My daughter, Serene, and I had a lovely evening last week playing games with a family that I have known and enjoyed very much over the years. Serene lives in Europe, where she is the special education teacher at the International School of Belgrade, so she had not met the family. Playing games together was a perfect way to get to know the three children, age ten and younger. As we left, Serene said I did not know what to expect but that was so much fun! I think we forget how much fun structured games can be with such easy access to other forms of entertainment. Not many other forms of entertainment are as well suited to friends and strangers alike meeting and quickly enjoying their time together.
Playing board games is a great activity for many children who have ASD because these games are social but the social demands are relatively predicatable. Board games have clear rules including a way of starting and a way of ending. Many games challenge the mind but do not require completely open ended thinking--which is really difficult for most children (and adults) who have ASD. Some games rely on chance and once a child comes to understand how to enjoy games of chance, anticipation of a possible win is highly rewarding. Some games involve pretending but again, in a limited way which seems to make participation and, indeed, creativity possible for many children who do not tap into their own creativity often or easily. The challenge for children with ASD is to learn how to understand the game in the first place and how to enjoy the game regardless of the outcome.
I want to tell you about one game that Serene and I played for the first time because it was a great game for many children with ASD to learn. The game was Whoonu by Cranium. In this game, each player is given a set of cards that say things like-- the zoo, cabbage, golf, the library, driving. Each player then takes turns guessing what another player would like best from among the cards in hand. After a round or two, you add up your points and the winner is the one who made the best guesses about what other people like (or got the best cards). Since thinking about preferences, ones own and the preferences of others, is a good skill for children with ASD to practice, this is a mind expanding game you should consider if your child is at the right developmental level. The game inspired good conversation as we played it and I liked the fact that each person was the focus of consideration as others tried to think about what he or she might enjoy. As I thought about the game, I thought that for some children, learning to be in the spotlight would be the challenge and for other children letting someone else be in the spotlight would be the challenge.
At some point in your child's life, you may want to teach him or her to play structured games. Here is how I have done it. I start when a child has the verbal skills to be successful with a particular game but even then I consider that each social and emotional game playing skill must be taught incrementally and not assumed. I often work with parents to help them see how to break down the game and teach it little-by-little. If a child is very young or a game playing novice, I start with simple games that have some sensory pay off. Bunny Hop by Educational Insights is a current favorite early game for me right now. I start it with novice game players by just taking turns putting the bunnies in the right color hole and then pressing down the farmer, which makes most the bunnies pop out (this is the sensory payoff). I make my way over several weeks toward playing the game with the real rules. It does not matter how long it takes because every stage of learning to play a game can be fun.
One pitfall that you will have to work your way around carefully, when teaching a child to play games, is the problem of losing. No young child that I have ever met is a good loser. Losing well is a hard skill to learn and it takes time and lots of encouragement to learn how to do it. I try never to shame a child about being upset when losing because it does not feel fair to shame a child for not knowing how to do something that every single child in the world struggles to learn. Parents themselves have often been shamed for losing badly and so feel that it is shameful for a young child to have a meltdown when losing. It will go much better if you just accept the difficulty as inevitable, like falling down when learning to skate. No big deal, you should assure your child, it will get easier next time.
I usually introduce games without mentioning winning and losing at all. In the Bunny Hop game, for example, we just take turns and notice what happens. Oh! Wow! I got six bunnies and you go ten bunnies. Let's try it again and see what happens, I say as we finish a round. It is often hard to even finish a round at the start. Let's just put five bunnies in, and then pop them all out, I might say to a child who has difficulty at this stage even staying with the same activity for long. Next time we might put in ten bunnies. Step-by-step, we teach more rules and even more gradually we add competition, often by losing well in front of the child many times before expecting the child to lose at all.
Eventually, competition will help your child focus and become emotionally engaged in the game but only if your child enjoys playing the game and is not solely invested in winning. Some parents are great game playing teachers and they do helpful things like making funny disappointed sounds or faces when a turn goes badly (most children love watching a parent act silly). Some parents need a lot of support to even learn to enjoy games again, or for the first time if they did not enjoy games as a child. I know that there are many, many ways to enjoy one another in a family so if it feels too stressful, I give up on game playing--but always reluctantly since I know what a pay off there is if game playing becomes a regular and happy family activity. Sometimes, I have to remind overly competitive parents to hold their competitive nature at bay while teaching their child to play games and, in fact, some parents really need to tame down their own competitive nature, period, or no one in the family will ever enjoy game playing. As a parent, remember that you are teaching skills by example when it comes to the emotional skills of game playing. The purpose of highly structured games, just like other forms of play, is to have fun. Your challenge is to find the level of complexity that works for your child and then model genuine enjoyment while playing.
I don't believe that competition itself is bad, however challenging it is to learn, having watched how competition can focus attention and hone mental skills more effectively than almost any other system of social learning. Competitive games exist because they are designed to enhance social interaction, mental focus, learning, and enjoyment and they can work this way for children who have ASD as well as they do for others. The right competitive board game can provide a level social playing field where the child or adult with ASD has all the skills necessary to enjoy being with others and at the same time enjoy developing their own mental capacities. Step-by-step, I encourage you to introduce your child to board games and make them so much fun that your child will willingly ask to play these games for social entertainment.