In the mid-nineties more and more children were diagnosed with autism who, contrary to many children diagnosed in the decades before, had no additional intellectual impairment. These children were intelligent, so they knew they were different from other kids. When they got the diagnosis, they also wanted to know what it meant. So, shortly before the turn of the century, there was a big need for strategies and materials to inform children and youngsters about their autism diagnosis. Informing people about their diagnosis and helping them to understand the diagnosis is known as ‘psycho-education’.
Being a diagnostician as well as a home trainer in those days, diagnosing children and supporting families once a child was diagnosed, I was familiar with the principles of psycho-education. So I knew how to explain autism to parents and professionals. However, I also knew that the style that I used for this explanation was definitely not the best way to inform the children and young people who got the diagnosis. The reason was obvious: an autistic brain works differently, so people with autism often understand words and concepts in a different way than Neurotypicals do. The ‘autistic thinking’ had been my pet subject for years and the topic of the first book I wrote (‘Dit is de titel’, 1996, translated into English in 2001: https://www.jkp.com/uk/autistic-thinking-2.html ), so I obliged myself to respect the autistic cognitive style whenever I communicated with people with autism.
Using my knowledge about how an autistic brain processes information, I started to develop an autism specific programme for psycho-education. Try-outs were done with more than 100 children, young people and young adults, and in 1998 the original Flemish version of “I am Special” was published (English version in 2000: https://www.jkp.com/uk/i-am-special-6.html ).
When I developed ‘I am Special’ the focus was on giving children and youngsters complete, evidence based, concrete and easy to understand information about autism, what it is, why people name it a disability and/or a disorder, what the characteristics of autism are, why there is a spectrum, how each person with autism is an unique person and how autism makes you special. The workbook was interactive and contained many worksheets. The manual also suggested a lot of activities to be done around the concepts explained in the workbook (such as illusions to illustrate how the brain can sometimes see things differently) and in order to make the whole psycho-education more attractive to children, the second edition of “I am Special” (https://www.jkp.com/uk/i-am-special-5.html ) even contained information and materials to make your own “I am Special” board game.
I am very proud of “I am Special” and it is one of the most widely used programmes for psycho-education: it has been translated into more than 10 languages and is being used worldwide. However, based on all the feedback I received in the past 20 years, I have learned a couple of things, things that I would change if I would start all over. One important lesson is that the information we give to children and young people should be useful for them. It should be information that they can use to understand themselves better and – more importantly – to feel good about themselves and being able to cope with the challenges they face. That means that even if the information is not complete or not 100% ‘objective’ or ‘correct’, it doesn’t matter as long as it helps the child to feel confident and thrive. To give just one example: the explanation in the workbook about how the brain works is actually not 100% accurate and certainly not in line with recent models of how the brain functions. But this inaccurate and outdated information about the brain, this over simplified explanation, has shown to be more useful than the academically more accurate one.
The second lesson is that psycho-education should not only be useful but also attractive and engaging. I’ve heard many positive stories about “I am Special”, how children liked the concrete information and the worksheets, but there were also the stories about children who disliked the worksheets and who found the whole “I am Special” utterly boring. It made them think of school tasks. Many children like gaming more than filling in worksheets. But even the game in the workbook seemed not attractive enough. To be honest, looking back at the first version of the “I am Special” game, included in the second edition of the workbook, that game is not the most thrilling game in the world. So, even that what should make the psycho-education more attractive and more fun for the children was not a very exciting activity.
If we want children with autism to be more positive and accepting about their diagnosis, then we should make the whole process of informing them a positive and enjoyable experience. Increasing the fun factor of psycho-education will not only make children more motivated to learn about their diagnosis, it will also increase their understanding. It is well known that human beings learn more and faster when the teaching strategies are fun and the teaching materials attractive.
This led us to make a new version of the “I am Special” board game, and the focus this time was not so much on accurate and complete information about autism but on fun. (As a matter of fact, the game can even be played without making reference to autism.)
So, the experts we engaged for the development of the new “I am Special” board game were game experts not autism experts. They helped us developing a game that is competitive yet cooperative (everyone wins!), that involves not only talking but also a lot of funny and crazy things to do, and that is autism friendly because it has a clear beginning and ending: it is flexible but always predictable. Try-outs have shown that not only the funny questions and assignments but also the predictability of the game contribute to the fun factor of it. And these try-outs also gave evidence for the hypothesis that fun increases learning. Many children who played the game told us afterwards that with the game they remembered better what they learned about autism than with the traditional, more school-like worksheets. So, let’s gamify psycho-education!
I am Special. The Board Game: available at Jessica Kingsley Publishers from Aug 21st. https://www.jkp.com/uk/i-am-special-3.html
Ik ben speciaal: het spel. http://www.autismecentraal.com/public/shop-next.asp?lang=NL&pid=0&cat=3&ID=142