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Critical Core is a tabletop role-playing game scaffolded around the DIR/Floortime model. Critical Core’s Director Virginia Spielmann, Occupational Therapist, DIR/Floortime Expert Trainer, and Executive Director of the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing, and Game to Grow‘s founders, Adam Davis and Adam Johns in Kirkland, WA, join us today to discuss the game which invites children to share a world of fantasy, consequence, and social problem-solving, and is accessible to beginners. It’s an opportunity that allows players to take risks and discover who they are. And, I learned that RPG stands for Role Playing Game!

From the Critical Core website:

“Critical Core combines modern developmental therapies with the mechanics of tabletop role-playing games to help kids connect with their parents, their friends, and the world around them. Players learn communication and collaboration skills, develop frustration tolerance and emotional resilience, and build empathy for others, all while rolling dice and having fun.”

Critical Core: A Tabletop Role-Playing Game

by Affect Autism

The Origin of Critical Core

Virginia approached Game to Grow with the idea for the game when she realized the potential of tabletop role-playing games through trying to support her son with his social anxiety. Adam and Adam were already thinking along these lines and doing the work. It has a fun origin story, Virginia says, because it was a collaboration. Adam and Adam started using tabletop role-playing games over a decade ago to help kids become more socially confident. They discovered the benefits of this serendipitously, that tabletop role-playing games helped young people connect in a way that didn’t feel like a social skills training program.

They started a small for-profit company called Wheelhouse Workshop. A few years later, they got the email from Virginia. They both had other full-time jobs–Adam Davis was a classroom teacher and Adam Johns was a counsellor. They wanted to build this system to help youth, but they couldn’t do it alone. They could only help so many kids, given their full schedules. They shifted to non profit because they believe in the mission–that these games can be powerful tools for growth in so many important ways. It would allow them to reach way more people and get it out to the world. 

How DIR/Floortime informed the creation of Critical Core

This modality for supporting social confidence in young people is a natural fit. There’s no forcing or teaching. It’s an alternative to traditional social skills training. It’s play for play’s sake, Virginia explains, which is why it resonates so strongly with DIR/Floortime. It’s child-led: The game provides a safe space for facilitating youth in their own ideas. There is no wrong idea. Even if it’s very scary when a child wants to explore a certain aspect of their character, do it in your Critical Core game rather than in real life. Sometimes children might need to work through a play scheme a number of times to work something out, emotionally. It resonates with some of the ways that DIR/Floortime was designed around psychotherapy.

They’ve built into the framework of Critical Core a roughly developed approach that doesn’t force children to meet certain milestones, Virginia continues. They have a framework and scaffolding for adults applying the game that helps them create the space for the child who is working on impulse control, executive function, or perspective-taking. It’s developmental in that sense. They covertly suggest taking into account Individual differences, which is dependent on the group running the game. Such things as letting someone take a break to go for a walk, or providing a trampoline are examples of environmental accommodations that can support individual differences, including how the facilitator uses their own self and create sincere, authentic Relationships with the players.

Virginia says that when they met in 2017, they were all saying the same things, but she was using DIR/Floortime language while Adam Davis was using Drama Therapy language, and Adam Johns was using Marriage and Family Counselling language. There was incredible synchrony. And to illustrate Virginia’s points, I read this quote on their website from a player named Nick who stated, “Since I started playing I think through stuff a lot more which is funny because in the game my character is kinda reckless.” In play, there should be no consequences, and it’s in play that we practice for real life.

The Role of the Facilitator

I asked Adam to explain the role of the facilitator in the game as it is accessible for those who are not familiar with such games. Their website says that “Critical Core helps game masters align their games to provide specific support to autistic players, supported by the methods and strategies used by experts in the field.” Adam Johns says that if you’re a person who’s played role-playing games and talk about how it helps kids socially, they all agree. They wanted to create guidance and a rule-set for someone who hasn’t played these games before so it’s more approachable. The rules are there to help the facilitator feel more comfortable.

