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If you have ever taken the time to sit and watch your child or other children at the park, you will probably find it amusing. The things that they do can seem so silly and almost senseless at times as they stand in one spot and twirl or scoop up a handful of sand and walk it across the playground and dump it at the bottom of the slide. The things that they say are funny, too. One kid is the mom and the other is the dad and the conversations that they have while they are in character can sometimes be revealing as to what their life at home is like. (Watch what you say around the kids, mom, and dad!).
Why Play is Important for Kids with Autism
As it turns out, not one thing that children do is separate from observation, imitation, and learning. Their playtime is not random. They are always processing new words, actions, and skills that they have been taught or that they have seen someone else do. When you think about it, play is almost like a rehearsal for life in the present and in the future. Children find their identity through play and sort out feelings through play.
- Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, said “Play is the work of childhood.”
- Television personality, Mr. Rogers once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”
These truths apply to all children and children with autism are no exception to these sentiments. Whether you are creating activities for autistic toddlers, preschoolers or older kids the benefits of play are the same. Playful activities teach social skills, inspire creativity, increase learning and understanding, improve communication and develop fine and gross motor skills.
Through play, many children find hobbies and interests that evolve into lifelong interests and potential career paths. For kids with autism, play can be the catalyst for making friends more easily, transitioning from special education settings to general education settings, and being able to acclimate to various social settings.
How Autism Spectrum Disorder Can Affect Play
It can be difficult to engage a child with autism in play activities. One reason is that many kids with autism get stuck in repetitive patterns and they can be resistant to interruptions to their patterns. Secondly, kids with autism also have difficulty focusing which can be challenging to anyone who is attempting to engage them in a play activity. Finally, communication can be problematic because many kids with autism are more focused on body movement during play rather than on the language that is required to learn the rules or concepts during play.
Ironically, these tendencies that make play difficult for kids with autism are the very reason that play becomes even more important in order to resolve them. It is during play that new patterns can be introduced, attention can be increased and communication skills can be improved.
How to Choose the Right Activities for Kids with Autism
Choosing the right play activities for kids with autism is similar to choosing activities for any other child.
Choose activities based on their interests.
This will help to keep the child engaged in the activity. This can help to gradually increase their focus and attention skills.
Structure activities around the child’s strengths.
If they enjoy building things, try to incorporate some building activities into structured playtime. By using Legos, stacking toys, K-nex, tinker toys, or even something as simple as dominoes, integrating a skill that they are good at can facilitate learning new skills without them even realizing that they were involved in a structured activity.
Cater to their senses.
If your child finds it calming to squish and squeeze textures like playdough or kinetic sand then it would make perfect sense to structure an activity around that particular substance. Think about which textures, sounds, smells, and sights they enjoy and use those things. Think about how focused some kids can become when music is played. Use that to your advantage when you structure activities for your child with autism.
Kids with autism are primarily visual learners- use this to create engaging activities for autistic toddlers, autistic preschoolers, and older autistic kids. Picture cards can be used as prompts to perform certain activities or as a visual aid to teach a sequence or outline the rules of activity. Being able to look at instructions rather than listen to instructions is typically easier for most kids with autism.
Keep communication and directions for activities short and simple.
Kids with autism can easily become overwhelmed with too many directives at once. To avoid triggering any frustration it is always best to deliver instructions in short and direct statements. Modeling the desired steps or actions is also helpful while verbally explaining them.
What Are the Best Activities for Autistic Kids?
The best types of activities for toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged kids with autism are the activities that take all of the things mentioned above into consideration. Simple activities that are visually stimulating, sensory engaging, and centered around the autistic child’s interests and abilities are the best.
The following ideas can be modified to suit the needs of toddlers, preschoolers, or older children with autism. The goal is the same no matter the age of the child- to teach and to help the child to focus and engage.
