Video games are tremendously exciting and a whole lot of fun. For many kids, it offers an escape from schoolwork and the pressures of adolescent life or playground politics. But the electronic sound effects, incessant clicks, and frantic swiping and twisting at a video game console by an overeager tween or teen is enough to drive any parent nuts. After all, isn’t it eating up time that could be spent playing outdoors, reading, or studying? Research, however, seems to think otherwise. Could the very activity you try and restrict in your children be helpful if they have a developmental disorder?
For children with language development issues or autism spectrum disorders, some skills we all take for granted can be a challenge. Whether it is a cognitive task, social skills, or basic language or math ability, video games may prove useful.
Take the case of pop culture phenomenon Pokemon Go becoming a hot favorite among children with Asperger’s syndrome. As one expert in a CNN story explains, the structure and consistency hold much appeal for someone with Asperger’s or autism. The game offers a shared social experience with others playing the game and is a medium for the child to go out in crowded places which they would normally shy away from.1 This shared love of a game makes it easier to bond and connect with peers, normally a huge hurdle for someone with these conditions. As the child gets better at the game, their ego also gets a boost, giving them the confidence needed for social interaction.2
While Pokemon Go may not have been aimed at kids with developmental disorders, some games like Social Clues from the University of Sothern California (USC) are targetted at helping such children with their social skills. Social Clues simulates real-world scenarios, with the child taking on the role of the protagonist. They navigate the game in various settings to recover a bunch of lost toys and converse with people along the way. Understanding emotional responses is also artfully worked into gameplay, helping a child relate better to other people. 3
Spatial visualization can be a challenge for some children and video games have the ability to improve these skills. As researchers in one study noted, for a group of children who played video games over a period of time, spatial skills improved, especially among those who started out with weaker skills. They suggested that video games could even help equalize any skill differences.4
Language And Reading Skills
Playing a video game helps a child improve their understanding of instructions and how to follow them, familiarizes them with language (like preposition usage), and creates a platform and backdrop for communication. Plus, with the character dialogue often appearing in the form of printed text on screen, reading skills improve too. Game instructions and directions also appear as text. For instance, to go to the “Next” screen or to begin “Play,” you need to click on those words to proceed.5
Numerical Ability And Problem Solving
Mathematical skills may be lacking in children with learning disabilities. One study of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students who had learning disabilities found that arithmetic ability improved after they went through just four sessions of computer game-based practice. Because a game format was used, even those who suffered from motivation problems stayed engaged, highlighting the importance of video games as an instructional tool.6 The simulations in games also help children with developmental issues improve their problem-solving abilities.7
Don’t Overdo Game Time
While there are benefits to playing video games, too much of play can be just as bad as you feared. Besides the potential harm to eyes constantly exposed to the glare of the game visuals, a child could also see an elevation of symptoms in certain cases. As one study found, adolescents who spent more than an hour playing video games tended to show more signs of inattention and even ADHD. This in turn also had bearing on academic performance. So in short, regulated gameplay may be fine, but long spells of obsessive playing are certainly not.8
Research also warns us that teens or kids who have autism are already prone to addiction to video games, using them as an escape from the world they find so challenging to live in. Autism Speaks cautions against overuse of video games as therapy, given the higher tendency of children with these developmental disorders to show problematic or addictive video game usage.9