New Haven-based Therapist Launches Online Dungeons & Dragons for the Young and Autistic

Talking to Daniel Allen, a 37-year-old recreational therapist with a short but remarkable history of working with children, in Ethiopia in the Peace Corps, for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang and at Yale New Haven, you pretty immediately understand that this is a person who loves the offbeat imaginative side of childhood learning.

A self-described “proud nerd,” Allen took the leap from part-time work at Yale New Haven’s Child Psychiatric Inpatient Unit to start Dragon Haven, a new online service that uses games like Dungeons & Dragons to help children build social skills and cope with anxiety.

“I started last August… well, last summer really … I was working as a recreational therapist at Yale New Haven in the child psych inpatient services,” said Allen.

At Yale New Haven, Allen said that he typically saw patients for two or three weeks at a time in a hospital setting.

“They’d sort of come and go. I wanted to see if this was something that I could work with kids and adults over several weeks at a time,” said Allen.

“I should give a lot of credit to an organization out in Seattle called Game to Grow, they’ve been doing it for several years now, and picking up a lot of steam, especially at the same time that Dungeons & Dragons is suddenly really popular.”

Although Allen says that there is not yet a body of evidence-based science behind the therapy, Game to Grow has reported significant social benefits, very good client retention and anecdotal evidence backing up the approach.

So Allen reached out last summer to Dr. Roger Jou, an instructor who specializes in autism spectrum disorders at the Yale School Medicine Child Study Center, and suggested the idea of a therapeutic Dungeons & Dragons group.

As part of his practice, Dr. Jou heads a “a university-organized, online, and local community of individuals living with autism, and the families, friends, and professionals involved in their lives,” called Project CASY.

“He’s just trying to do all these things to get people on the spectrum, mostly young adults, socially active with one another in their community,” said Allen. “When I reached out to him about running a volunteer D&D group, he was really excited and really supportive.”

Allen said that he ran sessions in-person as a volunteer for Project CASY before moving the program independent of Yale and online.

At play

Allen who has led and joined adventuring parties in his personal life as a player and dungeon master for the last 15 or 20 years, describes a personal style of play that is counter-intuitive – opting for gaming attributes like charisma over strength – and taking pleasure in the imaginative possibilities of creative problem solving.

“I end up as charismatic as I can… always trying to talk my way through things rather than reaching for my sword … I like a diverse set of options with which to resolve the conflict.”

Of the thirteen games he is currently playing, he is a dungeon master in twelve and a player in just one, “an old half-elf fighter, his greatest attributes are his intelligence and his wisdom. He is creaky and he should have retired a long time ago, but he’s going after one last hurrah, hoping to take some of the younger adventurers under his wing.”

“At the simplest level, it’s a recreational activity that can be easily accessible for kids who might not have the friends to play with,” said Allen. “I know from working with kids with autism this is sometimes a barrier. So, just setting up that safe and fun environment as opposed to the clinical group therapy session – most kids not actually like attending those sorts of things.”

For Dragon Haven, Allen said that he would like to work with anyone interested in playing, but that he is currently focusing on young people with the most needs from ages eight to 17, in parties of three, four or five. Allen said that he is just wrapping up [a group of] young adults in Project CASY.

“Like every dungeon master will admit, your players never do what you expect them to do, but with kids that’s times 10,” said Allen. “They have just the most imaginative priorities that all of a sudden they need to do something. As I am facilitating this game, I’m trying to track where they are going and what is happening around them. It can be like herding cats.”

After introducing the participants to the game rules in a free 90 minute introductory session, and helping players create characters, Allen sets the stage…

Far away, a dragon hatchling farm is attacked, with eggs and young stolen away. On the trail of the thieves are Shakeira, a dragon farmer famed for her skill with both sword and guitar, and 0, an agent sent to uncover the movements of the mysterious cult behind the raid. They are led to Phlan, a seaside town where the enigmatic Loki has recently disrupted a dragon egg smuggling ring. Now, they join forces to face the threat of the dragon cultists. But first, the innkeeper just served fresh jam on biscuits for breakfast…

“I’m starting to describe the breakfast and I’m just about to say the part about the ‘woman starts screaming,’ when they all jump in,” said Allen, relating how in one recent session the young adventurers almost immediately take over the game as their own. “Well I want pancakes, instead of biscuits!… and I’m a vegetarian… and I’m just in there reading a book!”

Meanwhile Allen is scrambling to improvise answers to all manner of questions, including why the husband of the innkeeper is absent.

Clearly, it’s the sort of result that delights Allen.

He describes each 90 minute session of play as an safe place to try and fail, to cope with anxiety and frustrations as basic as losing a die roll and working together a group, in a setting that is online and imaginative rather than clinical.

“At the simplest level, it’s a recreational activity that can be easily accessible for kids who might not have the friends to play with,” said Allen. “I know from working with kids with autism this is sometimes a barrier. So, just setting up that safe and fun environment as opposed to the clinical group therapy session – most kids not actually like attending those sorts of things.”

Brendan Cunningham, an East Lyme resident, and professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, signed up his two daughters, and readily endorses the approach.

“One of the hardest things about the pandemic is that our children have lost time with their friends,” said Cunningham. “Daniel offers an opportunity for them to restore some of what is lost through therapeutic play which allows them to connect with each other. Both our neurotypical child and our child with autism look forward to Dungeons and Dragons every week.”

Allen, who said he would like to consider himself “diagnosis agnostic,” describes one child who in eight months went from constantly arguing with others, and who struggled to share ideas, to being voted a group leader by other players because of his creative ideas.

“You don’t need to be on the spectrum to come to us and to improve your social skills,” said Allen. “I’m kind of reaching out to parents on the spectrum, because I know there is a particular need there for this sort of service.”

Allen is currently seeking players for two groups beginning in late June and finishing at the end of August, just before the school year begins. Each session lasts 90 minutes and costs $40, but he is hoping in the future to be able to subsidize families who cannot afford the full cost.

Allen also works one-on-one with families to set therapeutic goals for the sessions.

So far, he claims that well over 90 percent of young adventurers who join the initial free introductions stay for an entire seven to eight-week campaign.

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