Real workout, virtual world

The Baltimore Sun

Jean Tyrrell wanted to find activities that would allow students in the autism program at Patterson Mill Middle/High School to be more physically active during the school day.

After researching some ideas, Tyrrell said she purchased a Nintendo Wii video game console with a grant that she received.

"The kids really like Wii," said Tyrrell, a physical-education teacher. "And I think it's great. It gives the children with autism an age-appropriate leisure activity to do."

Since the game was purchased, the children have all learned to play it, said Carolyn Trovinger, who teaches the middle school autism program.

On a recent afternoon, Trovinger's students played baseball on the Wii, which features digital sensors and allows people to virtually play sports and games.

Journey Phanouvong, 12, of Belcamp made a base hit, and then clapped and cheered.

Daniel Quinn, 11, of Edgewood hit the ball and didn't want to stop playing when his turn was over.

"Some of the students would love to play Wii all day long," Tyrrell said. "We can't let them do that. So we put Wii on their daily schedule right after lunch time. That way, they know exactly when they can play."

The game is simple, so all the students can play, said Robin Yates, who teaches the high school program for autism. Each student has a different level of autism - a developmental disorder that is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication - and a different level of play. And the game allows the autistic students to play at their own pace, she said.

Despite the limited time the students have to play the game - one period a day - there are benefits for autistic children, said Trovinger.

In addition to improving hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, the game has helped create more social opportunities for the children in the program, Trovinger said.

Other students in the school come by and see the Wii and want to help the children in the program or watch them, Trovinger said.

"We have students who aren't autistic who come in and want to show the kids how to play Wii," she said. "They bond with the boys in the autism program, and they are so into figuring out who these boys are."

Playing Wii is also something the kids can do at home after school, said Tyrrell.

"We are giving them the building blocks they need here to play the game wherever they go," she said.

Wii is used with autistic children in several ways, said Jim Ball, co-chairman of the panel of professional advisers of the Autism Society of America.

First, it's used as an educational tool, Ball said.

"Nintendo Wii is often used as a reinforcer - like a certain food or computer - for children with autism," Ball said. "It helps to reinforce the skills that children already have."

Second, Wii helps autistic children modulate their skills, he said.

"When they play the Wii sports games, they actually have to make the motions they would if they were actually bowling or hitting a baseball," Ball said.

Finally, the game is predictable, he said.

"The machine works the same every single time," he said. "The kids can predict what will happen next. Once the autistic children figure out the routine, they can play even better."

And Wii is easy to learn, said Tyrrell.

"Unlike other game consoles like Xbox and Playstation 3, we don't have to teach the kids how to use the buttons on the controller," said Tyrrell. "This program is a building block for when students want to play alone."

Despite the positive review from the teachers, Wii could have negative effects on autistic children if they aren't monitored when they play, Ball said. Some children might become overstimulated, while others might become obsessed with the game.

"Some children want to play Wii all the time, and they might develop behavior issues when they aren't allowed to," he said. "But if the teacher or parent notices the problem early on, they can usually address it so it isn't a problem later."

The students aren't the only ones who find Wii intriguing. The teachers have to assist the students when they play Wii, Trovinger said. For some teachers, it has improved their game; for others, there's no hope.

"I'm terrible," Trovinger said. "I just can't do it at all."

Tyrrell and Yates have noticed improvement when they play Wii.

"My nephew brings his Wii to my house, and we play, so I'm getting practice outside of school," Yates said. "I'm getting better and better. But it's weird to play by myself. Here at school, I play to help the students."

The Wii is also popular with other teachers in the building. One teacher came and said he needed the Wii to teach calculus. The teachers in the autism program couldn't see how that would work and respectfully turned him down.

Plans for the future include purchasing Wii Fit, a game where the students complete a fitness workout, and maybe Guitar Hero, a game where users play music based on notes indicated with colors.

"We could use it to teach the kids music," Tyrrell said with a smile.

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