187: Hard-Wired for Gaming

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Hard-Wired for Gaming

Progressive parents have long known that videogames are a great motivator in their kids' lives. But for Jamie Dunston and her son Pearce, gaming is much more than that: It's a way for her to help him overcome some of the most difficult challenges posed by autism.

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This is a great article.
I work with children with disabilites sometimes (teaching them to swim, just working with them in the water, etc.) and no matter what, no matter how afraid or resistant to change they are, I know that I can always fall back on talking about video games with them, asking them what their favorite is, when they play, and whatever else!

Video games cross the divide between people: age, race, ethinic background, and even ability cannot stop it.

Thank God for videogames. :D

Great article Jamie.

Not what I was expecting at all about gaming and education, so I was pleasantly surprised with your story. My 2-year old daughter knew how to turn on the TV and XBOX360 before she could walk. I`m always amazed at how kids approach games, and your son`s story allows us to see gaming in a new and amazing way.

Thanks for sharing!

It is an interesting article. I've always found autism to be an intriguing condition.

I would be curious to learn what types of games he gravitates towards. From my limited knowledge of autism, the difficulty of discerning significant stimuli is a major component; some of the more detail-oriented yet less aesthetically focused games like some of the bigger scales of wargames or ASCII games like Dwarf Fortress might be fairly interesting to him when he's older.

This was a really fascinating article. The bit about spore and how the understanding of emotion and the 'other' suddenly 'clicked' gave me chills.

Kilo24:
It is an interesting article. I've always found autism to be an intriguing condition.

I would be curious to learn what types of games he gravitates towards. From my limited knowledge of autism, the difficulty of discerning significant stimuli is a major component; some of the more detail-oriented yet less aesthetically focused games like some of the bigger scales of wargames or ASCII games like Dwarf Fortress might be fairly interesting to him when he's older.

Different people have different degrees of trouble with different kinds of stimuli. My son isn't particularly sensitive to smells, for instance, but some autistic people are. And sensitivity to something can sometimes cause kids to seek that kind of stimuli -- for instance, many autistic people are sensitive to kinesthetic/vestibular input (movement), so they engage in what we call "sensory-seeking" behavior like rocking, swinging, spinning, etc.

Pearce seeks out visual and auditory stimuli more than other types, so he likes games with good visuals, like _Spore_ and _The Sims_. However, _Wii Music_ has hit the top of his list since I finished this article because he really digs being able to change the sound of his favorite songs. He was really into into _Super Mario Galaxies_ for a while, and if you haven't heard the soundtrack for that, you should -- it's got a full orchestra behind it and the score is fantastic.

Re: aesthetically focused games, Pearce is one of those kids who can pick his favorite toy out of a cluttered toy box without any trouble at all. Similarly, animal psychologist and autistic adult Temple Grandin has said that when she was a child, she never could understand the "hidden picture" puzzles because she immediately saw all the hidden images, but it took longer to figure out what the main picture was supposed to be. As a result, Pearce likes to play _Guitar Hero_, but I get the sense that he doesn't notice the stage, the crowd, or the band (and to be honest, neither do I). He can't play by himself yet, but if I do the fret work he can keep the rhythm pretty well.

Did that answer your question at all? I could write whole books on autism and I don't want to over-explain myself. But I'm more than happy to answer questions or direct interested parties to more information on autism in general or some of the resources I mentioned in my article (like the ALF).

I'm curious if there are any readers on the autism spectrum who would care to comment on how games have impacted their lives, if at all.

teknoarcanist:
This was a really fascinating article. The bit about spore and how the understanding of emotion and the 'other' suddenly 'clicked' gave me chills.

Thanks for the kind words. It was an awesome sight to behold, quite honestly, to watch my kid suddenly understand that the baby was crying for a *reason.* That's about when he stopped covering his ears and screaming when she started to cry, and started pointing at me an instructing me to "Be Nice Baby." (Clearly, if she's upset, it's my fault. I mean, duh.)

Yeah. Awesome kid.

I read the article, and it's great. One of my good friend's little brother is autistic. I've seen how hard it wass for his parents to constantly go over a flipbook of flashcards with emotions and household items. (Which only was magnified with a dad in the navy who is gone about 1 of 3 months.) Sounds like a great medium you found, and a great method of bonding. I watched my older brother time after time playing games when I was younger.