Ten Great Activities for Autistic Kids
Calm Down Bottles
Using any plastic beverage container (water or soda), fill the container with a bottle of glitter glue and warm water. For an extra glittery effect, add another bottle of glitter glue or additional fine glitter before adding the warm water. Close the bottle and shake it up. The glitter swirls for an unexpectedly long time and slowly settles. Kids with autism will be mesmerized for long periods of time by all of the swirling and spinning which will eventually slow down and settle on the bottom. Calm-down bottles are ideal for long waits, car drives, getting haircuts, or meltdowns in the classroom. (Great visual/sensory activity for children with autism from preschool to adolescence)
Seek & Find Bottles
This activity is similar to the glitter bottle with the exception of the contents. Seek and find bottles are filled with rice and small objects that you can find around the house or at an arts and crafts store. The idea is to keep your child with autism occupied by finding all of the objects in the bottle. You can create picture cards to show what items your child needs to find in each bottle or simply ask your child to find a particular object. These bottles can be a great teaching tool because you can make various themes with each bottle. For example, if Halloween is approaching, you can fill one with jack o lanterns, ghosts, witches, and bats. If summer is just around the corner, you might make a “seek and find” bottle with sunglasses, beach balls, swimsuits, and watermelons. You may even want to use sand instead of rice. It’s up to you to get creative and develop a theme that will interest your child. (Great visual/sensory activity for autistic toddlers, autistic preschoolers, and older autistic kids)
Yoga Ball Activities for Toddlers & Preschoolers with Autism
Toddlers and preschoolers are notorious for their boundless energy. They need to spend that energy in appropriate ways or they will find other ways to let it all out. Using a yoga ball in a designated area with plenty of floor space, you and your child can roll the ball to one another, you can place the child on the ball and teach them to bounce on it while trying not to fall off (great exercise for balance and strength while trying to hold themselves up), or you can lie the child on top of the ball on their tummies and roll them back and forth while holding their feet. All of these exercises require a bit of coordination which is a great therapeutic strategy for improving balance. (Great physical activity for proprioception- or body position awareness-for children with autism from preschool to adolescence)
Climbing, Jumping, Pushing, Pulling, And Carrying
Kids with autism often have difficulty with body awareness and understanding where they are in relation to space. Because of this, they can appear clumsy, loud, or overly cautious. Choose activities that encourage climbing (rock walls, playsets), jumping (trampoline, jump rope), pushing (shopping carts, push brooms), pulling (raking leaves, pulling wagons), and carrying (laundry basket, groceries). Providing multiple opportunities in all of these areas with various everyday tasks can help your child develop better body and spatial awareness. (Great physical activity for autistic toddlers, autistic preschoolers, and older autistic kids)
Emotions: Paper Emoticon Cutouts
Using colored construction paper, markers or crayons, and glue you can craft several different “emoticons” just like the ones you use on your cell phone. Draw and cut out various eyes, noses, mouths, and eyebrows. Arrange the features to display the emotions: happy, sad, jealous, bored, frustrated, sleepy, and whatever other emotions that you are teaching your child. Write the word for the emotion on the back of each face that you and your child construct and use them to talk about different moods and feelings as they arise. (Great creative activity for teaching social skills and communication skills to children with autism from preschool to adolescence)
Paper Fortune Tellers
Most children learn how to make a paper fortune teller at some point during their school years. These are awesome tools for teaching communication and social skills. You can create any number of topics with a paper fortune teller and work on skills like asking questions, dealing with teasing, identifying feelings, giving and receiving compliments, and working out social situations. (Great creative activity for teaching social skills and communication skills to children with autism from preschool to adolescence)
This activity teaches categorizing and organizational skills. This can be modified to be appropriate for autistic toddlers and preschoolers as well as older autistic kids. For toddlers, you can have them sort dolls and blocks. Preschoolers can sort colors. Older autistic kids can sort coins, letters, and words by beginning and ends sounds. This activity has room for creativity so that you can cater to your child’s interests. (Great learning activity for teaching labeling, categorizing, organizing, and observational skills to autistic toddlers, preschoolers, and older autistic kids)
Use any texture to soothe or teach a skill. For example, shaving cream and water beads have a smooth, squishy calming effect that most kids with autism love to swirl and scoop. For those who have an aversion to a particular texture, these activities can be introduced slowly and help them to overcome the aversion. This activity is not only fun for toddlers and preschoolers but older kids love it, too. One great way to teach writing and spelling is to pour a package of powdery jello mix into a baking tray and have them write letters and words in the jello powder with their fingers. The best part is licking fingers in between each word. This activity appeals to their senses and their appetite while they are learning in the process. (Great sensory activity for calming as well as a wonderful learning activity for teaching academic skills to children with autism from preschool to adolescence)
Life Skills & Feature Function Cards
These cards are a useful activity for kids with autism. In particular, older children can benefit from learning associations between things as they are exposed to more experiences in their daily lives. For example, from an array of animal images on a card, you can ask a child which one barks (the dog of course). From an array of kitchen appliances, you can ask your child which object cooks food (microwave). Do this with any relevant associations that you are trying to teach your child and this can make learning fun. (Great learning activity for teaching life skills to autistic toddlers, preschoolers, and older autistic kids)
Visual Organizers for Task Sequences
Any activity that requires several steps to completion can be broken down into steps (first, second, next, then & last) and placed in a visual organizer for an autistic kid to follow. For example, a morning routine could be organized as follows:
- First: Turn off the alarm
- Second: Get dressed
- Next: Eat breakfast
- Then: Brush teeth
- Finally: Get on the school buss
All of these steps would have a visual representation that can be placed on a task board using velcro to fix it in place. Any task can be put into a visual sequence. This activity is helpful in teaching multi-step skills to kids with autism. The pictographs are especially helpful to toddlers and preschoolers. (Great learning activity for teaching life skills to children with autism from preschool to adolescence)
Get Started Today!
These are just a few ideas that parents, teachers, and caregivers can use to turn learning into play for kids with autism. Those who are closest to a child know best how to create useful activities based on the child’s interests, strengths, and needs. If you live in the New Jersey area find out how Circle Care Services can help. Our therapists are creative and can help develop activities that are well suited for your child. We provide one-to-one ABA therapy, social skills groups, and qualified staff that will not make you wait before coming onboard to find fun and playful solutions to your child’s needs. Now run along and play with your child!