Category Archives: Games as Therapy Tools

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Robot Turtles: A Fun Way to Target Social Communication & Coding Skills

The following post is shared by speech-language pathologist Eric Sailers of Expressive Solutions, a company that develops apps for learners with special needs.  In this post, originally posted here, he shares some phenomenal insight about the power of game play to target and support specific communications skills.

RT Banner 300x87 Robot Turtles: A Fun Way to Target Social Communication & Coding Skills

If you are looking for a fun way to target social communication skills, as well as beginning computer programming, Robot Turtles is a great new board game you can play with your students (with or without autism). Robot Turtles requires players to use simple commands to move their turtles to capture a jewel on the game board. When students give commands, they are replicating the process computer programmers use to give instructions for a computer to execute. Games, in general, provide opportunities for social communication; Robot Turtles in particular involves specific interactions between the game players that enable more opportunities for social communication. For students who show an interest in games and computers, playing Robot Turtles can be a highly engaging way to practice social communication.

During game play, it is easy to provide students with opportunities to practice five different social communication skills:

1) Perspective taking

As turtle masters, students take the perspective of their turtles on the game board in order to decide which way to move. If they were to take their own perspectives, players may not move in the intended direction; success in the game depends on the ability to make decisions based on a different perspective.

2) Turn taking

Students also actively take turns throughout the game. Not only do they have to wait for the other turtle masters to complete their turns, but students do not actually move their own game pieces. The adult overseeing the game, otherwise known as the turtle mover, is in charge of executing the moves on the game board based on student commands.

3) Eye contact and body language

Since turtle masters don’t move their own pieces, they must clearly communicate their commands to the turtle mover. This offers a good opportunity to practice politely giving directions, as well as utilizing eye contact and body language to effectively communicate and acknowledge the turtle mover.

4) Following directions

In return, the turtle mover may communicate directions for the turtle masters to follow. The turtle mover also ensure players are aware of and adhere to the rules of the game.

5) Making comments

Throughout game play, students can be encouraged to make positive comments directed specifically to other turtle masters. For example, a student could say, “Nice move. I like how you did that!” when another player makes a good move in the game. In Robot Turtles, the goal is not to have one winner; all students keep playing until they achieve the goal for that specific level. Establishing a positive atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to be successful creates a great opportunity for modeling and practicing comments.

Robot Turtles can be played with children as young as four, all the way up to middle or high school. The game has several levels so it is easy to adapt game play based on student age and experience with the game. The upper levels of the game require sophisticated logic and analytical skills to complete the challenges, while the simple levels introduce children to basic logic. Either way, social communication skills can be targeted in various ways throughout the game.

Cartoon It! used in Occupational Therapy in Puerto Rico

An Occupational Therapist in Puerto Rico recently shared this great feedback on using Cartoon It! with her patients!

Cartoon It therapy Cartoon It! used in Occupational Therapy in Puerto Rico

Sonia reports:

I work as a certified occupational therapy assistant with kids 6, 7, and 12 years old. They loved Cartoon It! I recommend this for children with problems with visual motor integration and with form constancy, although it helps with visual discrimination and visual memory too.

To make it easier since it was their first time, they were allowed to note on the paper the number of the characteristic so they could copy it directly from the board. At first, my patients did some badly arranged drawings. We discussed the problems we were having with the cartoons and how we can make it better. Actually, a kid made a head so small, he had to make the face outside the head.

It’s part of the therapy process to make mistakes and fix them. As the kids continued making the cartoons, the quality escalated to the ones I’m showing you. They can see their progress in the same therapy, so they loved it so much. Hopefully, their writing will become better than before, with the help of your game.

In a 45 minute therapy session, they could do 4-7 cartoons, including giving the instructions and showing the drawings to their friends. Thanks for this awesome game -my patients loved it!

Have you used any games in therapy sessions? I’d love to hear your experiences – which games were used and the skills they targeted!

Hello Sunshine Shines in Speech Therapy!

The following post is shared by expert Speech Therapist Sherry Artemenko of Play On Words.  Sherry recently awarded Hello Sunshine! the Play Advances Language (PAL) Award in recognition of its uses as a language learning tool!

 Hello Sunshine Shines in Speech Therapy!

