Games with a Mission: Improving the Lives of People with Autism

When people think about games, they usually imagine gathering with their friends and having a good time. As educators, we like to take advantage of this setting to sneak in learning concepts. However, games can also be utilized for health-based purposes. In particular, games are a platform to significantly improve skills and needs of people with autism.

People with autism often have amazing capabilities.  Whereas autism is traditionally thought of as a “disorder,” individuals with this condition frequently exhibit advanced brain functions such as better memory, higher math skills, and enhanced sensory perception.

However, they also exhibit impairments which make life difficult.  With the most recent version of the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM–5), the diagnostic criteria for autism were changed to two main core symptoms:  1) impaired social interactions, and 2) repetitive, restricted behavior.  The severity of these symptoms can vary greatly, and they can also be accompanied by a range of other secondary symptoms such as trouble sleeping, gastrointestinal problems, and anxiety.

As a neurobiologist, I was fortunate enough to help develop an online resource called Autism Reading Room, a web portal that connects scientists with families affected by autism.  One of the issues that we discovered while building this website is that iPads are viewed as a miracle device for many of these families.  For nonverbal people with autism, iPads can serve as their communication device, with apps such as TaptoTalk that let them tell their caregivers what they need or want.  Other apps such as ChoiceWorks or Work Systems (Autism) can structure a daily routine, teaching autistic individuals how to live independently.

Apps for autism also encompass games that can serve as part of therapy.  These games address different skills, such as fine motor movement, social communication, or self-help.  Preschool education apps are also commonly used as part of autism therapy, teaching basic concepts including shapes, colors, numbers, etc.

Autism Reading Room provides an extensive list of autism apps, dividing them into four groups:  Academic Skills, Functional Skills, Support/Services, and Autism News/Awareness.  Some of these apps have even been reviewed by their scientists.  Thousands of apps are currently commercially available for autism therapy, so this is by no means a comprehensive list.  Also, not all of the existing apps for autism are games, depending on the subject area.  However, a large fraction of them are games, suggesting that this is a valid method for teaching people with autism.

The preliminary success of games as tools for autism therapy indicates that this is an educational arena ripe for expansion.  Special needs educators should take notice of this and try to incorporate games as much a possible into their curriculum.  Game designers should utilize their talents to create additional, improved educational resources for autism.  Ideally, the two groups would work together to create effective games that would best serve the needs of families and schools.

In their mission to create popular educational games, I urge game designers to consider fields concerned with special needs education.  This is a field well-suited to the framework of games, and game mechanics could address a vast range of skill sets.  Moreover, such games could potentially revolutionize the world of affected families.


by Catherine C. Swanwick, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, Catlilli GamesCatherine

A lifelong lover of board games, Catherine earned her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Virginia after graduating with her B.S. in Biology from Duke University. She then performed eight years of postdoctoral neuroscience research, with five years at the National Institutes of Health and three years at MindSpec.

As the mother of two young children, Catherine understands the importance of exposing kids to STEM topics early and is thrilled to see them engage with complex topics in a fun, simple way.

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