Engaging Kids on the Autism Spectrum through play

Boy with Car - DayRonV

By Erica Francis

Kids on the autism spectrum are kids first; they like to play like most kids do. The difference is in the way they sometimes play. Because the diagnosis of autism covers a full spectrum, no two kids will behave exactly the same but there are often some characteristics many of them have in common. The games I’ve outlined below includes activities hat incorporate their need for sensory input, those that teach social skills, and those that have structure and rules.

The Lunch Bunch

Many children on the spectrum want to figure out how to make friends but simply lack some of the basic skills that come naturally to others. In a school or other similar setting, these children can benefit from a special group setting where they can interact with peers over a shared interest. This could be eating lunch once a week with a handful of peers who all enjoy computers or cars. Giving them something to talk about while guiding the interaction with typical peers can aid in social development.

Sensory Table Swap Out

Children on the spectrum often crave sensory input. They enjoy touching a variety of textures and experimenting with the ways different materials feel. Using a sensory table in the classroom that changes often will pique their interest. While either sand or water is the most common material to put in a sensory table, items like bird seed, moon sand, beans and any dry non-toxic material can be used.

Messy Play

Just as they enjoy the sensory table, kids on the spectrum often like the chance to play with materials in a very messy way just for the sensory sensation. What many call messy play can be as simple as filling a kiddie pool with shaving crèam and letting the kids play in it. Other ideas that seem to transfix their attention include playing in dried leaves (either outside or again in the kiddie pool), paper mache and homemade play-doh. (Editor’s note: A friend’s daughter is obsessed with slime. This ten-year old has learned how to create her own slime from instructional youtube videos).

Swings, hammocks and anything that moves

For kids who always seem to be on the move, things like platform swings, a hammock or rotating chair can be both soothing and stimulating. These kids will enjoy having access to a swing; they can change up the speed, spin and even lay down on it. They also seem to have an endless desire to spin as fast as they can without necessarily getting dizzy. The swings can be used as an activity on their own, a break from other more stressful activities or a reward. Swinging offers many benefits to the vestibular system.

Rule-based games

For those on the spectrum, following the rules is very much a part of their routine. They enjoy learning the rules of board games and benefit from the social rules of engagement that go along with playing a game with a group of peers. The social exchange around taking turns can lend itself to modeling how conversations usually go as a back and forth exchange. Board games are also very predictable for the most part, which is also something those on the spectrum thrive on. While many kids will tend to gravitate to video games because they are rule-based, they do not afford the same level of social interaction or learning.

While these are all great activities for children on the autism spectrum, it’s important to note that play in a busy, noisy space can become overwhelming. If your child uses a service dog to help them manage their sensory levels, be sure their dog is close by their side when engaging in these activities. And always take things slowly. Explain with care how each activity works and let your child engage at their own pace. And don’t forget to incorporate your child’s interests into their play time.

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Photo of boy with car by DayronV

Erica Francis writes for ReadyJob and thrives on helping young people prepare for the working world.

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