It even through a 6 year age difference it taught me to recognize many things you normally wouldn't. It helped me read faces as he clicked his way through The Legend of Zelda for the Super Nintendo. I could see smaller things from when he found arrows in a chest to when slipped up and got hit by a ring from one of the easiest enemies.

Some recommendations: "The Sims 3" comes out in a few weeks(which basically does what you said for The Sims, but captures it a bit more), "Dance Dance Revolution"(which I've seen from observing at the rec center younger children really enjoy. You can get a mat and game for a PS2 at a local game store for probably 20-40$), "Civilization" games (I really enjoyed this as a kid, and it could really teach how what you do can affect something else, plus it taught me basics on technology changing at a kindergarden age) One very successful thing my friends parents did were small 5-Minute Detective stories. After you read it you can ask questions on who did it and how. Many of these you can find for free online, these really helped James(the autistic son's name) learn to express what they want to say, and the way James thought kept him interested into having them read over and over until he found the answer.

Inspirational article, best of luck/wishes.

A very good article, which I thought was the best I've seen on this site yet. Of course, being autistic myself, I could be biased.

I got my first video game (BBC Micro) in 1987, so the games were no where near as sophisticated. For me video gaming was the retreat when "the world" became too much. I have Sensory Processing Disorder, so I quite often needed to "get away" and video gaming was it for me. Well, it was mainly books, but I could concentrate on a video game when I was so agitated that I couldn't follow a book.

Following the BBC Micro, I went to an Atari, a NES, and then a PC (the platform of choice for me.) It really wasn't until my PC (A win95) that games started filling a role similar to that described in the article. Soon after I joined a Quake clan (then a CoD clan) and these avenues really opened up my eyes to the joys of social interaction. Still not as much fun as reading a good book and still overwhelming at times, but I can see why people like it.

Probably the most important point I might make is that especially with the online nature of most games these days it is a pressure free social environment where the game is the focus. And Autistics have the potential to be VERY good gamers so they already get a modicum of respect. Something that can quite often vanish in real life encounters because of some other difficulties. The skills learnt from say "Joining a WoW guild" can be extrapolated (with help from mum and dad) into gaining friends in the real world.

Since my days fumbling at making friends with fellow Quakers back in the day I've managed to make friends using other interests, namely cooking and dancing (which I originally used to overcome Tactile Defensiveness but has since blossomed into a love of swing dancing and Jazz music.)

In summary... GREAT article. 5 stars.

great article

what type of autism does your son have?

i have asperger syndrome, a type of autism, tho its a bit different than most other types (primarily in the fact that aspergers is not associated with mental retardation)

i was surprised by how much i could relate to your son in this, in some ways that i didnt even realize were due to my aspergers.
like how he has such a keen sense of hearing, but cant differentiate between background noise and spoken language. i can hear the high pitch hum of electronics running, but yet, whenever im talking to some1, i often miss some of what they are saying, and embarrassingly have to constantly ask them to repeat themselves.. i hear them talking, but then i seem to have trouble comprehending what they are saying, as if i were talking to one of Charlie Brown's teachers (Wah-wah-waah-wahwah)

Kilo24:
It is an interesting article. I've always found autism to be an intriguing condition.

I would be curious to learn what types of games he gravitates towards. From my limited knowledge of autism, the difficulty of discerning significant stimuli is a major component; some of the more detail-oriented yet less aesthetically focused games like some of the bigger scales of wargames or ASCII games like Dwarf Fortress might be fairly interesting to him when he's older.

i think autistic ppl would be more likely to gravitate towards more intellectual games, such as Spore or Portal (my 2 personal favorites), because these games allow you to manipulate things like your environment/weapons/characters, so they require much more strategy and attention to details than some other games
(tho i am speaking from my own personal experience. types of autism can vary greatly across the autism spectrum)
-EDIT: i love large scale wargames, because they require you to think very strategically-

It really puts videogames in a different light. We've all heard of how games can be used as learning aids (I personally increased my vocabulary through playing a heckuva lot of RPG's) and therapeutic alternatives (I read that some doctors are using Half-Life mods to help patients who have difficulty with path finding). Not to mention that there are surgeons who play Halo in a regular basis to keep their hands and reflexes great, since some of the non-invasive surgeries use a camera and a set of robotic manipulators (much like a videogame).

