Tips on playing with autistic children

At Happy Oak, we are playing professionals. We also understand that sometimes parents feel at a loss with how to engage with their kids. So we help parents learn how to play, in a more fun way. This will build on both of your enjoyment of the time you spend together – building connection and incorporating learning.

“Play is the work of the child”. This is an often repeated Maria Montessori quote, due to its important truth. You’ve heard it before. But, is reading it again starting to make you feel anxious? Are you secretly hoping that screens might count a bit towards work as play? You might feel like your kid just isn’t that interested in other types of play. Especially the play that many of the other kids around yours are doing. 

You might even feel like you have already tried much harder than those parents who complain about how playing with their kids “is like sooo boring….” or “too messy”. Or even more enviably, they whinge that their child always pesters them to play together!!!! Your home is full of so many different toys. But your kid just isn’t into them, no matter how expensive or interesting they are. The toys sit on the shelf getting dusty and trigger you each time you see them. You have the will to try to play with your child. You know that play is “the work”, But you feel lost in the know-how. Maybe this is because your kid’s idea of fun might be a bit different from what is perceived as the “usual”. That is ok. Perhaps you just need a bit of help to re-think about how to harness your kid’s quirky and unique idea of fun. Read on….

Playing time is learning time for children. In play, children develop their gross motor, fine motor, social and cognitive skills. It is where friendships are developed, interests are explored and extended. It is a place of fun and joy. Joining in with a child when they are playing, is also a great way to work on some of the skills that they are currently learning. 

Play is a massive part of Happy Oak’s ABA therapy sessions with autistic learners. At least 50% of session time is spent in play and chances are, more than that! Many parents will say, when they are commencing services, that their child doesn’t play, so there’s no way they can do it for half their session. So many of the kids we work with start here. First things first, we need to find what our kid is into. It could be watching train videos, numbers, lining animal figurines up, ripping up paper over and over again, repetitively pressing the button on that VERY noisy toy or watching the washing machine run. Even if this doesn’t look like play to us, the child is enjoying themselves and it is where we can start. 

So, where do we go from here?

Let’s workshop the washing machine example

Instead of waiting until your child is asleep to run the washing machine because you find their keen interest in Bosch a bit uncomfortable, embrace it. Run the load.

  • Start by following their lead. Begin by observing the child, sitting next to them while they are watching the washing machine running. Make comments about it, such as ‘that’s spinning around and around! cool!’, ‘I can see that you like watching the washing machine’, ‘does watching the washing machine make you feel happy?’. 
  • If your child is showing they are enjoying you sharing this experience with them, pause the washing machine and look at them expectantly. Creating opportunities for them to communicate with you is really good practice for developing their language (or gestural) skills. 
  • Make it easy, give them some help or a model of what to say, for example “on” (if your child has vocal language) or show them they can point to the button. As soon as they ask you to turn it on, do it straight away, showing you are on their side, you see them and hear them.
  • Turn on some music while they are jumping up and down in front of the washing machine. If they allow, take their hands and spin them around and dance with them. Then, suddenly stop, having them ask you to do it again!  
  • While the music is on, show them your dance moves and help them to copy you!
  • Label colours – “there are the red undies!” 
  • Give them things you know they can do while you are loading up the washing machine, “Can you find me the other pink sock?”
  • Try to get insights into what they like about the washing machine, then extend this to other play. Maybe it is the spinning, maybe it’s the noise. You could get some spinning tops and other spinning toys to play with, or find other appliances/toys that make a similar noise. 

Get gross and silly

Clinical Director, BCBA Tineke fondly recalls “One time, I got a child really interested in playing with a Lego hospital by making all the patients vomit! He thought it was hilarious” and from here he copied me and we got really into the game. To start with he was NOT interested!

  • Sometimes kids might like playing with things that adults see as a little different from their own idea of what is usual/acceptable. Make sure you reserve any judgement and be encouraging. Forget those adult ideas about bodily functions being gross. Go with it! As long as the play has no safety issues, we recommend rolling with it. 
  • Don’t worry about gender roles (this is 2024 anyway!). When kids are playing they will often experiment with these. For example, your boy wants to dress up as Elsa- fantastic! “Let it go!”
  • If you know your child loves seeing you be silly, ham it up. Take risks and put yourself on the line. The worst thing that’s going to happen is they will look at you like you’re like you’re crazy or tell you to stop.

Let’s get messy! (and then clean up)

  • Does your child like to rip through the playroom tipping out all the toys rather than playing with something and putting it away? Let’s make a game of throwing the toys across the room into their correct bin. Here, you are working on:
    • Gross motor skills
    • Sorting (putting things in their correct category)
    • Turn taking- take turns and see who can do the biggest throw
    • Communication-make the bag for the blocks a hungry monster that only opens up when he wants a nibble of your child’s arm! Lots of kids love this and it encourages them to communicate by saying things like ‘open’/’open the bag!’. 

Take notes and watch

  • If you have the chance, watch other kids because they are experts. How do they do it? Kids can be the best teachers, especially at play. Use your observations to try new things out with your child at home. 

STOP giving so many instructions

  • This is one of the most important take homes. Having observed lots of grown-ups have a go at playing over the years, they tend to fall back on giving a heap of instructions, like ‘put the doll to bed’, ‘give the doll some food’, stop yourself, kids are not into this! 
  • Don’t talk like a grown-up, talk like a kid, keep your words short and clear. 
  • Think of how you could reframe those instructions and let your little one make some decisions of their own for example ‘yawwwnnn, the baby is tired, what should we do with her?’, being sneaky like this also means they might use their language to communicate their ideas- double win! Any opportunities to practice communication are going to help your child develop their skills. 
  • Set yourself a challenge, set a timer for 5 minutes and try not to give a single instruction! Instead, you can model play, make it look fun, you never know you might entice them to join in with you. 

Get outside

  • Being outside is a great way to get them some exercise and if you have a speedy kid you will probably get your heart rate up too!
  • There’s something magic about fresh air, so if you’ve been indoors for a while and it’s starting to get a bit boring… get outdoors!
  • Explore the world! Some kids love to watch the trains go by at the station, some love to cut laps on a scooter, others are nature lovers and enjoy exploring the leaves… and sometimes dirt…. That’s ok, get your gumboots on and try.

We hope this helps you to come up with some new ways to engage in play with your gorgeous kids. 

Happy Oak provides face to face support for children in Melbourne, Australia and will be commencing online support soon…stay tuned!

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