Play Better #2: Managing Kids With Autism – It’s Okay to Play

Children engage in play for a whole multitude of reasons – learning, exercise, mental and emotional stimulation, or just pure entertainment – and it really isn’t any different for kids with developmental delays. They learn and explore the world through sensory, exploratory, and imaginative play – but just not always in the way that we might expect.

Often, the manner in which these kids engage in play is deemed unusual due to an unconventional display of emotions, responses, and general behavior: you will find that there is usually less role playing involved; and that most of the time, they are often fixated on a particular toy or even just a part of it, as opposed to ‘properly maximising’ the full play value of the toy.

As nurturers of these very special kids, our main aim then shouldn’t be to correct the ways in which they engage with their toys; but rather, to utilize the existing ways they interact with things to develop their capabilities and other complex skills. For instance, spinning the propeller on a toy helicopter over and over might seem boring and purposeless to many kids, but for kids on this spectrum, it might actually be really exciting. For one, it feels good to the touch; and two, it sparks their curiosity to explore the world in deeper and more functional ways. To you, they may not be playing with a helicopter the right way, but to them, they could well be mulling over scientific notions like air currents, speed, momentum and force, and possibly even light refraction – except that they can’t translate their curiosities into actual theorems just yet.

Being guarded by our own prescibed notions is one of the biggest mistakes we can make when attempting to engage autistic children in play. We cannot be quick to determine what is a toy and what isn’t. In theory, a toy is any object that you can play with, but in reality, we have very inflexible views of what that should look like. Alot of the time, we assume that good toys are toys that come brightly colored with sounds and lights and a whole myriad of textures and smells – and as a result, we teach our kids to think the same. These ‘fun’ and ‘appropriate’ play objects, however, are a sensory nightmare for hypersensitive kids – especially if these toys have frighteningly unpredictable cause-and-effect motions (such as sudden pop-ups or loud noises).

Instead of using those arbitrary guidelines to pick out a toy for your special needs child, ask yourself these pertinent questions instead:

  • Is this toy fun for them?
  • Does it make them feel comfortable?
  • Are they able to begin new play activities with this toy on their own, and;
  • Does it help them communicate if they need help using it?

Special needs or not, kids across the entire spectrum develop into better children (and adults) when exposed to single-sensory toys. If it is a toy to stimulate touch, minimize sound and light distraction; and if it is a toy to develop visual awareness; then ensure that it isn’t producing unnecessary noises or smells on the side. Developing your kids one sense at a time is the simplest, most fool-proof way to properly foster their focus, concentration levels, and attention span – which, you will find, comes in very handy when they enter their school years.

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Forget what you know about toys.

Be accepting and open to the things that your kids find engaging. The last thing they should be made to feel is that the things they find interesting are ‘wrong’. Before deciding that your child isn’t ‘interested in play’ or ‘doesn’t like to play’, expand your own ideas about what play looks like. These kids generally zone in on things that aren’t ‘official toys’, which is a perfect way for you to incorporate all sorts of daily activities into play time – for example, you can get them to help you with jobs that require sorting or putting things in order, like putting the cutlery away in the drawer, sorting the laundry into different baskets, stacking books and magazines, etc.

And if there is a particular toy or subject that you find them highly attached to, explore new play possibilities with them instead of trying to replace those things with toys you think they should be playing with. Don’t take away their animal figurines just beause it doesn’t make any educational sense to you; use them to develop your child’s interest in the animal kingdom. Expand their knowledge about the different species, their living habitats, and maybe even introduce to them the ecosystem if you note a continued and heightened interest from them. The bottom line is to accept their ideas, build on them and give them as much support as they need to eventually move out of their comfort zone.

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Engaging austistic children in play can be a lot more challenging because it needs to reflect both enjoyment for the child, as well as help develop specific personality traits and coping mechanisms at the same time. Therefore,

1. Look for Toys That Stimulate Their Senses.
Many autistic children have sensory challenges, particularly tactile defensiveness which makes them distrusting and fearful of normal, daily activities and experiences. Toys, as such, is an excellent way to introduce tactile sensations to them, but in a low-key and non-threatening way.

 photo tactilo lotto farm_zpsuo1satsd.jpg| Top: DJECO Tactilo Loto – Farm ($39.90) |

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2. Choose Toys That Help Social Interaction Development.
Using toys to teach children the concept of social integration is an important rite of growing up. For autistic children, socially interactive toys are extremely important as it helps them develop coping mechanisms to interact with the outside world when they’re much older. Board games are highly effective in developing this trait, especially when the whole family pitches in to play together. Focus on the issue of taking turns and the fact that losing is not a big deal. The best kind to start out with are cooperation games – where everyone wins (and loses) as one. Expect intensified frustration, especially from the younger kids; but before you give up and settle for something ‘simpler’ to sit through, remind yourself that these are all essential life skills that every child needs to develop sooner or later, autistic or not.

 photo HABA first orchard_zpssxtfvash.jpg| HABA My First Orchard ($49.90) |

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3. Find Toys That Help to Develop Motor Skills.
It’s really no different from what all children need but with autistic children, you may also have to manage other unique challenges like tactile defensiveness, less fine-tuned coordination, an inexplicable fear of a toy or a specific part of it, or just plain disinterest, amongst many other things. Painting and drawing are good choices because it is highly free play and non-threatening; and finger painting especially, is great at helping them overcome sensory issues. A lot of encouragement and patience will be required though, so do not expect this to be an effortless (or mess-free) ride.

 photo SES fingerpaints_zpsqqgupp6j.jpg

 | SES Finger Paints x 4 ($16.90) |

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4. Always Be Considerate of the Child’s Skill Levels.
Less complicated toys are better for younger children or those with greater sensory or intellectual impairments, and signs of delayed play development should not be mistaken as defective play skills. If your child shows difficulties in handling a particular toy, it doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t right for them. They’re probably just not there yet. Keeping close to our aforementioned points, focus on developing their basic motor skills and sensory awareness first, before moving on to the more cognitive levels.

 photo DJScrewingDetail_zpsnwdvk1sw.jpg

 | DJECO Vehicles Screwing Wooden Puzzle ($39.90) |

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6. Don’t Overdo Functional Play.
There are times where it is perfectly fine to just let your child enjoy a line of toys in the name of pure, good ol’ fun. After all, you never know just what they’ll take away from the experience.

 photo PAPO_zpshuzeby1v.jpg| PAPO Zoo ($129.90) |
| PAPO Animals, Miscellaneous (from $5.90 to $18.90) |

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7. Select Quality Over Quantity.
Too many toys is always too many toys. For autistic children, it may even be somewhat overwhelming. As a blanket rule regardless of the child’s developmental stage,  it is always better to choose one good quality toy over many cheaper toys that will create great clutter. If you hit the right choice, that one toy will provide many hours of enjoyment.

 photo Folkmanis Raccoon_zpsmtjusnhr.jpg| FOLKMANIS Raccoon In Can Hand Puppet ($49.90) |

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