Great article. It's now one of the best I've seen in The Escapist.

Good article. I found it particularly interesting since my son Ryan has autism. Growing up in a household of gamers (myself, his mum and his twin sister) he has been playing various games since about Pearce's age, but seems to have different tastes from Pearce. His favourite games are exploration based and he will happily discard his mission in favour of poking around obscure corners of the map.

Does your nephew literally discuss wanting to one day design games? Or is it that he wants to make games right now and this has been interpreted in that way by his family? I ask because my experience has been that autistic children at his age have trouble discussing events in the future unless they're repeated from known events in the past.

The game Ryan seems to have got the most from is Super Bust-a-Move. To begin with he just made towers of coloured balls for aesthetic reasons. Then he slowly began to understand the rules. I reckon in another couple of months he'll be beating his sister at the game... which isn't going to go down well!

What a fantastic atricle. If people like Australia'a Attorney General Philip Ruddock could read this, they would see video games in a new, and very positive light. It's great to be able to read things like this. There are sadly too few examples of the myriad useful roles that video games can play in the world, with the mass media concentrating on the negative aspects, almost to the exclusion of all else. To read something so heartening is a rare experience. Thank-you.

Im just curious about what causes autism. A friend of mine has had 3 kids and they're all autistic. Does it have anything to do with genes? If anyone knows then may you please tell me. Great article by the way.

Fascinating piece. While I've not worked with any autistic kids (I teach Games Development to 16 to 19 year olds) there's been plenty of students with conditions like Asperger's syndrome and so on through the doors. For them, and even for the students who come here with no diagnosed conditions, games is an absolutely fantastic social leveller - one which I know has allowed otherwise really withdrawn kids to open up to their peers and provide enough of a bridge between them to allow friendships to form. It's great to hear about the positives that gaming can bring, and not just how it's triggering a generation of first person shooter fans to go... well... real world first person shooting.

Jester Lord:
Does it have anything to do with genes?

If you rephase that as "Is there a hereditary component?" then the answer is: yes, seemingly a strong one.

The interesting thing is that as well as the known disorders regarded as being on the autistic spectrum there are other conditions which are seemingly related. Mathematical ability, for example. And indeed aptitude for technical detail generally. Evidence suggests the children of mathematicians and scientists more likely to have various autistic spectrum disorders, for example.

As you might expect, this is an area of ongoing research.

Dom Camus:

Jester Lord:
Does it have anything to do with genes?

If you rephase that as "Is there a hereditary component?" then the answer is: yes, seemingly a strong one.

The interesting thing is that as well as the known disorders regarded as being on the autistic spectrum there are other conditions which are seemingly related. Mathematical ability, for example. And indeed aptitude for technical detail generally. Evidence suggests the children of mathematicians and scientists more likely to have various autistic spectrum disorders, for example.

As you might expect, this is an area of ongoing research.

Thank you.

That was a very nice article...
I never new games could do a lot of good stuff like these
We hardly get to hear people talking about how to put video games to good use....
people always try to find the negative aspect in them
Thanks to you and escapist for giving us such great articles.

Really good article. My brother has aspergers syndrome and I always thought that playing games had helped him a lot.

jay-ell:

Did that answer your question at all? I could write whole books on autism and I don't want to over-explain myself. But I'm more than happy to answer questions or direct interested parties to more information on autism in general or some of the resources I mentioned in my article (like the ALF).

Yes, as much as it can be answered at this time, I guess. Thanks.

It is curious that you've mentioned Temple Grandin; I've read Animals in Translation by her and would recommend it to anyone interested in either animal behaviorism or autism. She discusses similarities between the two in it.

jay-ell:

I could write whole books on autism...

With the quality of this article, I'd read them.

jay-ell:

Pearce seeks out visual and auditory stimuli more than other types, so he likes games with good visuals, like _Spore_ and _The Sims_.

