Video games can get a bad rap when the talk turns to how much time children spend on them. Everything from AD/HD to childhood obesity gets blamed on the hours spent by some teens (and adults!) on playing video games. But not all games are a like, and certainly not all children are either.
New research conducted by the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston shows that certain video games, the ones that include exercising and memory testing, can improve coordination, fitness and mental acuity in some very special children. Kids who are on the autism spectrum have more trouble than typical children in areas like physical fitness, and social skills. Joining in on a game of school yard kickball or being part of a team can be a challenge.
So how does a video game enter into it? The specific type of game matters. The study in Texas looked at what’s called “exergaming.” They used a game called The Makota Arena
. The game is basically a court, consisting of three sturdy metal beams arranged in a triangle on the floor. Each corner has a speaker and pressure sensitive targets. The goal of the game is to hit as many targets as possible, as they light up in a random sequence.. The game can be set up to start with smaller amounts of targets in a certain time and then move up to faster and harder games.
The ability to move quickly, anticipate the next light sequence and decide how to proceed is all part of the brain’s executive functioning ability. It also is the part of the brain that works on suppressing inappropriate behavior. Children on the autism spectrum have difficulty with this, and combined with a lack of physical fitness activities, kids with ASD can be at risk for a host of issues later in life.
The research was conducted with 17 subjects with an autism diagnosis over 30 sessions for over 1,800 total attempts to hit the targets. Each child took part in an average of six sessions per week.
The results of the study showed marked improvement in both physical and mental ability. Every area of executive function that was tracked improved, with the largest gain being in working memory. Physical fitness also improved with the children showing gains in the area of strength and agility.
Professor Claudia Hilton from UTMB, associate professor Tim Reistetter and assistant professor Diane Collins, all from the occupational therapy and rehab sciences departments, authored the study and believe that this form of gaming can give children with ASDs a significant boost to their fitness and executive functioning abilities. Executive function is the higher level of cognitive function that helps plan and organize. It is used to redirect higher thinking when changing plans and suppressing inappropriate behaviors. Children with autism have a harder time developing this and it's especially important for being able to live independently as adults.
In a press release about the study
Hilton said, “We think that the exertion of participating in this type of game helps to improve the neural connections in the brains of these children. This is a small pilot study, but we hope to obtain grant funding to confirm these findings in a larger group of children with autism and to examine the changes that are occurring in the brain.” Check out the video to learn more about how autism experts are incorporating this gaming platform into their therapy plans.