Alumna invents first board game for individuals with autism

Head and shoulders shot of Colleen Sullivan
Colleen Sullivan, MEd, BCBA, LBA

Board games have increased in popularity during the pandemic. While they provide many families with the opportunity to bond, some are not able to enjoy playing them together.

Colleen Sullivan, a board-certified behavior analyst, discovered this while working with a client with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“The client’s mother really wanted her to learn how to play this popular board game,” she said. “I worked one-on-one with her and tried several strategies to teach her how to play it, but she could not navigate the game. The board was overstimulating and confusing, the small pieces were difficult for her to grasp, the directions were too complex, and it took a long time to complete.”

Sullivan, who is from South Lyon, began researching board games for individuals with autism in hopes that she could find one, buy it and teach her client how to play it. Her search netted zero results.

“I couldn’t find any games for people with autism,” she said. “I started thinking it would be awesome if there was one. I wanted to make playing board games easier, less stressful and fun for people with ASD.”

Sullivan got to work. She designed a board game on paper and tried teaching her client how to play it. When the client accomplished the goal, Sullivan realized she was on to something, and STEPZ Board Games — the first three-set board game designed for individuals with autism — was born.

“As a behavior analyst, I develop plans and programs to help teach my clients the functional skills they need,” said Sullivan, who aspires to open her own applied behavior analysis practice. “It has been exciting to take a challenge I faced with one client and use it to produce a game that meets the needs of a larger population.”

Sullivan earned a master's in educational psychology and took courses in applied behavior analysis so she could take the BCBA exam. She encourages students majoring in different subjects to think about earning a certificate or degree. "If you are interested in pursuing speech pathology, occupational therapy or physical therapy, consider ABA. It allows you to work on language, daily living skills, motor skills and behavior. It’s comprehensive, individualized therapy that makes a big impact on people’s lives."

A child playing STEPZ board gameSullivan notes that STEPZ, which features eight animal characters, is different from traditional board games. It has a distinct beginning and ending point, provides players with the predictability and fast pace often needed to maintain their attention, and includes big tokens to make holding and gripping pieces easier for players. Further, it offers benefits not only for individuals with ASD but also those with physical or other developmental disabilities.

According to Sullivan, play can be the foundation for many learning opportunities. STEPZ helps players develop their fine motor, communication and social skills as well as practice identifying animals, matching, following directions, taking turns, making eye contact and tolerating losing.

Although she designed the game with 3- to 7-year-old children in mind, Sullivan says it can be enjoyed by individuals of all ages.

“I have 15-year-old clients who would benefit from playing STEPZ,” she said. “This game is broken down such that anyone could play it right out of the box. My goal is to make games that are inclusive.”

Sullivan hopes to raise the funds to produce STEPZ through a Kickstarter campaign. She is keeping an open mind, maintaining her sense of humor and considering alternative sources of funding.

“If this doesn’t work, I can try Shark Tank,” she said. “I would love to work with Mark Cuban. That would be a dream come true.”

To learn more about the STEPZ Board Game, visit stepzboardgames.com or follow @stepzboardgames on Instagram. 

For more information about the master's in applied behavior analysis, visit education.wayne.edu/applied-behavior-analysis.

by Tracy Walker

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