“Hello Sunshine,” New PAL Award winner, Shines In Preschool Speech Therapy

Toddlers can be a bit of a challenge in speech therapy because you have to keep them engaged and motivated with great toys and activities while building their language. Sunshine was quite a hit with my little ones as they warmed right up to her and delighted in hiding and finding the furry bit of radiance. 2 year-olds were following directions and learning prepositions, while 3 year-olds decided to play teacher and send me on the hunt. Use Sunshine to teach wh-questions, pronouns,  prepositions and vocabulary as you go on your search around the house.

 Hello Sunshine Shines in Speech Therapy!

Hello Sunshine was recently honored with a Play Advances Language (PAL) Award!

Here is my full review:

Say hello to Sunshine, who joins ThinkFun’s first toddler game, “Roll & Play” which was popular with toddlers and their moms last year. I am more frequently asked for toy suggestions by parents of toddlers than any other age, which might explain why these simple starter games provide more structure for parents and caregivers who appreciate some guidance on where to begin their play.

Hide the plush Sunshine according to picture cards depicting positions such as in a box, next to a chair or on top of your head! Ask your toddler, “Were is Sunshine, can you find her?” The game’s directions offer wonderful language learning tips for toddlers such as modeling questions, greetings, and positional words within the context of a child’s play.

Kids loved playing this game of hide and seek with their furry Sunshine. When my little friend spotted her “on top of a pillow,” he squealed with delight, grabbed her, and leaned in for a squeeze! Three year-olds upped the fun by trading places with me and being the “hider.” I had to follow directions, “Now me hide it, close your eyes” Playing just once, isn’t enough, “”I wanna hide it again!”

Getting Crafty: DIY Zingo!

Zingo 7700 LoResSpill 300x300 Getting Crafty: DIY Zingo!

Zingo!

What can you teach with 72 plastic tiles?

As I’ve shared in past posts, it turns out a creative brain can tweak these tiles to teach just about anything – from genetics to family member names!

This latest post, shared by Tammy G. of the Fumbling Thru Autism blog, shares some fantastic ideas (and a great how-to description for all you crafty folks!) for modifying the classic Zingo! game to expand game play and support learning!

Expanding ZingoPosted: March, 2, 2013

In my last post, I wrote about how to make easy turn-taking games easier. Now Beth and I play turn-taking games for hours every day.  It is so wonderful to work on interaction and language development and have fun at the same time.

When given a choice of games, Beth always chooses Zingo.  There is something uniquely fun about sliding that dispenser to eject the game pieces, matching the pictures, and then throwing up our hands and yelling (well, quietly yelling) “Zingo!” when we are done filling our cards.  During the game Beth readily talks.  I ask, “What did you get?” and she almost always answers.

 Getting Crafty: DIY Zingo!

Farm & Vehicles Zingo!

Lately I don’t even need to ask, she is commenting on her pieces without prompting.  I also expand her language based on the game pieces. “What does the dog say?”, “Where does the bird fly?”, and “Where do you put a hat?” are just a few examples of ways we expand language during play.  After running out of ideas to expand Beth’s language using the Zingo game pieces, I realized it was time to expand Zingo itself.

Below are two ways I have expanded Zingo by making custom made Zingo game pieces.  I wanted to keep our original Zingo game intact so that we could still play the game, so I bought a second Zingo game (Zingo 1-2-3 numbers version, which we will use later when she is counting) to attach pictures to the game pieces.

Clip Art on Zingo Game Pieces

I bought JPEG clip art files from an artist on Etsy.  Using Power Point, I sized the clip art appropriately and added text under each picture, then I printed out game boards and smaller images for the Zingo game pieces.  Next, I cut out and covered the game boards with clear Con-tact paper and cut out the smaller images and attached them to the Zingo game pieces (I used clear Con-tact paper to attach the paper to the game pieces, but Scotch tape should also work).

Here are two sets of games I made with links to the JPEG files and my Power Point Templates:

 Getting Crafty: DIY Zingo!

Summer & Brown Bear, Brown Bear Story

 Getting Crafty: DIY Zingo!

