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As parents, we have an instinct to facilitate play with our children from birth. It begins with simple games like peek-a-boo, shaking rattles, and blowing raspberries, and then it slowly evolves to pretending spoons of food are choo-choo trains, singing rhymes with gestures, and introducing them to equipment in the park. Eventually, other babies and toddlers are added to the mix, and we encourage them to play together.
Play is essential for child development, and it is how children begin to make sense of the world around them. Not only does it help develop their fine and gross motor skills, but it is also critical for social development. Taking turns, sharing, being considerate, developing empathy, and seeing a world beyond their own relies on play and interaction with others.
As time passes, play helps children understand rules and why they are necessary for a game to flow harmoniously. It helps develop impulse control, spatial awareness, problem-solving, and negotiation. And of course, all of this happens while having fun!
Autism and Social Skills
One of the most significant challenges faced by children with autism is developing adequate social skills. This is mainly a result of their underdeveloped communication skills and inability to read social cues. As a result, even if they want to interact and be involved, other children aren’t quite sure how to react and may find their interactions odd, awkward, or inappropriate. This is why it is essential to guide and assist them in building social skills to assimilate better and find a sense of belonging.
There are many ways to help children with autism develop social skills, even before they are in a situation that involves other children. Children with autism are far more perceptive than we give them credit for, and it starts with modeling positive social interactions. The difference is that children with autism need to have the positive interaction pointed out and explained more deliberately than a neurotypical child would. For example, when you greet the cashier at the grocery store and thank them for their service, it helps to reflect on that interaction with your child. Ask your child, ‘Did you see how I smiled and greeted Mr. Jones? When he asked how I was, I told him I was well, thank you.”
Role-playing is also a great way to impart social skills. There are broad benefits, for example, in re-enacting situations that have happened or creating fictional situations which are acted out in the form of pretend play.
Social stories are narratives designed to engage a child with autism through stories, incidentally teaching socially appropriate behaviors and responses. They also help to prepare a child for events before they happen, which can assist with anxiety. Children with autism usually struggle to deal with unexpected situations, and preparing them through social stories can make it easier.
There are many social groups specifically for children on the spectrum, and it is a good starting point for them to practice their social skills. It is also less stressful for you, the parents when they know that the other parents relate to you, and there is no judgment if things go awry. But you can’t limit them to interacting with other children on the spectrum – they need to engage with neurotypical children to fine-tune their social skills to assimilate.
Children on the autism spectrum are capable of learning and improving their social skills. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is the primary therapy for children who need social skills instruction. Social skills can be taught and reinforced at home, at school, and in ABA treatment sessions. In ABA sessions lessons are more often taught through playing games.
How can autistic children benefit from playing games?
“Play is the work of childhood.” – Renowned psychologist Jean Piaget
Play is very much a trial run for real life. It helps children discover their identity, learn to process their thoughts and emotions, and teaches an immeasurable amount of skills. This is why it is as essential for children with autism as it is for any other child.
Games For Social skills
Play can make it easier for children on the autism spectrum to develop friendships and can be the catalyst that makes transitioning to a general education setting possible. It pre-exposes them to different social environments and situations and makes them feel more prepared. Very often, children on the spectrum play alongside their peers, not with them directly, but the more exposure they get to opportunities, the better the chances are of improving their social skills.
Verbal children will develop better conversation skills through play. All it takes is one successful attempt to greet another child or join a game to ensure they will continue to communicate to meet their needs.
Games For Motor Skills
Play is essential for developing both fine and gross motor skills. Your fine motor skills develop through working the small muscles in the hands and fingers and are necessary for developing skills such as holding a pencil, buttoning up a shirt, and tying shoelaces. Gross motor skills require whole body movement. They involve everyday functions, such as running and jumping, walking, and sitting upright at the table. Gross motor skills also affect hand-eye coordination.
To Improve Their Quality of Life
Play is a powerful tool; its benefits reach far beyond social and motor development. First of all, it’s fun! And fun stimulates feel-good hormones like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Play builds creativity, is a way to expend excess mental or physical energy, and alleviates stress. The more children engage in free, unstructured play, the more outlet they have for their imagination.
10 Fun Games to play at home with your child
All children enjoy these benefits, but children with autism may struggle with certain traditional games. Here is a list of 10 games that are not only well suited for children with autism but offer exposure to areas of practice that can help build skills for life.
1. Go Ape
Great for reading and practicing facial expressions and other nonverbal communication.
Go Ape is based on the traditional game, but instead of asking the other players for a card, you act out what the monkey in the picture is doing. So, if the monkey is covering its ears, you do the same to see who has the matching card. If you are looking for a card where the monkey is covering its eyes, you cover your eyes. Whoever collects the most cards is the winner.
