Strategies for Playing Games with Children Who Have Autism, ADHD, and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders


Strategies for Playing Games with Children Who Have Autism, ADHD, and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders

One of the thing adults often struggle with when trying to engage a child with autism, ADHD, or other neurodevelopmental issues in playing a game is helping the child stay oriented to them and not just the activity itself.  When an adult gets out a game the child may immediately become focused on looking at and touching the items rather than focusing on playing the game together.  This makes it very difficult for adults to guide the child to actually engage in playing the game together.  The activity becomes more about the adult trying to keep up with what the child is doing, instead of guiding the child to think about and engage in the game in a productive way.  It is critical to manage impulsive actions in a way that helps the child develop better emotional and behavioral regulation so that improvements in cognition, communication, and relationships can occur.

Here are some simple strategies to effectively engage children in game play:

  1. Keep the activity simple – Complexity is the kiss of death when trying to engage kids who are constantly grabbing for materials.  You want to keep the activity simple and clear.  This may mean modifying a game instead of following the directions.  Examples: play memory with only 5 pairs; play Topple by taking turns placing pieces on the board until they fall; play Uno with only the number cards.  It is important to take the child’s developmental level, ability to attend, and level of competence in mind when determining how to structure game play.  Reducing complexity helps the child process the information more easily and allows for engagement and thoughtful participation.
  2. Do not put everything out all at once – Once you put all the materials out on the playing surface it’s all over!  The adult should control the box of materials and put out only what is needed at that moment.  Keep the rest of the items in the box or out of the child’s reach.  You can slowly work up to having more items out at a time.
  3. Reduce the number of players – For many children it is helpful to have only 2 players until they are more competent with maintaining appropriate engagement.  Playing a game with 3 or more players initially likely won’t work well!  Start small and increase the number of participants as the child can competently handle it.
  4. Keep materials in containers – Having materials in a box or other container allows for better control of the materials, and allows for quick removal of items if the child is grabbing for them.  For example, when playing the game Topple I like to keep all the pieces in the box; passing it to the child on his turn and then removing the box from reach when it is not his turn.  You may also find it helpful to put cards or the game board on a tray that you can easily remove from the area as needed.  This allows for the child to focus on the action taking place rather than constantly rifling through the pieces, trying to put them all on the board, etc.  This strategy is very helpful when teaching the process of turn taking.
  5. Physical positioning – Positioning yourself in a way that allows for appropriate support and engagement is essential.  Sitting at a 90-degree angle to the child is helpful for a number of reasons.  It allows for easy control of the materials, and lets the adult physically support the child as needed.  Sitting in this way also allows adult and child to easily reference each other’s facial expressions throughout the interaction.
  6. Timing is everything – Wait to start the actual game process until the child is calm and organized.  This means that their body is calm, they have quieted both physically and verbally, and they are generally oriented to you.   If the child’s brain and body are disorganized then putting out a game or activity is only going to ramp up the disorganization.  Waiting until the child has settled in will dramatically improve the level of engagement and meaningful participation.  Likewise, you need to think about timing in terms of ending the game.  Be attentive to how long the child can stay meaningfully engaged, and try to end the game on a positive note.  Don’t worry about what the rules say regarding game completion.  Choose a stopping point based on what is appropriate for the specific child.

These strategies can make games more enjoyable for everyone involved, and will lead to more active participation and learning on the part of the child.  Remember that just dragging a child through the motions of a game does not lead to improved cognition, communication, or relationships.  Taking time to structure things in a way that promotes thoughtful participation is necessary to get the most mileage out of game play.  Try these strategies the next time you get play a game together, and see what differences you notice.  You will know you’ve gotten it right when both of you enjoy playing games together!

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