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How Board Games are Helping Solve the Autism Puzzle

“Eli cheated at Chutes and Ladders today!”, my son’s teacher proudly announced one day at school pick-up. I smiled, thrilled that he had reached this long-awaited milestone. You see, Eli is autistic, so he doesn’t have the sense of competition that comes so naturally to most kids. He doesn’t understand the value in beating someone at a game simply for the joy of winning. In Eli’s black and white world, there needs to be a tangible reward for everything.

For example, when Eli finally took the training wheels off of his bike, he did it in exchange for a marshmallow; not for the social standing of being a big kid or the satisfaction of riding faster than someone else. He needed payment. Something that he could touch, smell, and, in this case, taste. So hearing that he cheated at a board game meant that he wanted to win and he wanted it badly enough to find a way around the rules. For the first time, he was driven by competition and it was a board game that got him there.

Eli was in kindergarten the first time I realized that we needed to teach competition. It was the last day of school and I had volunteered to help with Field Day. Eli was part of a relay race where he had to run across a field, pick up a flag and return it to the next person in line. Rather than run, he walked at his usual slow, meandering pace. His competitive teammates excitedly screamed and begged him to “RUN!” He picked up the pace to an awkward jog, hit the other side of the field, picked up the flag, and kept going. He didn’t understand the goal.

I don’t remember what the reward was for winning the races at Field Day. There may not have been one. These enthusiastic 5 year- olds didn’t need it. They just needed the sweet satisfaction of winning and the bragging rights that came with it. And while these kids were kind and laughed off Eli’s quirkiness that lost the race, I knew we had to fix this. Eli needed to learn competition.

That summer, I did everything I could to model competition. At the pool, I would ask if he wanted to race to the other side. He would say “Yes,” but made no effort to beat me. On walks, I’d challenge him to a short race. “Eli, want to race me back to the house?” The answer was no. “How about a thumb war?” “Fine, Mom. You win.” He couldn’t care less.

There seemed to be nothing I could do to make Eli care about winning a foot race, a swim race, a thumb war, or anything really. You see, when you lack social awareness, you don’t care what others think of you. And if you don’t care what others think of you, you don’t care who thinks you’re faster, stronger, smarter, or funnier. To parents navigating the murky waters of preteen social drama, this may sound like a dream -- a kid who doesn’t care what others think and marches to the beat of his own drum!

But kids need social interaction, and sometimes a little peer pressure, to move them along. Eli’s grandmother once told me that she never stressed about her kids reaching milestones because in the end, peer pressure would handle it. For example, if her kids didn’t want to give up a sippy cup, she didn’t care. The first day of preschool, when they showed up with a sippy cup, all the kids would laugh at them and the cup would be history. Problem solved.

I think she was joking, but it illustrates the role that competition plays in our lives. Throughout school and career, we are pushed along by the pressure of competing with our peers. And used properly, competition can drive us to be the best version of ourselves.

The private school was a great choice for Eli. In addition to regular academics, the teachers focused on social skills. Competition was now part of his lesson plan and board games were a primary tool. And what a versatile tool it was. Having worked in the game/toy industry for 16 years, I loved watching the creative ways his teachers used board games to teach social skills. They added and subtracted rules as needed to fit the lesson of the moment. Candy Land had real candy and checkers required language.

Since winning for winning’s sake didn’t function as a reward for Eli, his teachers turned to the

most powerful currency in his life: sugar. Just as I had with his training wheels, his teachers began to offer him a marshmallow if he won. That got his attention. Once he had a desire to win, they had leverage. And they used it in every possible way, not the least of which was to help overcome his speech delay. If Eli’s therapist, Lauren (pictured to the right with Eli), wanted him to tell her about his day, she’d bring out his favorite game, Trapdoor Checkers. When it was her turn, she would ask Eli a question and delay her move until he answered. He talked.

Eli’s speech has improved, but we still use games to help teach. For example, our latest effort is to help Eli learn how to use pronouns, a concept he’s struggled with for years. Before each turn I make him say whose turn it is, using the proper pronoun. Because he’s motivated to keep the game moving, he usually gets it right. Most importantly, we use board games to get Eli to interact with other kids in a way that he understands.

Board games have clear, black and white rules – something that naturally appeals to autistic kids who don’t understand grey areas. They take comfort in knowing exactly what to expect and what is expected of them. There’s no other social situation I can put Eli in where the rules of social interaction are so explicitly spelled out and consistent. And with the right game, it’s a quiet activity, which he appreciates.

As a parent of a special needs child, I’ve adjusted to the idea that our lives will never be “normal.” My husband will tell me every chance he gets that there’s no such thing as normal. But I still love the few “normal” moments where Eli blends in with other kids and autism isn’t the first thing you notice. I get this when I watch him play board games. He’s just another kid, formulating a strategy, counting spaces, and waiting (impatiently) for his turn.

Years later, as I compare the relay race to watching Eli play Tic Stac Toe or Sorry with a friend, I understand why he prefers this quiet, predictable activity to 25 kids screaming instructions at him. And he’s become passionately competitive. Recently, his stepdad beat him at a game of Sorry (which is a tough game to sandbag so a child can win). Eli got mad and had a meltdown that lasted an hour. Like any parents, it broke our hearts to see him so upset. But after we calmed him down and put him to bed, my husband and I were beaming over the fact that he cared enough to be upset.

Eli turned 12 in May and like clockwork, we play the same three games every night: Tic Stac Toe, Trapdoor Checkers, and Sorry. I get special satisfaction from knowing what a big role these games have played in Eli’s development. But, social goals aside, I get the most satisfaction from sharing an activity that we both enjoy. He’s still not much of a runner, so if you want to challenge him to a foot race you’ll probably win. But if it’s a game of checkers you’re after, he’ll give you a real run for your money.

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