Video Games Used to Enhance Skills of Those with Autism

Autism and Gaming

An eleven-year-old autistic boy in Edgewood, Washington with a keen interest for X-Box games, was recently labeled a ¨Cheater¨ by Microsoft for allegedly tampering with his account to boost his gaming scores.  This comes from a boy who didn’t play basketball because he believed taking the ball was stealing, so seeing the word ¨Cheater¨ beside his name and losing his gaming achievements was particularly devastating.

His mother contacted Microsoft, who stood by their assertion. Apparently, the ¨Halo¨ whiz had given his login information to a third party who likely boosted his scores. 

The right thing to do would be to remove the label, restore his legitimate achievements, give him a new username and password, and educate him (and others) about the need to keep information private. But Microsoft insisted on treating this case as they would any other.

This disheartening event calls to mind the general issue of gaming as a whole. 

Parents of children with autism are usually uneasy to see their already-isolated children consumed with video games for hours-on-end in front of a TV screen.

But researchers are beginning to see that quality in a different light, capitalizing on an autistic child’s extreme focus, adeptness with computers, and love of repetition as a teaching tool.

Enter John Lester, creator of ¨Brigadoon," an online game specifically for those with autism. 

He describes his creation at Braintalk:

“The idea is to create a private haven where people dealing with Asperger’s/Autism can practice their socialization skills in an environment where everyone knows everyone else. People dealing with Asperger’s/Autism sometimes have real difficulty dealing with social situations, and they are often filled with great creative ideas. Brigadoon gives them a place to meet other people also dealing with Asperger’s/Autism, a place to socialize with each other, and a place to build and create their own world filled with wonder and beauty.” 
In January 2011, MNSBC reported that researchers across the globe are now developing more and more video games for autistics. 

A multimedia, computer-based game designed to teach facial processing skills is in the works under the title ¨Let’s Face It." As a suite of mini-games, the program uses photos, sounds and positive feedback as part of a reward system to encourage kids to decode people’s facial expressions and emotions. 

Cutting-edge researchers in Ireland are also creating games to study cognitive skills in those with autism, using gesture recognition software that registers the players’ movements and transfers them to the screen. 

“From my work, I know that a lot of children [with autism] have production skills we never would expect,” says Maggie McGonigle, leader of the project and an expert on non-verbal communication. “So I’m hoping that language-like skills are locked up in their brain even if they can’t speak.”

Soon there will be a plethora of choices that tap into an autistic child’s passion for video games.  These are great resources that will help take advantage of a child’s strengths, allowing them to develop much needed skills to help better prepare them for day-to-day life and hopefully for many, independent living.

And rest assured, they won’t risk being branded a cheater by Microsoft.

Coping With Sensory Overload

Sensory Processing Issues Autism

If you have an a child with autism, you will invariably at some point hear the term, ¨Sensory Processing Disorder¨ (SPD). 

¨The Out of Sync Child¨ by Carol Kranowitz, is one of many greats books on the subject and comprehensively addresses this condition, which can many times be debilitating for both parents and children, disrupting day-to-day life in a significant way.

Here is a description of what that term means, provided by the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation:

“Sensory processing refers to our ability to take in information through our senses (touch, movement, smell, taste, vision, and hearing), organize and interpret that information, and make a meaningful response. For most people, this process is automatic. We hear someone talking to us, our brains receive that input and recognize it as a voice talking in a normal tone, and we respond appropriately.”
Children who have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), however, don’t experience such interactions in the same way. SPD affects the way their brains interpret the information that comes in.  It also affects how they respond to that information with emotional, motor, and other reactions. 

For example, some children are over-responsive to sensation and feel as if they’re being constantly bombarded with sensory information. They may try to eliminate or minimize this perceived sensory overload by avoiding being touched or being particular about clothing. Some children are under-responsive and have an almost insatiable desire for sensory stimulation. They may seek out constant stimulation by taking part in extreme activities, playing music loudly, or moving constantly. They sometimes don’t notice pain or objects that are too hot or cold and may need high intensity input to get involved in activities. Still, others have trouble distinguishing between different types of sensory stimulation. 

