Sunday, October 25, 2009

Discrete Trials of Frustration (or: Thank you, Wii)

We have a Wii at our house. Wii is this Nintendo video game where you move around like you're really doing stuff and these characters in the game really do what you're doing and, well...

(So, okay. If you are Amish, or have been backpacking for the better part of two years, or are able to be blissfully unaware of popular consumer culture and you don't know what I'm talking about, it's a little hard to explain. You can go here to find out what Wii is.)

Anyway, we have one and Ben really enjoys it.

He likes the standard Wii games that come with the whole console-controller-thingy: like bowling, baseball, golf, and boxing. But he really loves the newer Wii Sports Resort, in which the Wii avatars visit Wu Hu Island, a sort of Wii Club Med. There, you can pick from archery, fencing, wake boarding, ping pong and frisbee, among other activities.

I credit the hours Ben has spent so far with Wii to introducing him - conceptually - to many sports that never would have come across his radar. Familiarity with different sports and games - even if you're never going to actually play them - is a useful sort of social currency.

After all, knowing things like what a pick-up game is in basketball and what it means to be on the fairway versus the bunker in golf gives you just a few more ways to join a conversation.

It's also helping to build real honest-to-goodness hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills.

Ben's ability to hit a softball in the real world increased dramatically after he mastered it in Wii. He went from not even knowing how to stand or hold a bat to actually being able to connect with the ball in the span of about a week.

(I'm sure some occupational therapist post doc is writing a doctoral thesis on Wii at this very moment.)

But there's another benefit to Wii that I did not anticipate, and it's probably the most powerful and most valuable one. It's also the most painful one for Ben.

Wii teaches you how to lose.

Ben has inherited a double dose of the perfection gene and this is amplified by his spectrum traits. One of the chief triggers for him coming unglued is failure: not being successful at something that he really wants to do.

This is a little different than being competitive. He doesn't need beat someone else to be happy, he just wants to be perfect.

But Wii doesn't care if you're a kid. And Wii doesn't care if you're really cute. And Wii doesn't know that you're on the autism spectrum and after all, successive approximations are really what's important, right?

No. If you miss the shot in ping pong, you lose the match. Your avatar hangs his head and the words YOU LOSE flash on screen.

There are plenty of activities - real and virtual - that provide this brutal, inevitable lesson for Ben, but the thing about Wii is it doles out lots of success along with the failure.

Unlike in the real world, Ben can get a strike in bowling and make par on a the golf course, so he's motivated to keep trying.

Wii ends up being a little like discrete trials in applied behavior analysis, a common therapy used with children with autism. You present the person with frequent, repeated opportunities to perform a skill that's just on the edge of their competence. The frequency means that there's lots of positive reinforcement with success, and failures don't have high stakes, because opportunities to try again just keep coming.

At the beginning of the summer, losing Wii games was one of the triggers for the explosive verbal and physical rages that Chris and I wrote about.

I began to think that I wanted to place a moratorium on Wii for awhile, that he just wasn't ready for it, he wasn't equipped with the coping skills he needed and that the frustration was outweighing the fun.

On the other hand, these frequent outbursts gave us frequent opportunities to try a new strategy for dealing with rage: just letting him be mad, but making him to go to his room and cool down by himself.

The regular frustration that Wii served up like a disappointment batting cage gave Ben lots of opportunities to practice his coping skills, too.

Jordan over at Communication Therapy gave me great coaching on setting this up with something like this: "You can say those words when you're mad, but they hurt our feelings, so if you're going to say them, you have to go in your room where you can't hurt anyone."

At first, retreating to his room was something he did towards the end of the rage cycle, with our (usually physical) prompting.

Then, little by little, Ben would go to his room by himself even earlier in the cycle. Next, it became a regular part of the ritual. Often accompanied by a dramatic door slam and in one case the declaration, "I'm going in my room to (screaming) CALM DOWN!"

Lately when he's upset, Ben often goes to his room and slams the door, with no prompting from us, rather than exploding in a verbal rage or physically acting out.

Usually after five minutes, we hear him happily telling a story with his trains or we peek in to see him engrossed in a book. Sometimes, he even comes out calmly and apologizes.

