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Gaming on the Autism Spectrum

Why is gaming so appealing to people with autism?

Some studies suggest that autistic adolescents spend more than 40 percent of their free time gaming, as compared to 18 percent of their neurotypical peers.

Researchers at the University of Missouri ran a really interesting study about the perspective of autistic gamers between 17 and 25 years of age. They identified some characteristics of video games that are particularly appealing to the autistic mindset:

  • it’s a visually-stimulating virtual environment
  • games are highly imaginative, but with a well-defined structure
  • video games provide clear visual and auditory clues
  • video games give clearly-defined expectations and repetitive reinforcement
  • games are more predictable and controllable than the real world

Of course, parents and educators often worry that they are spending too much time gaming. And for some, if allowed to stay isolated and their only interaction with others is via an online platform, then it is definitely a concern and can lead to other mental health issues.

BUT there are clear benefits to gaming that can counterbalance any negatives, if encouraged and monitored.

Most autistic people struggle with loneliness and a sense of isolation. But in a 2017 study conducted at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, researchers studying the issue of found that those who played online games had more friends than those who do not. And those that are able to make some sort of friendships at school tend to lose them once they leave school.

Therapists who work with nonverbal kids on the autism spectrum often tap into their love of video games to explore alternative means of communications. They often struggle to talk with neurotypical peers but can be motivated to speak up online with others who share their passion for gaming.


Sadly, an estimated 85 percent of autistic college graduates are unemployed. (This is an US study but the results are similar in Australia.) Since their intellectual abilities can range as widely as their neurotypical peers, this staggering statistic is not the result of ability, but rather opportunity, misconception, and communication difficulties.

Companies like Microsoft, SAP, and Ford Motor Company are championing efforts to increase employment in the autistic community with specific hiring programs, as are various Federal Departments in Canberra, but the fact remains: most adults on the spectrum will have to find their own employment in a world that doesn’t understand them. But an interest in gaming can spur some to pursue a dream job.

Gaming the helps

Adapting to the neurotypical world can be challenging for adults on the spectrum – especially since most services and support for autism are only available for children. By asking autistic adults what they love about gaming, researchers hope to inspire developers to create useful tools in the form of games, apps, and programs that are appealing to gamers on the spectrum. Support of this kind is sadly lacking. Perhaps more support for autistic adults can ultimately be found in virtual and augmented reality technologies, an industry that Goldman Sachs projects to be worth more than $80 billion by 2025.

The joy of gaming

With autism, most milestones are achieved one hard-fought inch at a time. As with any minority group, autistic people often survive and thrive by being persistent and courageous in the face of constant obstacles.

Maybe your son’s love of gaming could lead him to a career in 3D architectural drafting, or he will continue to play Minecraft or Nintendo and watch weird and wonderful YouTube videos, hoping to make his own channel a success someday.

What we do know that the joy of gaming is evident when our guys get together at Ignition Gamers. As an NDIS Social Activity, we try to bring everything that this article has talked about into the group:

  • Lowering anxiety by providing a predictable and controllable game
  • Encouraging communication and friendship with real people
  • A no judgement environment
  • Developing the capacities necessary to work in teams can be demonstrated to potential employers
  • Having fun and laughter
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