Sensory Processing Disorder is distinct from autism, although they often co-exist. The medical mainstream has yet to recognize it and you won’t find it in the diagnostic manual.  In addition, its treatment is not covered by insurance. 

I first heard about SPD when my son was in elementary school and was so riddled with anxiety, that life was truly harrowing. Every morning, I was a nervous wreck as I tried to find my son the perfect pair of socks. If the seams were too thick, or not lined up just right, he would go into meltdown mode and we couldn’t get out the door.

The same went for labels on shirts. Cutting them with scissors often left a scratchy remnant, only compounding the problem, and cutting too close to the seam would create a new hole in the garment. And speaking of holes in shirts, my son would chew the front of his shirt until it was sopping wet and riddled with teeth marks.

When we finally made it out of the house, the onslaught of traffic noises caused him to physically reel to the point where I had shield him from careening into the street.

His psychiatrist kept upping the ante on the kinds and dosages of drugs he was prescribing him, but my intuition told me that if I could address his sensory triggers, his anxiety would be diminished.

But how is this done?

Fortunately, there are products that address these and other issues, bringing immediate relief to child and family. Seamless socks eliminate the daily morning meltdown. Shirts without labels make dressing no big deal. A specially designed, orthodontist approved chew toy for youngsters and adults lets them work their teeth and jaws without ruining clothes and having to contend with the feeling of damp fabric against skin. 

Noise-reducing headphones make an astounding difference both indoors and out. Filtering out cacophonous background noises affords an immediate sense of calm and improves functioning in public places. And finally, a weighted blanket instantly comforts when the world gets to be just too much.

Sadly, a principle source of all these products, Sensory Comfort, is going out of business. But they are clearing out their remaining stock at big discounts and have provided links to their suppliers. But whereas Sensory Comfort used to be the only game in town, a Google search of ¨Sensory Products¨ now turns up multiple new companies.

Take small, practical steps to help your child experience his world with greater ease and calm. Little things can make a big difference in their lives, and everyone close to them shares in their gains.

Finding the Best States for Autism Services

top states for autism services

Thanks in large part to the Autism Votes initiative, there has been a near domino-effect of states pushing for autism insurance reform. Missouri, California, Oregon and Virginia are the most recent states that have made headlines in the past few weeks related to this issue.

In light of the current legislative efforts to have autism-related services covered by insurance, many parents and families are continuing to seek out what states are the most "autism friendly." 

Nearly four years ago, our site published a list that included what we felt at the time, was the top states to live in for autism support and services.  The list was compiled from extensive research efforts, but has since become outdated.  

As we have found over the years, the problem with rating states is that circumstances are often very fluid and  things can change very quickly. Additionally, services can be vastly different from county-to-county or city-to-city. As such, any "top" lists are subject to flaws.

Then there is the issue of subjectivity. What was found is that two families residing in the same state can have two vastly different experiences.  As a result, one may tell you the state is terrific, while the other will say how horrible it is.

If anyone is looking to relocate to a state that will be best suited for your child with autism, it is suggested that you do extensive research and not rely solely upon an article, news report or limited information.  Talk to parents, educators, and caregivers who reside in the state and get your hands on as much information as you can.

Probably the most beneficial resource about individual states and how they relate to autism can be found on the Easter Seals website.  They have a tremendous amount of information compiled on each state that will be extremely beneficial to potential and existing residents who are in need of autism services. 

The Easter Seals list can be an excellent start to your research, but like anything else, should not be solely relied upon when you make a decision on where to live.  Hopefully, in the near future, we will see sweeping federal legislative changes that address autism so everyone, regardless of where they live, will be on a level playing field.  Until then, be sure to fully equip yourself with knowledge and information to give your child the best future possible.