I think many of you know how amazing this is, what a huge corner I feel we've turned, what a don't-write-about-it-or you'll-jinx-it moment we're in.

Ben's emotional outbursts are still happening and he still has a long way to go to learn the skills that that will let him say, "Oh well - whatever." more often. The period before he goes to his room is not pretty, but it's getting a lot shorter.

And he is learning that he CAN let go of those feelings and not stay hooked. Maybe he is starting to understand that he is the only one who can get himself back to a state of equilibrium.

And I think I have, at least in part, a video game to thank for that.


Noel said...

The Wii has been great for my autistic 8-year-old as well. We bought ours earlier this year, and it's helped Archer learn to be patient and practice (he did very badly at a lot of the games at first, then worked hard and developed real skill) as well as giving him a "normal" little kid activity that he can talk about it with his peers. The Wii has also given him access to a fantasy universe, which is something he's always had difficulty understanding. He doesn't like fictional characters and stories, generally (unless they're teaching him something concrete about math or science) yet since he started playing Mario Kart, he and his 5-year-old sister have spent hours upon hours pretending to be Mario characters.

Lastly, the Wii has given us a new method of punishment. Archer gets to play a half-hour of Wii after school and another half-hour before bedtime, but if he misbehaves at school or forgets to out his homework in his backpack, he loses his Wii time for the day. It's a punishment that stings, but since he knows in advance the consequences of his behavior, he accepts it without melting down.

A little boy just 3 years old said...

Wii as therapy. My husband is going to be SO happy about this ;) since we don't have one... yet.

This is a great post. Our DS is 2 years behind yours... but PERFECTION is the #1 trigger for him too.

Im telling you, they're twins.

DD's new dollhouse has been the best thing for him recently.

KAL said...

That's pretty amazing. Congrats on the progress he's made w/ his anger! I know that my two are enthralled when my husband has the wii out... I think maybe it's time to take it to a new level.

pixiemama said...


Foster used to RAGE when he was 3-4-5. Now that's he's a big 6.5-year-old, he doesn't do anything that he knows he's not already perfect at doing.

But, sister, I REMEMBER the angry days, and we still have our very bad moments. VERY BAD.

(So now I'm not sure if we're ready for a Wii for Christmas, with a move around the corner after that...)

Jordan Sadler, SLP said...

Yay! I love hearing this about how well the Wii is working for Ben (this type of story is exactly what prompted me to suggest getting one for our kids last year and it's been great), and I'm happy that the idea of removing himself from earshot of other people before shouting every insult he knew is also working! As I said last summer, I think the key here is for the child to know it's fine to be mad, we totally respect his anger and frustration, but to place some boundaries are around the expression of it.

nana said...

even tho i can barely tolerate most sports - i an thrilled that the wii game has been teaching ben so many concepts as well as helping him with his meltdowns
blessings to both of you for the infinite patience when you'd probably like to retreat to your own room and CALM DOWN !!!!

Anonymous said...

We've been talking about getting a Wii for Christmas this year. Your post just tipped the scales some more.

I'm really impressed with how Ben is learning to handle his anger. I need to get more consistent with making Charlotte go to her room.

Heather said...

I think I'm going to steal so many parts of this post to put into practice. I had been thinking of a wii for the husband since coordination is not C's strong suit, but sounds like that may be a good thing all things considered. l o v e this post!

drama mama said...

Funny. Santa is brining the girls a Wii for Xmas.

It seems that Miss M doesn't care for the rather passive viewing of movies as a family; we should be DOING something.

I totally dig this.

And I'm so proud of Ben.

Deirdre said...

Is there a Wii package for Civil War Reinactment? What about Wii Formulation of the League of Nations? Or Wii Assassination of Julius Caesar?

You see where I'm going with this. In the relentless pursuit of educati-fying every pasttime into A Learning Experience, all kinds of Mozart Moms* will be jostling to pick up these next-generation Wii games. And if WE can create those experiences [greedily rubs hands together] we can make MILLLLions..........

*reference to the most irritating commercial ever broadcast on KDFC.