In one state, video game app for child welfare now covered by Medicaid

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Even as parents worry about children and screen time, there is a growing market for video game-based apps designed to help kids work through their feelings. Now, Wisconsin’s Medicaid program will cover the cost of at least one of these applications. We spoke to a family in the state who tried it.

Over the past few years, Emmie Delveaux has noticed that her 7-year-old son, Leo, can easily get upset over seemingly insignificant things and has social difficulties at school.

“He is very frustrated with the unexpected schedule changes,” Delveaux said. “And sometimes we don’t know – sometimes he’s not able to communicate why he feels so frustrated.”

Leo was recently diagnosed with autism. And thanks to a social worker, Delveaux discovered the video game application Mightier. It contains more than 20 different games that train children to navigate their feelings.

“I must tell you that at first I was not on board. I feel like kids are staring at screens all day at school,” Delveaux added. But she decided to let Leo try anyway.

“We flash the screen red. The game itself gets harder,” said Trevor Stricker, vice president of technology at Mightier, saying kids should wear a heart rate monitor on their arm when playing. “So to keep playing, they have to calm down. And when they drop their heart rate, the game goes back to normal,” he said.

Leo has been playing Mightier for about two months and his mum says she sees a difference. For example, Leo was playing with Legos recently when his tower collapsed. His mum was expecting a tantrum, but “I could hear him saying to himself, ‘Calm down, breathe.’ And just things he learned playing those games.

Normally, Mightier sells for around $335 per year. But the Wisconsin Children’s Long-Term Support Program uses Medicaid to cover costs. And so far, it’s the only state to use Medicaid this way.

Delveaux said it was a good solution for his son because the games are similar to those other kids play, like Minecraft. “So it also gives him something to say with his peers at school,” she said.

More and more therapists are also using video games as part of their treatment plans. Like Kim Wheeler Poitevien, clinical social worker and therapist in Philadelphia. “I work with a lot of kids who are neurodivergent,” Poitevien said.

She has kids playing games like Roblox or Animal Crossing during their sessions. “It’s a great way for them to engage even while we’re conversing. It’s kind of the same as coloring or drawing or making a fidget,” she added.

Poitevien said using video games works for her clients because it asks them to do something that most young patients already do for fun.

A screenshot of the Mightier video game app. (Courtesy of Mightier)

The newspaper Royal Society Open Science released a study in late July that looked at whether playing a lot of video games is bad for your well-being. The study surveyed over 38,000 gamers worldwide and found “little to no evidence of a causal link between gambling and well-being”. Although, let’s note, it focused on adults.

A New York Times article highlights a digital therapeutic tool for children with autism. It’s a virtual reality program called Floreo that walks neurodiverse kids through real-life public scenarios they might struggle with, like crossing the street or even cheating or dealing.

In the article, some autistic self-advocates point out that such behavioral therapy can be problematic, saying autism is not a disease that needs to be cured. Maybe society should adapt, they say, and be more welcoming to people who experience the world a little differently.

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