During COVID-19, online gaming helps teens with autism build their social skills

The UC Davis MIND Institute's social skills program connects friends and families


Many people are reporting feeling socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This isolation is harder on children with autism.

Social isolation is hard on children with autism
Social isolation is hard on children with autism

Children with autism may show minimal social initiation and poorly coordinated interaction with others. This makes social interactions challenging for some of them and might lead to delays in development and experiences of teasing and bullying.

But the UC Davis MIND Institute has found a new tool for helping children with autism socialize: online video gaming.

The social skills program at the MIND Institute

In 2000, Marjorie Solomon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, set up a social skills program at the UC Davis MIND Institute. The program offers children with autism a way to connect with others and build their social skills.

From December to June each year, the program runs simultaneous child groups, parent psycho-educational workshops and sibling support groups. These groups are currently overseen by Danielle Haener, with assistance from psychologists Elizabeth Solomon Loyola and Megan Tudor, and post-doctoral fellows and volunteers. This year, the program has three groups of 26 children, ages between 8 and 17.

Building social skills of children with autism during a pandemic

Halfway through the program, COVID-19’s shelter-in-place orders in California put on hold the weekly, face-to-face group meetings. With the new physical distancing rules and school closures, the children had substantially fewer opportunities to socialize.

The program providers responded by developing online gaming sessions to keep members connected and to continue their social skills development. They chose suitable games from the JackBox party pack to play over Zoom.

“Our goal is to provide a sense of continuity, community and connection in the midst of uncertainty and adversity,” said parent group leader Romie Stanislavsky.

The first virtual social skills teen game night on April 14 was a roaring success.

The teens practiced many of the skills learned in regular groups, including reciprocal conversation, appropriate use of humor and turn taking. It was also an opportunity to learn online etiquette.

The game night provided a space for everyone to show humor, cheer each other on and practice good sportsmanship. According to the program leaders, the teens’ individual personality traits were not hindered by the online environment, even for the shy ones among them.

“We heard laughter, jokes, stories and most importantly, we got to see our teens and tweens have fun again,” said teen group co-leader Konner Davis.

The teens said that they enjoyed the experience immensely, describing the session as “the best” and “can’t wait until next time.”

The team behind taking social skills program online

This tremendous success would not have been possible without the social team who worked hard to communicate with families about the new services. The team also set up tutorials to help families familiarize themselves with Zoom and WebEx.

In addition, the MIND Institute’s administration strongly encouraged this virtual outreach to facilitate a supportive environment for the children and their families. While the MIND Institute plans to resume in-person social skills program once restrictions are lifted, they now have an additional tool in their repertoire to connect and build skills.

The team also hopes to see game developers work on methods to include teleconferencing with party pack games to provide more opportunities for virtual socialization.

Since its inception in 2000, the social skills program has served more than 700 children and families.

Families with a child or young adult who may benefit from social skills intervention can  reach out to Caryn Chalmers at cxchalmers@ucdavis.edu.