For all children, play is significant and necessary. It permits them to develop crucials abilities like gross and fine motor skills, communication skills (both verbal and non-verbal), problem solving, thinking, and social graces.
For a child with autism spectrum disorder, play may be different, but no less necessary.
Keira, 32, is mom to Aidan, 6. Aidan was diagnosed with autism only six months ago.
“Something wasn’t sitting right with me for a long time,” Keira explains. “It just seemed like he wasn’t hitting his developmental milestones anywhere near the other kids, but he’s my first, so I thought, ‘Well, no big deal, some kids are behind others.’
“But the bigger red flags were a bit harder to dismiss. Aidan didn’t seem to empathize with other kids. The terrible twos -- you know, those tantrums at grocery stores and at friends’ houses or wherever -- just weren’t going away. And whether he was having a good day or a bad day, he’d flail his little arms or flap around.” Other tips for going out in public with your child .
With such symptoms, Keira says she and her husband feel fortunate they received invaluable support quickly, not only from friends and family members, but from Aidan’s school and local organizations. They’re exceedingly grateful to their ABA therapist, whom they say helped them to understand Aidan’s behavior as well as how it’s affected by his environment. Beyond that, they add, their therapist reminded them how vital it is that while they encourage all aspects of healthy living for Aidan, play is an absolutely integral part of his day-to-day routine.
“It’s funny, because I think as parents we got caught up in the devastation of this. We were all about, ‘How are we going to get him to eat well? How do we get him to stop thrashing around? How close to normal can we get this little guy’s life?’
“(Our therapist) reminded us to step back and think, ‘Well, hang on. Can we let him be six years old right now and just enjoy play?’”
But while Keira and her husband have understand the importance of active play for their son -- after all, they agree it’s a great space to meet people and practice engagement skills -- it hasn’t been without its challenges.
“We’re lucky that Aidan at the end of the day is a pretty social kid, which is surprising because a lot of other autistic children aren’t,” shares Keira. “Where we’re challenged is when we see looks from other kids. I find myself trying to be right there with him all the time. I try not to look at the other parents because I’m afraid then they’re looking at me!
“I’m scared for him once he gets older… right now, at this age, the kids are pretty good. But I know there will come a time some kids won’t be as good, and I won’t always be there to explain why he is the way he is.”
How is play for kids with ASD different?
It’s important to be mindful that playtime for children with autism spectrum disorder is different than for kids without. They likely enjoy playing as much as the next child, but some types of play could prove challenging. It isn’t uncommon for children with ASD to have very limited play -- for example, they may only enjoy playing with select toys, or they may play in a repetitive way. They may play differently from other kids in that they like doing the same thing time and time again without seeming to tire of the activity (i.e. spinning and watching the wheels on a toy car, or needing to build blocks the same way every time).
Autism spectrum disorder affects social and communication skill development, and that shows at playtime. Because of this, you as a parent may notice that your autistic child might struggle with copying simple actions, or they have little to no desire to explore the environment or other activities. They may be resistant to sharing toys or objects, or might resent having to pay attention to other children. They may also have a hard time taking turns, responding to others’ feelings, and may not be able to empathize or imagine what other kids might be thinking.
What types of play might be good for a child with ASD?
There are six main types of play that experts encourage for all children, including those with autism. They include the following:
Exploratory play. Instead of playing with toys, kids may explore them -- they may be fascinated with the eyelashes on a toy doll, for example, or may gnaw on the silicone paws of a stuffed animal. During the exploratory phase, kids play close attention to things like color, texture and shape.
Cause and effect play. It can be exciting (or sometimes, shocking) for a child to wind up an innocent-looking box, only to have a clown or animal pop out of it. That’s cause and effect play -- it teaches children that they can have control of what they’re playing with. They may press a button and music starts to play, or a light turns on.
Functional play. When toys are played with in the way they were designed, that’s called functional play. It could be rolling a car down a table, or throwing a ball. For kids with autism, this might be a bit of a challenge -- your child, for example, may be more interested in squeezing the ball rather than throwing it. In this case, experts recommend playing with your child by copying with he or she is doing, instead of trying to correct their play. You can reward your child with positive feedback, and then show him or her the way the toy is meant to be played. This will provide your child a new idea of what he or she can do with the toy.
Constructive play. When kids build things, they’re working toward a goal. This type of play includes puzzles or building blocks, or even coloring a picture.
Physical play. Physical play enables children to interact with other people and objectives in both new and familiar surroundings. Physical play encourages exercise and improves a child’s gross motor skills. It's important to not get aggressive during this play; read our tips!
Pretend play. Pretend play is when kids use their imaginations. It could be that your child pretends to be his favorite superhero. It could be that your child pretends she’s rowing a boat. While this type of play is often delayed in kids with autism, it does eventually develop in many cases.
And what about social play?
This post is titled “Going to the playground with your autistic child,” after all. So yes -- what about social play?
Social play can be a challenge for kids with autism, and while it’s okay for your child to want to play independently, it’s a good idea to provide him or her with the opportunities and support to play with other kids.
If your autistic child is resistant to playing with others, you can begin by encouraging him or her to play with a toy alone -- but alongside other kids. This is parallel play, and doesn’t force your child to fully interact with others, but does encourage some socialization.
Eventually, your child will interact with other kids, playing with the same toys, and learning how to give and take. Encourage your child to share the toys he’s playing with, or to accept other kids’ offer to share their favorite objects. Co-operative play -- playing with others by a set of rules -- will likely come next, during which your child’s communication skills will be tested and improved. Helping your child to understand social cues.
The playground is where social play is displayed, and it’s where many kids with ASD struggle. Not every neighborhood has special needs playgrounds (or even accessible playgrounds) and many parents of autistic children just want their children to be free to play wherever other kids play, without fear of judgment or discomfort.
Encouraging social play for your autistic child is possible. First, try out the range of play skills as listed above -- with those stepping stones, your child will have a better grasp on how to interact and play with other kids.
If the playground is too intimidating to start, begin with a play date with one or two friends who are around the same age. Teach your child how to join in, how to take turns, and how to win and lose graciously.
As a parent, it may be heartbreaking to see other children either ignore or mistreat your child in mainstream play, but if you witness this, stand back for a moment. Watch carefully and see if your child can work it out on his or her own. What kind of skills can you teach him or her that will help them deal with something like this?
Keira has one suggestion, which she says no parent has disagreed with yet.
“Don’t worry about what other people think,” she says. “You love your child no matter what. So no opinion matters but yours.
“Our job as parents is to make sure they’re loved, that they grow, and that they develop the skills they need for as bright a future as they deserve.”
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