University of New Haven students create board games for kids on autism spectrum
Traditional board games often don’t resonate with kids on the autism spectrum, but thanks to the clever creations made by a University of New Haven class and another at the University of Connecticut Waterbury campus, a group of teens in the New Haven area will be playing games such as “Dino Ball,” “Emoji Land,” “Smart Cars” and “Musical Cars Around the World.”
“What they came up with is amazing,” said Tracey Foskey, founder and president of the Total Joy Are You Foundation and Autism Support Group for parents of children of all ages on the spectrum.
Foskey said many doors — not just the game creations — have been opened for her group through collaboration with UNH/UConn adjunct professor Laquita Joyner-McGraw, a friend of Foskey’s who teaches principles of communication.
Through semesters, she has made Foskey’s foundation the focus of many classroom teachings — including lessons on marketing.
“This is service learning,” Joyner-McGraw said. “My students are giving back to the community.”
Foskey, a social worker by trade who has a teenage son on the spectrum, Troy or T.J., — the “Total Joy” comes from his initials — said the game idea arose when she mentioned to Joyner-McGraw that she wished there was something for the kids to do while the parents meet to share stories and listen to speakers.
Joyner-McGraw came up with the game idea and in preparation had students interview Foskey about autism and do research on the developmental disorder.
Joyner-McGraw divided her class at UNH into five groups and each group was to design a game.
Recently, three teens with autism tested them out in a lounge area at UNH while their mothers stood by taking notes.
They played with their amateur game designers and there were lots of smiles, laughter and fascination.
The four winning games will be played while the parents meet, along with three others chosen at the UConn Waterbury campus.
“The challenge was coming up with an idea because you have to put yourself in the challenges they (people on the autism spectrum) face,” said student and business major Jonathan Thangauelu, a game team member.
At UNH, “Dino Ball” took first place. The game is shaped like a baseball diamond and has batters, pitchers, outs and home runs, but instead of hitting a ball, the moved are determined by rolling the dice.
Game pieces include T-Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus — they all have names — and the diamond is full of trees.
A student-made pamphlet says the game develops fine motor skills, teaches rules of athletic competition and promotes teamwork.
Student Allie Mix, a criminal justice major and a member of the Dino Ball team, said the game works on those skills, but without backing players into any “difficult situation.”
Foskey said she liked many aspects of Dino Ball, including that it “drew in” one young man and prompted him to talk about it with peers who responded. Verbal expression and socialization are typically not strong points of those on the spectrum and a common goal is to promote the two.
Emoji Land, a simple game with a colorful board, allows players to move along by rolling dice and pulling cards with an emoji and saying what the expression contains — happiness, sadness, anger, surprise. Identifying emotions through facial expression is another typical challenge for those on the spectrum.
One of the games, Musical Cars Around the Word, — in which monster trucks are moved around a board — incorporates music and cards with fun facts such as, “In Australia, the record jump recorded by a kangaroo is 30 feet in a single leap.”
Another game, designed something like the classic Chutes and Ladders, promoted social skills with cards to be pulled when landing on certain spaces, asking questions such as, “What is the favorite color of the person next to you?” That would prompt the player to ask.
Foskey said it will be exciting for the children and teens to play enriching games, and their siblings as well, while parents meet.
Joyner-McGraw said the community giving aspect of her course is something her students can bring into a job interview.
Joyner-McGraw said many in the community count on Foskey and her group because “especially in the black community a lot of people don’t have resources.”
Foskey said many in the black community are “used to the proverb what goes on in this house, stays in this house,” but autism is a discussion that needs to come out to do what’s best for children affected.
The next support group meeting will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 23 at Grimaldi’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, 1646 Litchfield Turnpike, Woodbridge.