Easter

Below you can find Power Point Templates to create your own boards and Zingo game pieces:

Another method is to buy stickers and put them on the Zingo game pieces, which is a great option for adding your child’s favorite characters to the Zingo game.

 Getting Crafty: DIY Zingo!

Here is a game set using Dora and Pooh stickers

If you want to reuse your tiles, be aware that some self-adhesive stickers adhere strongly, so it will be a lot of work to remove the stickers. Also, it was difficult to find stickers that were the right size to cover the whole original image on the Zingo game pieces. Therefore, for most stickers sets, I cut out each sticker to the appropriate size and stuck it on white paper, then attached the mounted sticker to a Zingo game piece with clear Con-tact paper (alternatively you could use Scotch tape).

Another option is to print the images on self-adhesive computer labels and attach them to the Zingo game pieces, but they might be difficult to remove at a later time.

Want to DIY?! Tammy has generously shared JPEG files for the 4 game boards and game pieces with instructions in this post, get crafting!

 

AsperKids-ThinkFun-image

Introducing… The Asperkids Collection!

I am THRILLED to share the new Asperkids Collection, an exciting partnership between ThinkFun and Asperkids!  Asperkids creator Jennifer O’Toole has curated a collection of games that support universal education skills for learners of all abilities, and below she shares a post on this initiative.  Learn more about Jennifer and her incredible work with AsperKids on her website, FacebookPinterest, and Twitter!

AsperKids ThinkFun image Introducing... The Asperkids Collection!

At Asperkids, we believe that learning is the business of everyone, every day – and that a, b, c’s and 1, 2, 3′s are just the tip of the iceberg. Real success in real life – friendships, romance, careers – requires persistence, patience, patience, and communication. And there’s no better way to practice all of those skills than PLAY. As Mister Roger’s said, “Play is serious work.” That’s why we are SO proud to introduce THE ASPERKIDS COLLECTION BY THINKFUN – our favorite games for sharpening skills OFFERED SO THAT SOME OF THE PROCEEDS BENEFIT OUR WORK on behalf of Asperkids everywhere.

By paying particularly close attention to the the distinct needs of different minds, we’ve assembled a collection of strategies, philosophies and insights which increase curiosity, wonder and engagement – improving the way ALL children (gifted, twice exceptional, sensory, ADD, typical, etc) LEARN HOW TO LEARN.

For example… you can teach a young Asperkid to practice overcoming mind blindness (the idea that our perspectives aren’t the automatically same) with S’match – a game aimed at children as young as four! Practice using the phrase, “Make me see what you’re seeing.” Help the child explain why they’ve made a “s’match” (or why they haven’t) using as many descriptors (colors, shapes, quantity) as possible….even an older Aspie may find that more challenging than you’d expect. Why? To us Aspies, our thoughts seem “transparent,” or obvious to everyone else. We have to LEARN THE SKILL of communicating what we presume, understand and believe in what feels (to us) like overly stated terms.

That may start by learning to clearly articulate, “I have a “s’match” because I uncovered two red cards, and the category I needed to match was color. If the category had been number or shape, I wouldn’t have made a s’match because these cards have different shapes (one has circles and the other has a triangle) and quantities (two versus one).” Take that to the level of a teen and it become explaining their thoughts about what happened at a party – or to an adult who can successfully communicate with his or her spouse.

“Make me see what you see.” That’s your line. Then repeat it back, “So, you see a…..” If what you’ve heard and what your kiddo meant don’t “S’match,” guide your Asperkid as she fills in any holes or miscommunications.

You see? In our collection, there’s logic building and visual spatial skills, collaboration and problem solving…not to mention LOTS OF FUN. So delight your Asperkid – and empower others everywhere by making your purchases through our site. We’ll all be so very glad you have.

(For more great ideas on how to use ThinkFun Games read my past blog, “Perspective from a Plastic Ice Cream Truck“.)

More Flashcards Please! (said no one ever!)

As any teacher or parent of an emerging reader will tell you, there are certain key words that children must learn in order to become fluent readers.  These words, called Sight Words, are words like “of” and “the” that appear frequently and are often not spelled phonetically.  Children must learn to recognize and read these words by sight, as stopping to sound them out would slow reading speed down significantly and make it difficult to promote comprehension.

mistaken+idea 001 More Flashcards Please! (said no one ever!)

