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Play With Your Autistic Child: More Easily Said Than Done

By April 25, 2011

If there's one issue that's shared by all young children with autism, it's difficulty with ordinary play skills.  Little ones with autism may line up or stack toys, play by themselves and resist interaction with their peers, or simply spin, rock or otherwise spend time in their own world.  It's this self-absorption that makes it so hard for autistic children to learn from imitation, socialize with other children, or connect with the adults in their lives.

In theory, parents can play a key role in actually teaching their autistic children to play.  But while "playing with your child" sounds like a no-brainer, it can be very, very challenging for the parent of an autistic child.

What's so tough about playing with an autistic child?

  • It's not always easy to even capture the attention of an autistic child, or to hold their attention for more than a minute or so
  • Once engaged, a child with autism will often prefer to do the same things over and over again, and it can be hard to break the pattern
  • Children with autism will rarely bring their own ideas or energy to interactive play, so all the ideas and energy must come from the parent.  This can be exhausting and frustrating.
  • The usual tools we use to engage children - asking questions, offering suggestions, starting an intriguing activity - may go right past the child with autism.

But all of these issues are nothing compared with parents' very real sense of hurt and sadness when their own child ignores them in favor of an internal world or object.  Yes, most parents can get past a feeling of rejection to experiment with new ways of engaging and connecting.  But when we reach out to our child and he ignores us; when we hug our child and she pulls away; when we engage our child and he appears oblivious - it's extraordinarily difficult to find the emotional energy to keep trying.

Another major hurdle is the sad reality that an awful lot of parents have forgotten how to just play.  Sure, they can play board games or sports - but the idea of  pretending to be someone or something they're not is no longer appealing.  Most parents can just arrange play dates and stand back while their children practice symbolic interactions, build relationships, experience and manage emotions.  But parents with autistic kids don't have that luxury.

There are developmental therapies geared specifically to providing parents with the tools to play with their autistic children - and those therapies are not only tools for play, but also tools for communicative and cognitive growth.  Floortime and RDI are both good directions for parents to turn.  But even with support and information about "how to play with your autistic child," most parents feel a bit overwhelmed by the challenge.

How do you play with your young child with autism?  Have you found tools or tricks to keep yourself up and energized, and to keep the creative juices flowing?

Developmental Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Developmental therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorders work on autism's "core deficits" including problems with social and communication skills. They are tailored to the individual child, and are very often administered by parents. Floortime, RDI and Son-Rise are the top developmental therapies for autism. Learn more about developmental therapy and the different approaches. Are these techniques for you?

What Is Floortime?

Floortime, a form of therapeutic play, is the central feature of the DIR (Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based)therapeutic approach developed by Stanley Greenspan and Serena Weider. Read Dr. Greenspan's answer to the question "what makes floortime play different from ordinary play?"

Getting Started with Floortime

Floortime, a form of therapeutic play, is not only an important developmental treatment -- it's also a great way for parents to bond with their autistic children.

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI): A Treatment for Autism

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)is a relatively new approach to autism treatment. Developed by Dr. Steven Gutstein, its claim is that it addresses "core deficits" to vastly improve social/communication skills and flexible thinking.

April 25, 2011 at 10:35 am
(1) Sandy says:

You know, I never got too sad when my son wouldn’t easily play with me, or showed the dog more affection. I got ‘mine’ when my son was a ‘reality’ puppy and I got licks. When I say reality puppy, my son didn’t really pretend to be a dog, he had to be a dog to a T, which ya had to make a quick decision if that was a good idea or not.
I think I could pretend play easier than I could play board games. The 2 neighbor kids thought I had the most fun house. My son didn’t easily let us play with him, and he often went to extremes of sticking to one play forever or switching to different things right and left. I think I gave him ample of each of his own time and me in his play time. I bought a ton of different toys to encourage different play, which most he never did play with to this day. These days, he wants one of us with him on the trampoline. To watch a movie with us and so on. Very different from when he was quite younger.
Great topic.

April 28, 2011 at 8:57 am
(2) vmgillen says:

Good grief – the professionals even have a handle on play! Their programs, btw, are not very playful – no wonder parents get stressed out. I would say the most important play “skill” is interactive turn-taking. Get that across with reinforcers: move as quickly as possible from tangibles to social. Also, model play – it’s not all about the rules; there’s more than enough “compliance” training going on already. Show that “this really is fun! I’m having a blast.” Granted, many adults have forgotten how to play and spontaneously find joy; see “professionals’ above.

One thing Bettelheim had right, IMO, was the idea that children are quasi-psychic. They can tell when they’re getting a load of BS – “play” as work, parents having a dreadful time teaching how to have a good time…

April 28, 2011 at 9:34 am
(3) Lisa says:

with young children, in a sense, play IS work – because it is the process by which we practice becoming part of a culture, a society, a family, and so forth. kids with autism often “opt out” of that process, choosing instead to repeat movements, sounds, etc., that are based on internal rather than external inputs.

in fact, the word “play” is somewhat misleading in this context. we think of “play” as simply “having fun without there being a particular goal or purpose.” but the reality is that play, for young children, plays a key developmental role. kids may not know this (any more than they know that running around outside builds muscles and endurance) – but they generally experience the benefits.

while there s nothing wrong with solitude, the process of imitation (which we call pretend play) is key to developing the skills so many autistic kids lack.

hence, the need to “teach” play.

April 28, 2011 at 5:30 pm
(4) vmgillen says:

Of course learning to play is important! Interactive turn-taking is a critical skill – and something some NT adults haven’t fully mastered (look at highway merges!)
Play is work, work is play, learning is forever, and professionals all to often suck the joy out of life.

April 28, 2011 at 10:43 am
(5) Sandy says:

An important part of play is turn taking, but another would also be just engaging with another. I child who has very restrictive play can have a very difficult time being in a room of other kids, and being inflexible in a flexible play activity. I had this problem very much. My child expected the experience would always be the same, and when it turned out it wasn’t, it was no fun for anyone.

May 1, 2011 at 10:17 am
(6) Rose says:

I found that the best way to start playing with my autistic son was tickeling. It makes you and your child laugh. Also, it brings your child out of their world and more into your world but you have to do it every day. A little here and there will help. Then it will become a favorite game plus you can get a few hugs in. That’s just been my experience with my son. Every child is different.

May 2, 2011 at 10:01 am
(7) vmgillen says:

We also got our guy to ask for “more”… a milestone!

May 3, 2011 at 9:18 am
(8) Malia says:

For us, tickling had both positive and negative effects. My son was very sensitive about being tickled, so it if was carried on too long or if we tickled a spot that didn’t feel so comfortable for him (like his feet or ears), his mood would flip rather negative very quickly. Still, if used in moderation and only in places he felt comfortable (e.g. around his abdomen), it could help relax him into a play session or even help to to redirect a tantrum… we just had to be careful.

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