If your child with Autism doesn’t initiate social relationships don’t assume they don’t want to interact with other kids. For children with Autism, gaming is one FUN way to improve social skills. It’s critical when playing board games with kids with disabilities that you choose games that are not only fun, but also playable. You’ll want to pick a game that has few rules, is age appropriate, and doesn’t require complex processing skills, (for example multiple steps during a turn). Not all, but many kids with Autism also have an Intellectual Disability, so finding age appropriate games that are playable but don’t look as if they were made for kindergartners can be quite the challenge!
As a Special Education Teacher of severely Handicapped High School Students, most of my best resources come from unexpected places. HABA has really fun games that were developed with simplicity in mind. That’s what you want. Games that everyone can play.
I did some field testing with HABA's board games and here’s what I found. My students, despite their physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities, could interact with each other. And, when the game was over, they wanted to play again!
Here’s some tips to get your child with a disability to play a board game with you:
• Know how to play the game before you actually play the game Even as adults, it’s near impossible to wait as you sit around an exciting brightly colored board and one person reads and interprets the directions for play. Kids with disabilities won’t be able to wait for you to learn how to play the game.
• Figure out the best way to teach your child how to play the game There are many youtube videos available that will teach you how to play the game. Many students with Autism learn best from videos and pictures. They will likely know how to play the game better from watching a video versus extensive auditory input from an adult reading the instructions or explaining the rules.
• Think about the set up I have found most of my students play best standing around a single desk. They can move around with the excitement of the game. They are also more attentive and engaged because they can move their bodies to see all angles of the board. But, this is what works best for my kids. Your child might need a special chair or sensory input. Think about the height of the board game. Can everyone see? Can everyone reach the pieces? Do you have a box to roll the dice into? Do your students need to roll the dice out of a cup? Do you need any extra tools to help you play?
• Recruit help! I utilize peer tutors in every possible way. Think of ways to play in teams with typical and disabled children. Be creative. You may have to slightly modify game play. You may want to buddy up disabled children with a peer tutor. If you do, consider assigning the tutor specific roles so that the tutor is not helping with skills that the child is independent in. For example, students with physical handicaps have their buddy move game pieces, but they verbalize to the buddy what they want them to do. When typical kids play with disabled peers, they can help the game move along by prompting each other whose turn it is or what to do next. An adult may still want to referee and help all kids follow the rules of the game.• Keep it fun! If at any point the game is getting stressful, take a break. Some of my students prefer to participate as a spectator (for a few, it’s just too much sensory input or they have a really low frustration point) BUT they LOVE to watch. HABA games are fun for both players and spectators. Have you watched your friends play Dancing Eggs? It’s a hoot!
• Be prepared to modify Check the rules and see if there is an easier version of the game. Instead of finishing the game, try playing for 5 minutes. You want to end the game with everyone happy, laughing, and in a good mood. This way, everyone wants to play again. Kids will remember the game ending on a good note. Next time you play, try increasing the time incrementally until you can finish a whole game.
• Don’t give up! It’s hard to watch your child with disabilities struggle with social skills. Look for any and all improvement. Consider the small gains. Eye contact, a smile, family time, communication (in your child’s way, of course) are all measures of a gaming victory. If at first your gaming experience does not succeed, try, try again! Reevaluate what worked, what didn’t, and try again.
After introducing and playing Dancing Eggs, Rhino Hero, and Castle Knights with my high school students with disabilities, I observed students take baby steps towards more developed social skills. One non-verbal student left behind her preferred activity of flapping a book cover, to independently coming to the game table. Another nonverbal student independently grabbed a board game and took it to a peer tutor to play. And yet another student requested verbally and very politely to play Castle Knights again. Working on social skills has been great, but the best thing about HABA’s games are the smiles, laughs, and memories I’ve shared with my students as we’ve played.About the Author Kyra Hoehn is an Educational Specialist for High School students with moderate to severe disabilities. She has been teaching in California since 2010. Kyra holds a Bachelors in Liberal Studies and a Masters in Special Education. She feels blessed to have a career that has brought so much joy to her life. While Kyra is not teaching, she enjoys playing board games with her husband, cycling and running, and planning vacations.