Click Here to View All the State Profiles for Autism Resources and Services

Sink or Swim: Avoiding an Autism-Related Drowning

autism swimming

The number one cause of death of individuals with autism involve incidents associated with wandering, which include exposure to the elements and drowning. Both occur frequently and a quick glance at the latest autism news headlines will reinforce these unfortunate statistics.

Children with autism are typically drawn to water. Regardless of the tactile stage of recovery, we came from a safe, liquid-filled womb that the subconscious still remembers well. Furthermore, water is soft and exerts equal, unchanging pressure evenly across the body, thereby preventing the trigger of painful touch issues often found with tactile and sensory dysfunction.

Then there is the problem of not always having gag or panic reflexes. Autopsies of autistic persons involved in accidents typically show no signs of struggle. Most incidents involving a drowning happen within seconds, even to those with autism who have been in the water numerous times. When submerged, water is inhaled into the lungs as if there were no built-in receptors to stop this from happening. From bathtubs, to lakes and even public fountains, individuals with autism will be drawn to water and need to be protected.

Since we can’t enclose our neighbor’s pools or the water fountains in community parks, what shall we do?

The answer is quite simple: we must enroll our children in swimming lessons. The YMCA is not just a great song from the 1970’s, but a great and often forgotten resource that is very helpful for many activities. Membership at your local "Y" will be very beneficial to both you and your child. Upon joining, tell everyone that your child has autism. They may already have some good awareness or they might need some time to do research.

Drownings are happening at an alarming rate to those with autism. Protecting your child can start by notifying your neighbors with pools and spas that your child is autistic and is drawn to water. Public awareness is your responsibility and swimming lessons are a must. They are also fun.

Get started immediately and don’t allow your child to become another tragic statistic. You will find that the time spent together in and around the pool area will be rewarding and a tremendous bonding experience as well.

Click here to locate a YMCA in your area

Why Autism and Why Me?

Over five years ago, when we first received our son’s autism diagnosis, one of the first questions I remember asking myself was, "Why me?" "Was I being punished for something I had previously done?" and "What did we do to be dealt such a painful lot?"

It’s reasonable to assume that most parents have posed these tough questions at some point during their autism journeys. However, as I’ve come to embrace my son’s condition over the years and after spiritual growth and maturity, my question now is, "Why not me?"

Some of the most compelling verses in the Bible that deal with this vexing issue can be found in John 9:1-3.

When encountering a man who was blind from birth, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The response from Jesus, in my opinion, helps address most of these difficult questions we have related to my child’s condition: "“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him."

When looking at our challenges from this perspective, we will soon discover that there is a greater purpose for our pain and trials. We have been called to be light in the midst of darkness and to bring hope to others who are facing similar challenges, all while God can be glorified in the process.

I realize that for some, this may not be applicable due to your particular beliefs. However, this does not change the fact the YOU have been chosen for a greater purpose and YOU have been called to step up, step out, and be a beacon of hope to others.

Perhaps you will one day run a major autism organization. Perhaps you will start a local support group. Maybe you will be a political advocate and bring forth legislative changes in regards to people with autism and other special needs. Or maybe you will be there for only one family, providing hope and support for them during their darkest hours.

Do not waste the opportunity you have been given through your child’s condition to leave an everlasting mark that will bring hope and inspiration for many more families that are sure to follow our path.

I am not "cursed" nor am I "being punished" for what has happened. To the contrary, I have been given an incredible gift and an opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives, all while allowing God to be seen through me, glorifying Him in the process.

Law Enforcement Officials Still Unequipped to Handle Autism

Scott Hirko Photography

A wrongful death suit against the Los Angeles Police Department highlights the need for police to be properly trained in recognizing and interacting with children with autism.

Mohammad Chaudhry, a twenty-eight year old Pakistani-American was fascinated with how people survive brutal conditions and made it a habit to sleep outdoors. The account of what happened, according to news reports, is as follows:

¨It started as a routine police encounter after officers spotted a shadowy figure lying under a balcony behind a Hollywood apartment building. The man, Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, was cordial at first. He handed over his ID and chatted with officers about his shoes, other cops he knew and how he stayed dry when it rained. Moments later, he was dead."

