How to Engage your Autistic Child in Play Activities
When a child is diagnosed with Autism, there are typically scores of questions that go through a parents’ mind. They wonder what comes next and what they can do to help their child be successful. While a diagnosis brings with it many questions, concerns, and worries, it also begins the process of learning how to best interact and engage with one’s child. According to the American Psychiatric Association, Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterized by social-emotional and language development deficits. In young, preschool-aged children, this manifests in how children engage in play activities with themselves and their peers.
Due to this, changing the ways we interact in play with Autistic children is especially important to their development of social skills. Below are three ways to engage your Autistic Child in play activities.
Three Ways to Engage Your Child
1. Create a comfortable, low-distraction play environment.
Just as you and I may get distracted by the donuts in the break room or the TV on in our office, it is essential to make your child’s play space one that is free from extra distractions. While engaging your child in play, turn the television off and only have one or two toys out at a time. When your child appears ready to use a different toy, work on cleaning up the first activity before getting the second out. Using a clearly defined play area, such as a rug or small table, can be helpful with keeping children focused. This lets them know where they are expected to be and keeps the focus on the toys that are in that area.
2. Be the "keeper of the toys."
When your child is playing an activity that has many pieces, such as markers for coloring, a box of toy cars, pieces to a puzzle, etc., make yourself the keeper of the pieces. Not only does this keep the play area free from extra distractions, but it also ensures that you remain part of the play instead of becoming an observer. Every time your child needs a new piece or item, they have to ask you. It also sets you up to take turns during the activity. Sharing and turn-taking are often difficult for Autistic children, so any opportunity to practice sharing is beneficial. From a language standpoint, when you stay in control of the extra pieces, you create perfect opportunities to practice making requests and expanding language. As mentioned above, play for children is work. When we become active participants in their play, we increase their opportunities for learning and help foster critical social development.
3. Encourage flexibility.
Part of the diagnostic criteria for Autism is “repetitive and restricted interests.” Autistic children tend to thrive on routine and doing the same activities, the same way each time. Start with following your child’s lead. We know that all children learn best when they are engaged with toys they enjoy. While playing with toys the child chooses, add in small changes. Changes can be as simple as changes in colors, changes in actions, or changes in sounds during play. We must introduce change to keep things exciting and encourage flexibility within the child’s learning. Sometimes, too much change can lead to frustration and anxiety, so keeping change small but frequent is helpful. For example, if your child likes to play with cars on his car ramp, start by changing the direction they drive on the car ramp, practice taking turns, and modeling the new actions. By adding new play activities and actions, we help children grow their play and help prevent burnout of favorite toys. A critical developmental milestone for children is learning that toys can be played with in various ways. By introducing change into play routines, we help strengthen this skill for Autistic children. For more ways to help facilitate small changes in activities, I recommend visiting the Australian parenting website, which suggests positive ways to change routines for autistic children.
Engaging your Autistic Child in play can be challenging; however, using these simple strategies will set you on the road to success. You can also visit the “Love to Know “to gain ideas of preschool play activities for children with Autism. Remember, every child is unique, but engaging them in play is essential to their development. Playtime doesn’t have to be “Pinterest perfect” to fostering development.
Common Questions about Autism
If you have insurance, a great place to start is with your pediatrician. Discuss your concerns with them and ask for a referral for a developmental evaluation from a pediatric psychologist and speech-language pathologist.
If you live in the United States and your child is under the age of three years old, contact your state Early Start program and ask for a developmental evaluation from their team of professionals. These services are state-funded and free of charge.
If you live in the United States and your child is under the age of three years old, contact your local school district and ask for a developmental evaluation by the school psychologist. These services are state-funded and free of charge.
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- American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition
- Changing routines: autistic children and teenagers. (2020, 11 18). Retrieved from Raising Children Network (Australia)
- Miller-Wilson, K. (n.d.). Preschool Activities for Children with Autism . Retrieved from Love to Know
Disclaimer: This information is meant for general education and not to diagnose. Every child is different, and Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex developmental disorder that can manifest differently in other people.
Note: I am electing to use identity-first language to describe the Autistic community in this blog because it is the preference of many Autistic people.