Creative mode: Can playing Minecraft help autistic kids build social skills?

New research is investigating whether the popular video game Minecraft can provide an accessible platform for children with autism to build their social collaboration skills and friendships.

University of Adelaide speech pathologist and researcher, Dr Abi Thirumanickam is piloting the use of the game as an accessible tool for helping children with autism develop their social collaboration skills.

She is currently analysing the results of the trial using the game as an accessible intervention for children to use at home to continue to practice those skills.

Research shows one of the biggest challenges children with autism face is making friends and maintaining friendships, Thirumanickam says.

Game-based interventions are an emerging area of research. 

“You can use video games to actually teach skills, and then see how that translates to real world. Because here you have a simulated environment. So, it’s a safer space to learn and make mistakes, and just try it out,” she says.

But instead of using something expensive and custom-made, Thirumanickam says she wanted to trial using a mainstream video game, something more readily available for children and parents.

Minecraft was chosen as virtual platform. The top selling video game is played by more than 230 million people globally. It’s a ‘sandbox game’ that offers open-ended options for play, promoting creativity and the flexibility for children to engage with game and their peers in different ways.

In the game, players can choose ‘creative mode’ which allows them to explore, create and destroy structures with few threats, or the more challenging ‘survival mode’.

“So the kids who did not want to fight and be in a survival mode […] they could be doing things in the creative mode,” Thirumanickam says. 

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The game has the added benefit of being popular among both neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals.

“Hopefully at some point, we can create a nice platform for everybody to play together, to be more inclusive,” Thirumanickam says.

It also helped that Minecraft was already being used in schools as an educational tool, an aspect which gave parents greater comfort.

“If we have all these games that are available, that are motivating, and engaging for kids – not just autistic kids, but everyone, a neurodiverse group of people – then can we use what’s available out there to create interventions, to use that as a platform,” she says.

If a video game like Minecraft can be used in therapy and provide the same benefits, it means children and their parents can continue to practice those skills at home.

The pilot study included eleven children, aged 10 to 12, working in small groups and their families. All children had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, and all of them were able to use speech for communication, she says.

“We targeted 10 to 12 years, because that we find that the early intervention gets a lot of attention and support. But then the middle school seems to get a bit forgotten.” In adolescence peer relationships become quite important so creating opportunities to develop friendship skills in this pre-teen age group will be useful.

Thirumanickam says the study compares using different approaches, some groups played together in a face-to-face setting, others played and interacted only virtually. 

The study also compares intensity, some children came together once a week over six weeks, whereas others worked more intensively during the school holidays.

The aim was for children to build on their social collaboration skills while playing the game.

Thirumanickam says in developing and implementing the research she was able to consult an advisory group of autistic adults or adolescents who played Minecraft as well as parents of autistic children. 

She says those perspectives could help guide what ideas and strategies might work to help ensure the intervention was more likely to be meaningful and feasible.

Read more:

Everyone can see themselves and have fun: the case for inclusive video games

Watch more:

Cosmos Science City brought together four people working in video games, including Thirumanickam. You can watch the whole conversation here.

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