Can gaming improve social skills?

A new game for children with autism changes the way kids focus on faces in just 15 minutes, researchers say.

Dr Gail Alvares. Photo: Gail Alavres

Telethon Kids Institute autism postdoctoral researcher Gail Alvares created Frankie and Friends to change the way children engage with faces.

The game involves kids with autism swiping characters that look like people onto Frankie’s back in order for him to find his friends.

The children are penalised if they swipe objects including trains and dinosaurs onto Frankie’s back.

Frankie and Friends. Photo: Gail Alvares.

More than 60 children with autism between the ages of five and 12 volunteered to trial the game in January 2019.

Dr Alvares said there were many games for children with autism on the market but nothing backed with as much scholarly evidence.  

“There are thousands of apps that are reportedly aimed towards kids on the spectrum but don’t get ever evaluated rigorously through research,” she said. 

“Our aim was to experiment to see if we could change the way kids visually engage with faces in a short amount of time. 

“This has not been tested before.

“We used an eye tracking device to discover that playing this game changed eye gaze to faces.

“This means after playing this game, kids were more likely to look at faces than objects.”

Dr Alvares said she still did not know if the results would translate to any real world social behaviour. 

Curtin Autism Research Group postdoctoral researcher Nigel Chen and Dr Alvares had a working prototype ready just a few months after meeting with game developers.

Dr Alvares said this sort of research demonstrated how technologies could be used in different ways to help target different areas of therapies or interventions.

“Help for children with autism traditionally involves one-on-one therapy which can be expensive and inaccessible for many families,” she said.

“Using technology and things that are already in people’s homes is a great way to augment therapies that contribute to a child’s development.” 

Autism West chief executive Louise Sheehy said technology and online gaming could be useful for building social skills for children on the autism spectrum.

“There is a lot of evidence confirming individuals with autism struggle to engage with faces and pick up signals in social situations,” she said. 

“It can take a lot for these children to focus on someone’s face which can often cause anxiety.

“Many children I work with socialise happily by participating in online gaming as it scaffolds interaction.”

Frankie and Friends is not available on the app store yet as it requires further funding and research.

Categories: Health