Can video games be helpful in autism treatment?

    New research from the University of Missouri finds that kids and teens who have autism spend more time playing video games than their peers.

    A Philadelphia Science Festival event Friday will explore whether this interest in games could be used in treatment.

    Autism affects the ability to communicate, to interact socially, to read nonverbal cues such as body language, and facial expressions. So, it doesn’t seem like playing a lot of video games would be a good thing. Yet game developers and autism researchers are trying to find ways to embed learning social skills into games.

    “You have a captive audience, focusing in an environment that they like, on an aspect of social behavior,” said James Connell, clinical director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia. The institute is a partners in the event.

    He says games for kids with autism already exist — one involves the popular character Thomas the Tank Engine. But Connell warns that gains made during gaming don’t necessarily translate into better social skills.

    “For example, when Thomas frowns and says ‘I’m mad,’ will they also be able to recognize ‘mad’ on mom’s face?” he said. “The research has shown that that has not been occurring, and I think that’s because they have not been able to transfer what has been learned in the game to the natural environment.”

    The next level in using games in autism treatment is to develop ways to translate skills into “real world” situations, Connell said.

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