At the University of Michigan, software engineering students this spring designed several Kinect games for children with autism.

On-screen, Michael Mendoza’s digital avatar stands before a wonderland of cakes and sweets, but his message is all business: “I. Get. Frustrated when people push me and call me—and call me—a teacher’s pet!”

In another classroom at Steuart W. Weller Elementary School, nearly an hour’s drive west of Washington, D.C., two students stand side-by-side, eyes riveted on a big-screen TV. They jump, duck, and swing their arms in unison, working together as they help their digital doppelgangers raft downriver.

In real life, 9-year-old Michael has autism, as do his two classmates. All three have long struggled with the mental, physical, and social rigors of school. All three now get help most days from video game avatars: simplified digital versions of themselves doing things most autistic children don’t generally do.

In Michael’s case, he’s recording “social stories” videos that remind him how to act. In his classmates’ cases—their parents asked that they not be identified—they’re playing games that help with coordination, body awareness, and cooperation, all challenges for kids on the autism spectrum.

Can off-the-shelf video games spark a breakthrough in treating students with autism? That’s the question researchers are asking as educators quietly discover the therapeutic uses of motion-controlled sensors. The devices are popular with gamers: Microsoft this week said it had sold more than 19 million Kinect motion-sensor units since introducing it in November 2010.

Now autism researchers, teachers, and therapists are installing them in classrooms and clinics, reporting promising results for a fraction of the price of typical equipment. Could a teacher armed with a $300 Xbox and a $10 copy of “Double Fine Happy Action Theater” do as much good as months of intensive therapy?

For more news about teaching students with autism, see:

Rise in autism increases calls for awareness

States struggle over how to evaluate special-ed teachers

iPad and iPod apps open up world for special-needs students

3D technology helps autistic kids learn to read

“Nobody thought of it as a therapeutic device,” said Marc Sirkin of Autism Speaks, a New York-based advocacy group. Earlier this spring, when he first got wind of computer engineering students at the University of Michigan hacking the Kinect to develop autism games, he bought a ticket on a red-eye flight to see for himself. “It turns out you don’t have to look very far, you don’t have to scratch very deep, to go, ‘Wait a minute. There’s something really cool here.'”

Microsoft’s Radu Burducea stops short of calling the Kinect a therapeutic device, but says he hears every day about teachers and therapists adapting it in new and creative ways: math instruction, book criticism, counseling, and physical coordination, for instance.

“We’ve lost control,” he admitted, “and thank God that we have.”