Can video games treat autism? Helping children navigate emotions with Dr. Renae Beaumont

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Renae Beaumont, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychology at New York–Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, spoke with host Lorenzo Norris, MD, about the Secret Agent Society.

The Secret Agent Society is a video gaming–based therapy program aimed at helping children with a range of social and emotional challenges learn the social skills required to make and keep friends. The program also helps children feel happier, calmer, and braver. Dr. Beaumont disclosed her role as creator of the Secret Agent Society program. Dr. Norris has no disclosures.

Take-home points

  • The Secret Agent Society is a video gaming–based program that helps children detect how another person is feeling through the interpretation of facial expressions, body language, and vocal tone; use skills to socially engage; and to internally detect their own emotions.
  • Secret Agent Society is meant to engage children. It can be used during clinical/therapy sessions to stimulate discussion as well as at home with parents. The indicated age range is 8-12 years, and it is useful for children with autism and with average intellectual functioning.

Summary

  • The Secret Agent Society video game has four levels. Level one is about detecting emotions from facial expressions, vocal recognition, and body language. Level two is about detecting personal emotions and using scales to identify the components and range of emotions. Levels three and four are about navigating common social challenges in real time, from losing in a game to collaborating in a group project and learning calming techniques for themselves. To encourage practical application, there is a secret agent journal section where participants can chronicle how they used their skills.
  • Beaumont initially developed the game to help children who are on the autism spectrum. For many children on the spectrum, social skills are not innate, but can be taught and developed into life skills to help children meet their potential.
  • Parents might be conflicted about encouraging their children to play video games. It’s important to consider the evidence behind the game and the age and skills of the research participants. In general, parents should favor video games that teach skills, have educational context, and allow parental involvement. Now that much of social interaction is over the virtual sphere and social media, games and exercises that teach social skills over these mediums help build skills early.
  • The Secret Agent Society is meant to engage children. It can be used during a clinical/therapy to stimulate discussion and at home with parents. The game is also a helpful adjunct for psychological services offered online. The indicated age range is 8-12 years, as well as for children with autism and within average age intellectual functioning. New research is showing that the game may also be effective for children with social anxiety and ADHD.
  • Gameplay can be integrated into what a clinician is already doing, or the Social Skills Training Institute offers online training for clinicians that would be helpful when using the game to treat patients with multiple comorbidities.
  • Therapeutic gaming is useful during social distancing because it builds coping skills and helps children feel more in control of their emotions and actions.

References

Einfeld SL et al. J Intel Dev Disabil. 2018;43(1):29-39.

Sofronoff K et al. Develop Disabil. 2015 Apr 28. doi: 10.1177/1088357615583467.

Beaumont R, Sofronoff K. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2008 Jul;49(7):743-53.

Dr. Renae Beaumont’s TEDx Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQVv2hKipYQ

Secret Agent Society/Social Skills Training Institute: https://www.sst-institute.net/

Show notes by Jacqueline Posada, MD, who is associate producer of the Psychcast and consultation-liaison psychiatry fellow with the Inova Fairfax Hospital/George Washington University program in Falls Church, Va. Dr. Posada has no conflicts of interest.

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Podcast Participants

Lorenzo Norris, MD
Lorenzo Norris, MD, is host of the MDedge Psychcast, editor in chief of MDedge Psychiatry, and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, Washington. He also serves as assistant dean of student affairs at the university, and medical director of psychiatric and behavioral sciences at GWU Hospital. Dr. Lorenzo Norris has no conflicts of interest.
Renee Kohanski, MD
Renee Kohanski, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist with additional training in forensic psychiatry. She has been a board examiner for the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and she has practiced within community mental health and departments of corrections. Currently, she is the sole proprietor of RK Psychiatry Associates. She can be seen and heard as a national commentator on general issues as they may relate to psychiatry. Dr. Renee Kohanski has no conflicts of interest.