Introducing Board Games to Children on the Autism Spectrum

Before starting this article, I would like to put it out there that I am not a medical professional, nor am I a licensed expert on Autism, its treatments, or how to navigate all children on the spectrum. Also, this article is not sponsored and I am not partnered up with any of the games listed in this piece. I am simply a mother to an amazing, perfect, gorgeous, precious little boy who now at 7 years old, is brighter, more talkative, and more inquisitive than I ever could have hoped for. I love you, Avery– thank you for inspiring my writing and my work.

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My two precious babies playing their daily board games together

Over the course of my son’s life, I have discussed ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) many times here on PopLurker. We’ve talked about his initial diagnosis at age 2.5 and general parenting experiences, we’ve talked about the 5 daily challenges that I had with him (which thank the stars, are diminishing due to his age, coping methods implemented, and overall curiosity to try new things) discussions about introducing pop culture in general to him (Marvel/DC movies still do nothing for him, though he does love Captain Underpants now), and more recently, introducing games and toys to him and what that has looked like.

There– now we’re all caught up.

Today’s article will be sort of a continuation of the games and toys articles, but right now, we are going to focus on board games and which ones (and types) do and don’t work for us. In addition to Avery, who as I mentioned is 7 years old, I have a 5 year old daughter named Leia. Therefore, games that we purchase must land in the middle of their two age ranges. While Avery can read at his grade level without issue, comprehension, abstract concepts, and ability to dig into the non-literal parts of the story is where he has some trouble. Fortunately, he is a curious little bird and asks a lot of questions about what is happening inside the story or inside the game, which helps expand the flavors and genres of games we can play.

And for the record: I wanted to state that I never use Avery’s Autism diagnosis as a crutch, excuse, label for him, or think that it defines him. That is 100% incorrect. I think that is disingenuous and I am sincerely sickened when other parents use hashtags like Autism Speaks or Autism Mama/Papa when they show off pictures or videos of their children. Seriously, it gives me that sinking feeling in my gut and clenches my throat. It’s absolutely none of business what other people do, and I do not judge people who do that, but I can’t understand how you can look at your beautiful, amazing child and label their joy, life, or experience with a fucking hashtag.

And back to the loving place. Let’s move on.

Do you remember when I wrote about how when your kid on the spectrum finds a toy they connect with, your inclination is to buy every single version of it that you can? I think I used Thomas the Train as an example– my son played with the train, so I got him all the trains. Similarly today, he’s in love with Pokemon, so I’m getting him tons of Pokemon plush to play make believe with. (Though because of his age, he has to perform certain tasks and chores to earn them, which has been excellent for his behavior and coping skills).

Well, the same is similar with board games. I won’t take credit for piquing his interest in board games. That happened at school when his teacher busted out Candy Land. But once I saw how he played the game and what he liked about it, I was able to figure out what sort of other games might be enjoyable for him, too. I also remember the exact moment he outgrew Candy Land and started getting bored with it.

The identifying factors?

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He started cheating and making up his own rules.

Which is good! There is the abstract thought we’re looking for, which can hopefully someday lead to more imaginary play and playing with action figures/dolls more. (However, as mentioned, those Pokemon plush are a great start). So, with Candy Land a dud,  I tried to find a more difficult board game that leaned into some of the same elements. That’s when I found a game on Amazon called Enchanted Forest.

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Enchanted Forest is fantastical and whimsical, but still has simple gameplay that 4-5 year olds can understand. You choose a card with an item on it, whatever fairy tale item you want to find for the round you’re playing. Under each of those trees is a picture of an item, all of which appear once on the cards. You mix up the trees, place them on designated spots on the board, roll the dice, and peek under the trees once you land in a tree space. Once you find the tree that matches the item card (which you keep a secret), you get your pawn to the castle and match the tree and card. The best part? Avery took to it right away!

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My baby loves games!

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I saw that between Candy Land and Enchanted Forest, there was a magical fairy tale theme going on that really worked for my kids. Therefore, I decided to take game play in a totally different direction and pick up a copy of Pretty Pretty Princess for my kids. And please, spare me and gender or sexuality crap, it’s not welcome here. You’re talking to a mom that flexes  her guns and trains in Krav Maga.

Pretty Pretty Princess turned out to be a fantastic game for my kids. You spin the spinner, move your pawn around, and strategically put on your jewelry and crown one item at a time. There’s even a blocker object, the Black Ring, which if you are wearing, you cannot be crowned a princess. This game does not require reading, the game play is quick, and there’s this order of operations that keeps my son engaged for a full round. If you can keep your kid, ASD or not, focused on a singular task for 15 minutes, you’re solid. That’s all you can ask for from squirmy, crazy little kids.

