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Games are Predictable Routines

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Games are Predictable

Every game is a routine, a sequence of predictable elements of movement, materials and/or language.  This is what is different between a game and unstructured play.  No matter how intelligent a child is and no matter how much language he or she has, a child with autism will find it easier to play games because of this predictable quality.  While eventually, it is valuable to teach children with autism to manage and even enjoy less structured play, it is much easier to start with games. 

A game can be what Dr. Arnold Miller calls a "system".  I think of the predictability of the game as the "hook" that I use to get a young friend to come, willingly, to play with me.  The child comes because I have provided a predictable pattern of movement, materials, and language and this child knows what I am doing.

Once the child has come to participate in the game, I can include new element in the game that will teach the child a new communication or social interaction skill.  Again, using Dr. Miller's image, learning occurs when you disrupt the established system, just a little, by adding some new element that your child will need to consider, and act upon in order to maintain or reestablish the system.   The game provides a predictable framework in which new elements are noticed rather than ignored.

Once you understand this idea of using predictability as your hook, you can create many new games that will entice your child to play with you.  Watch the video clips on this site, read the descriptions, and think about how each game has a simple predictable sequence. Each game also has a moment when the child needs to act or the game will stop.  The system with be disrupted if the child does not act, so, if the child wants the game to continue he or she will do something to keep it going.  This point is where you put new things that you want your child to learn--new actions, words or skills.

The child will need to understand the routine first (learn the game) and then be given an opportunity to participate in order to keep the game going.  Video models of new games can often shorten the learning time and get the child learning more quickly but demonstration of a clear sequence or routine will often work as well.  Understand all this, and soon you too, will be creating games!

Example: Being a predictable play partner

This morning I played a puzzle game with a new friend.  He did not come willingly when the puzzle was dumped out on the floor, although he knew and liked this puzzle.  He did not know me and had no interest in sitting next to an unfamiliar (and unpredictable) person.  There was no recognizable system from his perspective.

The puzzle had animals on the pieces and he knew the names of at least some of the animals.  So I called the pieces to me, Sheep!  Come Here!  Then I picked up the wooden sheep piece and clicked it three times before placing the wooden piece where it belonged.  Next I called, Cow!  Come Here!  Again, I clicked the cow piece and placed it in the puzzle.  And so on. 

YouTube Video

Soon my friend was beside me watching.  I had created a system and he was hooked.  I handed him a piece without looking at him and he clicked it three times on the floor and put the piece in the puzzle.  He did not say the words, but he called out after putting a piece in with the same melody that I had used calling animal pieces.  Once I handed the piece to him, the system would have been disrupted if he did not click it three times and put it in the puzzle.  So he did.  Gleefully.

He played for several turns and enjoyed the game with me.  I had become a predictable friend.  I had also added an interesting predictable element to the puzzle game.  From his perspective, this was cool!  From my perspective, this was necessary in order to establish a relationship and start playing together.

Social Pressure

I want to reiterate that I did not look at this new friend, tell him what to do, or even tell him that he did a good job!  That would have added a kind of social pressure to the interaction.  It would have detracted from the fun of doing a puzzle together in an interesting new way.  Praising him would have interrupted the flow of the game.  Sometimes it is useful to tell little people that they are doing a good job.  More often, however, it changes the dynamics in the wrong direction when a game is going well.  Predictability and participating in a fun activity with someone was the reinforcement and it was enough.

Tahirih Bushey,
Dec 7, 2009, 8:29 PM