Video Game May Improve Balance in Kids with Autism

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who play a video game designed to reward them for holding various “ninja” poses could help improve their balance, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The findings are published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Children with ASD tend to struggle with balance more than non-ASD children. In addition, difficulties with balance and postural stability are often associated with more severe ASD symptoms and impaired activities in daily living.

“We think this video game-based training could be a unique way to help individuals with ASD who have challenges with their balance address these issues,” said lead author Dr. Brittany Travers, an investigator at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Waisman Center and an assistant professor of kinesiology.

The pilot study is the largest to date to examine the effects of balance training on individuals with ASD. A total of 29 children and teens with ASD aged seven to 17 completed a six-week training program playing a video game developed by the researchers.

“Players see themselves on the screen doing different ‘ninja’ poses and postures, and they are rewarded for doing those poses and postures; that’s how they advance in the game,” Travers said.

By the end of the program, the young people showed significant improvements in not only their in-game poses but also their balance and posture outside of the game environment.

According to Travers, balance improvements outside the video game context are especially important. “Our participants are incredibly clever when it comes to finding ways to beat video games!” she said.

“We wanted to make sure that the improvements we were seeing were truly balance-related and not limited to the video game.”

In addition, 10 out of 11 study participants who completed a post-game questionnaire also said they enjoyed playing the video games.

“We always aim to make the interventions fun,” said Travers. “We have couched a rigorous exercise (by the end of some gaming sessions, participants had been standing on one foot for 30 minutes) in a video game format, so we were delighted to hear that the participants enjoyed the game.”

Travers developed the video game with help from Dr. Andrea Mason, professor of kinesiology at UW-Madison, Dr. Leigh Ann Mrotek, professor of kinesiology at UW-Oshkosh and Anthony Ellertson, program director of gaming and interactive technology at Boise State University.

The game uses a Microsoft Kinect camera and a Nintendo Wii balance board connected to software developed on a Windows platform using Adobe Air.

The study also looked at individual differences that might predict who would benefit most from this type of video game-based balance training.

The researchers found that youth with certain characteristics, such as ritualistic behaviors (like the need to follow a set routine around mealtimes or bedtime) did not benefit as much from the video game as those without these behaviors. Body mass index and IQ did not appear to influence whether a participant benefited from balance training.

“There is a lot of variability in the clinical profile of ASD, and it’s unlikely that there will be a one-size-fits-all approach for balance training that helps all individuals with ASD,” Travers said.

Currently, the researchers are working to make the game more accessible to different individuals within the autism spectrum.

“We already have some features that help — the game has very little verbal instruction, which should make it more accessible to individuals who are minimally verbal,” Travers said. “Ultimately, we would like to move this video game-based training outside the lab.”

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison