Thursday, September 15, 2011

Plants vs. Zombies as Therapy?

My kids love video games—like, REALLY LOVE video games. 

They constantly chatter about the games they like, they always want to play with their friends, and iPad time is the only thing that will motivate Jack, my son with autism, to do things he doesn't want to do.

I've spent a lot of time fighting against letting video games take over their lives. I don't let them play video games during the week, I make sure they get enough outside time, and if they have friends over, I very rarely let them turn on electronics.

I think these are good rules, but I also think that video games aren't the great demon that we sometimes think they are. There are a lot of great things that video games have done for my Jack, but I want to tell you about something that happened just this evening.

My husband was working late, so I had to take all three of my kids with me to back-to-school night. Because I'm not insane, I planned ahead by bringing video games for my kids, reserving the iPad for Jack.

I tried to pay attention to the teacher, but I couldn't help but watch Jack sitting at a desk playing Plants vs. Zombies...with a classmate. They talked to each other. Jack encouraged the other child to place plants on the screen. At one point, Jack handed the iPad to the other child so he could play.

If you are familiar with autistic children, or Jack in particular, you know that conversation, interaction, and sharing with people his own age are a huge deal. I wanted to jump up and down to celebrate. It turns out that if Jack and other kids have common ground, my kid is capable of interacting with his peers.

In fact, they were talking so much that they had to be shushed more than once, and eventually I moved them to a back corner of the room. I should repeat that: someone had to shush my kid because he was being too loud with someone else his age. I don't know if that has ever happened before. I couldn't have been happier.

It's funny what makes special needs parents happy, isn't it?

I have come to terms with video games, not just because of their therapeutic uses—and they do have them—or because my kid will do his homework if I promise him 20 minutes on his DSi, but because it gives Jack common ground with other children. It is something he can be as good at—or better than—as his classmates. It is something that Jack can be obsessed about without seeming weird to other third graders.

Would I prefer that he bond with another child over their shared love of homework? Sure. But that's not going to happen. So instead I'll sit back and enjoy his success with Plants vs. Zombies.

Stimey writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.

11 comments:

  1. I've actually had more than one therapist tell me that they think that video games are good for kids on the spectrum, for the very reasons I mention above. That said, maybe don't give your kid unlimited time on the Wii. There ARE consequences. :)

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  2. I am sure that video games help a lot children, because video games improove skills, make the babies and children to think in other ways, develop the brain, but not all the games, best games for brain are puzzles. Nice post, best regards !

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  3. Thanks, and I do agree that limiting screen time and choosing games wisely is a good idea. For my kid, it's not even a matter of which game. It's a matter of the game being a starting point for him to be able to interact with other kids. Honestly, I have never seen him talk to other kids at an evening event at the school. Ever. Watching him talk to a kid from his class was magical for me.

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  4. We've had a similar experience! In our town, there's a group of boys who meet at the library to play Roblox. They all sit in a row, with the computers creating clearly defined space boundaries, playing in the same world and calling back and forth about their strategies. It reminds me of the parallel play you see in babies at times, but has been really beneficial to G.
    In the interest of full disclosure, hubby and I are giant geeks who don't see games as evil at all. We have a 'no games until homework is done' rule, for obvious reasons, and a 'no games 1 hour before bedtime' rule because we find he sleeps better. But no other restrictions.

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  5. As soon as I saw the title, I knew you wrote it :) I'm a huge fan of my kids playing video games and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Our iPad has been life-changing. For my oldest, it tailors his specific interests and needs - whether it's World of Goo or a history exploration app or Stack the States. For my middle guy with ASD, he's learned to (finally) play a game and lose without getting frustrated. He'll just try Angry Birds or Cut the Rope or Cover Orange again. He asks me questions about how to do a level, we talk about why it works this way and not another way. And for my youngest? Apps like TallyTots and others have taught him his numbers, letter sounds and beginning reading. Could he have learned them without it? of course! But he's learning it in a fun way. No harm, no foul. It's not my babysitter, it's one more tool in our tool box of parenting.
    I will say one thing, though, and I know it's blasphemy here. I hate Mario Kart. In the time it took me to write this comment, my youngest has interrupted me 4 times asking to get his motorcycle back on the track. The spinning mushrooms and flying bananas give me heart palpitations :).

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  6. Alysia, love this! I think you hit the nail on the head with the part about it being one more tool in your parenting toolbox. Absolutely! Also, Mario Kart was better on the Nintendo 64 than on the Wii. That is what I think and I stand by it.

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  7. Definitely agree! My son (ASD, OCD) invites the neighbor kid (ADHD) over to play Spore (computer game where you create and evolve creatures) cooperatively. It is good for both of them--they have to take turns, they have to cooperate, they don't race around and whack each other with light sabers. Win-Win!! The games also turn into imaginary play (well, re-enacting play) afterwards. It is definitely reward time, but I don't see video games as the evil many make them out to be, especially for kids on the spectrum. It does give them something to talk about with other kids--Mario Kart has given him something to talk about with other kids where he wouldn't have interacted with them otherwise.
    Also, I've played Mario kart on the wii online and you would not believe how many "mom" nicknames there are. I whipped them all at rainbow road though, ha!

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  8. Lyynne and Steph, I'll have to check out those games. They sound great. And Steph, I bow my head to you—I fall off Rainbow Road every time.

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  9. And here's another thing, not only do video games give some kids the topic that they want to share with friends, it can also give them a viable career path. I had all the same worries about video games and monitored my son's play quite tightly when he was young. Over the years he started going to a summer camp that taught him about the technical side of gaming. Now he is applying to college as a game design major and will likely be a counselor at that camp next year. There were days when I wondered if college (or overnight camp!) was going to happen at alll. Now he is excited about his future and taking complete ownership of the entire process. Don't forget that there can be an upside of hyperfocus :-)

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  10. And here's another thing, not only do video games give some kids the topic that they want to share with friends, it can also give them a viable career path. I had all the same worries about video games and monitored my son's play quite tightly when he was young. Over the years he started going to a summer camp that taught him about the technical side of gaming. Now he is applying to college as a game design major and will likely be a counselor at that camp next year. There were days when I wondered if college (or overnight camp!) was going to happen at alll. Now he is excited about his future and taking complete ownership of the entire process. Don't forget that there can be an upside of hyperfocus :-)

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  11. How cool, Julie! I'm thrilled for your son! My kids plan out the video games that they want to create when they're grown-ups. I'm going to hold them to it! :)

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