an x box controllerAlong the spectrum of children with autism, there is a truly wide variety of cognitive and language abilities. Despite this extensive range of abilities, groundbreaking research done in 1979 by Dr. Judith Gould and Dr. Lorna Wing found that social interaction is usually an area of difficulty for children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. This may include challenges in developing social relationships with peers, issues with appropriate verbal and non-verbal communication, and difficulty in participating in interpersonal play and imaginative activities.

Of course, it is not to say that autistic children will never be able to learn or all struggle with these skills, but many may need extra practice in these areas to improve. While most children learn social skills by watching their peers, imitating, and refining their skills with age and experience, children with an autism spectrum disorder may find this difficult and therefore miss out on many opportunities to practice these skills.

To help children with autism avoid becoming bewildered and overwhelmed in social situations, Australian researcher Gail Alvares has come up with an ingenious idea.

As part of her work at the University of Western Australia and the Telethons Kids Institute, Alvares is working on a video game project, currently titled Frankie and Friends, that aims to help kids with autism practice processing social information and respond appropriately. The (so far) three games Alvares is developing are intended for children ages 5 to 12, and focus on a sausage dog named Frankie who needs help finding his friends.

Alvares explains, “All three (games) target particular social skills that we think at least some kids with autism would find challenging…like understanding emotions, being able to pay attention to faces over objects…and being able to follow somebody else’s gaze.”

Of course, the games are intended to disguise learning with fun, so kids don’t realize that they’re training or doing any work. There’s also no language component or written instructions to confuse or overwhelm especially sensitive children.

This idea of serious gaming, or gaming with a purpose other than entertainment, has been used more frequently in recent years as research within autism intervention and therapy continues. Although the game is very promising, Alvares and her research team want to test the effectiveness of Frankie and Friends with autistic children in extensive trials before making the games available to the public.

Once the game is proved to be engaging, fun, and effective, Alvares and her team hope that Frankie and Friends can become a platform to develop a range of serious games to target other issues that autism spectrum disorder children may struggle with. These may include going to the dentist, hairdresser, navigating crowds, or even responding to natural disasters.

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