How a Video Game Could Help Children with Autism

Samara Rosenfeld
JANUARY 07, 2019
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A new digital treatment called Project: EVO, designed by prescription digital medicine company Akili Interactive, could help children with autism spectrum disorder and co-occurring attention/deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to a study by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
 
Researchers found that children adhered to the treatment protocol by engaging with the digital therapeutic video game, which required them to steer a hovercraft and perform other tasks, for 95 percent or more of the recommended treatment sessions. The multitasking treatment may improve cognitive control.
 
“Our study showed that children engaged with the Project: EVO treatment for the recommended amount of time, and that parents and children reported high rates of satisfaction with the treatment,” said Benjamin Yerys, Ph.D., a child psychologist at CHOP’s Center for Autism Research.

>> READ: Mobile Machine-Learning Program Predicts Autism with High Accuracy
 
After using Project: EVO, children also showed a trend toward improved attention on the Test of Variables of Attention score and showed general ADHD symptom improvement, based on parent reports.
 
The study consisted of 19 participants between the ages of nine and 13 who had a nonverbal IQ of at least 70, a verbal mental age equivalent of at least eight years, low performance on the Test of Variables of Attention and an expert-confirmed diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.
 
Of the 19 children enrolled, 11 were given the app-based Project: EVO treatment, which was delivered through an action video game experience. Eight of the children completed an alternative, educational treatment involving pattern recognition.
 
Project: EVO’s multitasking intervention required the children to rapidly switch between an attention/memory task and a continuous visuomotor driving task. The child would tap the iPad screen for a target animal from three possible options and then need to steer a hovercraft down a river. Each session had five, 5-minute runs where the children would complete the two tasks simultaneously.
 
The treatment’s algorithm integrated real-time and between-session data to automatically optimize the treatment to meet the specific needs of each child.
 
The educational intervention required the participants to generate words from an array of letters. Children were rewarded for generating longer words. Each session lasted 25 minutes.
 
According to measures of acceptability, many of the participants believed the two treatments could improve their attention. In the multitasking group, 72.7 percent of the group reported yes or unsure, compared to 62.5 percent of the educational group.
 
As many as half of children with autism spectrum disorder have ADHD symptoms, but ADHD medications are less effective in children with both disorders. Additionally, children with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD are at high risk for impaired cognitive function.
 
“This multitasking treatment is feasible, acceptable and possibly efficacious for cognitive control impairments in children with (autism spectrum disorder) and ADHD,” the authors wrote.
 
The team is planning a larger, follow-up studied to continue evaluating Project: EVO’s potential efficacy.
 
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