Video game helps students with fetal alcohol disorder

This is an interesting story by Manisha Krishnan of the Edmonton Journal –

Playing video games isn’t often seen as the healthiest pastime for young people, but a new educational game is helping retrain the brains of students with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a University of Alberta professor says.

Jacqueline Pei, a registered psychologist who specializes in FASD, is researching how a computer program called Caribbean Quest is improving the cognitive function of people with the condition.

About 33,000 Albertans have FASD, says the Institute of Health Economics. The condition is caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.

People with FASD can struggle with a range of physical, mental and central nervous system disabilities, and face cognitive, behavioural and emotional issues. “We often see kids who have a very hard time sitting still. We see kids who have a hard time slowing down their responding, so they tend to leap before they look,” said Pei, adding that not understanding personal boundaries is another common problem. “They can also be very emotional because they will become quickly angered and not be good at controlling that.”

Pei and a team of doctors from the University of Alberta and University of Victoria — where Caribbean Quest was developed — are working on a study called Executive Functioning Training in Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Twenty-five kids, aged 6-14, are involved, with each spending 12 weeks playing the game. By completing simple tasks such as capturing fruit in a specific order, students learn to understand instructions, slow their response times and retain information more accurately. Some have done better on math tests. MRI scans taken from study participants showed changes in the white matter of the brain — evidence that the exercises are having an effect.

A key factor in the students’ success is having an “interventionist,” or coach, alongside while they’re playing. “We’re seeing what strategies they’re using to make it through the game and helping them try different strategies to make things work,” said Marnie Hutchison, an interventionist and PhD student at the University of Alberta. One of the children she worked with, a little boy, started out having outbursts of frustration whenever he encountered an exercise he deemed too challenging. But by the end of his sessions, there was a noticeable difference, said Hutchison. “When he came across some difficulty he would set the controller to the side, take a deep breath and then he’d just kind of attempt the task again.”

Pei said research is in its early stages. She could not say with certainty that playing the game would help every FASD child. She is working on a website that will be a resource for teachers and on a game that they can use to help them understand how to relate to kids with the disorder. For the past three years, the Edmonton public school board has been rolling out the Wellness, Resilience and Partnership Project in Northern and Central Alberta. The program places coaches into junior and senior high schools to help students with FASD. Twenty-one schools were included in the 2011-12 school year.

The results have been very positive so far, says Sandra Swaffield, supervisor of inclusive learning and outreach for the school board. Eighty-four per cent of participating students successfully completed their core courses, she said. “One of the key things we looked at was to break down tasks into smaller activities for them so it wasn’t as overwhelming for kids.” Overall engagement in community events was also up and suspensions and expulsions were greatly reduced, added Swaffield. 

Mark Jansky alerted me to this story via Twitter! Thanks Mark 😉

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