Video Games May Enhance Motor Skills in Autistic Children

Results from a pilot study showed that a specific exercise-based video game kept autistic children engaged better than other interventions and promoted motor skills, movement, and physical activity.

Though the DSM-5 does not include motor skill deficits as a diagnostic criterion for autism, research shows that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have significant delays in both fine and gross motor skills compared to neurotypical kids.

For example, a 2021 study published in Autism Research found that children with ASD were 22 times more at risk for motor impairment than non-autistic children.

Now, the study's author, Anjana Bhat, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Delaware's (UD) College of Health Sciences, is investigating motor skill interventions in autistic kids at UD's Move 2 Learn Innovation Lab.

The research, funded by the Maggie E. Neumann Health Sciences Research Fund, has found that video games, specifically Ring Fit for Nintendo Switch, may help autistic children improve physical movement and gain other critical skills.

"Children love video games, and they're fun," Bhat said in a UD press release. "But there's also a lot of evidence that video games with an exercise component have positive effects on cognition, social interactions, and general physical activity levels."

According to Bhat, exergaming, which is classified as a fitness game, has been studied in older people and neurotypical children but not in autistic individuals. In this study, the team tested the Ring Fit-based intervention on 12 autistic children for 8 weeks. They found it increased the participants' motor functioning, movement, and physical activity levels.

The team suggests that the video exergame intervention may be more effective for boosting motor skills than other movement activities, such as yoga and outdoor play because it helps keep autistic children engaged. Moreover, children can participate in exergaming interventions with a partner, which may promote social skills and cognitive functions like decision-making.

Bhat says another advantage of this video game-based intervention is that a child can utilize it in more sensory-friendly environments. In addition, playing the game can help a child with ASD make friends and acquire a sense of connection to the community.

"This is one place where children with autism shine. Their visual learning and sensory enhancements help them excel. This gives them a sense of self-efficacy and self-assurance that — they're good at this," Bhat said.

Due to the promising results of the pilot study, the research team plans to test the Ring Fit-based intervention in a community-wide investigation.

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