10 Tips to Bring Board Games to Children with Autism

I had a great collaboration meeting and co-treat with an OT on my team yesterday afternoon and I had to take a moment to reflect and share. :) We have both recently started seeing a bright young boy with Autism who is nonverbal, struggles with engaging, and needs a lot of sensory regulation support.  My colleague mentioned that this little guy's mom wanted very much for him to share in family activities, especially game night-and that mom was really struggling on how to make board games something he had fun with and could participate in.  As a therapist, I have spent much time using board games with school-aged children on the Autism Spectrum to target many skills: turn-taking, following directions, sequencing, basic concepts, etc...  But had I thought about the fun?  Could we not only get this little guy to participate but to actually have FUN in doing so?  I thought we could, but where could we start?
I started thinking about why kids play these games in the first place.  To win! :) Children at that age have a natural competitiveness to them, they start to develop a love for strategy and rules, and they take joy in the endeavor of finishing a game (hopefully with results in their favor :) My colleague and I started wondering, did children with Autism at our little guy's stage of development have this competitive drive?  We knew that social interaction was a big hurdle for our little guy, as it is for many children on the Autism spectrum, and we knew that participating in a board game meant using social skills and frame of mind that didn't come easily to him, if at all at this stage.  We thought, “we might be able to get him ‘through’ the game by making some adaptations, and we definitely wanted to take a look at what those needed to be.  But we also wondered if we could use HIS "currency" to build in real enjoyment that would keep him engaged when he was able (from a sensory perspective) and bring him back to the game of his own will, should he choose to take a break.  What was his "currency"?  It wasn't always high-fives, or smiles and "good jobs!", and it also wasn't the thrill of the competition.   We had to figure out a way to meet this little guy where he was in the process, and then support him along the way.  In researching, brain-storming, and a whole lot of trial and error (still underway!), we found a few ways to adapt game-play for this little guy that kept him engaged, and more importantly, willing to re-engage  (and, therefore, learn new skills over time)!  
Here are a few tips and resources to help bring board games to the table for children with Autism:
1.  Choose the Appropriate Level of Difficulty:  Just as with other skills, play develops in children across a continuum.  Introducing skills sequentially, with this in mind, helps us meet our kids where they are in terms of the skill set needed to successfully participate in a board game.  UNC has a great article describing nonverbal skills, cognition, and play development in children.   The age range provided on the outside of most board game boxes might be of little help to you as you try to determine where to start.  Autism Games, a great site that focuses on bringing a variety of play skills to children with Autism, has a few simple, helpful guidelines for choosing games at various levels of difficulty.  I find that nearly ALL board games can be modified “up” or “down” to meet kids where they are.  Keep a few things in mind when choosing or modifying games:
What physical skills are needed?  The social aspect of game-play is hard enough for our kids on the Autism Spectrum, so keeping the mechanics of the game manageable lets kids focus their mental energy and attention on the social and the fun!  (See Tip #10 for ways to adapt the mechanics of a board game for those who need it.) 
What cognitive skills are needed?  Most games are aimed at “teaching us something”, or helping us practice basic concepts like colors, numbers, and shapes in a fun way.  Make sure you consider the cognitive skills required for a game (as it is) and make adjustments as needed. It is OK to challenge, but working on too many challenging tasks at once can really set the stage for disaster, and no one likes to play a game they aren’t good at!  (See Tip #5 an #7 for some ideas on adjusting the cognitive demands of games)

2.  Balance the New and the Familiar:  With children on the Autism Spectrum, new things=challenges.   And as discussed above, introducing too many challenges at once can completely overwhelm you and the child.  Help games look, feel, sound, and act familiar, especially if it is the first time you and your child have sat down to play this game.  You can also build your own games around concepts that are already familiar to your child, and that he enjoys.   For example, a child who is good at identifying colors and enjoys interacting with colors might be more wiling to engage in a game about colors (e.g., Candyland, Twister) than a game about numbers (e.g., Chutes & Ladders, Hi Ho Cheerio).  Keep in mind that children on the Autism Spectrum also embrace predictable routines (how great, since board games are all about structure and routine!).  This is part of the scope of balance “familiar” with “new”.  Keep your game-play predicable for the most part, adding new things gradually (See Tip #8 for more information on Predictability).

3.  Make it Visual:  We know that out kids on the Autism Spectrum learn best when information is presented in a visual manner, and board games are no exception.  You might look at a game and think, “aren’t all board games inherently visual?”.  And you would be right- in part.  But think about all of the aspects of playing a game that AREN’t visual (i.e., taking turns, knowing what to do on your turn, which direction to move, which game piece to use, when the game will end, how you know if you win, etc...). These kids struggle with the unspoken, unseen “rules” of social interaction and the same holds true for game-play.  Break down the demands of the game in this manner and make those aspects more simplistic and VISUAL so that your child knows his role and what to expect.  Go over the visuals, make sure they make sense, and don’t forget that you will still need to provide gentle reminders. :) Some visuals might include integrating picture communication symbols onto the board itself, modifying dice or spinners, using the child’s picture on a game piece for easier recognition, using a within-task schedule to assist with the steps in the game and/or the sequence of turns between players, and providing a communication board with some basic game related language (See Tip #6 for more on how to integrate visuals). 

