Ideas for Playing With A Child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
It can be feel very hard sometimes to know how to play with your child when their communication skills do not develop in a typical fashion. The very fact that it can be hard makes it all the more rewarding for both of you when you find an activity that your child enjoys and wants to share with you. That activity is unlikely to be a shop-bought game or an obvious choice, which can be part of the problem!
It can help to think about what social interaction involves. We don’t think about this when we play with typically developing children as it does not seem necessary. Play feels innate, automatic, a skill that we don’t need to learn. But when playing with a child who is on the autism spectrum, play becomes something harder to understand, and doesn’t always come naturally. Early interactions with others involve:
- Eye contact – looking at the person that you are interacting with.
- Attention and listening skills – these are the foundation of communication. We need to pay attention and listen in order to learn, respond to visual and verbal cues, e.g. facial expressions, noises, words, to take turns, etc.
- Joint attention –looking at the person you are interacting with, then at the item you are playing with, and then looking back at them to check that they are interested in the item.
- Anticipation – anticipating what is going to happen next in familiar games and activities, e.g. tickle games, jack in the box, etc.
- Initiating play – using sounds, words or actions to start interaction
- Maintaining play – using sounds, words or actions to continue interaction
- Copying actions, sounds, words, etc.
When you break it down into the various skills, you see that play demands a range of skills and these skills are hard for a child who is on the autism spectrum, so we have to help them.
Choosing toys for children with ASD:
When you are choosing toys or activities for children with ASD, look for the following:
- Toys/activities that are motivating for the child, that they will want to play with for more than one turn
- Toys/activities that work well with saying ‘ready, steady, go!’ before you use them, so that you build anticipation and provide a chance for the child to vocalise, speak or use sign / gesture in order to say ‘go!’
- Toys/activities that are easy to sabotage so that you can join in play. For example, if the child is putting a car down a car ramp again
and again, put your hand over the space the car goes down so that the child has to interact with you. Make it funny, e.g. say “Oh-oh!” in a really exaggerated way. Then say, “Ready? Steady? ……” wait for the child to vocalise or say go! And move your hand. The child will get used to you doing this, it will become an added step on playing with the car ramp and the child will expect you to do it.Sabotaging games in this way provides opportunities to develop eye contact, understanding intonation and facial expression and opportunities to interact in what might have been solitary play. Another example, is that you offer the car to the child to put down the ramp again, but when they reach for it you say, “Whoops!” and move it out of reach and then tease the child with it, bringing it nearer and taking it away. Warning! Be careful you read the signs of when this is getting annoying and could lead to a meltdown and avoid doing it for too long!
- Toys/activities that you can easily add steps to, for example, swinging your child in a blanket. Swing the child for a few times, then put them down. Ask, “More?” or “Up?” depending on the language level or sounds that the child can make. Swing them again if they indicate they want more. When they are used to this, a step to add on might be that when you put them down, you pull the sides of the blanket together so that the child can’t see you and you can’t see them. You say something like, ‘Where’s (child’s name)? Where is he?’ and then open the sides of the blanket and say, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Boo!’ This is great for establishing eye contact and developing anticipation. Another step might be that when he is used to this, you add in tickling. For example, after you say ‘boo!’ Say something like, ‘1,2,3 Tickle!’ lifting your hands ready to tickle the child and then tickle them. A further add on might be that you say what you are going to tickle, e.g. ‘Tickle foot!’ Gradually, you add more steps onto a familiar play routine to extend the interaction.
Tip: I find that two adults is often more successful than one, so if you have a partner, parent, friend, etc. who is willing to help you, I recommend you start with at least one session a week where you have another adult to help you engage your child. As the child’s attention and listening skills develop and they get used to the activities, it will be easier to play one to one, but I find it really helps to have two adults if you can.
In this example of interaction through play in one of my therapy sessions, Harry sat on his mother’s lap at a table, and I sat opposite them. I held up a fabric bag, and to the tune of The Farmer’s In His Den, Harry’s mother and I sang: “What’s in the bag? What’s in the bag? Tell me, tell me. What’s in the bag?” Then Harry looked in the bag. Inside was a car to go down a car ramp. I put the car ramp on the table but blocked the space that the car goes down with my hand. I said, “Ready! Steady!” looking at Harry and the car and leaving a pause for him to complete the command. When he said “Go!” I removed my hand to let the car go down the ramp. Harry learned that when he said go, the car could go down the ramp and this made him more engaged in the activity because he knew what was going to happen and what he could do to change it. When the car had gone down the ramp, I took it quickly and asked, “More?” If Harry said more, then I gave him the car and we repeated the activity. Over time, as Harry got used to this activity, I added the following steps:
- Offered a ball or a car to go down the ramp, “Do you want the ball (show the ball) or the car (show the car)?” Responses can be pointing, reaching, pointing / reaching with vocalising or speech, vocalising, speech.
- Then added the colour of the ball, e.g. “Do you want the yellow ball (showed the yellow ball) or the green ball (showed the green ball)?”
- When the car got to the bottom of the ramp, I reached for it at the same time as Harry, so that we had a little play tussle over who got it. When Harry was used to this step, I would look at him before I reached for the car to increase his anticipation.
Other activities that you can play with in this way at home:
- Toys where you hammer balls down a ramp (Melissa and Doug Pound and Roll Tower – Toys R Us sell their own version of this toy.)
- Marble runs (Available on Amazon, Tesco and Early Learning Centre)
- Toy foam rockets that you fire (Available on Amazon, ebay, Tescos)
- Bubble guns – the bubble liquid and the gun are separate so the child has to request more bubble liquid (Available on Amazon, the very best one in my opinion is the Aeroplane Bubble Gun)
- Building a circular train track and putting a battery operated train on it
- Mr Potato head (Mr Potato Head available in Sainsburys and Tescos, Amazon, ebay. Train tracks available from Early Learning Centre, John Lewis, Brio, Tesco, Amazon, Toys R Us. I use a battery operated train from Brio rather than a push along one, but you can use either.
When you find activities the child likes, keep them very simple and use the same procedure each time you do them. When you think the child will be able to manage a little change, add on another step, e.g. offering a choice of toy, colour, etc., extending the activity by adding an extra step on to it. Start off with small steps and when they are familiar, you will be able to gradually build on them and increase the number of activities your child can do with you. Most importantly of all, enjoy your experiences with your child. From tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow!