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Mokena mom helps develop board game, app for autistic children

Pam (from left) Daniel Amy DePalmplay board game Give Me 5 their Mokenhome Friday Dec. 27. The game is designed

Pam (from left), Daniel and Amy DePalma play the board game Give Me 5 at their Mokena home on Friday, Dec. 27. The game is designed to help children develop social skills. | Frank Vaisvilas~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 3, 2014 3:42PM



Pamela DePalma moved to the Phoenix area from Mokena three years ago for better services for her son affected by autism, but she also discovered a prime business opportunity.

Her son’s therapist in Arizona, Rhonda Whitaker, had created a specialized board game using Monopoly pieces designed to help children develop better social skills.

“I was excited about it because there’s not a lot of games for older kids with autism,” DePalma said. “As kids get older, the resources start to fall away.”

Whitaker said many resources and programs have been developed for small children who have been diagnosed with autism or other developmental disabilities at a young age, but few are available for pre-teens or teens.

DePalma and her husband Chuck adopted Daniel, who’s now 14, when he was 6-months old. He soon was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism called Aspergers.

She saw a marked improvement in her son’s social skills after playing Whitaker’s game.

DePalma, then a stay-at-home mom, began talking with Whitaker about creating their own actual game pieces based on Whitaker’s techniques.

“We (her and Chuck) wanted to help her put it into production,” she said.

DePalma and Whitaker formed the company, The Developmental Garden, as co-presidents and began selling the board game “Give Me 5” in October.

In addition, the two created an iTunes app based on the game.

So far, DePalma said they’ve sold about 50 units of the board game at $39.99 each and 80 of the apps at $7.99 through their website, the developmentalgarden.com, and through word-of-mouth.

But the goal, DePalma said, is to get the game into schools for children with autism.

“The main focus is just helping kids,” she said.

DePalma said one school in the Chicago area and two in Arizona have adopted the game.

“Once we get past the first of the year, we’re hoping that number will grow,” she said.

DePalma and her family were back in Mokena, where they still own a home, visiting for the holidays. Pictures on the board game and app feature Daniel, his sister, who’s not affected by autism, and other children the family knows who have autism.

The board game plays a little like Trivial Pursuit and includes 240 cards in eight different categories.

Both the board game and the app are designed to be noncompetitive and present role-playing opportunities and social situations for children.

DePalma said children who don’t have autism have also found the game to be fun.

“To be honest, I’m actually learning things from these cards,” Daniel’s sister, Amy, 7, said.

The app includes videos of social situations and incorporates games, such as pachinko.

Whitaker said while the board game is played with several people, the app can be played solo and the player does not have to feel the pressure of needing to demonstrate proper social behavior.

“A lot of kids who struggle with social skills are attracted to gaming,” Whitaker said. “At the same time they’re learning social skills (with Give Me 5).”

Whitaker, a child developmental specialist for 25 years, recently began incorporating the app into her therapy sessions for children.

She recalled how the app helped to improve the social skills of one boy recently.

“By the fourth time (of using the app), he was generalizing information that he learned, not just memorizing,” Whitaker said. “It was super cool.”

After using the app, Whitaker said the boy learned not to tell just anybody if he was sick and had vomited. He learned not to tell that information to a stranger like a waitress or other children, but that he could tell it to his mother or grandmother so they could help him.



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