Autism Awareness Month: Traditional and Digital Play as Tools for Learning

Play is important to learning for all kids; kids on spectrum may need different strategies.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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Kids affected by autism learn from their play, just like typically developing kids. Play helps them learn to solve problems, get along with others, try out new solutions, understand patterns and master fine and gross motor skills. Kids affected by autism, however, play quite differently than their peers.

By definition, Autism Spectrum Disorder is considered a developmental disorder that affects social, communication, adaptive and play skills. Kids with autism often display highly repetitive behaviors and inflexibility in their problem-solving that interferes with individual play, playing with others and peer relations.

Because play is so important to learning in all children, educators and parents have developed many strategies for using traditional play activities to help kids affected by autism. In the 21st-century world, this means optimizing the use of digital play as a tool for teaching. Not only are 21st-century kids who are affected by autism knowledgeable about technology, they appear to be more motivated, attentive and engaged while learning with video games and apps than with traditional play.

Play is important to learning in all children.

Kids on spectrum need different strategies

Traditional play strategies used with kids on the spectrum must account for how the developmental nature of autism impacts maturity, sensory and language concerns. Children with autism may struggle with their capacity to pay attention to others, tune into social cues, try out new things and use reflective skills. They often do not learn play and social skills from observation and participation, and may instead need repeated instruction, role modeling and behavioral rewards to acquire new skills.

While teaching play skills to children diagnosed with more severe forms of autism (described as Levels 2 and 3 by the DSM-V) often requires intensive strategies such as applied behavioral analysis (ABA) and the use of specialized classrooms and technologies, kids with mild/modest symptoms (Level 1) can benefit from games, toys and strategies used with typical kids. Teaching Level 1 kids to play includes common strategies like peer modeling, one-on-one play with parents, social skills groups and training for listening and communication skills.

Kids with autism often do not learn play and social skills from observation and participation, and may instead need repeated instruction, role modeling and behavioral rewards to acquire new skills.

Addressing unique characteristics of kids with ASD

Karen Pierce and Laura Schreibman provide some thoughtful guidance to address some of the unique characteristics of kids diagnosed with Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorders in their efforts to play. Pierce and Schreibman point out that the use of very small groups in play environments reduces sensory stimulation and requires observing and translating fewer social cues. They suggest physical and musical play, with few rules and minimal language, as initial play training.

Parallel play that involves children in the same activity but not with each other can also be used as a tool for modeling fundamental play activities. The next step may involve such simple interactive play as rolling a ball back and forth without any need for language. As children with autism progress in recreation environments, their play can become more sophisticated and begin to include interactive language with peers and sharing interests with others.

Digital play can be beneficial, with precautions

Supplementing traditional play with digital play for children with autism spectrum disorders can be beneficial. Precautions will naturally need to be taken to ensure these children do not become overly engaged in video gameplay, start to isolate themselves from others or become obsessed with a particular game or character to the exclusion of all other activities. Basic strategies such as setting clear limits on the amount of video gameplay, keeping technology out of the bedroom, emphasizing and expecting other forms of non-digital play, and being selective about the types of digital play available to a child affected by autism can prevent many problems.

The engagement many children with autism find in their digital play can be an asset for their social, emotional and cognitive development. Christina Whalen and her colleagues found that technology enhances the drive for learning in children affected by autism by increasing motivation, attention and effort. Parents and educators can leverage these heightened levels of engagement to encourage the use of games and apps designed to improve communication and language skills. Adults can encourage popular game and app play to increase shared experiences and provide opportunities for practicing social skills.

The engagement many children with autism find in their digital play can be an asset for their social, emotional and cognitive development.

4 strategies when making video games a tool

Selecting games in which adaptive problem-solving, creativity and shifting routines is necessary expands the flexibility of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Here are a few strategies that can be helpful in making video game and technology play into a tool for helping children affected by autism spectrum disorders:

  • 1. Talk about gameplay. Studies suggest that the more time spent in conversation with a child affected by autism, the less likely they are to have social impairments as they get older. Because gameplay is often such an area of intense interest, parents and educators are likely to find kids affected by autism to be willing to engage in regular conversations about their game play. Ask any child about their creations in Minecraft and you will be able to talk about how skills such as planning and flexibility helped them. Work on conversational skills such as listening, asking questions and giving compliments.
  • 2. Play games with your kids. Encourage them to play games that they can play with you. Better yet, have them teach you how to play the game so they need to put themselves into your shoes. Make certain you help them recognize how little you know about the game so they explain the basics of the game in a manner that you are able to  follow.
  • 3. Encourage online play. With close monitoring, older children can benefit from playing online games that require strategizing, cooperating with teammates or guild members, and a variety of other social interactions. Some kids with autism spectrum disorders may be more comfortable with online peers because they do not need to tune into the social cues that are present in face-to-face experiences. Online experiences are best for teenagers affected by autism spectrum disorders but do require some degree of supervision by adults.
  • 4. Play games that require creativity, silliness and letting go. Games such as Toca Kitchen 2 and Toca Life: Town are excellent opportunities to practice flexible thinking. Children affected by autism tend to be rigid and struggle when routines change. Yet they are often more willing to engage in gameplay behavior where mistakes, innovation and trying out something new is part of the process.

Parents will sometimes need to force the issue of trying out new games and apps by simply setting limits on the amount of time a child can play preferred games. For example, many kids affected by autism simply love Minecraft and will play it all day long to the exclusion of any other game. This requires parents to limit Minecraft time while allowing for additional time with a different game or game genre in order for the child to benefit from practicing a variety of thinking skills.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids

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