The officers in question report that Chaudhry was glancing around suspiciously and appeared to be pulling something from his waistband. The officer who fired shots contends Chaudhry pulled out a knife and lunged at him, but his partner saw no weapon, and Chaudhry´s heartbroken family contend a knife was planted after the fact. 

Indeed, until the suit was filed, the knife in question was never tested for Chaudry´s DNA and when it finally was, there was no evidence that the slain man had ever made contact with it.

There has been an alarming uptick in the number of cases such as this, including a police brutality suit in Seattle over an autistic teen stopped for jaywalking who ended up with four police officers on him, a broken nose, and a concussion. 

Some police departments have begun to educate officers in dealing with individuals with autism, but they are simply only one-hour classes. Autism advocates point out that law enforcers need at least eight hours of training in how to distinguish autism from psychiatric impairment and drug influence, then interact successfully to avert more unnecessary tragedies.

Dennis Debbaudt of Autism Risk and Safety Management, runs an organization that involves the training of law enforcement officials for just these kind of scenarios. Autism Key previously interviewed Mr. Debbaudt, who is an ex-law enforcement official and a father of a child with autism. In the interview, he gave some very insightful information about the need for the kind of training his organization provides.  That interview can be heard here.

Hopefully, more law enforcement agencies will take advantage of the available training to better equip police offers and first responders in dealing with those with autism. If not, cases like the one involving Mr. Chaudhry will continue to take place.

Why Parents Should Publicize a Child’s Autism

I have been somewhat criticized for making myself and my child a "walking billboard" for autism. I have listened to and given much thought on this matter, keeping my child’s privacy in mind.  However, my most recent research into the difficulties presented for emergency workers, thanks largely to a number of authors who have written much on this subject, has reassured me that I am in fact, doing the right thing.

Should something happen in your home such as a fire, emergency crews will arrive and they’ll need to have as much information as possible about your child. Any child will be scared in such an instance, but think about how your autistic child will feel when "alien" looking creatures show up with axes and breathing masks — they will most likely hide and stay hidden. They may not, or very likely, CANNOT cry out for help. They will most likely not respond when they are called out to. As a result, the emergency workers will need any information they can get.

IF and when they have rescued your child, first responders must also know that your child needs unique treatment. This is a two-way street. Your child needs to be prepared and the teams of people helping in your community need to be prepared as well. 

Regardless of what the emergency may be, whether it includes emergency workers or retail employees, information about your child’s special needs is in the best interest of you and your child. 

Personally, I will be contacting the city to see what it would take to have a street sign with "Child With Autism" placed in front of my apartment. This will guarantee that whether an emergency team responds to an injury, a wandering incident, a burglary or any other situation, they will be prepared to respect and assist my child in whatever the case may be. It may also help your neighbors to understand the screams that accompany your child’s typical meltdowns, which may otherwise be misinterpreted.

My child wears t-shirts with autism slogans, my purse has puzzle pieces on it and I am having our sneakers painted with autism slogans and cause ribbons. I just ordered 2 yards of the autism puzzle piece fabric and will be thinking of other ways to decorate ourselves.

When we recently moved into our new neighborhood, I walked up and down my street and told everyone about our journey. My child is four and will tell you himself that he has autism. He may not know what that means, but upon hearing his declaration, those in the community will know that he is special.

Labeling your child is essential for social, medical and educational resources, as well as emergency response teams and overall community awareness. Telling the world your child has autism is also one of the first steps in coming out of denial. You need to both learn and prepare for what your child’s best interests really are.

Perhaps it’s pride, shame or our own idea of "protecting" when we fail to notify others about our child.  The age-old stigma that was placed on those with special needs cannot be broken if we don’t all bring this out into the light. The current numbers of autistic persons that are known are just the tip of the iceberg due to those undiagnosed and those in hiding. Coming forward is a necessary element to place autism at the global forefront where it belongs. 

