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A Good Communication Game

Games Should Allow Both Play Partners to...

1. Enjoy being together and being involved in the same activity.  This means that very simple games can be the best games of all!  Don't think complicated, think fun!

2.  Notice facial expressions, gestures, and body movements.  You must watch in order to share emotions and learn information as you play. You watch to make sure your child is understanding and enjoying what you are doing.  You watch because you may need to make subtle adjustments or do something altogether different in order to make this a good play session.

Your child needs to be watching you as well.  In order to help your child watch you better, you may need to hold communication gestures longer, be more dramatic, draw attention to important emotional communication signals so that your child does not miss them.  This might mean, again, that you will make the game less complicated so that your child can shift attention to you often. Games are always about the social interaction and you will have to help your child see this.

3.  Be responsive to one another.  This means looking together at things, looking at each other and taking turns reacting to whatever the other did last. All this can happen with facial expressions, gestures, sounds, songs, words, with or without toys. If the game is good, your child enjoys will  enjoy playing this way soooo much that he or she will become more and more willing and able to play with you.  If your child stays in games longer, responds to more of the things that you do and takes more turns than last month--this is success.  Likewise, if you are playing games with your child longer, responding to more things that your child does and taking more turns in games than last month--this is success.

4.  Choosing Games.  Both play partners should know how to get a game started. Give each game a name and use this name even if the game evolves into something different over time.  If your child is not yet talking , use objects or pictures to help your child learn to communicate the desire to play a particular game.  If you swing your child in a blanket, use just one distinctive blanket so that your child can pull this blanket over to you and get the game started. If you often squish your child between couch pillows, take a picture of these pillows. Time for Squish Game, you might say, showing your child the picture first and then pulling out the couch pillows. Over time, the squish game might involve climbing up on Daddy's back and daddy leaning back in the easy chair--squishing in a new way.  The picture does not need to change, even if the game does.   Stop playing from time to time, while your child is still enjoying the game, so that your child has a chance to start the game again--in any way he or she can think of starting it.  Your child needs to be able to decide what to play at least some of the time but, likewise, you need to be able to decide what to play at least some of the time.  If your child insists on making all the game decisions, use a visual schedule to represent who decides the next game. For example, your visual schedule might say:  1) Andy's game  2) Daddy's game 3) Andy's game 4) Daddy's game 5) Snack.  Cross off each person's name or photo when that person's turn is over.  Help your child learn to make decisions by choosing some games and  learn to share decision making with you by choosing some games yourself.  Remember, when your child plays with other children, the other children will want to make some of the decisions.

5. Communicate for many different reasons as you play.   Think of games as involving activities where you practice different kinds of communication.  You can play games where you practice calling, telling, teasing, worrying, wondering, explaining, remembering, analyzing, rejecting, joking, pretending.... A game may only involve one or two of these ideas as in a Calling Game.   As your child is able, make games that include communicating for a variety of reasons with more complex social plots.  In other words, in one game you might include three different communication ideas such as calling, telling, and sharing emotions.

6. Include physical movement in games. Move together across space and stay together as you move.  I loved this picture of kids walking together in homemade box shoes.  What a simple moving together game!   It would be hard to miss the fact that everybody had box shoes on.  Block out a space to play in, coordinate movement in some games so that you stay next to each other as you move.  See the Route Game Pages for many examples of this kind of a game. 

Share memories.
This can be done by taking a photo, recording a video, or making a journal to record exciting things that you do together.  You can remember how much fun, how scary, how hard, how cool, how funny activities are that you do together.  Children with autism tend to remember what happened but not how it felt or how others felt about the things that occur in life.  If you remember something that was not happy, help your child remember how he or she managed to get happy again after this emotionally challenging activity ended.  Many children with autism tend to get stuck on remembering the bad parts and not the good parts of an event and this may partly be because we all spend more time discussing and reacting to the bad things. For example, if you have a picture of your child crying at the airport when you flew to grandma's house, also take a picture of your child sitting happily in the airplane watching a favorite video on a little DVD player. Don't avoid talking about the sad parts, because you will be teaching your child a lot about communication with this discussion but help your child remember that everything turned out well eventually.

Help your child learn to persist when communication fails.  When communication fails, many children with ASD become highly self-directed, or just leave  the situation or,,worst case, have an emotional meltdown. Think of these events as Communication Breakdowns.  You can teach your child to repair a communication breakdown by calmly showing your child what to do.  Your child may need to know how to say "I don't understand", "I did not mean that", "I don't want to do that", "I need you to show me" or even "Uh Oh!" and "Help!".  Playing games where you have the opportunity to show your child how to repair communication breakdowns makes sense because not as much is at stake, usually, when the activity is playful.  Everyone, including the grownups, can stay calm.  Make games that include good communication repair strategy as part of the game.    Make up games where it is common to be saying things like, I don't understand!  Say it another way! or Show me or Uh Oh!

9.  Gradually teach mental flexibility.  Games will need to have structure so that your child can understand and participate but ultimately, you want your child to be able to vary the game and enjoy your variations.   Parents (and therapists) can get a little stuck in their own plans for a game and end up modeling inflexible behavior when a child offers a perfectly reasonable variation. Watch out for that.  In addition, intentionally make little changes in the games you play so that your child can see that the game is still the same, even if it is a little different.  Be explicit, if your child will understand what you are saying.  For example, say, Here is a new way to play this game, this might be fun or, Uh Oh! I will do this a different way.  This way is not working.

10. A little bit of new vocabulary and a couple new word combinations.  Use just a few new words at a time if your child is just learning to talk.  If your child is very verbal, add interesting new words and phrases intentionally in your games.  When your child adds new and interesting vocabulary, respond to these with interest, even if your child does not yet know quite how to use new words. New words and phrases are fun for children, especially if the words are dramatic or funny or powerful sounding.  Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Andy's Magical Race Track!  is more fun than saying You made a cool race track here Andy.

11. Allow anyone to stop playing when it is not fun anymore.  You need to stop playing when you get tired because otherwise, you will convey that you are not having fun.  Your child needs to stop playing when he or she stops having fun because your child will not want to play with you next time if you don't stop when the fun is over. Trust me on this.  If you keep playing with your child, day-after-day, week-after-week, month-after-month, both of you are going to become better at playing and want to play for longer periods of time.  So, when the fun is over on any one play session, stop.  This is not boot camp.  It is play.

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Tahirih Bushey,
Dec 7, 2009, 6:11 PM