It’s not surprising, really. My husband and I both play videogames, and I write about them professionally. Gaming has always been a part of my son’s life. Before he turned 2, he would sit on the sofa with his dad, holding his GameCube controller face down. He navigated with his index fingers because his thumbs were too short to reach the analog sticks.

But when I say that my son Pearce is a gamer, I mean that he was made for gaming. By which I mean, Pearce is autistic.

He’s got all the qualities you expect to see in a seasoned gamer: a good memory for detail, a knack for spatial relations, good hand-eye coordination and well developed reflexes. He perseveres in the face of frustration – he must conquer every challenge and win every achievement. He loves Guitar Hero, Spore and Super Mario Galaxy, and he’s not even 4 years old yet. For him, gaming isn’t just second nature – it’s innate. So naturally, my husband and I use games to teach him important social and verbal skills.

Hard-wired for gaming
Having autism means that Pearce’s brain is hard-wired to notice tiny details and memorize them instantly. He has amazing abilities that, in turn, generate a dizzying array of unique challenges. For instance, Pearce has a near-photographic memory that makes learning to sight-read words and recognize other visual cues easy for him. It also means that if he notices something has changed – and believe me, he will notice – he won’t rest until it’s put right. To this day, he will not allow us to put the protective silicone sleeves on our Wii remotes. He is convinced that they do not belong.

Like many autistic people, he also has a really difficult time figuring out what information can be safely discarded. My son can’t filter out noise from speech; he can’t separate background music from spoken instructions. As a result, he can listen to a symphony and sing every note played by each instrument in the orchestra – but when I ask him for the fiftieth time to put on his shoes, he appears to be completely deaf.

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In other words, he spends his whole life in the place the rest of us only live when we’re gaming.

Beyond edutainment
As soon as we noticed Pearce’s propensity for electronic entertainment, we started thinking about how we could use it to his advantage. We needed a medium that captured his attention so that we could direct it towards things we really wanted him to learn, and videogames fit the bill. Beyond the usual “edutainment” titles on the market that teach kids to identify colors and letters, we needed games that would help us teach Pearce the function of language – that is, how to ask for what he wanted.

Before he started talking, he communicated primarily with sign language. Pearce learned to bring me a GameCube controller and sign “game.” Soon, he would sign and say “game” out loud. So we extended the challenge and asked him to choose between a two games: Mario 64 or Mario Galaxy? Choosing was difficult. He would respond echolalically: “Sixty-four galaxies.”

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.

Because my brother must limit my nephew’s “game time” to ensure that he doesn’t play to the exclusion of all else, my nephew has learned to convert his obsession into other, related activities. When he’s done playing for the day, he spends his free time reading strategy guides and drawing pictures of his favorite characters. In fact, he recently decided that he wants to make videogames when he grows up, so he’s started using paper and pencil to create intricate and detailed level designs.

Through these meta-gaming activities, my nephew is teaching himself complicated concepts about graphic design and game development. More importantly, figuring out how a player will respond to his game helps him learn to anticipate the behavior of a generic “other,” an important skill that will help him relate to his peers. The ability to understand that other people may approach the same problem in different ways is part of what psychologists call “theory of mind,” and it’s a concept many people with autism have trouble grasping. Yet it’s a fundamental principle for creating a well designed game.

Social gaming for antisocial people
Anticipating others’ responses also plays a critical role in games like The Sims. By distilling human interaction to its simplest form, this game can help autistic people comprehend the complicated nuances of interpersonal communication. When a player interacts with a non-player character, that interaction elicits a response according to the strength of the NPC’s relationship with the player’s character. If the player’s Sim and the NPC are new acquaintances, she might not laugh at his joke, and their relationship will suffer.

If, however, the two Sims are close friends, the NPC will think the player’s character is hilarious, and their relationship will improve. She may even reciprocate with another spontaneous positive interaction like a compliment or a hug. These concrete, somewhat predictable social maps, a much-simplified version of what occurs in real life, are an effective way for parents to talk to their autistic kids about appropriate levels of familiarity and interpreting nonverbal cues.

In fact, online games can help autistic people connect with each other and practice their social skills. Amanda Baggs, an autistic adult, has used Second Life to organize a group of other autistic people into the Autistic Liberation Front. The group owns property and holds regular events for its members. And researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Brain Health use Second Life to help people with Asperger’s – a mild form of autism – learn to navigate real-world social interactions in a controlled setting.

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Playing to win
When I play videogames with Pearce, we’re building skills that he’s going to use for the rest of his life. He’s learning the things other kids learn from games, like hand-eye coordination, problem-solving and flexible thinking. But he’s also learning things other kids effortlessly pick up from their parents and friends, like taking turns, non-verbal communication and anticipating another person’s actions. And I’m giving him access to a hobby that will help him start conversations and interact with peers when he’s older.

Besides, I figure I’d better play games with him while he’s young … when I can still win.

When she’s not playing to win with Pearce, Jamie Lynn Dunston reviews videogames and trains her 1-year-old to be a frag doll.

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