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Do As They Say, Not As I Do

Patrick Gann | 23 Apr 2012 15:00
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My next chat with the therapists revealed to me more than I had, perhaps, wanted to know. Nonetheless, it was important information.

With Andrew's unique neural wiring, he's in a position where screen-based interactive entertainment is the "perfect poison."

The explanation I received regarding my parallel between the game of chess and Andrew's favorite videogames (Braid, Swords and Soldiers, various Mega Man titles, and edutainment on pbskids.org) was that this was a two-pronged problem. And, with Andrew's unique neural wiring, he's in a position where screen-based interactive entertainment is the "perfect poison."

Though I've heard it argued by pro-gamers that there is an anti-gaming bias in studies involving the brain and screen-based entertainment, multiple studies have had similar findings as the 1998 study from Nature showing that the dopamines released during interactive screen-based entertainment sessions (i.e. videogames) can create the patterns and neural pathways that lead to addiction. The sense that "this is good, and without this, nothing is good" is a key component to addiction. Andrew's therapists were quick to relate this experience to drug or alcohol addiction.

However, I challenged these therapists with secondhand testimonies demonstrating the unique capability of videogames (and other screen-based technology) to allow autistic individuals to express themselves and connect with other people. The therapists agree that such technology can be useful for individuals who are severely autistic, but Andrew is responsive in general conversation and is what they would call "high-functioning." In other words, he doesn't need the tool.

I challenged the idea that the cycle of addiction with videogames was no less threatening than any other thing he could obsess over, and cited this article as backup. At this point, the therapists explained to me why the chess game was, in fact, a different neurological experience, even if the same end result (meltdown) was observed.

Chess, like any game, follows a set of rules. For any child, neurotypical or not, the early years of life are all about observing and memorizing rules. However, the free-form experience we call "life" has so many complicated rules (schedules, social norms, etc.), it's much easier to focus on something that has a finite set of rules. Hence, chess. Or, should you prefer it, Tic-Tac-Toe. The opportunity to learn and succeed in the structured world of a game gives Andrew a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that he likely isn't getting in day-to-day life. Videogames, too, operate within defined parameters, and Andrew loves learning and understanding those parameters and then succeeding within them.

But, again, the experience with screen-based entertainment is that the rewards come more immediately, and are more flashy, and capture our attention in such a way that we forget the real world. Quite literally, in fact. Andrew's Sensory Integration Disorder makes it harder for him, compared to his peers, to move and act in a way that is "normal." When localizing the requirements of the entire body to the eyes, ears, and fingers, the experience changes.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. According to the therapists, who are acting not just on scientific studies but firsthand experience working with children "on the spectrum," the metaphor between the alcoholic and the screen-loving child breaks down in the sense that re-learning at a neurological level can happen, especially at this young age. Whereas a recovered alcoholic is still an alcoholic and cannot ever have an alcoholic beverage without bringing on that strong sense of addiction (i.e. - pleasure is found here and only here), the child's neural pathways can be reworked and rerouted via therapy and a stable environment.

In other words, with enough time and effort, Andrew's desire to "learn the patterns" of real life will be just as rewarding as they would be in a videogame, or even in chess. Such is the case, for example, for an adult male who discovers later in life that he is not neurotypical (thanks This American Life for this great report). For Andrew, once he's at a place in his life that he can enjoy quote-unquote real life as much as he enjoys the pre-structured, pixelated worlds that I also adore, he'll be able to pick up a game and then walk away from it without those painful feelings of withdrawal.

After all of these discussions had taken place, my wife and I were resolved to keep Andrew from playing videogames or even watching his father play videogames. The latter part I'm still struggling with internally, but externally, we've explained all of this to Andrew (in a way that makes sense to him) and life continues with fewer meltdowns. I look forward to the day that I can make good on my special father-son bonding times, but with Andrew's condition and a long life ahead of us, there's no need to rush.

Patrick Gann is a freelance writer who moonlights as a responsible adult. His personal blog and podcast are found at gameosaurus.com

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