Sight words (photo courtesy of Toys Are Tools blog)

So how do we learn these words?  For many, flashcards are an obvious choice since these are words learned through repetition that must be recognized at first sight… but how dull!  As a kindergarten teacher, I had a massive Sight Word Wall where we posted words like these throughout the year to practice and to build familiarity, and many other creative exercises and ideas have been shared by teachers, therapists, and parents to make learning more fun (just go to Pinterest and search for the term!).

 More Flashcards Please! (said no one ever!)

Because learning these Sight Words is such a fundamental piece of becoming a successful reader, I am beyond thrilled that ThinkFun came out with Zingo! Sight Words!  This game uses the addictive fun of the Zingo! Zinger (I mean seriously addictive – have you ever tried to pry that thing away from a 5 year old?!) and modified game play to feature 26 critical Sight Words.

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No more flashcards! Zingo Sight Words builds reading muscles through play!

These words were selected by teachers and language therapists in the US and Canada from the 220 words on the official Dolch Sight Words list as the most important words for young readers to practice.

 

PAL 100 More Flashcards Please! (said no one ever!)But don’t take my word for it, Zingo! Sight Words was awarded the Play Advances Language (PAL) Award for supporting language development through play and chosen by the organization as a top 10 game for 2012!  Read more in this press release.

Check out this amazing expert review of the game on the Toys Are Tools blog.  I love this blogger’s photo (and the word she invented in the accompanying caption!) – learning in action!

three+went 001 More Flashcards Please! (said no one ever!)

See how fast this kid's hand is? He Zingo-cizes regularly. He started playing Zingo when he was two

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Do you have a creative way of reinforcing or teaching sight words?  I’d love to hear it!
Roll & Play (bottom right) is featured in the new Toys R Us Guide

Toys R Us Differently-Abled Kids Guide features Roll & Play

Toys R Us has just published the newest Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids!  For over 20 years, this guide has served as a fantastic resources for parents, teachers, and therapists who work with children with a range of different learning needs.

 

TRUp49 screenshot 1024x800 Toys R Us Differently Abled Kids Guide features Roll & Play

Roll & Play (bottom right) is featured in the new Toys R Us Guide

The toys featured in the guide are assessed by the National Lekotek Center.  Experts screen hundreds of toys to make their selection, looking for specific skill-building traits to assign to each toy that appears in the guide.  The skills include auditory, creativity, fine motor, gross motor, language, self-esteem, social skills, tactile, thinking, and visual.

We are honored to have our newest toddler game Roll & Play featured in this new Guide!  The experts at Lekotek celebrate this new game for supporting 5 important learning skills, including Thinking, Visual, Social Skills, Language, and Gross Motor.

Browse the complete guide here:

Reversing Effects of Brain Damage through Game Play

A truly unbelievable email arrived in the ThinkFun inbox the other day. Liane suffered extensive brain damage, was even declared dead at one point, and had to relearn to speak and walk. Here she shares how a simple game played a vital role in her incredible recovery – grab a Kleenex before you dive into this one!

 

To Whom It May Concern:

I was misdiagnosed by a doctor as having Dystonia in 2005. This is similar to Parkinson’s. I was put on Parkinson’s meds when I was not even ill. As a result the meds killed me. I was dead long enough to be declared dead. I sustained extensive Brain Damage because I was gone too long. I eventually woke up, but I had terrible Brain Damage.

I had to relearn my vocabulary by reading the Dictionary and Thesaurus. I had to go to Physical Therapy to learn how to walk again. I had to learn how to speak again. My hand strength was low and I had to only interact with things I could easily grip with a loose hand grip and not drop as my hand strength was weak.

I read on the Internet that if you stimulate the brain, it will grow new Neural Paths and Dendrites around the dread brain cells. You can never grow or create new brain cells. You can never repair dead or damaged brain cells. BUT you can stimulate the brain AND the brain will respond by reaching out to grow around the dead around those dead areas and make those connections again. It took me two years of brain stimulation for my brain tests at UCLA to register as 0% Brain Damage. It does work.

