Gaming for social skills

An estimated one in 88 children is autistic. Because autism is diagnosed on a spectrum, these children have diverse needs. This February, the definition of autism was changed by the American Psychiatric Association in their fifth edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an essential  handbook for many mental health practitioners.

Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, was removed from the manual. It will officially be under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders, leaving many parents concerned about cuts to funding for their children with high-functioning autism.

Activities that teach social skills and model social interactions have been a therapy mainstay for people with high-functioning autism. In recent years, computer games have become an increasingly respected means of education. Several programmers and game developers have focused on using these games to help people with high-functioning autism develop social skills.

Secret Agent Society: Solving the Mystery of Social Encounters is one of the most promising ones, developed by the Social Skills Training Institute in Australia. It teaches children social skills while they undergo secret agent training missions. They learn to read people’s body language, facial expressions, and words for emotion through social interactions with other characters. Earlier games taught many of the same skills, but Secret Agent Society combines education with a fun, interactive  story and engaging graphics.

Secret Agent Society also incorporates “home missions” that the player will carry out in real life, including walkie-talkies, card games, and a role-playing board game. A study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2010 showed that after playing the game for two months, 76 per cent of autistic users saw a notable improvement in social skills.

Secret Agent Society is concluding a trial period in Australian schools through a grant from the Australian Research Council. The results will soon be made public, and the game seems one of the most promising at-home tools available to parents.

A free, Canadian option comes from the University of Victoria. Called Let’s Face It,  it is a free-to-download face recognition game.  While it cannot match the scope and appeal of Secret Agent Society, it provides an easy-to-access option for parents to try out with their children.

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