Game Can Improve Physical & Mental Fitness in Autism

New research suggests playing a specialized game can help to improve physical and mental fitness among children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers from the occupational therapy and rehabilitation departments at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston determined the use of exergaming, more specifically the Makoto arena, has the potential to serve as a valuable addition to therapies for children with autism spectrum disorders who have motor and executive function impairments.

Executive function is associated with higher levels of intelligence involved with planning and organize. It is used to redirect higher thinking when changing plans and suppressing inappropriate behaviors. Executive function is important for being able to live independently as adults.

“We think that the exertion of participating in this type of game helps to improve the neural connections in the brains of these children,” said Dr. Claudia Hilton, an associate professor.

Researchers worked with 17 subjects with an autism diagnosis over 30 sessions for over 1,800 total attempts to hit the targets. They found children improved in response speed, executive function and motor skills among children with ASD.

Researcher explain that children with ASD often experience executive function and motor impairments. They also experience lower rates of physical activity than children without ASD. As they get older, their physical activity declines and they deal with obesity problems more than other children.

As a way to combat a lack of physical activity, researchers investigated the use of the Makoto arena, a triangular shaped arena with pillars at each point, each with lights and sounds at various levels of the pillars. Those playing the game must hit the correct spots as they light up on different pillars.

The study used 17 school-aged children and adolescents with ASD in two-minute sessions in the Makoto arena. The speed of the game increased when the participants reached 95 percent accuracy. Subjects competed in the Makoto arena an average six sessions per week.

The study saw significant improvements across several physical and mental areas, including response speed. All areas of executive function improved, especially working memory. Motor ability also improved, especially in the areas of strength and agility.

“It is difficult to get children with autism to participate in physically exerting activities,” Hilton said. “So finding an activity like the Makoto arena that they will actually do over an extended period like this is very exciting.”

The study is published in The International Journal for Sports and Exercise Medicine.

Source: University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston