Play for All: Supporting Play for Children with Autism

As Playper grows, more people are brought in to contribute to the team’s effort. Elise Bateman works with Brazos Social Company, who is helping with our social media content. But Elise also is a board-certified Behavior Analyst in early special education and has worked in homes and at a center-based program for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder; specifically, children 2-8 years old and their families. She generously offered to share her experiences here, so I’ve turned the blog over to her this month. As our products are aimed at that age group in general, and we hope all children can enjoy and learn from them, I thought I’d learn some things – and I have.

Important Foundations

In my work with young children with Autism and their families, I begin by focusing on the strengths – every child has gifts and a unique perspective they bring to the world. I also explain to families that Autism is centered on communication – a difficulty with communicating, not the intelligence or capability of the individual. The child is listening, is hearing, is paying attention, and while they may not yet be able to verbally communicate, that doesn’t mean we should underestimate or assume their intelligence. When I am working with a family with a new diagnosis, I also lead with empathy. It’s okay to grieve that this may not be the future you imagined, and that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope and joy too. (A must-read article on this topic is Welcome to Holland by Emily Perl Kingsley.)

With that foundation, we then begin the mutual journey of fostering opportunities between the parent and child learning together. As with all young children, much of organic learning is done within play. In playing with a child on the spectrum, the most important thing is to have clarity of communication. Many children have difficulty with transitioning away from preferred activities like leaving the park or ending screen time, but there are things you can do to support these transitions. One way is to pair visual representation alongside spoken language. I recommend a visual timer that is set at the beginning of the play or park time. There are many physical timers and timer apps that can be downloaded on your phone. These show in clear and often colorful ways that the time to move from one activity to the next is approaching.

Further ways to support transitions are to include choice and warnings. For instance, during play give a warning such as, “In five minutes we’ll be all done” while pointing to the timer. As with all young children, providing choices and “shared control” are great ways to help a child move through their day. One way I have included this is when giving my last warning, telling the child that, “When the timer goes off its time to be done with the activity, but if you need more time, we can play for two or three more minutes before we’re all done.” I especially provide this when a child is working on a project or something that can be finished, because who wouldn’t be upset if they had to stop in the middle of something they enjoy? I also encourage integrating these choices into the morning and nightly routines as in letting the child choose the order such as whether they brush their teeth or put their pajamas on first.

Supporting Interactive Play

While playing, there are many ways to support communication and collaboration. A foundational step is simply playing in parallel with them: If they are playing with a toy car, grab another car and play alongside them and comment on what you see them doing such as, “Oh I see you’re driving the car fast on the track.” Another way of supporting play can be “do and add a step.” Think of scaffolding: You build as you go to reach the next thing. For instance, if they are rolling the car back and forth, do that and then have your car park or make car make sounds.

Interactive games are a great way to develop social skills like learning how to take turns, waiting, and sportsmanship. To support communication for these types of games you can search online for visual pictures such as “wait,” “my turn,” and “your turn.” These directives give visual representation of what is expected of them during the game.

Screen time   

Many children with Autism use Augmented and Alternative Communication through a variety of applications on tablets or other electronic devices. Programs like Proloquo2Go provide visual pictures, written language, and voice output to support communication. This can make screen time complicated since you don’t want to “take their voice away” by using the device that is dedicated to communication. In the best-case scenario, there are separate tablets: one for communication and one for gaming. A more affordable option is two rubber cases for the device in different colors, say blue for communicating and red for play so that the child knows when it is expected that they are using the device to communicate versus free-play screen time. As with all children, the quality of the screen time is as important as the quantity. There are many applications that support cognitive development and fine motor skills.

The Doable Day

The last principle I like to impart for supporting children with Autism is the idea of a “doable day.” This is the principle of structuring the child’s day with a balance of things they enjoy and prefer, along with the “have to’s.” Just think about getting up in the morning. There are a lot of steps to starting a day, and if the first thing I had to do was something I absolutely hated or found difficult, motivation would be hard for me! To support a “doable day” you can make a routine that has a balance of preferred and “have to” such as, when they get up they can play for five minutes before getting dressed; and after getting dressed, they can bring their favorite toy into the kitchen and play before eating.

I encourage you to remember that clear communication and expectations are supportive for all young children. Your child is learning all the time, and using visual cues is a great way for the child to see spoken language and to bring clarity. My hope is that you will not only keep these in mind for your family, but also when interacting with children with Autism and their caregivers – I know many of my clients have felt so supported by other parents when they simply ask for what can help them communicate or support play. We all benefit from clear communication!

–Elise Bateman

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