Playing to learn: How to entertain a child with autism
Parents and caregivers sometimes struggle to entertain a child with autism, which is understandable. Individuals with this complex disorder are wired a little differently. Add this unique brain activity to the usual difficulties corralling small kids, and some kids with autism can come across as difficult to engage or control.
However, with a little research and a lot of compassion, it is possible to connect with a child with autism. You can have fun playing with children with autism and you'll be amazed as they let you glimpse into their world.
If you find yourself in a position to entertain a child with autism, keep these five tips in mind.
Understand that autism is a spectrum
There is no one "stereotypical" autistic child. Autism is a spectrum disorder with a very broad range of traits. Some children with high-functioning autism may seem developmentally normal with just a few difficulties interacting socially. On the other end of the spectrum, children who are on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum may not speak or have any other communication skills. Take the time to really get to know the child you are playing with and learn about their level of functioning.
Find out about the child's interests
Many children with autism become fixated on certain topics and they are usually very excited to tell someone new about their passion. Don't feel like you have to lead the conversation or activity in a certain direction, or the child may push back against your planned agenda. Many children with autism are either hot or cold about a subject. For example, if you try the entire day to get him to play a board game with you and he dislikes board games, you are setting yourself up for an uphill battle. Rather, if the child is really interested in something like bugs, machinery or history, let his interests dictate your activities.
Be sensitive to stimulation
Children with autism become over stimulated very quickly. They are particularly sensitive to loud noises, bright lights and big crowds. While an outing to the mall or circus might be fun for some kids, these crowded venues may be too chaotic for your little autistic friend. If the child you are with becomes agitated, take her to a calm and quiet place that is free from distractions. Kids with autism need a safe space to decompress after they've been bombarded by outside stimuli.
Have realistic expectations about communication
One of the hallmarks of autism is difficulty interacting socially. Don't be offended if the child you're trying to connect with would rather play by himself. Also, children with autism may not realize when they are saying rude or inappropriate things, so have a good sense of humor and don't take offense if they ask you an overly personal question or disagree with you. For the most part, autistic children are naturally inquisitive and have black-and-white opinions about the world — they are not trying to offend anyone.
The key to entertaining any child, regardless of whether they have autism or not, is genuinely having fun. Autistic children can sense if you are uncomfortable, so try to relax. Adopt the motto, "Go with the flow." Let them lead the play session while keeping them safe by providing clear boundaries.
Children with autism have a unique and beautiful way of interacting with the world around them, but in their hearts they are first and foremost children. They want to play and to learn and to be loved, and you can have a big part in making them feel safe and secure. As you bond with the special autistic child in your life, engage on his level and let him lead you. Pretty soon, you'll be able to see from his unique and beautiful perspective as well.