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Another board game that seems to be working out in our home is Baby Dinosaur RescueWhat I like about this game is that its game play involves being doled out 3 cards at a time that designate your next move. The object is to move your game token up over the board before the lava token comes down and kills your baby dinosaurs. The difficulty goes up depending on how many dinosaurs you want to have start out on the board. Having the cards handed out (albeit face up) in front of my kids is something they’re not completely comfortable with yet, but the game play is different enough from the other games we own that busting this one out every so often is exciting.

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Now, since games like Enchanted Forest and Baby Dinosaur Rescue had worked out with my son, I decided to venture into licensed games based on characters he already knew and see what happened. I didn’t think Avery had the fortitude to learn CCG games like Pokemon, even though he loves the video games and cartoon series. Then I remembered that Pete the Cat had signed a non-literal agreement to be the mascot of every elementary school in the world, as decided by our Dark Lord and Master, Scholastic. What were the odds that Pete the Cat suddenly had a new board game called Pete the Cat: The Missing Cupcakes Game? I didn’t buy the Groovy Buttons game back when it was in circulation because there was no way Avery would have played it. But the cupcakes game? The gimmick was perfect.

One thing I like about The Missing Cupcakes game is that is made my kids surprise me! Your pawn lands on spaces that determine different actions for game play. One of the spaces displays a present, which makes you pick up a card from a pile, and from there, you have to act out whatever is on the card. For every action you execute correctly, you get a cupcake from Grumpy Toad and place it onto Pete’s Cupcake Tray. At the end, you sing “Happy Birthday” to Pete.

I wasn’t sure my kids would understand the concept of charades, but you can imagine my elation when I saw they took to it right away! Never underestimate your children of any age– their capabilities will blow you away.

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Let’s take a moment to step away from games that were all magically instant successes to a game that is considered a classic by The Culture and wasn’t such a hit with my kids. In fact, my kids asked for this one, I didn’t pick it out. Chutes and Ladders is one that I played with my little sister every time we spent the night at our grandparents’ house, and by age 5 I adored it. But now as an adult, it is tedious, endless, and wildly frustrating…for me! My kids like the idea, and like the big celebration when a character goes up the ladder or falls down, down, down the chute. However, in spite of the board’s numbering system and in spite of the fact that both of my children are perfectly skilled at counting, neither of them are able to following the spaces on this board. They get confused.

So, how do we play with this one? Throw caution to the wind and let them make up their own rules. Remember, although ASD affects children/people differently, you can’t deny that there are overlapping traits in people. And again, if a child on the spectrum can make up their own rules to a game and repeat those new rules consistently, we have abstract thought and imaginary play happening simultaneously. Me personally, I’m grateful.

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Connect Four is a classic game that will catch Avery’s attention sometimes. Even before the days of Candy Land, Connect Four and Jenga were the first non-boarded games that I tried to introduce him to. Connect Four was good for motor skills and color matching, although the idea of “get four in a row” sometimes evaded him. Jenga, of course, was block stacking, and knocking the tower over was just so much more exciting than gently pushing a piece out from the tower. But there is still merit in these games for young players. Like I said, if nothing else with Jenga, you have the building block aspect, which is a great activity for kids. And with Connect Four, you have motor skills and color work.

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And lastly, the final game I purchased for Avery (which yielded mixed results) is Pop’o’matic Trouble. I remember being absolutely in love with this game when I was a kid, and it’s one that my kids find lukewarm. Remember, you have to take four spins around this board in order to fill your Home space. So, while the first round is exciting, the repetitive gameplay makes my kids tap out. Trouble, as we found, is boring. Also, because Avery (both my kids, actually) are still mouthers, the little pawns are very quickly chewed up. I can’t hold it against them– I was a chewer and I’m pretty sure that Trouble pieces had a very satisfying bite.

Regardless, I think that Trouble is worth introducing to a child on the spectrum, as its gameplay is different enough from the other board games we discussed today. It’s a great addition to your game closet– and yes, the creation of a game closet really helped in my home. My kids love the ritual of opening the closet, choosing a game, and being responsible to clean in up and put it away. It’s helped in my house with accountability, which is a structure that their dad and I will have to continue pushing for as the kids get older.

If you have a child on the spectrum that has difficulty focusing on any sort of game, toy, or social task, I’m not writing this article to promise any sort of magical transformation. I sincerely hope for you that you have all of the family support and educational/behavioral resources needed to help your child thrive and become their best self. It’s not easy, but for me, it’s becoming easier to understand. Amassing board games doesn’t have to be expensive, either. Stores like Five Below offer games for literally $5 or less. If that’s too pricey still, just take some cardboard and markers and create your own versions of the classics.

Who knows– maybe creating board games will be a wonderful art project that brings you and your little one playing, finally, and focused on an activity together.

Even if if it’s only for 15 minutes.

 

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