Researchers Take Gaming to a New Level to Help Children With Autism

Jan 5 2018

Researchers Take Gaming to a New Level to Help Children With Autism

Each new year comes with anticipation for the latest and greatest in the world of video games to be revealed. Which sequels will surpass their originals? Will beloved characters be reinvented? And we want to know: What brand-new entries are lined up that could offer an amazing experience in field of gaming for health?

The Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has several studies in the works that are looking at the feasibility of using video games and virtual reality to help children improve symptoms of autism. With engaging platforms and cutting-edge graphics, these games are aiming for a “high score” as easy-to-access, affordable, and effective interventions for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Here’s a quick glance at what is on the horizon:

Virtual Reality to Build Social and Safety Skills

Youth with ASD often get overwhelmed when dealing with critical situations, such as interacting with police officers and other emergency responders. A pilot project called “Immersive Virtual Reality as a Tool to Improve Police Safety in Adolescents and Adults with ASD” is underway with the help of a Small Business Technology Transfer Fast-track grant from the National Institutes of Health.

CAR scientists Joseph McCleery, PhD, and Julia Parish-Morris, PhD, are working with Floreo Inc., a venture backed tech startup, to create and test a virtual reality application that provides an engaging therapy to help individuals with ASD learn and build real-world social and safety skills. The platform allows a parent or therapist to observe the learner’s experience and provide immediate guidance and feedback.

“Virtual reality technology gives us a unique and important opportunity to help individuals practice critical interactions that will help them stay safe and increase their ability to live independently in their communities,” Dr. Parish-Morris said.

The Floreo study began in the fall and is seeking participants ages 12 and older diagnosed with ASD. Visit CAR’s study enrollment page, or download the study’s flyer, for more information.

Gaming and Biofeedback Combo

A space-themed video game designed to improve eye contact and emotion recognition in children with ASD is under development by CAR researchers and BioStream Technologies. The study incorporates biosensors that measure study participants’ eye gaze, heart rate, and brain activity to detect anxiety symptoms.

“We know that making eye contact during social interactions can cause a great deal of anxiety for many people on the autism spectrum,” said John Herrington, PhD, the CAR psychologist leading the study. Dr. Herrington also is an assistant professor in the department of Child Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “The goal of this study is to evaluate the feasibility of using a video game as an intervention to teach children with ASD how to recognize and respond to social cues and emotions. If so, children with ASD could have access to an affordable and easy-to-use tool to build and maintain relationships, learn in traditional school settings, and even live independently.”

The BioStream study is enrolling children with and without ASD, between the ages of 5 and 16. Visit CAR’s study enrollment page or download the study’s informational flyer for more information.

Attention Boost for Children With ASD and ADHD

Another attention-getter is a fun and challenging iPad-based game being studied by CAR child psychologist Benjamin Yerys, PhD. Project: EVO™ is a state-of-the-art video game designed by Akili Interactive Labs as an intervention for children with a dual diagnosis of autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The platform uses adaptive algorithms that offer a personalized treatment experience for each patient. While the therapeutic activity looks and feels like an ordinary video game, it involves selective targeting and activation of specific cognitive neural systems in the brain that exhibit deficiencies from various medical conditions, according to an Akili press release.

If children with ASD and their families find the game acceptable and feasible, it’s poised to be the first-of-its-kind prescription digital medicine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to improve attention in children with autism and ADHD.

“Fewer children with ASD and ADHD diagnoses respond to medications for ADHD than what we see in children with ADHD,” Dr. Yerys said. “So it is important to test if creative approaches to new interventions can help improve attention for this group of kids.”

(Editor’s Note: We compiled information about these studies from CAR’s blog “Driven.”)