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The Eerie Playground: Videogames and Autism

David Owen | 3 Oct 2013 15:00
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The game has met with a largely positive response. It has resonated with the personal experiences of many with ASD, and some have used the game to communicate their sensory issues to their neurotypical friends and family members. "Similarly we received many comments from neurotypicals saying that playing the game was an eye-opening experience for them because they found themselves displaying behaviours that they had seen autistic people do," says Kadayifcioglu.

So, in a number of ways, video games prove themselves important within the field of autism therapy. Yet there were some who were not so positive about Auti-sim, and who are wary of the impact that the medium could have on those with ASD.

The results of Mazurek's studies also raised a number of concerns about the relationship between ASD and screen-based media. "We found that children with ASD demonstrated much higher rates of problematic, or addictive, game use as compared to typically developing children," she says.

If video games provide a desirable 'safe' environment for autistic children away from the real world, they may prefer to spend an unhealthy amount of time within them. Therefore some commentators have used the research to denounce autistic children being allowed to play video games. "Very often the parents are criticised for mismanaging their children," says Landau. "In actual fact they're dealing with problems that have no easy solutions."

They're dealing with problems that have no easy solutions

"The challenge is to recognise when [ video games are helping ], instead of panicking about video game addiction," says Kadayifcioglu. "It can be a valid concern. But you also see a familiar pattern in that kind of conversation: a failure to make a distinction between the problem and the coping mechanisms. Games can be amazing tools in coping with the outside world for the sense of control it gives an autistic child, who otherwise may not feel in control of his or her surroundings and life in general. Or they can be therapeutic and reinforcing of certain skills."

Concern about the harmful impact of games on children with ASD triggered some negative responses to Auti-sim. "Some people were just wary of video games and thought calling it a game trivialised the subject," Kadayifcioglu says. "Some other people were upset that our game did not reflect their personal experiences with the condition. There were also some misunderstandings, I think, where people did not initially get that this was not a for-profit project."

Mazurek is less certain, for now, of the potential positive impact of video games for autistic children, but she remains open to the possibilities, particularly when it comes to teaching social and communication skills. "Teaching these skills in 'real world' social situations can be stressful and overwhelming for some children with ASD. As such, game-based or virtual reality environments might be more comfortable for initially learning and practicing these skills.

"What we don't yet know is whether children are able to demonstrate the skills they learned online or in virtual environments in actual face-to-face social interactions."

So, as ever, there is a great deal more research to be done. Mazurek's results are preliminary. The next step is a longitudinal study that looks at the effects of video game use over time. There is also a need to study the effects of different types of games. And if these were to have positive outcomes, there is still the need for controlled clinical studies to determine if these extend to real world situations.

If this research can further establish the positive impact of video games on children with ASD, it could allow video games to play an important role in the treatment of autism. This would not only be good news for the afflicted and to the medium, which is still considered by many as harmful to young people. Helping autistic children to integrate into society would benefit us all.

"Having a section of the population excluded from public life is a loss for all of us," says Kadayifcioglu, "especially if it can be avoided simply with more empathy and understanding. Without such understanding, it is easy to contribute to the problem instead of helping."

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