Playing with others does not come easily to children with autism. Their play skills are shaped by a preference to stay in their own world. Playing with your autistic child requires extra care and effort, but it is so important as playtime sets the stage for development and future social interactions.
Challenges Faced when Engaging your Autistic Child
As you get set to play with your autistic child, understand that the way he interacts with the world and others is different from the way you or others interact with the world and one another. This means that playtime will unfold and proceed differently, as well. Playing with your autistic child can present challenges that feel frustrating and discouraging, but you will get through them. Since the best defense is a good offense, educate yourself on what bumps to expect before engaging in play, including:
Getting his attention
Your child is likely consumed in his own world, enraptured in the construct of a toy or an idea he is ironing out in his head.
Suggesting her moves
Since you’ve taken your autistic child out of her preferred self-world and requested she play with you, instead, you’ve thrown her off her creative game. In this new direct interaction setting, your autistic child is unlikely to come up with ideas for the two of you to play with and build on. As the parent, it will largely be up to you to come up with ideas for next moves, scripts, and ideas in the playset. Playing without a reciprocating partner is frustrating, so it’s best to go into the playdate knowing this likely dynamic and having many ideas ready to offer.
Repetition getting old
As an adult without autism, you’ve learned to play make-believe in a transactional scenario where you take turns building off the ideas or dialogue of a partner. Your autistic child, on the other hand, likely prefers repetition and to repeat the same actions or ideas over and over again. This can be jarring to your own innate sense of play, so you want to have tools ready for responding to this situation.
Standard approaches not working
The typical engagement pokes and prods are unlikely to work with your autistic child. Asking questions, offering new moves or suggestions of what to do next in play might not register the way they do with your other children. That’s okay, you just have to find and focus on the approaches that will work.
As a parent, one of the hardest parts of playing with your autistic child will be in the many moments she turns away from you, preferring to stay in her own world with herself as the company, instead. You will feel hurt for being rejected by your child and a sadness for her preference for isolation (or at least to you, what looks like isolation).
Needing to play at all
Your autistic child might not be warmed up to the idea of playing with other children, meaning you will often be the playmate of choice or default. While you take your parental duties seriously and warmly, do not be surprised if your patience or enthusiasm run out quickly. After all, you are an adult and playing is something you grew out of long ago. Make an effort to have your personal needs satisfied and done so that you can use the most patience possible during playtime with your child.
How to Play with an Autistic Toddler
Floortime is all about getting on the floor with your child to play and interact with him at his own level. By meeting your child in his world, in his space and on his level, your child can feel safe, confident and calm. When you enter the world on the floor, let your child take the lead, listening to the fun instructions he has for a particular game or realm of make-believe.
Floortime works best in a calm environment where few variables are present to distract a child. This way, he has the opportunity to come into his potential as a leader. As you follow your child’s play instructions, he can sharpen his logical thinking and interaction abilities.
Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) is a step-by-step approach to helping children with autism develop social and emotional skills that are valuable to emotional bonds and social connections. RDI focuses on understanding perspectives, coping with change and integrating information from multiple sources.
RDI looks different for every child, but it usually begins with the one-on-one interaction between parent and child. Types of activities to engage emotional bonding include limiting spoken language, spending time with friends or peers who share a similar set of social and emotional skills. Eventually, children can play in a group, where they collectively work on RDI under the guidance of a therapist or trained parent.
Include your child’s favorite activities, characters, and settings as you come up with games to play. Especially in worlds of make-believe, including characters or elements that your child already likes can make the play setting feel more familiar and more natural for your child to engage in.
Tune into your child’s preferences during alone time, play time and social time. Make note of the TV or game show characters they like and bring them into the game at hand through picture, name or imagination.
Familiarize the unfamiliar
Do you have a playdate or activity coming up in a new place? Visit the site with your child a few days beforehand or even in the leading weeks to familiarize her with the new environment. A new setting can be overwhelming, so offer glimpses of it in small doses.
Try going for a lunch, or taking a walk around the new area. You can take photos during your activity and show them to your child afterward. This will imprint the setting in her mind again before you venture there for your big playdate.
A new setting is only one example of an element that can feel unfamiliar. If you are planning to be wearing unfamiliar gear, playing with unfamiliar people or using unfamiliar equipment, try it out little by little beforehand. This will help the day-of activity feel less foreign and go more smoothly.
Work with community leaders
Seek out the leaders in your community who are running the activities in which you’d like your child to participate. Ask in advance if they have experience welcoming students or guests with autism. You’ll be surprised by how many leaders and teachers do have experience with accommodating children with autism into group activities.
As you reach out and investigate the best ways to approach the activity, you can set up the playdate so that it goes as smoothly and enjoyable as possible for your child and the group.
If your community leaders do not have experience or insight to lend, don’t hesitate to request special accommodations that you know about for your child’s benefit. You might brainstorm together on details that you know to produce a good experience and details that the activity leader knows about from other situations.
Build on small success
Success feels good at every milestone. Celebrate the small successes with your child on the way to a bigger activity or overarching goal. This includes getting dressed on time, being kind to others and to self, completing shorter walks in prep for a long run, etc. As your child accomplishes these tasks and you offer fun support and congratulations, offer your positivity in the context of the bigger activity you are working toward.
Stay calm and try again
It is likely that your child will not respond to your efforts or that the playdate will end differently than you had planned. That’s okay! When the playdate goes away, maintain your composure and tend first to your child’s physical and emotional needs. Once the storm has calmed, evaluate where you might have deviated from the playing plan.
Write out a step-by-step list of how the day went and compare it with how the day was planned. The smallest changes can have a big effect on your child. It’s best to brace yourself now for these upsets – practice staying calm, breathe through your frustrations, and try again. You can do it!
Positive play helps your child makes sense of the world by introducing structure into play. As you play with your child, focus on four question words: what, how, when and what next. While your child is building rules for the game, ask him to answer the following:
- What do we have to do?
- How much do we have to do?
- When will be finished?
- What will happen next?
As your child tackles these questions and this order again and again during games, he can begin to apply this ordered logic to other areas of his life while he slowly makes sense of the world.
Learning tips for engaging your autistic child might present a different way to initiate play, but the many benefits received from play time are important in helping your child with autism develop and grow comfortable with the world around her.