Today, April 2nd, is World Autism Awareness Day, meant to kick off April, overall considered to be Autism Awareness Month. This is an important day for me, because I have Asperger’s Syndrome, an ASD condition essentially amounting to high-functioning autism. This didn’t make growing up very easy, but it did lead to me discovering one of the greatest passions I’ve ever had, and that’s video games.

From a young age, video games have helped me cope in ways that the school system and autism specialists could never do for me. They taught me the learning skills I couldn’t grasp in a normal classroom. They gave me a more simplified and understandable way to learn how to interact with people and the environment. Most importantly, they put me in situations where I could see a fantastical world through the eyes of some amazing hero, which helped me learn that being different is ok. I may never be normal, but if I learned how to unlock my potential, I had the chance to be something better than normal; Extraordinary!

I’m still struggling, on a daily basis, but video games ironically ended up becoming my window into the real world. Through them, I discovered my talent for writing and social interaction, and thanks to my new writing job at eggplante, I’ve found an amazing new way to combine my love of writing and gaming together! Thus, to observe World Autism Awareness Day, I thought I’d take some time to shine a spotlight on some of the games and game properties that helped me along as I got older, and even into adulthood. Many families have kids struggling with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome these days, and as I do, many of those kids have come to see video games as a safe environment to learn and express themselves in a way that classrooms can’t quite pull off for them.

Of course, like any activity, kids can often learn best when their parents, or even their older siblings, are there to help them along. There’s a lot of family-friendly game franchises out there that are great learning tools for kids struggling with autism of all kinds, and they can be very useful to help spur the development of these kids, as they did for me. In no specific order, here are ten examples of games that are great for kids and families dealing with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome, all of which are easily enjoyed with more than one person, and all of which are reasonably family-friendly. A couple of these examples are geared more towards older tweens and teenagers, but they certainly shouldn’t be excluded, since struggling with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome is a lifelong thing, after all. They’re still great to play with parents and other close family members, and they’re still awesome learning tools! Without further ado though, let’s get started!

1) Mario

MarioYes, this series is quite a predictable pick, since Mario seems to address any and every possible need a gamer may have. Mario games come in many varieties, but I’m mainly talking about the mainline platformers here, which are fantastic for kids and adults alike, and can be easily enjoyed in a group setting.

Many kids with Asperger’s and ASD struggle with motor skills, which means that they can sometimes have trouble navigating environments around them, if they’re not familiar with the landscape. Mario games are excellent for teaching these kids how to understand and navigate a foreign setting. They give players various unpredictable environments, but also a very simple set of mechanics, since much of a Mario game simply amounts to running and jumping, and occasionally swimming. By playing Mario as a kid, I didn’t feel so helpless when I was faced with an environment I didn’t understand. I also developed my dexterity and reflexes by playing the game, which led to me generally feeling less clumsy in my childhood life as well.

Another great element of Mario however is that it’s an excellent teacher for dealing with stress. Stress can be very damaging to people struggling with Asperger’s and ASD, especially at a young age. Mario games teach kids how to adapt and manage obstacles at a friendly pace, putting them in a simple setting where they can learn basic problem solving, and get a palpable reward for their success, something that’s all the more appreciated when a parent can enjoy the result with them, made all the more easy by the modern Mario games’ co-op elements on Wii and Wii U.

2) The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of ZeldaWhere there’s smoke, there’s fire! Just as Mario serves as an equally effective teaching tool and entertainment experience, so too does Nintendo’s other powerhouse franchise! The Legend of Zelda unleashes players on a wide world that they can explore at their leisure for the most part. As they proceed the game, they’ll unlock new ways to explore, which is often the reward for defeating enemies and solving puzzles.

Where Zelda excels as a teaching tool, is in how it teaches kids with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome how to interact with things, as well as people. We may take for granted that series hero, Link is a silent protagonist, but this helps to teach these kids how to listen, not just focusing on their own thoughts, but taking in the thoughts of another person as well. The rewarding environments and puzzles also encourage critical thinking and problem-solving, but at a child’s own pace too. Like Mario, the rewards for success are palpable and exciting, and while the Zelda series may still lack the co-op elements of Mario, it’s still easy for parents to take part in the adventure from the background, contributing ideas and keeping notes.