4.  Use the Right Kind of Talk:  Talking is a large part of any game.  Remember to use talk in a way that facilitates further understanding of the expectations in the game.  Autism Games has some great guidelines for adult talk during game-play.  You might even find that less talking is more successful, keeping in mind that communication (understanding and expressing) may be one of those “challenges” to balance.  

5.  Focus on Fun:  Remember that although you want your child to learn the game, and attend to the game, etc... that the ultimate goal for the child is to have fun.  He doesn't really know (or care) that you would like him to learn how to count or identify colors as part of this game-play experience, nor does he need to in order for you to facilitate that learning experience.  Be sensitive to the demands (previously mentioned) of board games and remember that you will need to be flexible if you are going to teach him to be flexible.  This might mean allowing your child to take “breaks” as needed, and waiting for him to re-engage on his own terms (with some tempting fun signals from your direction!).  You may even have to introduce “fun” that is more familiar to your child than that already built into the game (See Tip #9 for more on reinforcement and fun). 

6.  Practice Before Play:  We all prefer going into situations knowing what to expect.  Try to think about the last time you sat down to play a game or complete a task that you didn’t know how to do (panic! anxiety! confusion!)  Usually, when adults sit down to a game, they discuss the rules, possibly even reading the step-by-step instructions of how to set up the game, how to play, etc...Now think about how you will introduce a game to your child.  Will you set it up, have him sit down, and get to playing?  How can you assure that he enters the game knowing what he needs to do?  Using social stories and video modeling can be very helpful in narrowing the learning curve.  You might also consider introducing concepts and materials form the game prior to actually sitting down to play.  This allows your child to become familiar with the concepts, materials, and actions of the game in smaller, more manageable “practice sessions” before adding the social pressure of playing the game itself.  For example, you could use the spinner form a game of Chutes and Ladders to practice matching numbers to quantity, counting the number of cars, blocks, Cheerios (pick whatever your child likes and insert it here :) that is represented on the spinner.  Taking turns in this way also introduces the concept of turn-taking, a skills that he will need to use when you sit down to play the game together.    If you are using visual supports for the game (and you should be :), make sure you go over these supports in more familiar contexts to assure that your child knows that the pictures mean.  Autism Games has great resources for video modeling in game play.

7.  Bend the Rules When You Need To:  When it comes it to playing board games with children on the Autism Spectrum, rules were definitely meant to be broken.  Bending the rules of a game can help that game suit the cognitive, sensory, and motor needs of your child.  If playing the whole length of the game board takes longer than your child is able to sit for, play half of the board.  If counting a different number of spaces each time is too demanding, set a number for the game and have everyone move that amount of spaces.  If your child needs more of his idea of “fun” to keep going in a game, consider integrating sensory and other preferred activities into the game itself.  For example, modify game boards to include symbols for reinforcing activities (e.g., candy, slide, bubbles, trampoline) every few spaces.  This provides motivation to continue to continue the game! Set reasonable expectations and realize that they may not involve finishing the game the way it was meant.  You can always build to more more extended, literal play in the future-small changes gradually will lead to more successful play experiences :)

8.  Predictability Leads to Teaching Moments:  Predictable routines draw a child on the Autism Spectrum into an interaction.  He might be thinking “hey, i get what you’re doing!”-and if he gets it, he is more likely to participate.  Building on Tip #2, use predictability as a “familiar” element to build a safe play environment in which your child knows he is capable.  Then you can mix it up a bit by adding a new element here and there and set the stage for your child to learn from this violation of expectations.  Autism Games has some great strategies to help “stretch” your child’s mind in this way without pushing  so far that fun turns to game over.  

9.  Choose Your Reinforcement Wisely:  Verbal praise and other social rewards are great when they are great, but they aren’t always needed or welcomed.  Choose the way you reinforce you child wisely when playing these new games.  Excess verbal praise could derail attention, be overwhelming from a sensory perspective, or add confusion.  The actions of the game should serve as motivation for the child to keep participating and may be enough without “atta boys” and “good jobs” flying around.  

10.  Take Inventory:  Similar to Tip #1, make sure that your child has the mechanical skills needed to engage in the game you bring to the table.  Consider visual, hearing, sensory, and fine motor needs.  If you find that certain game tasks might be difficult for your child from a mechanical perspective, consider modifying them.  
  • You can use electronic or switch-adapted spinners and dice instead of those that come with the game if the act of spinning or rolling is a difficulty.  
  • You can reduce the visual complexity of the game board by folding it in half or covering some of the spaces to create larger spaces.  
  • Card holders can be used to hold cards upright for kids who have difficulty.  
  • Velcro can be added to game boards and game pieces to help them stay upright.
  • Grip enhancers like foam or rubber can be added to game tools for easier handling
Here is a great video example of many of these tips in Action (From Autistically Inclined 
A BLURB on Technology:
As with other skills, mobile and computer technology can be a great tools in helping children on the Autism spectrum participate in and enjoy board games and other social games.  I consider technology a stepping stone to real thing in this regard.  Utilizing technology for parts of a game or to play a full game could be a great way to motivate kids on the Autism Spectrum to engage in the game and practice interactive play skills.  However, I consider these strategies a practice stage for eventually playing these games the more traditional way, helping children engage more readily with partners versus screens, and building the much needed skills for successful interaction with peers in a variety of play environments.  With that said, I have found some promising Apps that I see as beneficial tools in the realm of interactive play. More about that in a future post! :) 

What games are you playing with you child?

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