BrainLeap’s games are meant to improve focus and attention in children with autism and attention disorders
Logical parents might assume video games are bad for kids with autism or attention disorders, but a new wave of tech companies are bucking convention with games they say can boost the ability to focus — even after children stop playing.
One such game maker is here in San Diego, a startup called BrainLeap Technologies that spun out of a research lab at UC San Diego. The company just launched a whole suite of games called the Attention Arcade, which they’re hoping schools will buy for students (although parents can buy them for the home, too). The company has landed a pilot program at South Bay Union School District, where educators are on standby to see how the games perform.
These games aren’t on cell phones or consoles. Instead, they’re played on a computer equipped with eye-tracking sensors, a feature that separates BrainLeap’s arcade from the hundreds of other games created for children with autism and attention disorders.
Playing games with your eyes — how does it work?
The startup’s technology was founded by neuroscientists Jeanne Townsend and Leanne Chukoskie, who lead The Research on Autism and Development Laboratory at UCSD. Their research shows that children on the autism spectrum have trouble shifting their attention by moving their gaze to a new object. They also struggle to make rapid eye movements as quickly and accurately as typical people do. This affects learning in school, but also plays a role in social interactions, the researchers said. You can miss social cues if your eyes jump to the wrong place at the wrong time.
The research team created games to help children improve their ability to control eye movements, and the tech was later licensed out to BrainLeap. The startup was co-founded in 2017 by Chukoskie and her husband Jeff Coleman, who now leads as CEO. The startup has created new games to add to the suite, including assessments that help kids track improvements in attention and focus. The arcade is for kids between 7 and 12 years old, Coleman said.
A game played only with the eyes seems like it might be boring, but they’re quite engaging and challenging (even for reporters without attention disorders or autism). The arcade includes a new spin on the classic carnival game Whack-a-Mole, in which the players “smack down” cartoon animals by pinning them with their eyes. The better the player is, the faster the moles move. Gamers also have to avoid looking at certain characters to hone a skill called inhibitory control, which helps fight distractions. In another game, “Shroom Digger,” players blow up colorful mushroom-shaped houses by staring at them, strengthening the ability to hold a steady gaze. And in “Space Race” — a game that invokes memories of Nintendo NES Excitebike — players guide a spaceship through a series of lanes to build fast gaze-shifting and other skills.
Back in the research lab, these games were tested to see how effective they were in 22 kids on the spectrum. The participants played for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. The study, which spanned eight weeks, did not include a control arm. At the beginning and end of the trial, the kids were tested using an independent assessment standard in neuroscience for measuring attention. The results showed 68 percent improvement in orienting their gazes across all participants, a 55 percent improvement fighting distraction, and a 30 percent improvement in focus (which is why the game makers say it could help those with ADHD as well as autism).
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