Are video games the future of treatment for children on the autism spectrum? A study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders suggests they could be. Video game-based interventions may be a cheap, easy, and effective alternative to face-to-face treatment.
Many people on the autism spectrum have trouble with social skills, which can lead to adverse effects including isolation and social rejection. This can put them at a higher risk for anxiety and depression. Interventions often consist of building social skills, which can utilize a myriad of techniques. Previous research has experimented with using video games as a tool for this type of intervention but did not have a control group. This study seeks to address limitations of past research and expand the literature on this topic.
Renae Beaumont and colleagues utilized a sample of 7- to 12-year-old children in Queensland with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Participants had to refrain from other treatment during the duration of the study. Seventy children participated, including 60 boys and 10 girls. They were randomly assigned to either the social skills video game condition or the control condition, which was a similar video game without any social or emotional skill component. (The social skills video game is called Secret Agent Society.)
Parents were asked to rate their children on social skills, emotional regulation, behavior, anxiety, and also rate their satisfaction with the program. Participants completed 10 weeks of their program and completed post-trial measures. Six weeks later they completed follow-up measures.
Results showed that the social skills intervention was successful, with the children in that condition showing significantly larger improvements in their social and emotional skills. These positive results were maintained during follow-up a month and a half later. Parents of children in the control condition noted improvements as well, but not as much as in the experimental condition. This could be due to the increased time spent with the children. The results did not show any significant effects of the intervention on the children’s anxiety but did show a reduction in behavioral issues.
Though this study took strides into understanding if video game-based social and emotional treatment is effective, it also has limitations. Firstly, the parents were the raters and are susceptible to bias. This is shown by the improvements perceived by parents of children in the control group. Additionally, there was a very uneven gender split in the sample, which could lead to skewed results.
“There continues to be a pressing need for innovative social skills supports for children on the autism spectrum, and computer-based remoted delivery may be a viable option,” the researchers concluded. “Such interventions are even more critical during global crises such as COVID-19, where there has been a desperate need for evidence-based remote therapies that can be effectively provided without the risk of in-person contact. The use of supported videogame-based child interventions has the potential to significantly improve the affordability and accessibility of intervention services.”
The study, “Randomized Controlled Trial of a Video Gaming-Based Social Skills Program for Children on the Autism Spectrum“, was authored by Renae Beaumont, Hugh Walker, Jonathan Weiss, and Kate Sofronoff.