Using Gaming To Flip The Script On Autism

Editor’s Note: Sam Blanco is an applied behavior analyst, working with students ages 3-14 in NYC. For the past ten years she has worked with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays.

Last year, the two big stories in the news related to autism were about how children with autism are more likely to be “addicted” to video games and the dismal employment rates of adults with autism.

These two, seemingly unrelated, stories should be viewed in a shared context.

Because what happens if we flip the conversation and say that kids with autism are more likely to be “motivated by” or “proficient with” video games and technology?

We need to reframe the conversation and consider how to use an interest in technology as a springboard to skill development and, for some, employment.

Gaming can train individuals in a wide range of skills necessary for any vocation; from improving communication, to following directions, and learning new, technical, skills.

Furthermore there are many children with autism who are motivated by technology, and others who do not yet use it meaningfully.

Tiggly Counts, developed by Kidtellect, offers an entry point for these kids to play with purpose. It includes counting toys that correspond with three different apps and help build early math skills. The 3D counting toys totally change the way the child interacts with the tablet.

For example, one of my students always wanted to play with the iPad, but when given access he just tapped on the screen without purpose. I taught him how to play with Tiggly with his mom by simply dividing the pieces between the two of them. This easy modification of an activity he loved got him interacting with his mom in new ways and participating in an appropriate math game for his level.

I introduce many of my students with autism to Toontastic, an app from Launchpad Toys, that allows them to create their own cartoons.

They learn how to structure a story, speak clearly, take turns in speaking, and practice conversation skills. One of my students happens to hate writing, but loves to write stories then animate them with his sister on the app. Not only is he practicing written language skills, but he and his sister have positive interactions every time they use the app.

The company also shares lesson plans from teachers of all age groups and ability levels for how to best use Toontastic. Lessons plans are important because while children with autism may be proficient with technology, their teachers and parents often are not. Giving this guidance can help them better teach their students how to use technology in meaningful ways.

Motion Math’s Pizza practices an entirely different skill set for my students allowing them to open a pizza parlor, make business decisions, and manage resources. There are also excellent rewards built into the program.

One of my students loves looking at the graphs to see how much money he’s made, then set goals so he can purchase more items for his restaurant. And all of this skill-building occurs within the context of a fun game.

But perhaps most importantly, the app requires the child to recognize nonverbal social cues. Recognizing emotional states of others can be challenging for people with autism. If you don’t get a pizza to the customer quickly they will show impatience, then anger, and then they’ll leave causing you to lose a sale.

Incorporating real-life social cues and experiences is one of the most beneficial aspects of this app.

Many of the apps that I use are not explicitly made for children with autism or for job skill development, but they do foster important vocational skills. It’s important to take a look at the constant conversation around STEM, and more specifically the idea that all children should be taught how to code.

Children with autism are often, unintentionally, left out of these conversations. We’ve identified that children with autism are often highly motivated by and proficient with technology. The next step should be including them in the focus on educating children in tech with the long-term goal of preparing them for the workforce.

There are some apps that do this well. Hopscotch Technologies has two apps that I have used with children with autism. Daisy the Dinosaur teaches coding at a very basic level and Hopscotch is slightly more complex. I love introducing one of these apps to a student and watching their face as they make the connection between adding a step to the code and the movement of Daisy the Dinosaur. That simple connection increases their motivation to explore the app and try to make Daisy do different things.

It introduces coding, but also problem solving, math, and sequencing in a way that many children with autism don’t typically get to experience.

Beyond these apps, I think there’s still plenty of room for innovation in this area. I’d love to see the scope of tablet and smartphone apps increased. I see one great possibility in Spaceteam, an app I’ve played with family and friends.

In this cooperative game, players each play on their own device and work as a team to keep their spaceship in flight by sharing instructions, following directions other people provide, and maintaining a quick response rate. I would love to see educational games utilize this format, and I think such a format could be especially beneficial for practicing communication skills with children with autism.

There are so many great things happening in the tech industry, and it’s time to bring people with autism into the fold. Providing lesson plans, play-testing apps with children with autism, and incorporating accessibility and modification features creates opportunities for an entire segment of the population that is frequently overlooked. Reframing the conversation doesn’t just open doors for children with autism in terms of social skills and future employment. It offers the potential for a new level of independence that has a ripple effect across that person’s family, community, and society at large.