Are video games good for autistic kids?

Are video games good for autistic kids? Well, yes. They are super engaging and can be relaxing, help with self-regulation, and even be educational. They can improve social function and cognitive skills such as working memory, attention and language skills. But they can also be super frustrating, leading to meltdowns. There can be transition issues, and screaming at the screen when games are too tricky.

This is a guest post.

What kind of video games are good for autistic kids?

Cosy games are great games for autistic kids for many reasons. (Check out: what is cosy gaming?).

But it’s not just the games that need to be considered. Also think about the console and HOW the game is being played.

A case for accessibility: Why older video game consoles may be more disability friendly

For the longest time my daughter desperately wanted to play video games but was frustrated within five minutes of trying. Her attempts often ended in tears. She would sit with me or her grandfather and watch us play – directing what she wanted us to do. But as soon as she tried to take the controls herself it all fell apart.

Touch screen technology

My daughter struggles to play any game that requires a separate controller. She just doesn’t have the cross body skills required to manipulate the buttons while she is looking somewhere else. Attempting to play the Xbox leads to tears and frustration every time. This is because she can’t figure out how to get her character moving. Or, she forgets to look at the character altogether because she’s distracted staring at the moving buttons on the controller. Plus the controller is huge in her little hands and stretching her fingers to reach all those buttons is a mammoth task.

The iPad is marginally better. She can just use her hands or a stylus on the screen to direct what she wants. But even that she finds heavy and the menus frustrating to navigate. Our iPad is only used under direct supervision and has nearly gotten airborne a number of times! The Nintendo Switch too is favoured for its touch screen but too heavy for her to pick up and hold.

Frustration-proof accessible gaming console

Enter the Nintendo DS (or in our case 3DS). It’s an itty bitty console, just the right size for small hands. The DS is lightweight and it does have buttons that are used in most games. The vast majority of game play for a lot of titles uses the touch screen and stylus. My daughter loves the DS because she can play it independently. Her hands can reach all the buttons without having to take her eyes away from the screen – because they’re all in the same place. The touchscreen is easy to use, but not particularly sensitive, so not too reliant on fine motor skills. My daughter has found joy in a range of games on the DS. From the virtual puppies she raises in Nintendogs, to the adventures she is able to go on in the various Disney games.

Motion control

My grandmother has retained her gross motor skills and hand eye coordination but can’t hold most controllers. Her arthritis means that fine motor skills are a thing of the past. She needs help with a lot of daily tasks. She can, however, kick all of our butts at Wii bowling. The Wii remote is not a complicated controller to hang on to. There are no hidden buttons, no wrapping your hands around awkward contours. There is just a flat stick of plastic with a handy wrist strap to lock it in place if it does slip out of your hand.

Lots of Wii games rely heavily on motion controls. Just strap the controller to your wrist, roughly grab hold of it and swing it around where you want it to go. The caveat of that is you’ll likely need to test games yourself to see if the motion controls are going to be within your child’s capabilities. Swinging a controller to launch a bowling ball down an imaginary lane is pretty straightforward. Using the same controls to fight a Zelda boss is considerably harder! But it’s an option worth considering if your child finds gross motor movements easier than fine motor.

Planned obsolescence working in our favour

Another perk of these older Nintendo consoles is the closure of the eShop for both consoles. eShops are a great way to buy more games without needing physical access to the shops that sell them. They’re also a great way for kids to rack up bills if they manage to bypass the password settings. The eShop for both the Wii and the DS has been retired. This means that older games purchased through the shop still work fine. But there is no chance of the kids accidentally purchasing in-game items and charging them to your card!

Gaming on a shoestring

This one is less disability specific – although we all know that specialist appointments and assistive technology eat into the family budget! It’s pretty universally acknowledged that video games can be an expensive hobby. Some consoles alone cost close to a thousand dollars! Older consoles are also great for another kind of accessibility: price! Games for the DS and the Wii can be purchased for as low as $1 from second hand stores. And while some collectable titles are still expensive – the vast majority of games can be obtained for a bargain price. The consoles themselves are much cheaper too – Wii consoles are sometimes priced as cheaply as $10! Both consoles are repair-friendly too. When they break it’s possible to fix them yourself instead of throwing them away. 

The lower price point can be great if your budget is stretched. It can also be great for those ever present meltdowns that gaming can cause. If your child is anything like mine, video game controllers have gone flying across the room at some point in time. When these consoles, or their controllers, inevitably get damaged or broken – they are much more affordable to replace and repair than more modern consoles.

There are plenty of other second hand consoles on the market that might be worth considering. But for us, Nintendo had an excellent range of cosy, neurodivergent friendly games – with accessibility settings that worked for our kids.

Conclusion: what video games good for autistic kids?

It’s not just the games to consider. The console that you play on also has it’s unique accessibility that needs to be considered. So think about the console when working out what video games might be best for your autistic kids.

For relaxing, educational gaming with minimal frustration, meltdowns, and risk, look or not the most popular console, but the most accessible one for you.

This is the second article in the gaming series. Check out the first post in the series: what is cosy gaming?

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