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Apps for Autism: Using Game Mechanics to Learn and Grow

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Imagine for a moment that you had no internal volume control.  Everything you saw, heard, and felt was perceived by your brain at equal intensity–from the birds singing outside your window and the dripping of the faucet to the person giving you instructions.  Imagine that you were unable to prioritize this information, to sort out the unnecessary or redundant images to focus on the information central to your needs and purposes.

If you can do this, you’re on the start to understanding what a person with autism experiences on a daily basis.  Yuan Kai, an art student at Edinburgh College of Art, understands this. She has contributed designs to Find Me, a free iPad app that uses game mechanics to teach autistic children develop the skills to filter out distracting input and focus on social interaction.

Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson leads the Computer-based Learning in Children: the Edinburgh Autism Social-attention Trial (CLICK-EAST), a collaborative project between the University of Edinburgh, programmers at the School of Informatics, animators at the Edinburgh College of Art, and psychologists at the Moray House School of Education.  In a recent blog post, she said about the distractions placed in the app “…as a viewer you have a hint as to what it might be like to have autism”. There is a social message coming through but all these other things can prevent you from attending to it properly.

This is exactly the kind of problem that children with autism face, and which our app aims to address.  Prioritising social information above anything else comes naturally to most of us – we have no trouble listening to voices over the background hum of birdsong, traffic, or strip lighting. We can pay attention even when we have an itchy jumper or we can see something we like in the background. But children with autism can find these sensory distractions overwhelming which prevents them from accessing the important information we get from other people – things like learning new words and following instructions.

Find Me uses a series of increasingly difficult graphics to help kids with autism develop filtering skills to increase their ability for social interaction.

There are a multitude of apps available to parents, teachers, and therapists to aid patients on all points of the Autism scale in developing crucial social, intellection, emotional, and physical skills.  Here are just a sample from Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization.

  • Cam’s Developmental Preschool: This app helps children learn facial recognition, shapes, and fine motor skills.  While appropriate for all children, it is geared toward children with Autism or Asperger’s syndrome.
  • Conversation Coach: Teaches two-way conversation skills.  The game helps players learn to take turns, stay on topic, ask questions, listen to other people, express their feelings, and organize their thoughts.  Players can chose either 1- or 2-player options.
  • Dance Party Zoo: This fun dance party app by FizzBrain helps children practice basic motor and balance skills as well as coordination and rhythm.

Through the use of engaging visuals, game mechanics, and solid scientific research, these apps are creating a whole new world of opportunity for children on the Autism spectrum.

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