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The Eerie Playground: Videogames and Autism

David Owen | 3 Oct 2013 19:00
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When the screams become overwhelming I hurry to the far end of the playground to hide. My vision seems to melt, and the ringing in my ears is so sharp that it hurts. All I can do is press my face against the fence and wait for it all to subside.

I haven't been attacked by any kind of enemy. Behind me is a simple playground, children innocently playing together on a roundabout and swing-set. My senses have become my adversary. They have forced me into isolation.

This is my first experience of Auti-sim, a free game that aims to show how it can feel to live as an autistic child in even the most innocuous settings. Simple pleasures, familiar to all of us, can be transformed into terrifying ordeals.

"That's exactly what we were trying to communicate," says Taylan Kadayifcioglu, programmer and game designer on the Auti-sim project. "How social isolation can be a natural coping mechanism for people with this affliction."

That he chose a video game to communicate this is particularly telling. It has long been observed that many autistic children, and often adults, form a strong relationship with screen-based media such as television and video games. It's only recently that research into the impact of this has been conducted, and the question asked of whether video games are harmful or beneficial to children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). I decided to explore further.


Autism is difficult to summarise, and even harder to treat. It manifests itself in many different ways, with varying levels of severity from person to person. Someone with ASD may experience symptoms very different to those of somebody else. It can be a relatively minor affliction that allows for a mostly normal life, or it can be completely disabling.

Symptoms of autism in children can include difficulty with verbal communication; difficulty with nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and gestures; difficulty with social interaction; and the inability to make friends. Statistics show that around 1 in 50 American kids has autism.

The range of symptoms and severity makes treatment difficult. "Individuals vary quite a bit in terms of their unique strengths and challenges," says Micah Mazurek, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Psychology at the University of Missouri.

Simple pleasures, familiar to all of us, can be transformed into terrifying ordeals.

The most widely used treatments are behavioural interventions, based on the principles of applied behavioural analysis (ABA), which aims to modify behaviour through long-term intensive therapy. There are also nutritional systems, and shorter treatments designed to stimulate the brain, such as that practiced by Zelda Landau, Director of the National Light & Sound Therapy Centre in London.

"There are no easy solutions," she tells me. "The biggest challenge in dealing with children with autism is that they are unable to express themselves."

This inability to communicate is what leads many autistic children to turn to video games. Here they can control a character in a world with fewer sensory stimuli and without the stresses of social interaction.

"Many individuals with ASD are particularly drawn to screen-based technology," says Mazurek. "I am certainly not the first to observe this - parents, educators, clinicians, and individuals with ASD have been discussing this anecdotally for many years."

Most of Mazurek's clinical work and research focuses on improving outcomes for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. She spends a lot of time with those afflicted and their families, and this piqued her interest in the relationships between ASD and screen-based media, particularly video games. She has recently published several studies on the issue.

One study used "parent-report questionnaires to assess screen-based media use among children with ASD as compared to their typically developing siblings." Parents reported on their children's extracurricular activities and behaviours, and were asked to report specifically on their use of video games. The questions assessed information such as amount of time spent playing video games, the types of devices used, and preferred game types. In many ways, the results were not surprising.

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