Consider the Nintendo Wii for Kids with Autism

Consider the Nintendo Wii for Kids with Autism
We've never been a big video game family. We are a 1 income family with 2 children – one of whom has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Our budget is tight when it comes to “extras”. When the Nintendo Wii was released most of our friends went to great lengths to buy it - standing in long lines or paying higher than retail prices. My husband and I thought the Wii sounded like it would be a fun family activity– but before spending a few hundred dollars we wanted to try it first.

The Nintendo Wii retails around $300 and games range from $30-60 sold separately, the Wii Fit is extra at $150. We wanted to be absolutely sure this was a game system that we loved before making that investment. It wasn't until we saw our 7 year old son, Alex, who is on the Autism spectrum, play on the Wii and fall in love with it – that we knew we had to have one for our family – most of all, for Alex.

My son is a very tech savvy kid. He is great on the computer and enjoys handheld games like the Nintendo DS and Leapster. The Nintendo Wii is different because it uses a remote style controller and sensor system instead of a pad style controller. It isn't a video game system to sit down and 'veg' out with; it is interactive. Instead of sitting down and pressing buttons or clicking on a mouse to control a game, the player is standing, moving, swinging and literally playing with the TV.

My son can be sedentary and will often sit and zone out with a computer game for long lengths of time if you let him. He tires easily and has always struggled in sports and phys-ed because he has low muscle tone and lacks coordination. He has the tendency to be quite clumsy. He gets discouraged when he doesn't succeed at an activity (like baseball) and gives up out of frustration.

At our friend's home, we were amazed to watch him want to play a sports-based game with another child instead of playing quietly with their train table which was his routine. More surprisingly, the Nintendo Wii game had a lot of clapping in the background which traditionally would have caused a meltdown and it didn’t bother him. Instead he wanted to play more.

Whenever we visited our “Wii friends”, Alex wanted to play the Wii. We watched him learn quickly how to play the Wii Sports games and specifically he fell in love with the bowling game. The only issues he had was some struggling with taking turns and giving up the Wii when it was time to leave. When I saw the Wii in stock at a local store, I knew that I needed to get him his own Wii. My theory was that if we had it at home he could practice and work on turn-taking and playing Wii would become less of a novelty. Sure enough, once he had his own the sharing issues disappeared. What then followed over the months to come was a most impressive transformation that if I hadn’t seen it for myself I would be skeptical about.

Playing with the Wii

With the Wii, you control an on screen avatar called a mii that you design by selecting different attributes to customize your player. My son enjoys setting up the avatars and has made on-screen versions of each family member and our friends. When he plays the Wii he can pick and choose from the miis for who he wants to play the game with and take virtual turns with that player. He often will set up a game for the entire family and even will take turns and share with his 3 year old sister. Until we had the Wii the 2 of them never shared let alone play a game together and actually take turns. The Wii has taught him turn taking and makes it easy for him to play a game with someone else instead of always by himself.

Wii Sports is the game that comes packaged with the console – it has bowling, baseball, boxing, tennis, and golf. There are training modules built into it that teach you how to play and improve your skills. My son was able to go through the training to learn how to position the controller and achieve success at each mini-game. From bowling on the Wii, he learned the basics of bowling and scoring a game. After playing Wii bowling he expressed interest in going to a bowling alley and playing. We signed him up in a special needs bowling program and watched him soar. His scores on the Wii bowling are higher but the Wii remote is substantially lighter than a real bowling ball.

Still, about a year ago we had taken him to a birthday party at a bowling alley and it was a disaster. He didn't understand the game, it was too loud, and he hated the clapping and was unable to wait for other kids to take their turn. After just a month of bowling on the Wii he was now able to go to the bowling alley and take turns while each child bowled their turn. He jumped up and down, cheered, and clapped when other people in the bowling alley got Strikes or Spares and he groaned when it went into the gutter. The loud bowling alley that previously caused him to have a full-blown on the floor meltdown did not faze him. So not only did playing the Wii bowling teach him how to bowl, he was able to take this new skill that he acquired and transition it into real-life.

Video on You Tube of him bowling and applauding for himself.

A Fast Strike!

A Spare with tons of self applause

Suggested Games & Accessories

His favorite game to play is Wii Sports that comes with the Wii. We also have Wii Play ($50) it comes with an extra remote. Wii Play has 9 mini-games (targets, ping-pong, billiards, air-hockey, and a few others). A second Wii remote retails for $40 so picking up Wii Play is a good way to get your second remote plus some fun games. An extra nunchuk style controller (used for boxing) is $20.

To differentiate between multiple controllers you can use colorful skins that are rubberized and also protect the controller should it get dropped or thrown. The remote has a wrist strap that holds it on your wrist though ours still suffers some abuse especially when my son is excited and drops it on the carpet. Alex wears it on his right wrist because he wears the Project Lifesaver wristband and a med-alert bracelet on his left wrist that cannot be taken off and he is right-handed anyways. In Wii Sports you set your player up to play either right or left handed.

There are hundreds of games available for the Nintendo Wii and the games are all rated with the standard ESRB ratings. We look for the E for everyone rating.

Families with autistic children should also check out Wii Fit – a fitness program that includes Yoga, stretching and aerobics. If your child likes driving games, then Mario Kart with the Wii Wheel is the one to get. My son also loves Cooking Mama, a cooking game that he also plays on the DS. Among the less inexpensive games ($20 range), get Endless Ocean to explore under seas and Wild Earth African Safari and play with zebras, giraffes and more. To save on replacing batteries in your Wii remote frequently, I would also suggest adding the Wii Charging Station.

Summary of why the Wii has been great for our son with Autism:

  • Extremely visual system is rewarding and relatable.

  • The Wii is active. You need to get up and move to play. It definitely works on both hand-eye coordination as well as gross motor skills.

  • Mii avatars are friendly and engaging. We have noticed increased eye contact when playing instead of him zoning out or stimming a lot which he usually does when he plays computer or video games.

  • Training Modules in Wii Sports teaches the game and tracks progress and success. For example, in the bowling he earned Pro status within a few weeks of playing and is proud of his accomplishment (The bowling ball with stars on it is a positive reinforcer)

  • Encourages sharing and has been an asset in teaching cooperation between siblings and friends. The Wii is extremely social and helps develop good turn-taking skills. It is more fun when you play with other people and my son likes to set up a game for our entire family. Not only has it helped my son with back and forth turn taking it has brought our family together and back into the same room instead of being off doing our own thing. The Wii has been a tool through which my son who struggles with being social is able to do so successfully.

  • The Nintendo Wii has helped my son's sensory issues – i.e. Coping with clapping and loud noises. There is a lot of clapping and cheering in Wii Sports. Pre-Wii he would have cried when he heard clapping. Now with the Wii - he claps along with it when he gets a good score. He expects you to clap along with it too when he does well. He claps for other people when they do well. He is now doing a lot better with clapping outside of the Wii as well. We are finding that we can go without his ear muffs more often than not and that clapping is becoming ‘no big deal’ instead of causing major upset. Thank you, Wii!

  • There is a large variety of games available for the Wii to appeal to a wide range of interests. My son loves the sports games and has now shown an interest in playing more real sports instead of being sedentary.

My husband and I resoundingly agree that the benefits of him playing with the Wii have been more than worth the purchase price of the console, games and accessories 100times over. I highly recommend the Nintendo Wii for children with autism if you are looking for a very special gift.

Important Health Notice: The Nintendo Wii is not recommended for anyone who is prone to seizures.

*For more articles from MaryTara Wurmser you can visit her Blog at

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