Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and       Related Disorders [Mary Lynch Barbera]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Teaching Games to Children with Autism

On a plane ride home from an ABA conference last May, I read a book entitled: What You Need to Know About Motivation and Teaching Games by Steven Ward, MA, BCBA. I literally started recommending the book right away to Andy Bondy and Lori Frost who happened to be sitting next to me on the plane!

In the past six months, I have recommended this book to many Behavior Analysts and parents as I have found it to be a very useful guide to help effectively teach children with autism to play games. The step-by-step breakdown of how to teach 12 common games such as “Go Fish” and “Memory” is excellent and the data sheets provided are superb!

When I returned home eager to teach Lucas how to play “Go Fish,” his therapist stated that he already could play the game. So I copied the blank “Go Fish” data form from Steve’s book and asked her to play the game with Lucas. In the past when I’ve watched Lucas play games I knew it didn’t look good but, by taking data using the data sheet provided, I was able to easily count errors and prompts.  I was also able to quantify a lack of motivation. I was even able to immediately identify the trouble spots in the game such as Lucas’ inability to hold seven cards in his hand and fan them out so he could actually see what cards were in his hand. Using the book, Lucas can now play “Go Fish” with a few modifications. His motivation to play this and other games has improved too.

I highly recommend this book to parents and professionals interested in helping children with autism or related disorders learn to play and, most importantly, enjoy games! For more information about What You Need to Know About Motivation and Teaching Games by Steven Ward, MA, BCBA go to:

On another note, I also ventured into the social media world a little more and created a Facebook fan page for The Verbal Behavior Approach. Become a fan by going to: As always visit my web site: for more information about my book, to listen to VB radio shows, or to download free information.


  1. Mary,

    Thank you sooo much for starting this blog. I really think this is an important and under-appreciated topic. I pledge to be very active on the blog, as I know the book can bring up a lot of questions.

    Steve Ward

  2. okay I am curious - we have struggled with the same old games for years - so really keen on this - how about one for sports as well -
    parent from NZ of a very active 15 year old ASD teenager - especially things he can do with his brothers and sister - a sibling directed book would be great.

  3. Some of the 12 games in Steve's book are more active games such as hotter/colder and relay races. Once you use the blank data sheets provided in the book, you could easily adapt them for specific games, sports, or activities. Steve also has videos on his web site showing adults how to prompt and how not to prompt these games. Maybe Steve Ward will jump in here with more ideas on how to adapt his book for sports.

  4. Thanks for the comments! Of course Mary has it right that some of the games in the book already involve movement. If you're looking at developing games not described in the book, the formula involves:
    -assessing whether your learner has the prerequisites (let's say you want to teach them to play'd want to be sure they could at least throw a basketball as high as whatever hoop you're using)
    -task analyzing the game (sticking with the HORSE example, it would include shooting; noticing whether a shot was made; if made, noticing WHERE it was made; a second shooter shooting from that spot; noticing whether the second shooter's shot was made; tallying a letter if the shot was not made)
    -figuring out how any part of that sequence would be fun for YOUR learner (hopefully, your active teenager already likes to shoot hoops. If not, I'd ham up what it means to be the loser and/or the winner...maybe the loser has to act like a horse, or do one of the winner's chores. Maybe I'd make the name of the game variable, and we could play DORK, or something, and the loser would have to wear that as a sign for awhile. I'm thinking here of things that active teenagers might find entertaining, not trying to be cruel or demeaning. If either of the players is not into this type of humor, then I wouldn't use it.)

    A sibling book would be interesting...whenever possible, I'm using siblings in one of the roles in any game. Every game described in the book includes at least 2 roles, or at least to players who should be taking turns. I'm seeing that many learners, after being taught multiple roles for a few games, automatically/spontaneously take on additional roles for new games.

    For perspective, when you look through the planning and scientific jargon described above, there is no need to feel daunted. If you're having FUN, you're doing it right. We can figure out more details later.

    Steve Ward, MA, BCBA

  5. I wanted to put a little more up on siblings...whether it is accomplished while playing games or not, an important goal that I always address is "reciprocal reinforcement"...meaning that I want signs of pleasure from either sibling to function as a reinforcer for the other. If I can establish this, the siblings can work out a lot of the details of their relationship by themselves. Towards this end, I conduct an informal reinforcer assessment for typical siblings specifically looking at what things they could like that their sibling might do. For example, one set of typically-developing girls liked it when their brother sang, so I worked on him singing more. Maybe each sibling likes to see the other do goofy things, like race with their feet tied together. I would exhaust all potential natural reinforcers (i.e., reinforcers that are inherent to the activity) before introducing any unnatural reinforcers (e.g., giving one sibling extra allowance $ if they play with the other).

    I wouldn't rule out the unnatural reinforcers, though, if I couldn't find enough natural ones. Some of the tricks I use if siblings aren't already "into each other" are a variety of group contingencies (i.e., everyone's success impacts everyone's reinforcers). This could be accomplished with a visual chart showing how many times they each said "thank you" to each other prior to both getting to go to the pool. Trips to fast food restaurants are made contingent upon each sibling being home, so waiting for one to arrive at home turns that sibling's arrival into a reinforcer for the other.

    I hope this helps, and isn't too complicated.

    Steve Ward, MA, BCBA

  6. I too love Steve Ward's book! Got it signed by him too! :) Love how it is easy to read, and breaks it down so well! Very concrete! Thanks Mary! Great blog! Can't wait to read more!

  7. I have a cool research idea, and may not be able to conduct it all myself. I'd love to graph "steam", focusing mostly on IRT and latency, as those are the most-graphable components. I'd like to show multitudes of such graphs under very similar conditions for each learner. For example, what if we tried to play with water balloons with one learner? Their approaches would probably speed up very quickly. Then, if we switched to playing with tennis balls, for most learners, the slope would be less steep. Then, if we started throwing the tennis balls into a filled wading pool, the slope would steepen. What if we started prompting them to look when we threw a ball? Or we started directing them to get the ball? I expect, for many learners, we'd see a decrease in the rate of response. For some, they'd merely be compliant. Or, we could use a similar approach to distinguish intrinsic motivation from extrinsic motivation. What if we measured the rate of tennis ball play responses after beginning to offer skittles for the behavior? I am not aware of research that quantifies motivation, but think this proposed line of research would be a great start!

    What do you think?
    Steve Ward, MA, BCBA