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Should Children with Autism Play Video Games? (VG Series Part 6/10)

2010 October 7

Neo-Academic coverage of the Journal of General Psychology special issue on the psychology of video games:

ResearchBlogging.orgThere are few topics so hotly debated on the Internet as the value of video games. Are they the next generation’s artistic advance, as film was for the last, or are they a blight that makes children overly aggressive and dangerous? In this 10-part series, I’m reviewing a recent special issue of the Journal of General Psychology on video games. For more background information, see the first post in the series.

In the sixth article in this issue, Durkin (2010)[1] discusses the use of video games by children with developmental disorders, including those on the autism spectrum, ADHD, and language impairments.  For the most part, this is what I’d call a literature review by proxy.  In other words, the research literature on video game use by people with developmental disabilities is spotty, so the only solution to this is to review more general literatures (such as overall research on ADHD) and discuss how that might apply in this more specific context.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach.  It simply means that the research literature in the focal area of interest is very new.  It’s a problem I myself face when trying to find research to support my work on online social networking for adult training and education.

Durkin reveals that most of the evidence for the intense popularity of video games among those with developmental disorders is from case study research – a number of observational studies, interviews, and clinical reports have mentioned it.  Three “laboratory and survey studies” are also cited to reveal that children on the autism spectrum are “strongly attracted to screen-based entertainment.”  In comparison to what exactly is not revealed.

Interestingly, there do not seem to be differences in video game play between children with and without ADHD, in terms of the types of games played, the length of time they played them, or how often they played them.  I suspect the researchers’ original hypotheses involved increased fixation on action-oriented video games from children with ADHD (bright colors and action hold one’s attention a little more firmly), but this does not appear to be the case.

Durkin continues by examining what forces might drive children on the autism spectrum to video games but does not find any research or even any theory revealing that such children would be driven any more than any other child.  Children with ADHD, on the other hand, should find video games extremely satisfying because of the constant stream of psychological rewards, but no work seems to have been done in this area.

Several cognitive concepts are highlighted that are likely to be relevant to video game play: sensory stimulation, reward/dopamine release, executive functioning, and visual perspective taking.  Children with autism might use video games as an object of obsession, but any activity could be the focus – nothing special about gaming in this context.  There is a suggestion that the dopamine release associated with pleasure from success in video games might be used as an alternative treatment for ADHD, but the research does not yet reveal this either way.  One study examined executive functioning for children with autism through something similar to a video game and concluded there was no specific deficit to be measured.

Overall, Durkin summarizes the issues quite well here:

Although many authors have noted, and some have explored, the uses of videogames by young people with developmental disorders, we lack systematic quantitative data on frequency and duration of use and on game preferences.

And that’s the heart of it.  While this article does provide an excellent review of the ways that researchers might investigate the relationships between disorders and video game use, the actual research literature is sparse.  What is available does not reveal that there are any systematic differences between the way children with and without developmental disorders  approach or play games.

So should children with autism play video games?  Sure.  There’s no scientific evidence thus far to think that they shouldn’t.

  1. Durkin, K. (2010). Videogames and young people with developmental disorders. Review of General Psychology, 14 (2), 122-140 DOI: 10.1037/a0019438 []
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6 Responses leave one →
  1. November 9, 2010

    I came out with Vowel Towel (iPhone game) and I think if parents help the kids play along with the game it would be fun, helpful, and a different way to learn…OK just my 2 cents.

  2. jennifer permalink
    January 26, 2011

    watch my autistic son on the news regarding video games please!,0,5767271.story

  3. Daniel permalink
    September 4, 2011

    They shouldn’t be allowed to play video games I have a brother who is autistic and he always is on the playstation he refuses to stop playing and will have a temper tantrum when he can’t beat a level or when he has to turn off the game.

  4. Litta permalink
    December 21, 2011

    i know what u mean Daniel. My step son is Autistic and he does the same thing when hes playing the game he 8 years old and eight year old kids should be playing outside or doing something to stimulate there brains. we have to put a stop to it because its out of control.

  5. Eddie permalink
    March 21, 2012

    @ Daniel, Litta

    Video games aren’t some sort of plague. The reason they’re throwing tantrums is because of disciplinary issues. My little sister is autistic yet she has no problem when asked to stop playing.We just ask her if we can please have it, then put it away. It’s good to have portable systems like a Ninteno DSi so you can hide it if they throw tantrums.

    A mature twelve year old brother.

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