Role-playing games are about a chance to tell a story. Adam Davis says they looked at it as a beginner’s box. Around the same time as the creation of Critical Core, Game to Grow was presenting keynote presenters at the Washington Association of Marriage and Family Therapy to an auditorium full of therapists about the life-enriching magic of tabletop role-playing games. Afterwards they wanted in. But before Critical Core existed, they could only tell them to go to their local game store, buy a game that looked fun to them, play it for 6 months to get good at it, find friends to play with you until you become a leader of the game, and then figure out a way to incorporate it into your therapy practice, which will take about a year.

Now they have training program at Game to Grow for facilitators. Part of the goal for Critical Core was to access that population of therapists who really wanted to use more play and semi-structured narrative social play activity instead of something like a sandbox that was unstructured. To leverage the use of play in their practice, their rule set takes that 6-months to over a year where they have to learn the game to being able to implement the game and building the social confidence in their group very quickly.

“People have the right to communicate in the method that is best for them, period.”

Listen also to this Noncompliant-The Podcast episode with Derek Burrow, “an Ottawa-based librarian, writer and tabletop RPG player who is part of a movement to normalize AAC and increase accessibility to it.

Where do you have to be developmentally to play?

Quickfacts on Critical Core’s Kickstarter page say that the game is “suitable for cognitive age 9+, including teens and adults” and that “players must have basic listening and verbalization skills.” I asked Virginia where that fits in the DIR framework. Virginia says that they are constantly editing this information to be more neurodiversity affirming and wants to edit that information immediately. She says that the game is for anyone who can communicate. She’s passionate about accommodating for those who use alternative methods of communication.

In terms of the Functional Emotional Developmental Capcities (FEDCs) in the DIR Model, Virgina explains that some people apply in quite a linear way, and some people less so. In Critical Core, they have something called Core Capacities based on the FEDC’s but they’re trying not to apply them in a literal way. Virginia would hate to say FEDC 7 is a requirement because she has seen kids who aren’t seemingly capable of pretend play, but within the environment, they find the ability to be able to participate after some time. You do need to have a basic ability to be regulated in a room with other people and tolerate other people, which can be assisted into joyful connection by a good facilitator, Virginia offers.

Another is being capable of following a basic story. That is also a skill that grows hugely within the setting of Critical Core. But if words are boring and words are meaningless and you’re still in sensory or cause-and-effect play, it might be too much. It’s not as black-and-white as putting an age level on the game. The game is about story telling and collaboration in that aspect, so it lends the opportunity for adjustment, Adam Johns says. Many challenges that players bring can be scaffolded by the facilitators and they’ve seen the game played successfully with a wide variety of ages and ranges of capacities, he adds.

Facilitating a Game

I described how my son is able to sit in a group setting if he is engaged but if it gets difficult or is not engaging, he’s out of there! He currently absolutely loves everything to do with Mario Kart video games so I asked the guests what would happen if he wanted to be the character ‘Bowser’ from Mario Kart and his friend wanted to be ‘Catboy’ from PJ Masks. Is the game that adaptable? Adam Davis says that one of the facilitator’s roles is to be as enthusiastic about what the players are enthusiastic about in order to make relationships.

If a young person comes in and asks to be ‘Bowser’, the facilitator would enthusiastically say, “Yes! You can be Bowser! Tell me all about Bowser!” and find out what it is that excites the child about being Bowser. He said that some kids may come in never having had the experience of an adult being as excited about something they are interested in. Finding a way to fold that into the game into a meaningful way is the magic of what they are doing, he adds. They want to cultivate that enthusiasm for the shared interest and excitement for that narrative.

Now Bowser is a character that the young person can now control. They can swing their tail around and breath fire or whatever else draws the person to that character. Maybe Bowser is unapologetic and takes what they want from the world, Adam continues. You want to explore the aspirational quality of playing Bowser and experience what it feels like to be unapologetic and not worry about what other people think all the time, and be that character for 90 minutes or 25 minutes per week, or whatever that is, and then translate that experience into real life.