Shape 5941 HiResSpill 300x300 Reversing Effects of Brain Damage through Game Play
I used your product Shape by Shape as part of my daily regimen I had in place to help me recover. I did the puzzles every day to stimulate my brain and bring it back. I did other things too, but the puzzle was a part of my daily routine to help me recover.

I showed the puzzle to my doctors to UCLA. They were surprised that I thought to use it for recovery, but they said it makes sense that it helped me. I recommend it to people who have had a stroke, neurological damage or some sort of brain damage. My brain damage was due to oxygen deprivation as my heart and lungs stopped and I was declared dead.

I wanted to let you know about the expanded use of your product so you can promote them to doctors, hospitals, clinics, charities, support groups, etc. that are involved with stroke victims, neurological illnesses, oxygen deprivation brain damage (swimming pool accidents, drowning accidents, accidental drug overdose, etc.).

Your puzzles also have value to fight off Alzheimer’s Disease. It is vital we do new things, learn new tasks, keep our brain engages, keep our brain learning, exercise our brain throughout our life in order to keep back the tide of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The large pieces make it easy to pick up and hold them when you have weak hand strength and lack dexterity as an elderly person, a stroke victim or a brain damage patient in recovery. The large 3D pieces help with the work on hand eye coordination that must be done in recovery. This is an advantage over a video game. A video game does not challenge me for hand eye coordination, hand strength or dexterity the way an actual puzzle does. The physical puzzle has more value.

I just wanted to let you know there are more uses for your products than you ever suspected. Please expand your marketing to included patients. Other people can benefit past me. I just happened to see your puzzle in Barnes and Noble. I picked it up out of desperation to find a way to heal my brain. I didn’t know if it would work, but it did work.

The doctors told me, “You will walk with a cane the rest of your life.” I do not walk with a cane anymore, and I don’t fall over anymore. I was told, “You will never have clear speech.” Today, I speak just fine. I can speak and my voice is clear. My words are not garbled. I am understood. My memory is improved. Everything is improved.

My brain testing at UCLA Hospital two years later revealed 0% brain damage. Everything was gone. The doctors were impressed!!!!

Please consider expanding your marketing and sales to the medical field. People can benefit from your products. Thanks so much for making such fabulous products. You really helped me a great deal.

Liane T.

Westminster, California

 

Read another amazing story from a woman in Alaska who used ThinkFun games to recover from traumatic brain injury – a 2nd box of Kleenex may be necessary!

Rush Hour: An Autism Adventure

Several weeks ago, I featured a fabulous post by Jennifer Cook O’Toole, author of Asperkids: An Insiders’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome,  in which she shared her use of our Rush Hour Jr. game with her own family!  It’s always gratifying when readers particularly connect with certain articles , so I was thrilled to see this post tweeted by Rebecca Mitchell, a psychotherapist in the UK who was so inspired by Jennifer’s post she purchased the game for her own son and shared her experience on her Loving Martians blog! Rush Hour: An Autism Adventure

Rush Hour: An Autism Adventure

Posted on  by Rebecca Mitchell

Yesterday, the doorbell rang and Mr Postman delivered ‘Rush Hour - Traffic Jam Game’, Junior Edition by Thinkfun TM.  I had read a recommendation by Jennifer O’Toole ofAsperkids and decided to try it.  L has become incredibly wary of games and generally now refuses to play them.  I think that he sometimes struggles to comprehend the rules but the bigger issue is the stress caused by adversarial games where social niceties such as turn-taking are essential; patience and a non-agressive response to being beaten are required; and competitive big sister M cannot be persuaded not to gloat when winning and wail when losing.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve encouraged L to play a game for quite some time.  Recently, however, when M and I set up a Lego game, I noticed that despite claiming not to want to play it when invited, L sidled furtively up to see what we were doing and then joined in (albeit in a slightly scary fashion which involved him building all the Lego hens, throwing the die wildly at the wall when it was his (my) turn, and cheating slightly and us not daring to challenge him for fear of precipitating meltdown).

Anyway – I threw caution to the wind and decided to order Rush Hour.  When it first arrived, L was angrily suspicious and wanted nothing to do with the package.  After I unpacked it and he saw all the little cars he did this…

 Rush Hour: An Autism Adventure.

