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Ask an Expert: Sam Blanco, Board Certified Behavior Analyst

This week, we had the pleasure of talking to Sam Blanco for our latest Ask an Expert interview. Sam is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who works with children ages 3 to 15 with autism and other developmental disabilities in NYC. She is dedicated to showing the value of games, play, and technology in special education. She also provides a Tip of the Week column at the Different Roads to Learning blog. You can find much more information on teaching through games and technology at her blog at or follow her on Twitter @SamBlancoBCBA.

Tiggly: You’re an educator with a focus on kids with emotional behavior disorders, autism, and learning disabilities. What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

Sam Blanco: Being able to play is by far the most fulfilling aspect of my work. The kids I work with typically have disabilities that prevent them in some way from playing. And it’s not just the physical aspects of play. If you think about play, there’s a lot going on there: language comprehension, going with the flow when someone does something unexpected, trying out new ideas, being spontaneous. Most of the kids I work with struggle with at least 2-3 of those elements of play. My favorite part of my job is finding that one toy or game that really captures the interest of my student and opens the door to more play and more social opportunities.

Tiggly: You are a vocal proponent of using games to help the kids you work with learn social cues and skills. How is technology changing the game (no pun intended!) for kids with developmental challenges?

SB: The aspect of tech that I’m really excited about is the potential for job skill development. I’m not saying you should be thinking about job skills with your preschooler, but there are so many opportunities for kids to create materials using technology.

I like to see kids using apps and programs that allow them to do basic coding, create their own games, or easily make their own movies. Temple Grandin has a great story in the book Different…Not Less about how she had jobs throughout high school and had to learn to work within parameters set by someone else. One of her jobs was sign-painting, and part of her skill development was learning that you can’t paint horses on every sign.

This may sound funny, but for our kids with autism or other developmental delays, rigidity and preference for sameness can be a huge hurdle to employment. Starting young with motivating assignments or “jobs” to create a presentation, movie, etc. is an essential first step to teaching kids to be more flexible and follow instructions. And for learners who really struggle with this, I don’t think it is too early to be thinking about that in preschool. If they love Tiggly Shapes, it can be a powerful learning experience to say, “Today we’re going to play with Tiggly Draw, but we’re going to make a picture using only triangles.”

Tiggly: In families where only one sibling is on the autism spectrum, what kinds of games do you recommend for the whole family to enjoy together?

SB: It really is highly individualized. I’ll ask the families questions about what each member enjoys to help make some suggestions. Do they like movement? Do they enjoy trivia? Do they love puzzles?

For many children with autism, you’re going to start small. You might just be playing for one minute and then slowly building up to longer and longer periods of time. For one of my preschoolers with autism, we started with her mother hiding behind a blanket. She would say “mama,” then her mom would drop the blanket and give her a hug. This was a simple game that promoted essential skills, was very quick, and was eventually expanded to include her father and three siblings. When considering how to play as a family, you have to think about meeting each child where they are and how to make it fun for every child. This is no small task!

Tiggly: How did you first encounter Tiggly? Is there anything in particular you find useful about our apps in your work?

SB: I do a lot of work with Different Roads to Learning, and they introduced me to Tiggly. [Editor’s note: Also check out our interview with Julie Azuma, the founder of Different Roads to Learning.] We were all excited about the potential for such a highly motivating teaching tool for learners with autism. Many of the kids I work with really love tablets, so finding tools to provide interactive activities that are educational and fun feels like winning the lottery.

There are two things I find really useful about Tiggly. First, Tiggly Shapes bridge the digital with the tactile. The shapes allow me to structure the activity in such a way that my student can easily play with the tablet with siblings or peers. It changes the entire interaction with the tablet because it’s not just the child and the screen.

The second thing I love is that it connects well to skills I’m already teaching: shape identification, animal identification, recognizing parts of a face, identifying a missing item, and more. If I’m working with a learner who’s highly motivated by the tablet, then this is a great way to maintain a skill. We’ll take a break from working, and the child chooses Tiggly for his break, practices skills we’ve been working on, and has fun while he’s doing it.

Tiggly: Finally, what was your favorite game to play in the summer as a child?

SB: I grew up in North Little Rock, Arkansas. In the summers, all the kids in the neighborhood would play street hockey during the day. Then at night we’d play flashlight tag. It was all about being outside until the last possible moment!

Team Tiggly