This is part of the flexibility that the facilitator has and these are the tools they want to provide with a game like Critical Core–to be able to shift to the needs and interests as the game evolves. Adam Johns adds that the foundation of any role-playing game is following a story. It’s different from a game like Monopoly, which they describe as being a pretty terrible game. My son might not be interested in reading the cards and buying properties, but he might like to drive the cars around the board. It’s not the way the game was designed to be played, but it’s just a way for you to engage in the play experience, he asserts.

The Flexibility of Critical Core

They designed the game with the intent that you will throw out rules and adjust it to the needs of the players who are attending the game. If they want to play the characters of PJ Masks and go after Night Ninja, you can do that. You can introduce the concept of chance by rolling dice where a high number might mean something and a low number something else. These would be the tools at the most basic level. You can work up to, “Here’s how spells work in this magic world” but you don’t have to. The more you want to make it about the children is where the skill of the facilitator comes in, Virginia states. The game is all about the children.

When we’re thinking about the ‘convenient classroom’, we’re not thinking about the adult that this child will become.

Virginia Spielmann, Director of Critical Core

One of the ways that Virginia likes to describe a Critical Core group, or affinity-based, play-based group like this is ‘therapeutic chaos’. You have to be comfortable with this. Aspiring to spontaneity and chaos in the therapy setting is the direction that people need to be going in. The facilitator needs to be skilled enough and chilled enough to relax about the rules, she states.

Adam Davis adds that they are building on something from other role-playing games called ‘The Rule of Cool’ where everyone agrees to allow the Game Master to bend the rules a bit to make the story ‘cool’. They shifted that in Critical Core and called it the ‘Enthusiasm Doctrine’ where they can bend or break any rule to cultivate enthusiasm because the goal in playing Critcal Core is that authentic, relational, social play. Any rule that gets in the way of that should be discarded and maybe you can add more rules that you want the players to lean in to.

Affect Autism, We Chose Play, and The Hooded Goblin all endorse Critical Core

Also, check out the podcast with Mike Fields about Growth and Gaming

How the game is played

In the Critical Core box there are pre-written stories for brand new facilitators. There is a basic rule set which is a simplified role-playing game. Then there’s the facilitator’s guide, which can be adapted to other games. Then there’s the modules or stories that the game takes place in. They can ideally be run without too much study ahead of time. Every single scene is aligned with the Critical Core capacities. It’s not social skills training and there’s no teaching, but they still look for opportunities to build the core capacities and the way the story can benefit to practice and reflect on these capacities. 

Training for Facilitators

Game to Grow has a full training program. There’s a training program for therapists, for educators, and for community members. The training program for therapists is aligned with treatment goals and outcomes. The training program for educators is aimed at classrooms or in school settings, such as after-school programs. It could include supporting a History teacher to leverage games to support their learning outcomes. They also offer training for people in the community for recreational settings, in a game store, or for families. Virginia says that it is exceptional training. Trainees do feel equipped and excited. It’s very thoughtfully put together, she says.

Learning ‘Social Skills’

Virginia says that they use the term learning as in that’s the purpose of play. It’s the self-actualization sense of the word ‘learning’, she adds. They use the functional emotional core capacities as a way of structuring it for the facilitator because so many of the people who come in to Critical Core settings have been deprived of opportunities where their communication styles were honoured and where there was work that needed to go both ways. So much labour is put on the child to learn socially appropriate interaction skills, and this is not that.

Critical Core is a space, Virginia continues, where the labour is on everyone equally, if not mostly on the facilitator to find the attunement and find that space where there is play and repetition in a regulated way so the child can grow as their authentic self rather than be shaped or steered in a certain way. Adam Johns adds that they will often touch base with the parents or a therapist to see what the goals are, but in many ways the goals across groups are very similar. They want to help develop an appreciation for socialization in most of the players.