Does he enjoy games with more unique or abstract graphical styles, like Okami or Katamari Damacy?

Congratulations, a really excellent article.

Jester Lord:
Im just curious about what causes autism. A friend of mine has had 3 kids and they're all autistic. Does it have anything to do with genes? If anyone knows then may you please tell me. Great article by the way.

its purely genetic, as far as i know

Dom Camus:

The interesting thing is that as well as the known disorders regarded as being on the autistic spectrum there are other conditions which are seemingly related. Mathematical ability, for example. And indeed aptitude for technical detail generally. Evidence suggests the children of mathematicians and scientists more likely to have various autistic spectrum disorders, for example.

As you might expect, this is an area of ongoing research.

some of the greatest minds in history are believed to have autism.
for example, Albert Einstein and Bill Gates both had aspergers http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome (a form of autism)

having aspergers myself, its not difficult to see why people with it tend to become scientists and physicists. ppl with aspergers think a bit differently than most ppl. they tend to think very logically. this can be a huge advantage in areas such as mathematics, science, programming, etc, since these fields involve strict rules and laws that dictate them. but with things such as social interaction, this can be a big disadvantage, because social interaction requires a strong ability to reason and think on your feet. that logical mind wants to always give an exact answer to any given problem, but social interaction is a very inexact science.

(edit:sry for double post)

Charlie-two-zero:

Probably the most important point I might make is that especially with the online nature of most games these days it is a pressure free social environment where the game is the focus. And Autistics have the potential to be VERY good gamers so they already get a modicum of respect. Something that can quite often vanish in real life encounters because of some other difficulties. The skills learnt from say "Joining a WoW guild" can be extrapolated (with help from mum and dad) into gaining friends in the real world.

I actually wrote a different piece a while back about a program at the University of Texas - Dallas center for Brain Health, which has a program that uses Second Life to teach people with Asperger's about social skills in a way very much like what you've described. I had originally included a bit about the program in this article, but had to cut it for word count. Link (.pdf)

Thanks to everyone on the autism spectrum who chimed in. I don't claim to speak for the "autism community" but it's nice to feel like I'm at the very least not doing a disservice to people who think like my son.

Dom Camus:

Does your nephew literally discuss wanting to one day design games? Or is it that he wants to make games right now and this has been interpreted in that way by his family? I ask because my experience has been that autistic children at his age have trouble discussing events in the future unless they're repeated from known events in the past.

My nephew actually talks about wanting to be a "video game maker" in the future, as a career. I think his parents and teachers have talked to him about what he might want to be when he grows up. And my husband is a programmer, so he has talked to my nephew a lot about what he does for a living and what kinds of things he studied in school to get there. My nephew is also a great writer, and he writes his own stories all the time -- his second-grade class had indoor recess all last month due to bad weather, and he wrote and illustrated four books during his recess periods. I'm trying to convince him that it's as fun to write about games as it is to make them, but so far, no luck. ;)

tthor:
great article
what type of autism does your son have?

To be glib, I guess you could say he has the type he has -- you know as well as anyone how unique people on the spectrum can be.

I guess, if pressed, I would have to say that he's high-functioning, but I'm convinced that the only difference between HFA and LFA is speech. He's got emerging speech skills already, and he's not quite four, so it seems he'll have full spoken communication someday. At present he's about a year behind verbally and socially, and a year ahead in many other (academic & fine motor) skills.

Endangered Puma:

Some recommendations: "The Sims 3" comes out in a few weeks(which basically does what you said for The Sims, but captures it a bit more)...

I review games for another site, so I'll be getting a review copy of TS3. You better believe I got my name on the list as soon as the release date was announced. I'm a girl gamer; I'm contractually obligated to be obsessed with The Sims. Seriously! I signed a paper.

I'll keep those other suggestions in mind, though.

Thanks to everyone else who commented; I appreciate all the feedback. I hope to do a lot more work for The Escapist in the future; in fact, I've already submitted my next pitch. And if you want to check out my game reviews, they're here.

Autism sucks, no matter how great you are at certain things.
This article kind of brought me down.

I have a friend with autism strangely it makes him amazing at certain things, like drumming and computeing it is wierd how a "disability" can help him and im sure others to be very good at certain things.