Emergency response teams have difficult jobs. Don’t make their work harder, or even impossible, because you are afraid or have justified guarding your autism "secret." Above all, don’t wait until it is too late.

It’s not just your child that needs help coming out of the darkness — it is you as well.

Turn the lights on in the scary closet to reveal that there are no monsters, then proudly tell the world, “My child is unique, isn’t yours?”

Autism and Academics: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Any parent with a school-aged child knows that both classroom issues and homework can often be overwhelming for students. And no one knows that better than the parents of a child with autism. Not only do autistic students have an academic curriculum, but they have a social curriculum which is every bit as demanding and exhausting. Deciphering a myriad of social cues, making incessant transitions, contending with sensory input – it’s a day’s work in itself. Is it any wonder that they balk when it’s time to hit the books at home? 

Parents, take heart. Accomodating for a child with autism is their legal right. 

Extensions on due dates and taking a class pass/fail instead of having a letter grade can be very helpful in easing the stress and anxiety that are commonly associated with academics. If your child is dyslexic as many with autism are, proper spelling should not impact his or her grade. If writing out ideas is particularly odious or poor penmanship associated with fine motor skills is a problem, your child can have a scribe. 

Additionally, accomplishing assignments in short bursts with breaks in between can relieve the stress of a long assignment. 

The renowned autism expert, Dr. Tony Attwood, has written extensively on the subject of homework and academics for autistics in his books and articles. After invoking his sage advice that autistics work no more than thirty minutes a night on school work, one teacher let me initial my son’s homework after a half-hour spent, then considered him done. 

In the classroom, many useful ideas can be written into an IEP such as using a keyboard instead of taking notes longhand, having a calculator, learning math with computer software instead of in a group, and creating a cozy corner with pillows and books for the over-stimulated youngster to retreat to.

Listening to an iPod is helpful as well if your child is soothed by music. Middle and high school students can be dismissed five minutes early from class to avoid the crush of humanity in the halls and be given time during the day to do their homework at school.

You know your child best. Give free expression to your ideas about what would enhance their learning experience, then work to have them implemented.

Improvement in the quality of your child’s educational life through your efforts, on their behalf, is a profoundly gratifying experience and something that should not be overlooked.

Autism Training Essential for School Bus Drivers

Earlier this month, we wrote about an upsetting incident involving the arrest of a girl with special needs on a school bus.  The officer in the incident, Deputy Mark Perrin, was fired as a result of his actions:

One of the pressing questions that has yet to be asked in that case is, "Where was the bus driver in this incident and why didn’t he/she immediately let the officer know about the child’s condition when he stepped onto the bus?" 

This poses the larger issue of the need for proper training and awareness for EVERYONE who will potentially come into contact with special needs kids on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, particularly school bus drivers.  

Recently, after a lengthy conversation with the state head of School Transportation, Special Education, I was asked to write a paper that would be used in semi-annual training for drivers and monitors.  My training information has since been implemented and is being used as a positive training and educational tool.  This all stemmed from my son’s monitor and driver, who both refused to greet or speak with him on his forty-five minute bus trip each day.

After the training was implemented,  they began to greet and speak with him on a daily basis.  

Here are some excerpts of the paper that was implemented in the training:

  • AUTISM is at epidemic levels and still increasing.
  • Of the children who are screened, less than 1 in 52 boys are predisposed to autism spectrum disorders.
  • Less than 1 in 200 girls are also affected.
  • These numbers are based solely on the children screened. Estimates of the population that are not screened are over 50%.
  • This is up over 400% from 10 years ago.
  • There are many other and overlapping spectrum disorders that are on the rise such as ADD, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome, and OCD.

Perhaps if we think of autism as delays, it will no longer sound so overwhelming. Whether it is batting a ball or potty training, we are all delayed in some areas. Autism, however, affects social behaviors. Kids may not be expressing needs, likes or wants, but they have them just like everyone else.