The adventuring elements of Zelda encourage the thrill of discovery, which will motivate kids with ASD and Asperger’s not to stay in their own shells all the time. They’ll have a heightened desire to talk to people, see the world, and take things in beyond their own bubble of existence. My parents would like to think that they were the ones that got me out of my shell, but I’m pretty sure I mostly have Zelda to thank for that!

3) Portal

portalPortal is a series aimed more at tweens upward, but once your child with ASD or Asperger’s starts approaching puberty, it’s a good game series to have on standby. It can be very overwhelming for these kids as their bodies and minds start developing and becoming especially powerful. Their brains will suddenly have trouble managing even everyday inputs, which can lead to severe issues with stress and anxiety.

Fortunately, not only does Portal provide an outstanding example of comedy done right, helping these kids appreciate and enjoy more advanced emotional response to stimuli, but it also provides a friendly and rewarding way to help learn about abstract thinking. Players are tasked with learning how to, ‘think with portals’, adapting to the game’s bizarre, yet logical sense of rules, and practicing critical thinking and creativity to solve a variety of ‘experiments‘, essentially puzzles. The rules are simple, but the gameplay is highly advanced, albeit also highly rewarding. As players solve the array of strange challenges laid out before them by a rogue A.I., they’ll learn different ways of looking at a problem, and how to think outside the box to find a solution.

Some of the puzzles in Portal can be tricky, but, once again, it’s easy for parents to enjoy the game with their kids, contributing ideas and finding solutions together. The second game even features a superb co-op mode that demands precision teamwork, and is perfect for both family and friends together! When it comes time to take a kid with Asperger’s and ASD’s thinking further, Portal is definitely the way to do it!

4) Final Fantasy

Final FantasyAnother example more for tweens and teens, Final Fantasy is a series of role-playing games that often play with abstract ideas of emotion and philosophy. Through these games, players can inhabit the role of an unlikely hero in an extraordinary world, placed in a grand adventure where the fate of said world hangs in the balance.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many skills I picked up from Final Fantasy games! These games taught me about advanced human interaction, including the understanding of humour, more complex emotions, and even love, while also giving me rewarding ways to learn skills like budgeting, sharing, delegating, and the value of working for a reward, even if it takes a fair bit of ‘grinding’, as it were.

While many role-playing games can teach these same skills to a pretty considerable degree, Final Fantasy has remained a consistently reliable brand to this effect. The mainline games are the best ones for the most part, but they’re another way for growing tweens and teens with Asperger’s and ASD to grasp some social and living skills that the school system glosses over a bit more than they should, giving them more of an advantage they otherwise wouldn’t have as they enter their high school years.

5) LEGO

legocity3ds_610Yes, just a LEGO play set is great too, but I’m talking about the various licensed LEGO games by TT Games. These games offer a fun new take on various popular franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Batman, among others, but they also have something even more noteworthy; A very user-friendly co-op mechanic! This makes them the perfect games for kids to enjoy with their parents, and might also serve as a great introduction for parents sharing a brand that they love with their children, in a way that’s easier for said child to grasp.

The advantages of these games for kids struggling with ASD and Asperger’s should be obvious. They teach kids how to co-operate with somebody else, working as a team, and how to properly rely on someone when they’re faced with a problem they can’t solve by themselves. Many of these kids will start coming off as self-absorbed because they’ve constantly been isolated from their peers. The LEGO games are a good way to show them the benefits of providing and receiving assistance from another person, and how to work as a team for a mutual victory. You often literally build your own paths to success, and once again, the rewards are very noticeable, as you continually unlock new characters and such to play with for your successes.

The other great thing about the LEGO titles is that they’re available on every gaming platform under the sun too! Whether you play on PC, Nintendo, PlayStation or Xbox platforms, you have plenty of LEGO titles available to you! They’re simple, reliable, and provide a friendly alternative to the sometimes hostile kids on the hockey team!