This was, I think, the best article I've read on the Escapist so far. It caught my interest a lot, even though I don't have a lot of experience with disabilities as such.

great article, i feel that way about gaming too

Jester Lord:
I'm just curious about what causes autism. A friend of mine has had 3 kids and they're all autistic. Does it have anything to do with genes? If anyone knows then may you please tell me. Great article by the way.

This may help you.

Fantastic article, as has been said before. It's warm without being sappy and very well written.

I think that video games are much better for this kind of thing than say, television. They're interactive and have the social learning skills mentioned in the article. This sort of thing I just don't see in television, where it's more like spoon-fed images.

In the future I can see things like the Sims being used as learning tools in centres for autistic children and the like. Probably a more sheltered variation, if it did occur, but it clearly has great potential to help remove many of the barriers endured by autistic people.

Thanks.

Labyrinth:

This may help you.

Fantastic article, as has been said before. It's warm without being sappy and very well written.

I think that video games are much better for this kind of thing than say, television. They're interactive and have the social learning skills mentioned in the article. This sort of thing I just don't see in television, where it's more like spoon-fed images.

In the future I can see things like the Sims being used as learning tools in centres for autistic children and the like. Probably a more sheltered variation, if it did occur, but it clearly has great potential to help remove many of the barriers endured by autistic people.

I've often said that I'd rather my kids spend an hour playing a video game than an hour in front of the television. Now that we as a society have decided that kids can learn from TV shows like Sesame Street, it's time we afforded the same funding and respect to video games that teach.

Certainly some games teach things I'd rather my young kids didn't learn. I'd never let a small child play Mortal Kombat, for instance. But there's more inappropriate content in film and television overall. Yet, very few parents categorically disallow TV and movies any more.

There are whole cable stations devoted solely to children's programming, yet when I walk into my local big-box store's software section, there are only a small handful of age-appropriate educational games for my kids, and most of them are outdated, under-budgeted, and just plain boring. This is less true of "kiddie consoles" than PC games, but even the vTech and LeapFrog systems are just beginning to come into their own technologically.

Anyway -- that's another article. Thanks again to everyone for reading and commenting.

As someone with an autistic sibling, this really hits home for me.

Fantastic article. I'm almost done with my 4th and final year as a teacher trainee, and this is a truly inspirational read for me. In one of my practice periods I have taught a student with asperger, and I know they can be a real challenge...how challenging is then a "real" autist?

My hat is off to you both for being such a good parent, and for sharing this experience.

This was a fantastic article and you must be a fantastic parent, kudos :)

It was interesting reading about that experience and such, now if only I could convince my parents to play games...

Hehe, this article reminds me of when my autistic bro was sill little :P

Though it was a somewhat different story, I was the gamer at a young age, playing through Super Mario Bros 3 and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (with the help of my mum ;)) at the age of 2, roughly the same time as my brother came along.

Naturally I wanted someone to play with, we already had two snes controllers and mum was usually busy so it was me who got him into games, of course we're talking a totally different era of gaming to the little one in the article.

Mum managed to get him to learn how to read at a young age, she did the same for me of course, and this quickly led to his improval in games which in turn led to improvement at reading and so-on. It also led to me learning how to read "options" and "language" in a ton of languages because he kept changing them...

Skip ahead a few years to the N64; We actually ended up with four controllers right away, and this was the first time I noticed my brother doing something I couldn't do.
He was playing a four-player race, by himself.

He held one controller in each hand and used his feet (that actually quite dextrous genetically... like a monkey) on the other two, and he was ACTIVELY racing himelf, I couldn't even control two at the same time without crashing into walls while his screen coulda fooled me into thinking that their was four different racers.

I don't really know where I'm going with this story... just pointing out the fact that some otherwise handicapped people can do some amazing things I suppose...

Of course I could skip ahead to present day and tell you what he does on Minecraft... if he ever built a scale replica it would be perfect, but he hasn't yet.

His main world however has several 32x32 holes down to bedrock (ones a swimming pool...), a statue for every mob, a tower made out of iron blocks, lavafalls from the sky... my descriptions probably make it sound terrible but it's quite amazing, especially for someone who plays totally legitimately.

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