Video games are becoming an increasingly common interest among young people with high-functioning autism. Although the virtual world and games like “Second Life” can be a great place for kids to practice social skills, make friends, and have fun, some experts are concerned an intense interest in video games can quickly become an unhealthy and even dangerous obsession. Learn what the experts have to say on the subject.
Can Technology Help?
Video games are not necessarily negative influences in the lives of children with autism. In fact, some researchers believe they can be an educational and entertaining way to build personal relationships and experiment with taking social risks and reaching out to unfamiliar people.
Because young people with autism naturally gravitate toward socially “safe” forms of entertainment like video games, video game manufacturers and programmers have been working to create games that can teach real-life skills to these children. According to the results of a study conducted by psychologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one interactive computer program called FaceSay has been shown to improve the ability of children with autism spectrum disorders to recognize faces, facial expressions, and emotions. Created by Symbionica LLC, the game teaches children where to look for facial cues and helps them practice recognizing the expressions of an avatar–a virtual representation of a person.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Brain Health started using the game Second Life as a form of online therapy, pairing clinicians’ avatars with those of autistic patients in a conversation. In their approach, therapists guide patients through a series of exercises, in groups and individually. For example, patients may be confronted with a job interview from a “boss” character or learn to ask another avatar out on a date. The researchers believe that as adolescents with autism gain confidence in the virtual world, they gradually learn to interact in the real world.
What Experts Say About Children with Autism and Technology
Despite efforts by researchers and video game makers, experts question the effectiveness of these games. They express concern that children with autism, who are already socially awkward, may become dependent on Internet social networking and virtual interaction while never applying the skills in real life. They say gaming is generally a solitary activity that limits the social interactions of people with autistic disorders. Video games are also one of many repetitive activities that young people with autism use to avoid adapting to new situations and initiating social interactions with new people.
“Any treatment, no matter where we do it, no matter how we do it, needs to incorporate strategies for other settings, and if it doesn’t do that then it’s not useful,” said Wendy Stone, a pediatrics professor at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. “What we would hope to see is that what these individuals are learning will help them understand social situations, feelings of others, their own motivation and will help them negotiate real life social situations. You don’t want them to just be able to interact via a computer.”
Distorted Social Interactions of the Virtual World
While video games do offer a form of social interaction, it’s a distorted social interaction, says Aaron McGinley, summer camp program manager at Talisman, a North Carolina program offering summer camps and semester-length programs for children ages 8 to 21 with a variety of learning and developmental disabilities. “When you have anonymity, people act in a different way than when they must take personal and immediate accountability for their words and actions,” he says.
For kids who get picked on all day at school or feel ostracized in their everyday lives, it’s soothing to come home and play video games for hours. In the safe haven of online video games, young people with autism can isolate themselves from real-life people and the complexities of face-to-face interactions.
However, according to McGinley, the social setting in online gaming or chat rooms is far more predictable than real-life social situations. “While social conversations in real life are highly complex and unpredictable, online gamers share a common and simple language for communicating,” he says.
For example, since most online interaction occurs through typing, there is time to think about a response, and the response can be given in symbols and phrases without regard for facial expressions or nonverbal cues. In addition, online conversation can center around the game being played, whereas most young people in real life also have other interests they want to share, which children with autism may not understand.
“If everyone in the child’s high school class played the same video game, this would be an interest that facilitated healthy social interaction,” says McGinley. “But lots of kids have a number of other interests and ways to connect with each other. While young people with autism can have a healthy interest in occasional video game play, they have to understand their peers gravitate toward a variety of other activities and interests. They must learn to push themselves to interact in a wider range of areas to maintain a social network.”
Inappropriate Communication Skills
The experts are also concerned children with autism fixated on online gaming may be developing inappropriate social skills.
“Online, it may be considered acceptable or even funny to make cross remarks, curse at people, or ignore someone’s effort to make contact,” explains McGinley. “But if you go to basketball practice and make fun of someone’s mom, there’s no doubt you’ll get a different response. Many kids with autism struggle making this transition from the virtual setting into the real world.”
It is the nature of the disorder for young people with autism to struggle with social conventions and cultural mores, notes McGinley. This challenge is compounded when these kids are asked to learn different social rules for online conduct and face-to-face interactions. “It takes a lot of practice for kids with autism to develop basic social skills, and the more time they spend online, the less time they have to practice the skills that will serve them best as they enter into adulthood,” he says.
Not only are online video games unproductive socially, they can also be dangerous. Online safety is an issue for all young people, but kids with autism are particularly susceptible to sexual predators and other criminal offenders. While suspicious emails or dubious online behaviors may stand out immediately to a typical high schooler, children with autism may not understand the red flags unless someone explicitly describes them. They may not realize that certain types of communication are offensive or inappropriate and may unknowingly welcome danger into the home.
How Parents Can Help with an Autistic Child’s Gaming Fixation
When it comes to video games, parents of a child with autism are faced with a dilemma: Do you limit your child’s time spent doing the activities that interest him running the risk he will withdraw even more, or do you allow your child unfettered access to video games despite the obvious social repercussions?
According to McGinley, it’s important for parents to find the balance between accepting their child’s unique interests and encouraging their child to develop social skills and additional interests outside of their comfort zone. By granting unlimited access to video games, McGinley believes parents offer their children nothing more than a quick fix. The fixation may be a convenient coping skill for facing the hardships of a long, difficult day at school, but it will not be the healthiest path into adulthood.
“If young people with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism aren’t encouraged and helped to develop social skills and independent living skills, there will be a direct correlation to how many friends they have, and how successful they are in school and on the job later in life,” advises McGinley. “They may be soothed in the short term, but that deep underlying desire to make friends or have a boyfriend or girlfriend will remain a source of constant dissatisfaction and further isolation.”
McGinley recommends that parents encourage their child to develop interpersonal skills off of the computer and set limits how often their child uses or talks about video games. He also advises parents to offer incentives to balance time on gaming and time spent doing social activities. For example, parents could agree to allow their child a certain amount of time to play video games each week in exchange for the child’s participation in an after-school activity.
Finding Programs That Can Help
Children and teens with high functioning autism and other autism spectrum disorders frequently fall prey to a fixation with screen time. Television, computers, and video games feed into their tendency toward isolation and an eccentric fascination with certain topics such as books, toys, movies, and other subjects.
For busy parents, consistently monitoring their child’s leisure time and evaluating his or her social development can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are programs across the country tailored specifically to improving social and academic functioning in young people with learning disabilities, ADD and ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, and other autism spectrum disorders.
Talisman summer camps, for example, have helped countless kids ages 8 to 17 who have been diagnosed with special needs. With a highly structured daily schedule, a small staff-to-camper ratio, an emphasis on personal accountability, and plenty of fun and adventure, Talisman camps have been a logical choice of families since 1980.
Helping your child with autism achieve his full potential is a realistic and attainable goal. With the help of programs that specialize in working with kids having special needs, your child can grow and thrive not only in the virtual world, but also in the real world.
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