Yep – he lined them up.  After lining them up, he became very territorial about the cars for a day and wouldn’t let anyone touch them.  He loves the cars, especially the Police cars.  The next day, when asked if he wanted to play, he refused.

I decided to see if M wanted a game as she had been the model of self-restraint for the last day but clearly wanted a go.  The initial possessiveness had diminished a little and L ’allowed’  M to play.  We set up the game on my bed and instantly, L appeared and virtually within seconds was smitten.  After ten minutes more, M and I no longer got a look-in.  If you’ve never heard of Rush Hour – it is genius in its simplicity; fiendish in its difficulty; and totally, totally addictive and the best thing (for L) is that you can play it on your own.  The junior addition has a grid and then 40 cards that each have a pattern of trucks laid out which you have to copy onto the grid.  Each card gets progressively more difficult.  The idea is that you push the vehicles backwards and forwards (you can’t lift them) until the ice-cream van is free to move along, unhindered, to the exit. In simple terms, the ice-cream van is blocked in by a traffic jam and the player has to move the traffic to free the van.

AwQrMSeCMAADRxk Rush Hour: An Autism Adventure

The game has so many elements that L loves.  I’ve already mentioned the little cars and in particular the police cars.  Then there is the Lego-like element.  L is very good at Lego.  On his birthday I was amazed to watch him building his Lego Batman Cave by just glancing at the page and seeming to have an almost photographic memory of the layout of the bricks.  M and I, faced with the same page, would have been using our finger to count how many spaces to leave before adding a piece.  So, he LOVED following the cards to build up the traffic jam.   Very quickly it became clear that L was really very good at this game.  He was somehow able to see the bigger picture whilst M and I were bogged down with trying to move one vehicle.  After taking it in turns well at first, L became increasingly frustrated with our ineptitude and was obviously itching to step in and rescue us as we made our jams worse.  The excitement levels mounted as L saw the way out time and time again.

Eventually, L became rather hyper, flushed with success as he was, and jumped madly around the bed shouting, ‘I’m an Aspergerkid and we are superheroes’ (something he’s brilliantly picked up from the Asperkids sites).  I was touched.  His self-esteem which has been struggling recently, was soaring through the roof.  He was also identifying himself proudly with Asperger Syndrome and seeing that he could do some things well and that maybe autism could give him some kind of advantage.  Even M became drawn into the general atmosphere of excited abandon and was generous in her praise of her little brother, forgetting her usual desire to be best at everything.  She so clearly loves him and was delighting in his success.  We were all swept up in a tide of goodwill.

The downside of all this was that it was getting late, the routine was shot to pieces, there was no way that L was going to go to bed without doing another ten cards and the turn-taking had totally broken down as L found it so hard to spectate from the sidelines.  I suggested that he take five cards into his bedroom.  He took them in and told us that we weren’t allowed to disturb him or say anything but that he would shout ‘banana’ every time he completed a card.  Five bananas later and L got into bed,  tired but satisfied.  The game was a resounding success.  Unfortunately, L now rather sees it as his game.  So M had to wait until he was busy pursuing his MI9 special interest on the computer this morning to sneak the game into the kitchen and have a go, and when L realised what she was doing she had to agree not to go any further than the cards that he had completed.

So we settled down this morning, still giddy with success, to a celebratory breakfast of pancakes (I had batter left over from the weekend), except that I didn’t have enough batter left for L’s second one and he wasn’t having any of it when I said that the spoke effect looked like a cool spaceship.  ‘I’m not having that’, he cried in disgust.  I offered to make him a pitta bread with honey instead (one of his favourites).  He looked even more disgusted when I passed him the pitta bread.  ‘Mummy, you KNOW I don’t like ROUND pitta bread’, he yelled.  I had tried an organic brand of mini wholemeal pitta breads and it was indeed smaller and rounder and browner than his usual white, oval shaped pittas.  Life’s never easy in our neurodiverse household but it’s never boring and at least we now have a game we all love.

