Could a Video Game Help Autistic Children?

August 28, 2013
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Originally published on MedCityNews.com.

That gray feline avatar — that’s Shadow Cat. He’s a virtual comic book character that an early-stage Cleveland startup is turning into a tool to improve cognitive training, performance data collection and research for autism spectrum disorders.

Originally published on MedCityNews.com.

That gray feline avatar — that’s Shadow Cat. He’s a virtual comic book character that an early-stage Cleveland startup is turning into a tool to improve cognitive training, performance data collection and research for autism spectrum disorders.

Tamar Medina and a pair of co-founders started J-LYNN Entertainment in 2011 to commercialize what they call video game comic books. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, the idea of the game is that the user controls a character in a video game that’s structured in frames, like a comic book. The player guides the character through a series of tasks and decisions, where each outcome or decision changes the next step of the game, and kids collect achievement points along the way.

Originally, the idea was to create the games as an educational and entertainment product. But when Medina and his partners began attending comic book conventions to test their audience, they were approached by parents and teachers who mentioned that the video game comics would be great for children with autism and ADHD.

Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by communication and social-interaction difficulties, so the interactive nature of the game would help kids develop social and decision-making skills, they said. “You can tell what’s going on in the comic without actually reading it, so it allows kids to associate words with pictures and actions,” Medina explained.

The team took the idea back to Cleveland, where Medina said not many people are investing in entertainment or media, and began exploring the idea of a product more geared toward the health market — a more favorable market among local investors.  Simultaneously, they heard about an NIH grant that fit almost exactly with the new idea.

Researchers have actually been studying the potential of computer-based programs as an intervention for children with special needs for decades, and sites like Whiz Kid Games, Aven’s Corner and FaceSay host free computer games designed for them. That, however, comes against a backdrop of research suggesting that children with an autism spectrum disorder are more likely to become addicted to games than children without disabilities.

So Medina began to send his pitch for comic book video games to autism researchers across the country. Over the course of a few months, he recruited an advisory board that includes Dr. Thomas Frazier, director of the Center for Autism at Cleveland Clinic; Howard Shane at Boston Children’s Hospital; Kevin Kearns at SUNY Fredonia and Kate Vanderplough, founder of Autism Services for Kids in Cleveland. They are each lending their expertise to various components of the game, including game mechanics, reading comprehension, social skills and visual communications.

Medina imagines the game eventually being used not only as a way to entertain and teach kids but as a way for parents and therapists to monitor kids’ conditions. Developers are building out a back-end data component for parents and therapists to track a child’s performance. “If there’s one panel he spends four minutes on instead of 30 seconds one, they might be able to deduce certain things based on whether it was a reading comprehension panel, or a complicated subject matter or whether certain images triggered an emotional reaction,” Medina said.

To get the product into the hands of the right people, and to get them to pay for it, Medina said the team is leaning toward targeting both consumers and clinics with a prescription-based model, where providers would subscribe to a premium product to manage the data component of it.

“Since we’re putting a new approach to software, we need scientific data and testing,” Medina said. For now, the team is trying to get that through grants. Once early testing is complete, they’ll look for investors.

“The great thing about this is it could be expanded beyond autism,” Medina said. “I’m starting to believe that the product is better for autism than for the original entertainment we made it for, but it’s also scalable in entertainment.”