Board Games Group (BGG) is a social group of approximately 10-15 teens and young adults on the autism spectrum (ages 14 to 30) who meet weekly to play a variety of board games. BGG is run by a group of graduate students primarily from the University of Calgary’s School & Applied Child Psychology program and was started by PhD student, Alyssa Altomare (who just completed her PhD internship in B.C.).  Altomare came up with the idea for BGG after involvement with PEERS, a social skills intervention run through University of Calgary’s ASERT Lab (http://www.ucalgary.ca/asert/PEERS). Given the social challenges individuals with autism face, it can be extremely challenging to engage with others to make and keep friends. Altomare describes, “In essence, the goal of the board games club was to provide teens and young adults with a safe and fun space to build relationships while doing something that they enjoyed (e.g., Chess, Monopoly, Risk).  Playing board games decreases the pressure to carry on a conversation, allowing individuals to focus on the game at hand, and chat and trade information when they choose to.”

The club was passed along to Marian Coret (now a Medical Student) who shares her experience with BGG: “Involvement in BGG allowed me to connect with our members, to mentor them through some life challenges, and provide them with social support that they may not receive outside of the group. Ultimately, our role is to help facilitate socializing between our participants, but we’re also there to be a stable, safe person to share life’s various accomplishments and challenges.”

Currently, the group is run by Laura Purdon. Purdon reflects, “When I first became involved in the group two years ago, it was obvious how valuable BGG was to our members and their families. Many of our participants have minimal social contact and BGG is a highlight of their week. And it has certainly become a huge highlight of mine!” One BGG participant states, “People at BBG are non-judgmental and open minded. We may all have our own difficulties, but we try to get along.” Another member claims, “It’s easy to make friends [at BGG]!”

This past year, Ayelet Ary and Jon Cunningham became involved and have collaborated to bring some new ideas to improving and expanding the group. Cunningham put together a successful funding application to help run the program throughout the summer and states, “The grant received from The Sinneave Family Foundation allowed us to expand BGG in multiple ways. First, we were able to diversify our collection of board games. Second, it decreased the burden of cost on individual participants. Third, we were able to engage with community organizations to deliver off-site programming.” Current off-site programming has focused on delivering BGG at public board games cafés (e.g., Sentry Box).  Ary describes the purpose of the outings: “Incorporating our group with the community allows our participants to visit potentially overstimulating and novel settings with a familiar group of people while engaging in a familiar activity.” The hope is that these outings acquaint participants with various community settings to expand their social opportunities and generalize their skills. Altomare supports the group’s expansion, “I am very pleased to hear about the continuation and expansion of this club. Community settings represent more natural social situations, which may ultimately boost confidence and foster an increased sense of belonging.” Purdon adds “Overall, the goal is that the members may feel more comfortable visiting these settings outside of our group, either with each other, with family members, or with other friends, thus expanding their social network.”

The first outing occurred last week, on Thursday July 17, to Hexagon Board Games Café and it was a great success! Participants really enjoyed the outing. One participant says, “It was fun but overwhelming because of all the games they had. But once you get used to it, you can say to friends: ‘Let’s go there, it was fun!’”

Going forward, Purdon hopes to develop a peer mentorship program, where more senior participants can have a leadership role within the group to foster confidence and responsibility in our members. In the long term, this endeavor may help to sustain the group so it can be run by members, limiting the amount of outside support and resources required.

In September, Ary will ensure that BGG continues monthly outings to various community settings (e.g., other board games cafes, Sentry Box, escape rooms) and also aim to expand the group of members, as well as volunteers. If you’re interested in learning more about BGG, are interested in joining the group, or would like to volunteer as a facilitator, please contacts us at: boardgamesgroup2017@gmail.com. The group is always looking for new members and volunteers!

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