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Video Games

Villain or hero for kids with autism?

July 2013

Video games as villain. It's a typical portrayal among Parenting circles. Moms, dads, experts and well intenders are quick to draw dotted lines from video games to childhood obesity, poor social skills and violence. The arguments are with some merit. Yet, in moderation and with parental oversight, the story can unfold quite differently. For kids with autism, video games may even be a good idea. Area experts weigh in.

iPad ups the social ante

Beth Harp, a consultant with BACA Prep, is among those who believe video games can benefit kids with autism. She says it's often difficult for these kids who exhibit atypical behavior to be seen as socially valuable to their neurotypical peers. On the other hand, if the kid with autism is playing Fruit Ninja on his iPad, this typical behavior may encourage other kids his same age to talk with him. This is one way video games actually help target the social deficits kids with autism find so hard to overcome.

Social skill nuggets lie within video gaming

"The research is pretty clear that kids with autism have a preference for screen-based media, and that can be good and bad, but it's easy to harness and monitor," said Tim Courtney, research and training director for Little Star Center. He encourages parents to create social opportunities related to video games. For instance, the child with autism may be able to play a video game for a set amount of time if he asks mom for the controls, which promotes social interaction. A parent can pause the game and ask questions about the on-screen action. Games can even be taken offline. Angry Birds, for instance, can become a game of throwing blocks at a target. If the child is excited by video games, it can be used as a tool to further his social skills.

More leisure time for child begets more get-stuff-done time for mom

Harp says people with typically developing children often take for granted that they can walk away from their child temporarily to do dishes or throw in a load of laundry. In her experience, parents of kids with autism are not able to take this kind of break. If, however, the child could enjoy playing a video game for 20 minutes, then the parent could tend to a chore or two. "It's a valuable skill for the home environment and makes things more typical," she said.

Technology is accessible and real world

Harp, who works frequently on leisure skills with young adults, says many times her clients don't know what to do if asked to sit down for ten minutes. "Waiting and occupying yourself are important skills to have...A lot of times we use edible reinforcement when kids are young. Well, if we also then teach video games or looking through books or magazines it will fit more naturally into the real world," she said. On that note, video games on iPads, smart phones and other small hardware are easy to tote around and socially interesting, too.

Game in moderation

Of course not all experts see intrinsic value in the tech-driven activity. "Students on the autism spectrum often find it easier to interact with adults who are more predictable or with technology because it is more predictable. While technology can provide an avenue for students with autism spectrum disorders to learn, it should not be the only or primary source used. Students need to be in situations that teach them to interact with others, to communicate in a meaningful way and to interact socially with others," said Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

So, are video games villain or hero? Maybe a bit of both. In moderation, however, many believe they may deserve a supporting role.

Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Special Needs

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