8 Reasons Kids with Autism Should Play Games

Posted by | December 16, 2014 | Opinion, Tips for Parents | No Comments

This article originally appeared on LearningWorksForKids.com, a site dedicated to talking about games and technology in relation to “alternative learners,” which includes kids with learning disabilities, dyslexia, autism, and ADHD. We’re excited to have a relationship with LearningWorks For Kids where we will be cross-posting articles and supporting each other in emphasizing the positive aspects of gaming and technology. In this post, Dr. Randy Kulman talks about how gaming can help kids with autism.

There have been a number of reports over the past year that express concern about whether or not children with autism should play video games. These studies have indicated that children on the autism spectrum tend to become overly engaged in video game play and sometimes display other problematic behaviors, such as inattention or obsession—particularly with roleplaying games. While these studies suggest caution and effective limit-setting on video game play for children with autism, there is much proof that playing video games can be extremely beneficial for children with mild symptoms of autism. We’ve compiled eight ways children with autism can benefit from playing video games.

1. Improve flexible thinking skills.

Video games by their nature require flexible thinking and adapting to new situations. This is often problematic for children with autism. Games such as Portal 2 and Minecraft are opportunities to improve cognitive flexibility.

2. Learn variations in rules.

By their very nature, games require that one learns the rules to be successful. Children with autism may have difficulties in understanding variations in rules. Rules vary even amongst similar games. Playing match-three games, like Bejeweled Blitz, Puzzle & Dragons, and others like them, provides an opportunity to grow accustomed to slightly varying parameters and objectives. Some games, like Triple Town, another match-three puzzle game, have multiple modes with different requirements and goals, giving your child a familiar foundation from which to branch out.

3. Be comfortable making mistakes.

Making mistakes and errors is an integral component to most video game play, and this is one of the most important and powerful methods for learning in general. For children with autism, making mistakes can be a source of fear and stress, so working with your child to see how their mistakes are crucial to growth is extremely useful. Games like Amazing Alex and Angry Birds, which use a grading system of one to three stars per stage, allow for children to progress through the game without getting frustrated by the pursuit of perfection, while still encouraging them to try to improve their strategies.

4. Practice social skills.

More than 65% of video games and apps are used in a social fashion, requiring interaction and feedback from team members and opponents. Children with autism often have difficulty socially. Online tools such as Xbox Live require playing with others but take out some of the stress of face-to-face interactions, which may be a good step for children with autism. Finding a game that is engaging enough to use as an opportunity for training in social skills is invaluable. A game that is popular amongst a child’s peers will afford opportunities for playdates and spontaneous conversations, challenging your child to exercise self-control in the game as well as in face-to-face interactions. A game like New Super Marios Bros. U allows for up to five players to move through the game cooperatively, requiring patience and communication from all players. Injustice: Gods Among Us and other combat tournament games are ideal for giving kids the chance to be competitive and practice good sportsmanship in a controlled setting. There are also games and apps that help your child practice recognizing social cues.

5. Improve motor skills.

Active and “exergames” require a variety of gross motor skills. Practicing these gross motor skills in a fun fashion may be very useful for children on the autism spectrum who have difficulties with gross motor issues. Help them build coordination with games that get your child up and moving with a group of friends or family members, like Kinect Adventures River Rush or Wii Sports: Bowling, which give players hints on how to move for the best outcome. Many children with autism experience difficulties with handwriting and other fine motor skills. Touchscreen-based games often require refining these fine motor skills. To practice in a repetitive but fun fashion, choose a game like Fruit Ninja, which challenges players to slice the fruit that appears on screen with a quick swipe of their finger while avoiding the bombs that are thrown as decoys.

6. Gain knowledge of popular culture.

Video games and apps are very popular. Children with autism need to engage in activities that their peers also like to have areas of shared interests and attention to communicate with them. A game like Despicable Me: Minion Rush, based on the popular Pixar movies, affords children the chance to participate in a trend along with their friends and classmates and build executive functions like focus and flexibility at the same time.

7. Enhance focus and attention.

Video games and apps are often a far more engaging learning environment than a traditional classroom for children with autism. Research with the Teachtown application for autism indicates that the lure of the technology is statistically more engaging and results in more learning than a traditional classroom for children with autism. Big Brain Academy, Electric Box, and Brain Age are examples of games that make academia fun and engaging for kids.

8. Realize practice makes perfect.

Apps and games provide for opportunities for repeated practice and learning experiences that do not require a teacher or parent. Many children with autism may require far more repetitions to learn a skill or acquire knowledge than typically developing children. Apps and games that involve planning may be very useful for children with autism as this is an area of weakness for them. Planning can be difficult due to children with autism’s difficulty in understanding the impact of their behaviors upon others as well as the impact of their own behavior on others. Games like Bad Piggies and Cut the Rope ask children to plan carefully while also providing ample opportunities for trial and error as children work to execute the right combinations of moves and materials.

Randy Kulman

About Dr. Randy Kulman

Randy Kulman, PhD, is the Founder and President of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games to teach executive functioning and academic skills. For the past 25 years, Dr. Kulman has also been the Clinical Director and President of South County Child and Family Consultants, a multidisciplinary group of private practitioners that specializes in assessment and interventions for children with learning disorders and attention difficulties.