 

The Perspective from a Plastic Ice Cream Truck

The following guest post is shared by Jennifer Cook O’Toole, Author of Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2012).  I met Jennifer a few months ago when she reached out to ThinkFun to share her experiences with our game and her interest in sharing our games with her readers.  She is an amazing resource and I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn about the AsperKids community through her expertise!  We were particularly honored when she recently awarded ThinkFun the prestigious AsperKids Seal of Awesomeness!  Learn more about Jennifer and her incredible work with AsperKids on her website, FacebookPinterest, and Twitter!

Asperkids fmaily The Perspective from a Plastic Ice Cream Truck

Jennifer and her playful family!

The Perspective from a Plastic Ice Cream Truck

This weekend (like most of us mommies and daddies during most of our weekends), my kiddos and I attended a child’s birthday party.  Well, actually we attended three, but maybe that’s part of what contributed to the (ahem) somewhat frazzled state in which I found myself driving my minivan from one end of the county to the other.  Yes, there was the usual chaos of simply maneuvering three kids from place to place (to place) without losing a gift, a shoe, a child or my mind.

Now, let me offer the perspective that all three of my children and I have Asperger Syndrome.  Essentially, that means that we prefer routine and concrete, fact-based hobbies, are gifted at seeing patterns, connections, and logic, have minds that can absorb factual information on a vast scale — and are not so hot at picking up on social cues or being able to step outside our own minds to anticipate or understand another person’s perspective. So sometimes, what seems like a perfectly lovely atmosphere to the rest of the world (hello? birthday party?!) is laced with stress, confusion and nerves for us.

Which is why, back at the party, my middle child (who is almost six) was having a rough time.  Social misreadings were abounding.  He couldn’t negotiate the ebbing and flowing of the groups of kids who ran from one bounce house to the next, and he was quickly looking more and more like a baby sea turtle being tossed about in waves of busy kindergarteners.

But the biggest problem lay ahead.  Note: the birthday boy at this particular shindig was his best friend from the neighborhood, the only peer he regularly sees outside of school.  Adults know, of course, that the host never gets to spend much time with party guests.  And true to that playbook, the newly-minted six-year-old was very busy trying to have fun with lots of kids.  Try though I might to explain to my own son that he wasn’t being ignored, he felt suddenly unimportant to the boy he loves like a brother — so he spoke up, lip trembling, and said, “I just want to play with you. You’re my best friend.”  Now I know for a fact that this other guy loves my Asperkid.  But in an attempt to be diplomatic amidst the other children, the little host said, “You’re not my best friend. I have lots of best friends.”

My son fell to the ground in a small ball, and began to sob.  It hadn’t been meant as rejection, but it sure felt that way on the receiving end.

As I wrote in Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome, “Play is a child’s first experience of work, learning, and emotional response…(But) group play requires significant cooperative skills, real-time flexible thinking, and otherwise sticky interpersonal play that can feel awkward, uncomfortable, or truly scary.”  It’s for those reasons — among many more I explore at length in the book — that Asperkids “crave clarity and predictability. When most of our day is spent negotiating a world that doesn’t match our neurological hardwiring, it’s no wonder that we find calm in objects and activities that simplify things as much as possible” (68).

So we who love and teach these brilliant children must find methods of play that innately match their natural preferences, giving “them early experiences of success, confidence and road signs toward fulfilling, productive careers” (72).

What does that have to do with the breakdown amidst the bounce houses? Everything.  You see, in order for me to be able to help my Asperkid understand what was actually happening in the immediate social situation — rather than what HE thought was happening — he would have to be able to see the encounter from his friend’s perspective rather than his own.  That’s called “theory of mind” among psychologists — it’s called standing in someone else’s shoes by the rest of the world.  And we Aspies can’t — not won’t, can’t — do it naturally.  We aren’t self-centered or self-important.  We literally cannot intuit another’s feelings without having to think through — to intellectualize — them.  Compassion we have in utter droves.  Natural empathy, however, eludes us.

Asperkids Sean 249x300 The Perspective from a Plastic Ice Cream Truck

Jennifer's son Sean, age 5 3/4, focuses on a Rush Hour Jr. challenge

So once I got my son to take some deep breaths and snuggle into a deep hug, I began talking with him. “Hey, Little Man,” I began, “I know you’re feeling pretty small and hurt right now.  But I was wondering if we could talk about Rush Hour?” He looked up at that, one eyebrow cocked.  Mom wanted to talk about a board game? Now?

