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An App that Combats Autism

Autism causes its victims to suffer varying degrees of social ineptitude, so playing video games does not sound like an appropriate treatment. Surprisingly, sitting alone while glued to a screen promotes social skills and empathy. Those with autism can rejoice, for they can now download an app and begin undergoing treatment for their symptoms. The four pillars of scientific-based learning raise this app into the realm of the radical yet practical area of treating cognitive disorders through gaming.

Designed by 35 students at the University of Southern California, Social Clues provides autistic individuals a platform to hone the art of social norms. Doing so in the real-world often proves extremely challenging for those on the autism spectrum. Using their iPad, players can combat symptoms in the comfort of their own homes, without the societal backlash that accompanies social faux pas. Most American households, roughly 70 percent, own a tablet, meaning this new form of treatment is widely available and easily accessible. The days of going to the pharmacy and picking up pills to alleviate autism symptoms may be coming to an end. Parents can download the app, hand their child a tablet, and circumvent the high cost of prescription drugs and the nasty side effects that they entail.

Rigorous scientific research has gone into making Social Clues a game that can be trusted for results. Evidence-based practices are considered the standard when it comes to developing learning programs, and this app incorporates four core principles: Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), errorless learning, social narrative, and discrete trial training. Game developers have utilized these four methods to craft an effective form of autism treatment.

ABA modifies behavior using the cause-and-effect of certain actions, and is implemented in Social Clues via colorful characters that children can identify with. The aptly named particiPETE or communiKATE are the two avatars players can control, and it is through either of these characters that Applied Behavior Analysis is experienced. Various scenarios are presented to the child, who is instructed to choose the response they deem most fitting to the situation at-hand. For instance, the player loses a toy and must communicate with classmates to find it, prompted to use social necessities like eye contact and maintaining conversations. The NPCs (non-playable characters) react accordingly, either pleased or unresponsive to the player’s decision. Children can see the outcomes of certain social moves, and learn which are better in a given situation. Their behavior is essentially modified in a relaxed environment, where the modification is not apparent to them. ABA subtly alters behavior overtime, rather than attempting to quickly force change upon the socially-anxious player.

Autistic children undoubtedly know the pains of social mistakes on the schoolyard. Children can be cruel, mocking and abusing those who are not on the same social level. This is where errorless learning comes in, allowing the game to be free of negative stimuli that cause stress in social situations. “You’ve failed” or “game over” messages are absent. Much like in real-life, each decision comes with different results. Players are gently guided to the most suitable choice by an in-game narrator, a humorous parrot that lightens the mood and explains why one decision might be wiser than another.

Children love stories, and social narratives allow for the gaming experience to be captivating and understandable for young minds. Relatability is key, and the narrative arcs of the game are ones that all children can relate to: interacting with students in a classroom, taking the bus, searching for lost toys, or getting along with a sibling. Pacman-style games increase hand-eye coordination, while games with social narratives contain substance and heart, enabling emotional attachment to the story and its characters. Empathy is largely employed throughout the game, a skill that autistic sufferers often need help with.

Discrete trial training (DTT) is the final nail in the coffin of autism that Social Clues hammers in. Each level is one trial, aimed at developing a certain skill. Following every trial, a report summarizes the player’s progress, highlighting the areas that need improvement for the next trial. Parents or instructors can review the results of the trial reports and work with the child in those areas. Rather than overloading with a large number of tasks, DTT allows for digestible chunks to be completed one at a time.

The evidence-based practices inherent in Social Clues provide the logic for encouraging autistic people to play video games as a step to healing. Stereotypes paint gamers as sitting in dark rooms, developing antisocial personality disorder while mindlessly indulging in pointless games. Yet this new therapeutic app has a specific point: alleviating the symptoms of autism. If more game developers embrace the methods used in Social Clues, our pharmacies will become stocked with video games and patients looking to begin treatment.

Works Cited

Wong, Connie, Samuel L. Odom, Kara A. Hume, Ann W. Cox, Angel Fettig, Suzanne Kucharczyk, Matthew E. Brock, Joshua B. Plavnick, Veronica P. Fleury, and Tia R. Schultz. “Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Comprehensive Review.J Autism Dev Disord Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 45.7 (2015): 1951-966. 2014. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Ballon, Marc. “Video Game Promotes Social Engagement for Children with Autism.Video Game Promotes Social Engagement for Children with Autism. N.p., 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

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