6) Pokemon

PokemonHere’s another predictable entry. Again though, I can’t begin to tell you the amount of skills I learned from Pokemon games! These are yet more games that parents can easily enjoy with their children, since they’re often available in multiple versions that each have unique monsters to collect. Like Final Fantasy, they teach the rewards of dedication and effort, as well as leadership skills and strategy.

Something Pokemon games teach especially well are co-ordination and preparation as well. You need to raise a balanced team of monsters with care and devotion if you want to get anywhere in these games, and if you plan on completing your pokedex notes, you’ll also need to trade those monsters with your peers. Like the LEGO games, you’ll need someone else’s help to ‘catch ‘em all’. It’s also important to trade tips and strategies orally with other players in the pursuit of perfecting your pokemon training skills, which encourages kids with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome to interact and bond with other kids, as well as developing a give-and-take philosophy from the trading and strategizing that will make it easier for them to formulate a romantic relationship later in their lives as well.

I’ve gotten a reputation for being something of a romantic genius, and, as odd as it sounds, I have Pokemon to thank for getting me there, since it’s the ultimate incentive for a kid to socialize and develop interpersonal connections, both at home, and at school!

7) Professor Layton

professor_layton_and_the_miracle_mask_european_box_artWhile this series is a massive hit in Japan and Europe, it’s a bit lesser-known in North America. Still, the DS and 3DS have enjoyed various Professor Layton adventures for years now, loaded to the brim with charm, and putting players to the test with their heaps of brainteasers! In every game, you take control of the titular Professor Layton, a professor of archaeology with a panache for puzzle-solving, who is often tasked with solving Sherlock Holmes-style mysteries in various fictional European locations.

As kids explore and navigate the touch-controlled environments, they’ll often be handed puzzles by both the population and various hidden locations. These range from math problems to logic conundrums to mazes to all sorts of other things. Solving the varied puzzles is necessary to open new paths and help piece together the mystery, and it can be immensely satisfying to solve a tough puzzle that you’ve spent quite a bit of time stumped on!

The Professor Layton games can be challenging, but they’re also very fair and user-friendly. Players can spend Hint Coins when they’re stuck to get a nod to a solution, and none of the puzzles are timed, allowing players to carefully think a problem through at their own pace. This will obviously allow kids with Asperger’s and ASD to learn from their parents how to approach all different kinds of puzzles and problems, equipping them valuable mental tools to solve them if they find similar tasks presented with them in school, or even daily living. The friendliness of the series will help them to develop and train their brains, as well as appreciating how smart they can be when they really set their minds to it! When children solve the puzzles, and ultimately the mystery, they’ll feel a sense of satisfaction that will help lead them to greater academic confidence, as well as more trust in their own thought processes, which can make school much easier to deal with!

8) Ace Attorney

Ace AttorneyThis is another franchise more geared towards tweens and teens, but it goes nicely with Professor Layton in encouraging more advanced reasoning skills (in fact, the two recently enjoyed a 3DS crossover game in Japan!). In Ace Attorney, players undertake a variety of murder mysteries, collecting evidence, interrogating witnesses, and gathering vital clues to present in a ‘court battle’ with a prosecutor. As witnesses are cross-examined on the stand, players scrutinize their statements, pressing for more information, and presenting a decisive bit of evidence whenever they find a contradiction in the testimony. Like Professor Layton, the game isn’t timed, so players can work out a solution at their own pace too.

The benefits of Ace Attorney aren’t about showing a realistic depiction of the legal system, because, frankly, it doesn’t even come close to that. The benefits are found by helping players develop not only their memories and deductive abilities, but also by encouraging observation and recognizing what might be off about a situation. Many young people with Asperger’s and ASD especially tend to take everything at face value, unable to read a situation beyond what’s in front of them. Ace Attorney is a fantastic way to encourage a deeper form of thinking, looking beyond what‘s laid out in front of them, and deducing the truth that lies hidden underneath.

