stress or anxiety if it isn’t completed in time or perfectly.
The question you may be asking by now is why do games work? Or why choose games at all? I’ve listed the issue’s they can cause and the benefits they can have, so why not go with a solution that doesn’t have the issues. Well, unfortunately, there aren’t many solutions that don’t have issues. And as people with autism have an innate connection with a visual interaction and technology, games I believe are the better option.
The reason that games are good for those with autism is multi-layered.
The first reason is that a game delivers the player a simplified version of the real world. It removes much of the complexity to get you engaged quickly. There are no intricate systems like language and the social interactions around them that you need to learn first to be able to play the game.
Secondly, a game requires you to give it your full attention, to concentrate only on it. That comes naturally to those with autism, with their predisposition for intense interest. And the reward for this complete attention to the game is that you are given instant feedback in a clear and understandable package.
Thirdly, if designed well, a game is intuitive. This relates to the simplified version of the real world. Those with autism still have the same basic innate tools as everyone else, just theirs aren’t available in the same way as everyone else’s might be. And a well-designed game still allows them to intuitively use those skills and perhaps even better than they could in the real world.
Fourth, in a simplified virtual world, communication and social skills, or the lack thereof, are no longer a barrier to experiencing that world. The game is non-judgemental, it teaches you basic skills, which you slowly improve upon. It doesn’t require you empathize or sympathize with it from the start and verbalize those feelings, but it can teach you those things incrementally, in an orderly narrative. Especially those games with strong stories, like “Brothers – A tale of two sons” or “Journey” on the PlayStation are exceptional at this.
Fifth, what games excel at are giving the player a sense of agency and empowerment. You are the main character and you need to complete these quests. For those with autism, they often have a sensation of inability, the helplessness that leads to anxiety, stress, and anger. To feel empowered in a safe environment is very liberating and can open a gateway for you to engage with them.
Sixth, games are safe environments. The consequences are clear and well understood. Any problems can be dealt with knowledge garnered from having played it for a while, and all new things are built up from previous experiences. This Youtube video explains this quite well I believe.
Lastly, almost all games promote creativity. And I mean creativity in the broadest sense of the word. Not only being able to be artistic, but to be innovative, to be flexible and adaptive. Understanding stories, developing strategies to overcome obstacles, thinking in abstract terms and creating methods and processes to connect with the real world.
The most important aspect of using games to help you with supporting those with autism is that you need to be able to connect the two worlds. You need to understand the game, experience it yourself and then use it as a medium to connect with those playing it. Both Teachers and Parents should do this.
You need to engage with the game, and I mean that in a fairly broad sense. I know not all parents or teachers are able or willing to play a game, because you might be afraid you suck at it, which let me tell you is ok. Engagement comes in many forms. You can also observe and reflect on the person who has autism. Ask them about the game, allow them to explain how it works, what’s happening in it. Let them teach you how to play the game. Maybe even practice playing the game yourself, so that you can be a more effective co-op partner.
Good examples of co-op games are If…, Portal 2 and yet again Minecraft.
Now, let’s squash the notion of game “addiction”. As this Youtube video by ExtraCredits explains, video games are Compelling, and not addictive. Games are compelling to play and can motivate people. This is true of everyone, with or without autism. And as the guys from AspergersExperts.com and this article from HuffingtonPost.com explains: “Addiction is a lack of connection. Put another way, the opposite of addiction is a connection.“
People with autism have a difficulty with connecting with others. And they will, therefore, choose to spend more hours playing games because of this, escaping the anxiety that arises from such interactions. To help them avoid this anxiety, and to avoid the compulsion to play an excessive amount of gaming there are a few things you can do.
To re-iterate, and I have reiterated this to the point of ad-nauseam by now I believe: you need to make sure you can connect through the medium of gaming with the autistic individual.
Also, if you use gaming as a method to connect, then when you introduce it to your child make clear that there are certain boundaries and limits to playing the game ahead of time. You need to make clear that there are rules and consequences. You need to create a “Responsibility Agreement” between you and your child, and this is true for children of any age, 3 through to 23+.
These are just a few, simple but very effective ways of ensuring a healthy and productive gaming experience.
I hope this short piece helps you in some way to engage, support and interact with your loved ones who have been diagnosed with autism. And that you have a fuller more meaningful relationship with them.
If it has helped you, then please do share it with others you think it might help as well.
I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.
Please do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.
Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well.