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‘Social skills’, turn-taking, and board games

Written by Melanie Heyworth

At the inaugural Reframing Autism Parent Retreat, I mentioned in passing an idea that was received with gratifying – and somewhat surprising – enthusiasm. So, I thought I would turn it into a brief, but hopefully illuminating, blog for our wider audience. With any luck, it might help some of you empathise with your children, and work with your therapists to provide respectful and suitable alternatives to traditional interventions. 

At the retreat, I was talking social skills. Specifically, I was lambasting the dire circumstance that sees many young Autistic people enrolled in social skills courses’ to improve their social reciprocity, turn-taking, flexibility, and conversational skills. 

Essentially, our childrens organic – and perfectly acceptable – Autistic social skills are minimised and dismissed, and they are taught to socialise non-autistically, according to the norms and rules of the typically developing population.

Now, one of the most popular ways that our Autistic children are taught social skills’ is through turn-taking in board games. Cue tediously repetitious games of Snakes and Ladders’ or ‘Guess Who’ or ‘Connect 4’ in the occupational therapists room, with a singsong chorus of my turnyour turn as accompaniment. 

But – and heres the kicker, at least from my observations – one of the ways that Autistic children most obviously fail those neurotypical social skills’ lessons is demonstrated when they struggle with … well, turn-taking in board games. 

I have often pondered this failure. As a passionate board-gaming family, with more than 100 board games taking up the space usually reserved for more basic items like clothes in my childs cupboard, the nature of turn-taking’ – the unique challenges it poses for our kids – has occupied more of my attention than I care to admit. 

Luckily for me, my avid board-gamer is now old and mature enough to reflect on why ostensible failure at turn-taking’ is not random, but rather explicable and deeply sympathetic. 

It is, as my child eloquently explains, an issue of control and competition, since most games have some element of strategy or skill, as well as luck, involved in winning. Imagine how frustrating, my child expounds, when you have planned your moves, your tactics, and your approach so carefully, with such precision and aptitude, only to be thwarted by the machinations of your opponent, whose mind and moves you could not hope to predict. It is exactly this lack of predictability, the loss of control, and (possibly most importantly) the potentially detrimental impact of someone elses decisions on your own stratagem that make handing the turn to the next person such a complicated affair. 

In other words, it is not – emphatically so, in my familys experience – a lack of reciprocity, or a deficit in the social skills’ that underpin sharing and turn-taking, but rather, a rational hesitation to relinquish control to someone whose ‘turn’ could well damage your own interests.

And thats without accounting for the competitive undercurrents. Because how grossly unfair, what flagrant injustice, if luck also comes into play against you and impedes your otherwise exceptional attempt to win. The perceived inequality of that is hard to stomach. What if your loss is not because of your own incompetence or ineptitude, but the vagaries of luck stacked against you … or for another player? Surely, my child argues, anyone would struggle to accept the grievance of losing, based on fortune, not on proficiency? 

Maybe its just me, but when you put it like that, I can understand the challenges of the board game, turn-taking conundrum. 

But … turn-taking is an important skill. And board games are a fabulous – not to mention fun – way to practise this skill. So, what to do? 

The answer: cooperative board games.  

It is mildly shocking to me, that when I mention cooperative board games to people, they are often blank faced. Because for me, and for my family and my children, cooperative games have been a boon of immeasurable benefit.

In cooperative board games, players team up together to work towards a common objective (most times, beating’ the board). Rather than competing against each other, players work together to compete against the game itself.  

Cooperative games come in all complexity ranges, for all ages and abilities, and at differing price points. But the benefits are constant: first, working together as a team has the obvious and entirely satisfactory result that no one person wins … or loses. The competitive nuance is lost since all players are on the same side’.  

Second – and most compellingly for our family – all turns are discussed openly. Because we are playing as a team, the strategy each player adopts during their turn is team business, open for discussion and debate.

The element of the unknown, the relinquishment of control that comes with competitive turn-taking, is utterly negated. The team together – using trust and transparency and communication – manoeuvre as a unit to advance their cause against the game.

Our family is now immersed enough in the world of tabletop games that we can – and very often do – enjoy a competitive game, pitching our wits against each other. But we never quite can go past the pleasure of conquering an inanimate board in a fierce battle of our strategy versus the game makers. Or even the shared disappointment when, yet again, we have failed to outsmart the seemingly innocent piece of cardboard on our kitchen table. 

So, next time you purchase a board game, search for cooperative games and teach turn-taking’ in a non-competitive and empathetic way that respects your childrens uncertainties and plays (literally and metaphorically) to their strengths. 

Note: I highly recommend Gamewright and Peaceable Kingdom for younger players. Explore tabletop Role Playing Games (RPG) with more strategy if your (probably slightly older) children are ready for a challenge. They might enjoy the immersive fantasy element of a more Dungeons & Dragons genre game.  

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