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How Board Games Help Kids Build Social Savvy

Children on the autism spectrum gain social skills through a unique gaming group that feels like play, not work

Malia Jacobson

Published on: September 27, 2016

board game fun

On the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, a staid beige-and-white conference room at Sound Mental Health (SMH) in Bellevue is transformed into a gamers’ haven, albeit a surprisingly low-tech one: Not a Pokémon Go player is in sight. At promptly 5 p.m., a number of teens ranging in age from 14 to 19 start trickling in, greeting their peers and SMH clinician Katie Jo Glaves, a marriage and family therapist, with full eye contact, strong handshakes, high-fives and smiles. 

This is significant because these teens all identify as being on the autism spectrum, although a formal diagnosis isn’t required for membership in this group. The group was created to help address social struggles commonly experienced by kids on the spectrum, from difficulty in understanding others’ social cues and emotions to knowing how to adjust their behavior for different environments.

These kids don’t seem socially hesitant, though; sly grins and good-natured teasing dominate. They’ve come to play cooperative board games: games requiring players to work together toward a goal, such as Castle Panic and Forbidden Desert, and role-playing games, such as The Quiet Year and Fiasco, which allow the teens to step outside of their comfort zones and into various roles and team-play scenarios.

During the two-hour session, they’ll play their way to increased empathy and social awareness, doing something — gaming — that they’d likely be doing anyway, says Glaves. However, the sessions offer even more value, she says, because the games themselves promote social skills. The teens, who are here by choice, don’t play just any game; the group emphasizes those games that require teamwork, dialogue and an understanding of hidden emotions, instead of video games or individual pursuits.

Over the first hour, the teens ease into role-playing via Fiasco. As the kids take on the characters they helped create, their gestures become more emphatic, they grin and break into funny expressions. Their personalities seem to grow as laugher carries into the hallway. After a little while, a couple of kids stake out a corner of the room for a game of The Quiet Year with an intern clinician, seeking a more relaxed, less animated interaction. Though this game is less animated than Fiasco, the trio’s play proceeds easily with a comfortable back-and-forth interspersed with smiles, jokes and discussion about favorite songs. 

Keeping it fun

While video games are super popular among teens, board games have a few distinct advantages over video games when it comes to boosting empathy and social cognition, according to research by Kansas State University: Board games require face-to-face interaction and the ability to read facial expressions and build “social capital,” or trust and rapport, in order to succeed.

Games like Fiasco — a group favorite in which players imagine potentially contentious scenarios between different members of a social group, then role-play the scene in real time, trying to figure out other players’ thoughts and motives — are particularly valuable for the development of empathy, Glaves notes. That’s because the requisite “overacting,” or overly exaggerated social cues, stimulate the “mirror” neurons that spur the development of empathy. “Empathy grows when you mirror the expressions of other people. Most people do it naturally, but kids on the spectrum have to learn it,” she explains.

Glaves established the group two years ago after hearing one of her spectrum counseling clients, a middle school student from Sammamish who wishes to go by the name of Scott, complain that the social skills class required by his IEP (individualized education program, a written plan for a student’s special education services) was deathly boring. So boring, in fact, that Scott skipped it. So Glaves, his therapist, had to find other ways to relay the same information Scott would get in a middle school social skills class while upping the entertainment and engagement factors and building a meaningful dialogue between herself and game time

Glaves, an avid player of board games, decided to try using games to connect with Scott, engaging him in something fun while practicing vital social skills: the easy back-and-forth of a natural conversation, the motivations involved in various role-playing scenes, and the art of graceful winning and losing.

The games give players a chance to practice cognitive flexibility, says Glaves. “As kids continue with the group, I’m looking for them to develop the flexibility to be able to accept something someone else did on the board” without flipping out. But everyone has a bad day now and then, she notes. “Everyone in the group has had a day when they” weren’t doing well, when they couldn’t handle a game loss or the sensory stimulation of the group setting.

But through those challenges, the teens learn to speak up and make adjustments, says Glaves. “Maybe they need to step out and cool down. That’s a key step to learning how to self-manage emotional highs and lows.”

Over Scott’s two years of group attendance, he’s honed just this type of flexibility.

“A year and a half ago, someone killed my character in Fiasco in the first scene, and I was out of the game. I was irritable and I left the room,” says Scott. “But I came back.”

“I was proud of that,” responds Glaves, “because you used to have a bad experience in a class at school and never go back.”

Benefits that build

Enter the devices. 

Although a few attendees drop in and then drop out, Glaves hopes to see each student spend a year or two in the group, because the social skills they’re practicing take time to master. According to a 2012 Italian study presented at the European Conference on Developmental Psychology, engaging children in story-based conversation — that is, supplementing stories with a dialogue around the character’s hidden feelings and motives — leads to increased levels of empathy and social cognition, or awareness of the connection between emotion and behavior. The positive effect increases over time, notes Glaves, hence her goal of keeping each participant in the group for a couple of years.

Afterward, participants may be ready to “graduate” to a community board game group. “It doesn’t need to be a spectrum group, because in this social context, spectrum individuals can easily fit in,” Glaves says. In other words, with boosted levels of social cognition and empathy, group graduates can go on to develop meaningful social relationships in a variety of settings — and have some honest-to-goodness fun.

It’s a goal worthy of a roll of the dice. 

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