Thankfully, the potentially serious subject matter of solving a murder case is nicely offset by some amusing cartoon elements as well. The game is consistently whimsical, and frequently hilarious, making the comedy as easy to enjoy for parents as it is for kids. The high quality of the writing also makes its way into the cases as well, which are brilliant and creative in every Ace Attorney game! This creates an immense sense of satisfaction for solving them, beyond just putting a killer in jail. Sure, it has nothing to do with actual legal proceedings, but it’s unmatched as a rewarding learning tool for understanding that not everything is as it seems.

9) LittleBigPlanet

littlebigplanet-20080820105938647_640wLittleBigPlanet is a PlayStation game series built on three principles; Play. Create. Share. It’s a pretty simple game where you just run and jump through various environments as the self-described ‘Sackboy’, collecting Orbs as you do. The real heart of LittleBigPlanet comes in its creation suite however, where players can build and customize their own level designs to share online with the PlayStation community.

Many kids with Asperger’s and ASD struggle with being creative. I know I did once upon a time! What’s worse is that classrooms and extra-curricular activities aren’t sometimes too friendly when it comes to recognizing a child’s creative struggles. Thankfully, LittleBigPlanet provides a superb way for kids to create and develop with their own imaginations, where they won’t be judged or scrutinized for the result. Parents can easily help them stitch their level designs together, and the result is like building a craft project, but one that can potentially provide enjoyment not just to you, but to gamers worldwide as well!

This is a great game series for recognizing and rewarding dedicated creativity. By playing LittleBigPlanet, kids with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome can learn to recognize and develop their imaginations, creating what they want to create, unrestricted, and given an easy set of tools to put together what they wish. It can be very satisfying to watch your child’s creation take shape, not just for them, but also for the parents too. In turn, the child will learn to trust and revel in their imagination, no matter where it takes them!

10) Fire Emblem

Fire EmblemClosing off the list is another franchise meant more for tweens and teens upward, but one with no less value as a learning tool. Fire Emblem is a series of strategy games taking place in a medieval fantasy setting, where players command an army in a series of battles against opposing military forces. They are comprised of various classes such as melee-based Fighters, healing Clerics, long-range Archers, and highly mobile Pegasus Knights, and must manage the movement and tactics of all of them to claim victory.

Fire Emblem isn’t difficult to understand. Each class in the game has a very clear and distinct set of advantages and disadvantages. Still, some of the earlier games have had a problem with a high difficulty level, often punishing the slightest mistakes very aggressively, and even permanently removing units that are killed in battle for the remainder of the game! Thankfully, more recent entries have lowered the difficulty barrier with easier difficulty settings, and the most recent game, Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS, has the option of removing the perma-death feature, making the game much more newcomer-friendly!

Obviously, Fire Emblem gives older kids struggling with Asperger’s and ASD a useful and rewarding way to learn not only strategy and planning, but also leadership skills. Responsible for the lives of their diverse and personalized units, Fire Emblem puts players in a position of authority, and helps them learn to be a careful and trustworthy superior to those in their command. It may be more challenging in many cases, but it’s also a great way to help them grasp the concept of responsibility and consequences. In all but the most recent game, when units die because of a tactical error or general carelessness, they’re never coming back, unless you reset the game and undo the battle.

Even when struggling with a disability, there are times when we must take charge. Fire Emblem is great for showing these kids not only how to do that with a careful hand, but also how to get more in touch with their own leadership skills, which will in turn assist them with being more independent and assertive. Even when the odds may be against them, these games give them the tools to realize that they can adapt to challenging situations, and they can lead both themselves and others to victory when they approach a problem confidently and with authority. In turn, it’s the first step to helping them become good parents for when they have kids of their own, and surely that’s the best preparation a parent can give their child, disability or no!

Of course, even if a child doesn’t have ASD or Asperger’s Syndrome, these games remain great learning tools for the above reasons. They’re also not a substitute for school in any way, but are more for picking up the slack, since, while the school system is effective, it’s nowhere near perfect, especially for kids struggling with a disability. Still, as activities for parent and child to share, all of these games are great ways to illustrate life principles that school and extra-curricular activities don’t quite as effectively convey for kids dealing with these conditions. There’s others of course, but if you’re looking for some reliable games to assist in both entertainment and development of a child with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome, these present some great places to start, with numerous rewards to offer!

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