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Hard-Wired for Gaming

Jamie Dunston | 12 May 2009 13:20
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When you're a kid for whom constructing a sentence is on par with solving a differential equation, you'd better be invested in the topic if you're going to put in the effort to talk about it. For Pearce, getting some game time was worth the effort it took to ask for it. And Pearce's language skills improved, spurred by the desperation with which he wanted, needed to play these games.

Communication is still his greatest challenge, but now we use games as much more than just a request-and-reward system. We sit next to him as he plays indie games, like Jimmy's Lost His Toilet Paper. We talk to him about what he sees: "Look! He's going potty! Oops! He dropped his toilet paper." It seems inane, but he remembers and repeats what we say. For a long time, whenever he saw a bald baby that reminded him of "Jimmy," that baby's name would become "Toilet Paper." When I became a parent, I never thought I'd have to explain to another mom why my kid associated her child with bathroom tissue.

As we play together, we also read everything that pops up on the screen. "Continue?" comes up quite a bit. "Yes" and "No" also feature prominently, and Pearce is learning to recognize the difference and choose the correct response. Now, when putting away a toy, Pearce will sometimes ask himself, "Are you sure you want to quit?"

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Imagine, if you will ...
Videogames have also sparked his imagination in a way that's particularly challenging for autistic kids. Any child development expert will tell you that imaginative play is crucial to developing social skills, but Pearce's brain is wired for categorization. I've spent hours sitting on the floor "modeling" imaginative play while Pearce grouped his trucks by color and size. But as soon as he discovered that he could manipulate the digital monsters in Spore, he was hooked. Sure, he spent the first half-hour obsessively watching the "afraid" animation. But once he figured out what "afraid" meant, he started making a scared face whenever he clicked the button, anticipating and extending what the creature was about to do. For the first time, he understood that what someone (or something) does with his face or body can reflect how that person feels.

Before Spore, we talked about emotions all the time. Autistic people typically have trouble reading facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, so we started working on identifying "happy," "sad" and "angry" when he was still quite young. We showed him photographs, we made simple line drawings, we acted them out. He could spell them, but he didn't really comprehend their meaning. But when he experimented with Spore, when he was in control of a really fascinating creature, something clicked. We knew he really got it when he pointed at his crying baby sister and, in a spectacular display of verbosity, proclaimed "afraid."

Co-op mode
Pearce isn't alone. My 8-year-old nephew also has autism, and his obsession with videogames has served as a conversational bridge between him and his classmates. For an awkward, shy kid, knowing that he can walk up to almost any other 8-year-old on the playground and talk about LEGO Indiana Jones or Super Mario Galaxy gives him an edge. And the experience of playing games that are sometimes a bit beyond his ability has helped him learn to deal with frustration appropriately and to persevere.

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