On the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, a conference room in Washington is transformed into a board gamers’ haven. At promptly 5 p.m., a group of teens ranging in age from 14 to 19 starts trickling in, greeting their peers and Katie Jo Glaves, a marriage and family therapist, with full eye contact, strong handshakes, high fives and smiles.

This is significant because the teens all identify on the autism spectrum, though a formal diagnosis isn’t required for group membership. The Autism Spectrum Board Game Group was created to help address social struggles commonly experienced by kids on the spectrum, from difficulty understanding social cues and emotions to knowing how to adjust their behavior for different environments.

These kids don’t seem socially hesitant, though; sly grins and good-natured teasing dominates. They’ve come to play cooperative board games — games requiring players to work together toward a goal — like Castle Panic and Forbidden Desert, and role-play games like The Quiet Year and Fiasco that allow players to step outside of their comfort zones and into various roles and team-play scenarios.

During the two-hour session, they’ll play their way to increased empathy and social awareness, doing something (gaming) that they’d likely do anyway, says Glaves. But the time is value-added, she says, because the games themselves promote social skills. The teens, here by choice, don’t play just any game; the group emphasizes those requiring teamwork, two-way dialogue, and an understanding of hidden emotions, instead of video games or individual pursuits.

Over the first hour, the teens—all clearly friends—ease into role-playing via Fiasco. Gestures become larger, expressions become comical, personalities seem to grow, and laugher spills into the hallway as the kids take on the characters they helped create. Seeking a more relaxed, less animated interaction, a couple of kids stake out a corner of the room for a game of The Quiet Year with an intern clinician; though the game is less animated than Fiasco, the trio’s play proceeds easily with a comfortable back-and-forth interspersed with smiles jokes, and discussion about favorite songs.

Board Game Benefits
While video games are super popular among teens, board games have a few distinct advantages over video games when it comes to boosting empathy and social cognition, according to research from Kansas State University: Board games require face-to-face interaction and the ability to read facial expressions and build “social capital,” or trust and rapport, in order to succeed.

Games like Fiasco — a group favorite in which players imagine potentially contentious scenarios between different members of a social group, then role-play the scene in real time, trying to figure out other players’ thoughts and motives — are particularly valuable for the development of empathy, Glaves notes. That’s because the requisite overacting, or overly exaggerated social cues, stimulate the “mirror” neurons that spur the development of empathy. “Empathy grows when you mirror the expressions of other people. Most people do it naturally, but kids on the spectrum have to learn it,” she explains.

Glaves established the group two years ago after hearing one of her spectrum counseling clients, a middle-school student who wishes to go by Scott, complain that the social skills class required by his IEP was deathly boring. So boring, in fact, that Scott skipped it. So Glaves (his therapist) had to find other ways to relay the same information Scott would get in a middle-school social skills class, while upping the entertainment and engagement factor and building a meaningful two-way dialogue.

Glaves, an avid board gamer, decided to try using games to connect with Scott, engaging him in something fun while practicing vital social skills: The easy back-and-forth of a natural conversation, the motivations involved in various role-play scenes, and the art of graceful winning and losing.

The games give players a chance to practice cognitive flexibility, says Glaves. “As kids continue with the group, I’m looking for them to develop the flexibility to be able to accept something someone else did on the board without flipping out.”

But everyone has a bad day now and then, she notes. Through those challenges, the teens learn to speak up and make adjustments, Glaves says. “Maybe they need to step out and cool down. That’s a key step to learning how to self-manage emotional highs and lows.”

Over Scott’s two years of group attendance, he’s honed this type of flexibility. “A year and a half ago, someone killed my character in Fiasco in the first scene, and I was out of the game. I was irritable and I left the room,” says Scott. “But I came back.”

Consistency Counts
Though a few attendees drop in and out, Glaves hopes to see each student spend a year or two in the group, because the social skills they practice take time to master. According to a 2012 Italian study presented at the European Conference on Developmental Psychology, engaging children in story-based conversation — that is, supplementing stories with a dialogue around the character’s hidden feelings and motives — leads to increased levels of empathy and social cognition, or awareness of the connection between emotion and behavior. The positive effect increases over time, notes Glaves, hence her goal of keeping each participant in the group for a couple of years.

Afterward, participants may be ready to “graduate” to a community board game group. “It doesn’t need to be a spectrum group, because in this social context, spectrum individuals can easily fit in,” Glaves says. In other words, with boosted levels of social cognition and empathy, group graduates can go on to develop meaningful social relationships in a variety of settings — and have some honest-to-goodness fun.

It’s a goal worthy of a roll of the dice.

If you have a teen on the autism spectrum interested in joining a group in San Diego, email Karyn Searcy, director of Crimson Center for Speech & Language, for information: karynls2@crimsoncenter.com.

Malia Jacobson is a health and family journalist.