Many players come in socially isolated. Many have never had a friend who has been part of their life. If they can provide an opportunity to provide a space that they enjoy coming to, Adam continues, once a week that is a social experience, and in that social experience, they get a chance to try out different approaches and feel safe enough to ‘test the waters’ in many different ways, and they can keep coming back even when there are missteps in some of those trials, it is a huge part of what they want, he concludes as he covers his heart with his hands.

Long-term Benefits

The real nugget is when they can get a player to exchange a phone number with another and hang out together outside of school time. It’s giving them the chance to appreciate what it is to be social and to have friends who like you for who you are and want to be around you. They want to provide that play space to work on the skills to use to socialize and enjoy friendships. They’ve had parents say that coming to Critical Core is like eating your vegetables without knowing you’re eating your vegetables. Many of these kids have been in so-called ‘social skills’ programs for years.

Critical Core is an alternative to social skills programs. The burden is typically on a young autistic person to camouflage which causes micro trauma after micro trauma which doesn’t prepare them to be themselves and flourish. Other programs have only taught them to ‘fit in’ without having meaningful relationships. Most of their children are middle school students, which is a time when it’s usually picked up that they might struggle socially. Many of the kids are bullied at middle school. While they can’t control or stop the bullying at school, they can form relationships and build support networks, Adam suggests. 

The research shows that if you have a friend or support network, the long term outcomes of that peer victimization reduces. This is more than providing a play setting for some fun, but to really show the benefits of having trusted people in your life. They’ve seen kids who have never had a friend go to being invited to social outings and hosting their own social outings where they invite everyone from the group to their house on the weekend. They’ll report back next week how it went well or how they struggled because they’re still building the framework of how to connect with each other without a facilitator.

The attempt is worth so much…the desire to have more social contact.

Adam Davis, Executive Director, Game to Grow

Joyful Moments

Adam recalls one group saying good-bye before breaking for the summer. The group just stood around knowing that when they got into their parents’ cars they would not be seeing each other again and one boy said, “I’m going to miss you guys.” Another one said, “I’m going to miss you guys, too.” and then they hugged. That is magic, Adam beams. While they have success stories and data, those moments of humans witnessing the social validity of other humans is magic. Those moments are the benefit of their work.

I asked if they notice kids who come in expecting another ‘social skills’ group and if they see them change when they realize it’s really fun. Adam Johns says he notices in that first run of the game in the first module of the game where there is a character with a funny voice (played by the facilitator) who serves soup at the best soup place in town and asks them what they want. A kid may respond that they want ‘nothing soup’. The character will enthusiastically respond, “Ah! Nothing soup! I love that flavour! It’s so light and airy!” He’ll see the child realize that it’s fun and nobody is going to be telling him how to act and they relax.

Virginia adds that she has seen people with therapy fatigue come into the room because they were told to and that the parents report back that the child has been asking when to go back all week. Virginia says they’re helping them master their vegetables and they get to choose which vegetables they like and they’re enjoying them. You get to enjoy people in your own way. She called it Critical Core to be tongue-in-cheek about ‘core deficits’. There are people who really want to connect with other people but whose communication hasn’t been honoured. We need to stop treating them like something needs to be changed. Here is a space where you can enjoy other people and experience that sense of mastery.

This week's PRACTICE TIP:

This week, being to wonder with your child about who they could be and what they could do if they were a super hero or another character of interest to them.

For example: If your child is struggling with something, imagine together having a super power that might help them overcome this struggle and see how far your child can take the idea. Would your child have a special costume that they wear when they transform into the character with a super power? Would they have other special powers? Would they help others and do amazing other things?

Thank you to Virginia, Adam and Adam for sharing this groundbreaking project with us! If you enjoyed and found it useful and helpful, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter. If your child is developmentally capable now, please support Critical Core by purchasing a game and viewing the training videos. If your child is not there yet, watch some of the videos about the game and plant that seed in your head for your child in the future, and suggest the game to friends whose kids might enjoy tabletop role-playing games and organizations supporting youth on the spectrum. Feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below. Please stay tuned next week for part 2 of PCDA Floortime Clinic, which will cover the Feeding and Nutrition Department.

Until next week, here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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