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Autism Hope: Video games developed by RIT helping teens with autism

April 19, 2017 05:32 PM

A Rochester pediatrician is getting attention from around the world for his research and use of bio-feedback techniques.

He has found ways to engage teens who are diagnosed with autism with video games and teach them ways to control anxiety.

Dr. Laurence Sugarman’s goal is to help individuals control their autonomic system with bio-feedback techniques. Every two weeks, he has patients come to his office at Easter Seals and get rigged up to a computer. The sensors show the patient, like Andrew Rosner, his heart rate, sweat gland activity, breathing and temperature. When it goes up, he knows he has to use bio-feedback techniques to bring them under control.

Dr. Sugarman has taught his patients control mechanisms and they are connected to video games. For example, if the patient controls his breathing, space craft will continue to fly. Or if the patient lowers his sweat gland activity, he can continue putting together a video puzzle.

Dr. Sugarman says, “To change their state and control their emotion and decrease repetitive behaviors with no medicine -- it feels pretty good."

These aren’t your ordinary video games: One is called the "Stress Destroyer" and features a superhero ready to control his emotions. The games were created by students enrolled in Gaming Development at Rochester Institute of Technology. They have been taught a lot about the Autism Spectrum through a special program through the Center for Applied Psychophysiology and Self-regulation (CAPS).

"RIT has all these innovative learning opportunities. There are ways to add technology to education. This makes it a perfect place," says Dr. Sugarman.

Combining the games and techniques really seem to help the doctors reach these teens. “It's not social. It's computer-based. It's structured. It's predictable. The lynch pin was realizing that what we could promote with this computer interaction is helping kids change their autonomic system."

Andrew’s mother, Rachel Rosner says the treatments have made a world of difference. "The amount of coping skills that he has developed are just astounding. With the science behind what Dr. Sugarman is doing, matched up with the gamers at RIT to develop a practical and fun way for teens and kids to learn these skills, it just couldn't be any better."  

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