Considerations for designing learning games for children with ASD

I’ve been busy writing a literature review on the use of media and technology to teach kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I am new to this field and  my thoughts are not based on classroom experience, so I welcome comments from people in the trenches. What struck me as I finished the paper was the importance of always questioning your assumptions, particularly as I read some of the earlier papers on autism. I thought I’d share some of my research on emerging technologies; the link to the complete paper is at the end of the article.

Emerging technologies as platforms for learning games

Emerging technologies create opportunities to expand the use of computer interfaces to create novel educational games for children with ASD. Platforms to consider include mobile devices, natural user interfaces (reliant on touch and gesture to display three-dimensional images) and robotics.

Increasingly, computer games are mediated via iPods and smartphones or tablet devices. One of the advantages of tablet devices, besides allowing users to use touch and gestures to get rapid device feedback, is the potential to use the device to engage more than one user at a time in a social way. A particularly sophisticated example of such a device was used by Gal et al. (2009).

Gal et al. adapted the MERL DiamondTouch table, which includes a multi-user, touch-and-gesture-activated screen, to display story scenarios to high-functioning children with ASD. The children were able to participate in the creation of their own stories using the interface to manipulate objects and characters using gestures. Study participants displayed a reduced number of autistic behaviors (a decrease in the number of repetitive movements) and an increase in social interactions (e.g., responding to other children, proposing actions, and expressing interest in others). The authors hypothesize that the system is effective because it “presents an environment that is stimulating to the child, but also helps him block distractions; an environment that enforces collaboration, but also enables individual work” (Gal et al., p.81).

The video below doesn’t show the Merl DiamondTouch table adapted for this study, but it gives you a feel for what the interface can do.

Robots also have been explored as different sort of computer interface for mediating learning interactions in a playful way. Studies have shown that children with ASD may find robots to be suitable interaction partners even when they don’t have human features. In one study reporting the development of a prototype, robots shaped like trucks included motion detectors and bumper switches, allowing them to reverse on contact (Graham-Rowe, 2002). The robots could thus engage in play games resembling tag and follow-the-leader. Additionally, the robots were designed to include a point resembling eyes and could help children learn to maintain eye contact because they would have to face the robot in order for it to sense their movements (Graham-Rowe).

Backarova, Gillessen, and Feijis (2009) demonstrated that 12 children with ASD were willing to play with robotic objects, even when their representations were quite abstract, i.e., in the form of block-like elements that displayed different colored lights in a proximity-dependent manner. Creating a building or other structure from the blocks would create a pleasingly lit construction. The researchers propose using these robotic objects as mediators of shared play (Backarova et al.).

Other investigators have looked at more humanoid robotic constructions. In one study, the robot model was configured to resemble a doll and included sensors and motors allowing it to move, sense motions, and recognize gestures and respond to them (Dautenhahn, 2003). A potential use of the robot is to allow children to play games requiring eye contact, imitation, and taking turns. The robot was used in preliminary studies with five children with ASD to establish that they were not afraid of them, were motivated to play with the robot, and were not distressed when the robot did not act in a completely predictable manner (Dautenhahn). While these studies have not demonstrated the learning effectiveness of these robots, they do point out that children with ASD may be receptive to using play objects that are not completely representational or predictable in learning games.

Wii technology is another new technology that offers the potential to create learning games for children with ASD. Wii games are essentially video systems with a wireless motion-sensitive remote control that allows users to point to a screen and interact with the game. Wii consoles generally provide internet access that allows players to further personalize their experience. Wii is being used in K12 classrooms to teach a variety of subjects (reviewed in Maldonado, 2010). Maldonado proposes that Wii devices are “a good fit for children with cognitive disabilities and autism, because the experiences with the game have hierarchical levels. Players are directed through game situations that include challenges and problems to solve before moving to the next level” (Maldonado, p.285). As interfaces, Wii devices offer the possibility of enhanced immersion in a game world for both play and learning.

Although I didn’t find published research evaluating the use of Microsoft Kinect for children with ASD, I think this is another technology that might have promise. This NUI is designed to be part of a video game platform  that enables users to interact with the Xbox 36o via a webcam-like add-on using gestures, speech, and presented objects. A video demonstrating an implementation of the product is shown below.

My conclusions

Studies suggest that computer-assisted instruction (CAI) incorporating multimedia elements, and particularly, visually-rich elements, can be used to engage and effectively teach children with ASD. Further, work on CAI and computer-based games indicate that metaphors and stories can be made part of successful instruction and can engage children with ASD  in role-playing activities to model problem-solving and social skills.

When designing interfaces for learning games, developers should 1) not assume that children with ASD have the same preferences as typically-developing children or 2) that ASD children are a “type,” with rigidly defined characteristics. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that while affected individuals show may show common learning challenges and strengths, they will do so to varying, unique degrees.

A range of strategies will be required to create effective learning games to reach children at different parts of the autism spectrum. Games that allow users to personalize their experiences, control sensory preferences (e.g., color and sounds), explore immersive environments, and develop social interactions, are ideals, grounded by the realities of accessibility and cost factors. In particular, research is needed to determine the best combinations of media and interface elements that facilitate learning in different populations of children with ASD. Currently, there is very little understanding of cognitive load when multiple media types are combined. The use of emerging technologies requires further exploration to consider best practices for teaching children with ASD, while being mindful that the children themselves are important sources of feedback on what is both motivating and effective.

The complete article is here.


Barakova, E., Gillessen, J., & Feijis, L. (2009). Social training of autistic children with interactive intelligent agents. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, 8(1), 23-34.

Dautenhahn, K. (2003). Roles and functions of robots in human society: Implications from research in autism therapy. Robotica, 21, 443-452.

Gal, E., Bauminger, N., Goren-Bar, D., Pianesi, F., Stock, O., Zancanaro, M., & et al. (2009). Enhancing social communication of children with high-functioning autism through a co-located interface. Artificial Intelligence and Society, 24(1), 75-84.

Graham-Rowe, D. (2002). My best friend’s a robot. New Scientist, 176, 30-33.

Maldonado, N. (2010). Wii: an innovative learning tool in the classroom. Childhood Education, 86(4), 284-285.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s