Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are typically strongly drawn to video games. But while the majority of young people enjoy games on Nintendo, PlayStations and computers, there are particular concerns for children with ASD. They may spend excessive amounts of time online, become socially withdrawn or obsessive, and react badly to comments from other players.
However, there are many positives to gaming. Keith Stuart is The Guardian's games editor and author of the novel Boy Made of Blocks. Stuart maintains that the online gaming experience can be a rich source of satisfaction to children with autism. It has boundaries, rules, its own logic, and offers children the chance to create, take control and make things happen in a way that is often not possible for them in the real world.
In an article for the Guardian, Stuart describes how he introduced his son Zac to LittleBigPlanet. It was a moment of instant connection. This was a shared interest where they became equals: 'These games provided us with an uncomplicated space to just be together, to have fun. We did other stuff together, of course – we read, we played in the park – but games were something that we genuinely collaborated on. His autism was not a barrier. It felt like it was liberating to him,' he says.
This is echoed by a contributor to an Ambitious about Autism forum: 'I've been playing a game called RuneScape for six years now, I'm basically addicted I guess. My family often get fed up of me playing the game and find ways to stop me from playing it, or shorten my time per day. Though it feels on this online game is where I'm able to make friends and talk to people, even though I'll never see them in real life.'
There is a danger that children with autism will become obsessed and that the real world will not live up to the glorious technicolour of the best games.
There is also the question of interacting with other players online. Conventional wisdom says that vulnerable children will be safer if they stick to gaming with people they know in their day to day world – but this won’t be as easy for a child with autism.
One parent said: 'He loves playing Minecraft online on his laptop and games called Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. His school 'friends' have deleted him on several occasions now so I have decided to try to find him some people to play with online instead.'
For parents who want to encourage their child to take part in online gaming but are worried about predators or bullying there are three recommended approaches:
Get advice on online games
- Ask About Games is a site where parents can keep up to date with the latest games, see which are the most popular, and find out about age ratings and parental controls.
- An NSPCC guide covers choosing the device and setting up parental controls on a game.
- NSPCC also publish a useful guide to Minecraft where you can minimise risks by going on as a single player in creative mode.
Find safe sites for children with autism
Ideally find a game which operates through a 'white listed' server. This is an online walled garden where to play people have to apply and have their details logged.
Autcraft is the first dedicated server for children and adults with autism and their families.
Safecraft is a UK site and is open to any parents who are concerned about safety for their children online.
Keith Stuart also recommends Roblox which is a safe site with more than 15 million games created by users.
The final approach is to play alongside your child. Dr Melissa Morgenlander in the USA has a site called ‘Adventures in Autism, Media, and Technology with a Boy Named Quentin’ which offers advice on how to set up an iPad for your child and how to co-view with a child who has autism.
Her tips include:
- Get comfy with your child. Proximity counts! Sit down at a comfortable distance in the same space with your child.
- Respond to verbal prompts from the screen with a verbal response. Join in, take part, have fun. This is one way parents can model conversation and appropriate social interaction for their child.
- Ask questions appropriate to a child’s level of viewing. This might be about naming what they see, but children with higher levels of language might answer more open-ended questions, such as ‘Why do you think he’s doing that? or ‘What do you think is going to happen next?’