Great for expressive language and categorizing.
Headbands is a bit of a hybrid between Pictionary and 30 Seconds. One player wears a headband with a cartoon image that only the other players can see. The player wearing the band has to ask the other players “yes” or “no” questions and figure out what card they have on their band. For example, ‘Am I an animal?’. If the answer is no, then maybe ask, ‘Am I something you can eat?’, and so on.
3. Seek a Boo
Great for identifying common objects and matching images
Seek-a-Boo comes with seventy-two cards. Thirty-six are labeled “seek me,” and the other thirty-six are “find me” cards that correspond with the first pack. The cards are placed in six categories – food, clothing, toys, colors and shapes, things found around the house, and animals.
The “seek me” cards are laid face down, and the player draws a “find me” card from the corresponding pile. For example, if the seek me card has a banana on it, you can say, ‘the banana is yellow. Can you find something else that is yellow?’, or ‘A banana is a fruit. Can you find another fruit?’. Then, ask the child to peek at the other cards until they find a match.
4. Pancake Pile Up
Great for following multi-step directions and memory skills.
Pancake Pile-Up teaches counting, sequencing skills, and pattern recognition. Players do relay races and compete to serve their pancakes according to the ‘customer’s’ precise order. The first player to correctly find, stack, and serve their pancakes is the winner.
Great for frustration tolerance.
Tumble not only helps with frustration tolerance but it helps with spatial awareness and estimation. Sticks are inserted into the walls of the Tumble Tower all the way through. The tower is then filled with marbles. Players take turns removing the sticks without letting the marbles fall through. The player with the fewest marbles at the end wins.
Great for non-verbal cues.
This classic is an oldie but a goodie. One person acts out a word or phrase, and the rest of the team has to guess what it is.
7. Apples to Apples
Great for descriptions and flexible thinking.
Players are given “red apple” cards that contain a noun. They must play a card from their hand to match the “green apple” card in the center. The green apple card has an adjective. The judge then decides whose noun is best described by the green apple card. The winner gets to keep the green apple card, and the one with the most green apples wins.
8. Guess Who
Great for recognizing features and expressions
The aim of ‘Guess Who” is to guess the other player’s mystery character before they can guess yours. Each player has a board with the same 24 characters that only they can see. The characters differ. They have different hair colors; some have rosy cheeks, some wear hats or glasses, etc. One of the characters is the mystery character, and the other player has to guess who it is through a process of elimination. Questions can only be answered with a yes or no.
So if the opponent asks, ‘Does your person have a mustache?’, and the answer is yes, all the characters without a mustache can be eliminated. If the answer is no, all the characters with a mustache can be eliminated. Once enough have been eliminated, the opponent can risk a guess. If they are correct, they win.
9. Hi Ho! Cheeri-O
Great for one-on-one correspondence and dealing with disappointment
Hi Ho! Cherry-O is a simple yet fun counting game, perfect for younger kids. Players take turns to ‘pick cherries’ from the game boards and fill their buckets. The amount of fruit they need to pick is determined upfront with a spinner. If the spinner lands on a bird or dog, you must put two cherries back on the tree. The player loses all their cherries if the spinner lands on a spilled bucket. The first player to yell “Hi Ho! Cherry-O!” indicates that their bucket contains all ten cherries – they are the winner.
10. Melissa and Doug Reusable Stickers
Great for so many skills. Creativity, identifying common objects, categorizing, identifying objects and their purpose, using prepositions like ‘on,’ ‘under,’ and ‘above.’
This activity practices skills that benefit both low and high-level children.
Melissa and Doug’s Reusable Sticker packs come with interactive sticker books depicting different backgrounds. Perfect for tailoring to kids with very specific interests. Some examples include the ocean, the desert, the jungle, and a prehistoric landscape.
The stickers can be placed and removed easily, so you can guide them with instructions like, ‘Put the shark where you think he should live’ or ‘Place the dinosaurs from biggest to smallest.”
There are no hard and fast rules, and kids can stretch their imaginations. Maybe let your child put each thing in the most obscure place they can think of. Just recognizing and implying that it is obscure is a win.
Play Is Important!
“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” -Mr. Rogers
Play is an essential part of childhood. It teaches and practices many skills, from physiological and cognitive to social and crucial life skills. With children on the autistic spectrum, play is even more critical, as it opens doors that are not as easy to pass through as they are for neurotypical kids.
Social skills require practice, and although your child might feel uncomfortable initially, the right encouragement and support can help them overcome the fear and apprehension.
Circle Care can help you encourage and facilitate play with your child and will support you and your child in incorporating social skills therapy as part of our ABA treatment plans. Sign up for our newsletter to find out more or receive more tips.
With our home, daycare, and center-based therapy options, you can begin ABA and help your child develop through play.