Yup. Sure did. Just the other day, we had been playing Rush Hour Jr. together.  First, I will freely admit (to any adult but not to my kids! Shhh!) that not only is this game one of my favorites because of its logic and systems of patterns (there’s my Aspie noggin again), but because it’s a fantastic tool for pushing my children’s visual tracking and processing skills.  While their vision is absolutely perfect, the two eldest (9,6) have struggled with their eyes teaming or tracking smoothly — a problem common among many kids with ADD.  It can make tasks such as handwriting, drawing, coloring and reading physically and mentally exhausting, even for folks like these two, who both sport Mensa-level IQ’s.

In our last game, I encouraged my son to touch each of the grid squares as he laid out the vehicles to match the puzzle card.  Does the ice cream truck touch the top corner or bottom corner of the green car? I had him trace his finger left-to-right across each line of the set-up card and then do the same on the board he was building (that’s training his eyes to travel smoothly and his mind to correctly spatially interpret what his eyes take in).

And all the while, my gently repeated mantra was, “Think before you do.” Stop and plan before you act.  All-in-all, a good lesson for everyone.  But it’s especially so for kids with ADHD (a commonality among nearly every Asperkid), for whom impulsivity gets them in frequent trouble.  They speak out without thinking of the effect.  They interrupt.  They leave without their lunch. They turn in their homework too soon without checking their answers.  In “Rush Hour,” you can get yourself completely locked in on all sides, unable to escape the jam you’ve created simply by doing without pausing to think first.  The same, I would argue, will be true for the game-playing children as they grow — in life, love, and friendship.

So when my son has his board set up, we repeat together that mantra, “Think before you do.” And then we add the only strategy we really need — a three-parter.RushHJr 5040 HiResSpill 300x300 The Perspective from a Plastic Ice Cream Truck

  1. Who or what is in my way?
  2. Who or what is in his way?
  3. How much room does he need to move?

Yes, of course I am talking about plastic police cars and fire trucks.  I’m also talking about a lot more.

What is in your way of feeling content? important? loved? included? Is it a thing — like a seating assignment or confusing class project that can be adjusted? Or is it a person?  And if so (here’s the BIG MOMENT — the theory of mind-taking, perspective-seeing challenge!), what people, problems, ideas, or feelings might be keeping him or her stuck there?  Maybe it’s something small, and a few words will make the difference (like just moving an obstacle one position), or maybe, like the school bus, it’s a bigger dilemma that requires a lot of problem-solving “space” (time, emotional room, privacy, etc.) to change.

Which is why I sat there with my crying six-year-old and talked about Rush Hour.  What was getting in his way of feeling happy right then and there? His friend had said something that had hurt him, and was off playing with lots of other people. OK, so what was getting in his (the birthday boy’s) way of being the steady playmate my Asperkid knew and loved? That’s where my son was utterly stumped.  He had no idea.  None.  Other than that his friend “doesn’t love me anymore.”

And that’s where these children internalize the misinterpreted situations, and turn them into feelings of isolation, worthlessness or doubt.  So that’s where we — as parents and teachers — can make a difference.

We talked about other possibilities: a host’s responsibilities, about how the birthday boy needed to make all his guests feel equally important (and probably hadn’t wanted the other kids to feel hurt by hearing that they weren’t the “best friends”).  It was, he came to agree, an attempt at diplomacy — at trying not to show favorites, not to reject the BFF everyone knew he loved.

What’s in my way? What is in his way? How much room does he need to move? Because we had prepared with “Rush Hour” — with concrete, seeable, touchable play (and yes, it absolutely was preparation as much as it had been play) — I could use those questions to help build a case for perspective, and for reconciliation.  Ten minutes later, the boys were sitting side-by-side, eating their cake with arms around one another.

The power of play is limitless, and so are the children who are guided by it — both to success and to defeat.  No matter what kind of child is playing, he or she is developing perspective on much more than logic, spatial-relations, visual tracking or problem solving — although each of those are worthwhile.  With guidance and love, these kids are learning that their ideas matter. Their voices matter.  That they matter.  And that there is an awful lot you can learn about the world from a plastic ice cream truck.