A video game could improve the health of children with autism

News / Children’s Health / Research
By Mary Anne Beaudette

Research study will test new “exergaming” system that encourages fitness and friendship

A group of local families is helping a Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) and Queen’s University research team study the effectiveness of a novel “exergaming” program – a technology that combines fitness and video gaming – to help improve physical activity and health in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Led by Dawa Samdup, a clinician-scientist with the KGH Research Institute and co-investigator Nick Graham, professor of computing at Queen’s, the study involves children aged 9-12, playing specially-designed “exergames” which use a recumbent bicycle fitted with a tablet computer and gaming controller. For 45 minutes per day, three days a week for six weeks, participants will play at the same time from their own homes, and their usage of the system will be monitored in real-time by the research team.

“We originally developed this system, and a suite of exergames called Liberi, to promote better cardiovascular fitness in children with cerebral palsy, whose motor skills may have prevented them from operating commercially available exergames,” says Dr. Graham of the EQUIS Lab in the School of Computing. “With this technology, players pedal to power an avatar, and the pedal-power necessary to propel a player’s avatar in the game is customized for each of their own physical abilities.”

A sensor in the bicycle relays pedaling speed information to a computer, which also captures heart rate information via an arm-mounted monitor. The research team then assesses the children before and after exergaming using the collected data. This data will then be used to design a larger study looking at exergaming and physical fitness in children with ASD who can experience similar motor challenges to children living with cerebral palsy.

“Children with ASD face numerous barriers to engaging in physical activity,” says Dr. Samdup, of the KidsInclusive Centre for Child & Youth Development at KHSC’s Hotel Dieu Hospital site. “Many have poor motor skills, and sensory and social impairments that lead to avoidance of team-based sports or other physical activity. Food choices, medications, and low levels of physical activity put children with ASD at risk of unhealthy weight. We know that there are higher rates of overweight and obesity in this population, yet there’s a surprising lack of proven strategies for promoting exercise and fitness in children with autism.”

Children and families involved in this study will have the opportunity to make suggestions about how the games could be improved, as well as provide feedback as to how the project could be designed into a larger study, or even an innovative rehabilitation program for children with ASD that could be offered in schools, homes, and in clinics.

“These are tech-savvy kids, and these games enable them to get active while enjoying themselves,” says Dr. Samdup. “It also gives them the option of playing with others, which helps them to find buddies and build social skills with peers with similar interests. It’s a perfect fit.”

The $44,000 pilot study is being funded by the Southeastern Ontario Medical Association (SEAMO) Innovation Fund.