They also may be over-expressing them with temper tantrums, meltdowns and other behaviors that involve "acting out." Of course it’s much more complicated than that, but this will help you understand and not be as confused or overwhelmed when dealing with an autistic child.

Autistic kids appear to be typical kids.

What can we ALL do to help?

Children with autism have interrupted senses. There is ongoing research and detailed information about their skin, pain centers, taste, smells, hearing, sight, and light sensitivity.  If the area is affected, it will either be too sensitive, not enough, or not working at all.

Children with autism kids also take everything literally. If you say it’s raining cats and dogs, they will look out the window and think of puppies and kittens are falling from the sky. Say exactly what you mean and try to avoid such clichés.

Children with autism think in pictures and visual stimulation is what they crave. Think of Jim Carey, Barney, Chris Rock or whoever you think of as highly animated. Now think of watching the news and imagine Jim Carey or someone else similar as the news anchor! Yes, it would be worth watching and you couldn’t help it. It would also be fun. It’s not WHAT you say, it’s HOW you say it. 

Children with autism remember each and every part of their lives like a photograph. Your face and your expressions will burn into their memories like a scrapbook. Everyone likes to be remembered as smiling and happy.

Please be animated. Use gestures. Vary your voice and expressions. Don’t be fooled into thinking the kids don’t understand everything you say or don’t say.

Though they have many similarities, no two autistic children are the same, just like snowflakes. Neither are typical kids. Neither are we.

To date, autism is not deemed "curable." It will exist for a lifetime. There is NO degree of severe or mild upon diagnosis, that judgment is made depending upon the amount of therapy it will take for the kids to "catch up." No one knows until the evaluations are done and accommodating therapy begins.

Adults with autism are generally "quirky." Quirky people are fun to be around and uniqueness is what makes us all interesting and remarkable.

These kids CAN grow up and lead functional lives and each person in their life can help (or hinder) that possibility. 

Since they need to feel safe, as we all do, please make eye contact, know their names and do not underestimate what they might be thinking. 

Children with autism need to be welcomed by the world they are born into, kind of like being a new kid at school. Something as simple as being greeted and invited to sit at a lunch table instead of eating alone in silence can literally change a life. 

Drivers and especially monitors, imagine that YOU can be the one to change that life. 

Now, don’t imagine anymore — go out and make a difference!

West Coast States Begin 2011 with Insurance Legislation

Every parent of a child with autism knows the financial and emotional burdens of the disorder, the long waiting lists for services, the exorbitant costs of services, all the while the clock ticks on vital early intervention.  Historically, lack of insurance coverage for autism has left many in dire straits.

Fortunately, progress is being made on the insurance front.  In news from Oregon, an article from ¨The Huffington Post" states:

This January, Oregon entered the fray as the first state of 2011 to introduce autism insurance reform legislation with both a House and Senate version of the bill.

The article posts a link to which presents a map of the country detailing the status of legislation in each state — a fascinating overview of the national movement to get all 50 states on board.  It’s encouraging to discover that more progress has been made than one might imagine.  Twenty-three states at this time have enacted autism health care reform with only Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming having done nothing whatsoever.

On January 21st of this year, California was the next west coast state to introduce legislation to make sure autism treatment is covered by insurance.  This bill takes on the insurance companies as well, mandating that loopholes be closed so that insurers cannot impose arduous waiting periods for payments.  It also prohibits them from shifting costs to public agencies, avoiding taxpayer burden and concomitant wrath.

But even when states have enacted autism reform laws, it doesn’t mean the problems are over. is also confronting inequities in states where insurance plans aren’t required to cover autism services if they are ¨self-funded."  Assuring there is across-the-board parity is another ambition of the group.

Check out what’s happening in your state and see how far we’ve come and how far there is still to go.

Oregon and California have set good examples for the beginning of 2011. The questions remains of how many more states will follow?

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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