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Judo for Tech Isolation? Game for autism benefits social communication

One of the unfortunate aspects of playing video games is that they often lead to isolation and irritability, especially in kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). What if there was a game that combines the allure of gaming and leverages – without demanding – that the energy be directed towards better social interaction and communication? One such game is here, and it may revolutionize the use of games for ASD. A new paper in TACCESS from researchers at University of California, Irvine looked at how Zody’s World: The Clock Catastrophe, an iPad game, can promote social interaction among children with autism spectrum disorder.

Embedding intervention into gaming:

The Zody game embeds principles of an evidence-based approach to moderating the impact of autism spectrum disorder – Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship based (DIR) intervention – into multiple aspects of game play.  The developers at SymPlay LLC have solid bona-fides in neurobehavioral medicine, motor function, technology, and game development, as well as personal experience with family members on the spectrum. They know what works and why it matters. Players are drawn into the story, a G-rated quest to help a quirky professor find the lost parts to his invention. As events unfold, players are required to collaborate and communicate to solve a variety of strategy and social problems. This is a far cry from the usual online distance diversions that can sometimes suck people in and rev them up. Players become engaged and excited, but the level of intensity is modulated by the pacing and collaborative nature of the game. Each player needs to keep both hands on the same iPad device, so they truly need cooperation and a team strategy to be successful. One moment they might be cooling down a dragon with ice balls; the next deciding how to soothe its injuries without getting fried.

Far beyond expectations:

The game was designed for parents and kids engage in an enjoyable and well-regulated flow of back and forth activity to give the child experience and practice with social communication. Taking the concept even further, the UCI research team gave the game to pairs of kids on the autism spectrum without adult involvement. The results are truly promising: when playing the Zody game, the pairs of kids did as well in collaborative play turn taking as kids playing with Legos.  But there was much more: during the Zody play they not only took turns but also had a clear sense of shared fun, with congratulatory high fives and synchronized/coordinated interactions. During Zody play, players were more likely to trade roles as opposed to Lego play where they tended to fix ‘supplier’ and ‘builder’ roles.  Some pairs had carryover of better interaction into other activities; this is the true hope of the team at SymPlay.

A Paradigm shift in the gaming industry:

More and more games today offer collaborative game dynamics, and there is a budding research literature on the topic. But this is the first game that shows how the rapidly growing field of developmental relationship based intervention can be leveraged into game design in order to help children with ASD develop their ability to relate and communicate – all while having a lot of fun.  Electronic games and devices are part of our everyday reality. Zody opens a world where gaming and computing can support human communities rather than isolate or even addict individuals.  It’s played well so far at conferences and community events; SymPlay hopes to see more research to spur development and refinement of these ideas.

About SymPlay

SymPlay is a technology company specializing in the creation of family-friendly games and technologies and in active, collaborative research into evidence-based approaches to treatment for autism spectrum individuals. Contact Information: Bruce Brownstein —

Joshua Feder, M.D. Dr. Feder's Blog

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