Many children with autism have difficulties with communication, social interactions, and gross or fine motor skills, all of which make active play more challenging than for neurotypical children. In the article below, we suggest a variety of stimulating activities that will help your child learn new skills while having fun.
Children on the autism spectrum process sensory information in a different way than their neurotypical peers. Engaging in sensory play stimulates the five senses and may help change your child’s response to sensory information. These activities will allow your child to cope better when exposed to different sounds, textures, lights, scents, and tastes that they may otherwise find overwhelming.
Finger painting is not only a way for children with autism to express themselves, but it also encourages them to feel more at ease with tactile input and enhances their sensory integration skills. All you need for this activity is a sheet of paper set on top of the newspaper and shop-bought or homemade finger paint. Let your child paint freely using their hands and feet.
Slime and playdough are excellent sensory tools for children on the autism spectrum. They are easy to make with ingredients that you already have at home, such as cornstarch and baking soda. Don’t forget to add some food colorings and glitter to the mix for an enhanced sensory experience.
A pouring station is an entertaining sensory activity for children with autism. It will keep them focused for a long time and help increase their attention span. To make a pouring station, place several cups and containers of different sizes on a large tray, fill them with water, and add a few drops of food coloring. As your child has fun pouring water from one cup to another and mixing colors, he or she will also work on improving hand-eye coordination and balancing skills.
Research shows that listening to and playing music can help children with autism develop skills such as shared attention, communication, and play. What’s more, stimming along with music, for example, finger-flicking or hand-flapping, is a common way for children on the spectrum to regulate their emotions. You can easily make your own musical instruments from things you find around the house:
- Put rice inside a plastic bottle to make a shaker
- Use wooden spoons, pots, and pans to make a drum set
- Make holes in a straw to create a recorder
Sensory bottles provide a calming experience for children with autism who easily get overwhelmed by sensory input. To make a sensory bottle, simply fill an old plastic bottle with water, add some food coloring, marbles, glitter, or beads, and seal the lid in place using a hot glue gun. When your child shakes the bottle, he or she will be mesmerized as the colorful parts move through the water.
Many children with autism are uncertain about how to behave in different social situations. They may want to interact with others, but they don’t always know what to do in order to make and maintain friendships. The following social activities are a fun way to show your child how to interact with peers and help them improve their communication skills.
The name game will teach your child how to properly introduce themselves. To start with, gather your family members in a circle. Say your name while pointing at yourself, then move to the next person on your right, until it’s your child’s turn to do the same.
“What would you do?” game
To give an example to your child how to interact with others, talk about different situations they may encounter, such as:
- You have a new classmate and you want to introduce yourself
- Your friends are playing and you would like to join them
- Your friend is sad and you want to help
Then ask your child what he or she would do in each of the situations, for instance: “How would you help?” or “What would you say?”.
Children with autism frequently struggle to understand other people’s emotions and the way these are conveyed through facial expressions. Emotion cards can be a great tool for improving this skill. Moreover, this activity may help your child understand and talk about their own feelings.
All you need to do is purchase or print free downloadable emotion cards. Show your child a picture of an expression and explain what emotion it represents, for instance, being happy, sad, excited, angry, afraid, surprised, or bored. Then ask your child to recognize each of the emotions represented on the cards.
Calming Activities to Prevent Autism Meltdowns
When children with autism become overwhelmed, they may react by having meltdowns accompanied by crying and shouting, engaging in self harm (head-banging, hand-biting, scratching), or displaying aggressive behaviors toward others. Below, we list a range of calming activities that will enable your child to regulate their emotions and relax in the midst of a stressful situation. After a while, they will be able to gradually reduce negative behaviors.
The purpose of grounding is to divert focus from a distressing situation to something more pleasant. Grounding will help your child increase concentration and focus on the present moment, while reducing the levels of stress and anxiety.
When your child feels overwhelmed, he or she may try one of the following grounding techniques:
- Count to ten
- Recite the alphabet as slowly as possible
- Listen to calming music
- List five different things that they can see around the room
- Stretch or do simple exercises and focus on how the body feels
- Hold a tactile object like a stuffed animal
- Play with a fidget toy, a spinner, or a stress ball
Create a quiet space where your child can retreat to and unwind at home and school. To do this, you can simply fill a corner of the room with cushions, sensory toys, picture books, and other relaxing activities that your child can do on their own. This space will provide calm, focus, and comfort if your child suffers from sensory processing issues.
Coloring is an excellent mind-body exercise that will allow your child to relax and concentrate on the present moment. At the same time, using crayons will enhance their motor skills and improve hand-eye coordination, in addition to boosting their self-confidence. Websites such as All Kids Network and Special Learning House offer a wide range of free printable coloring pages designed specifically for children with autism.
Types of Playing
Playing encourages children with autism spectrum disorder to coordinate physical and mental capabilities, and thus nurture the skills that are essential to learning and overall development. Below, we list a range of play activities that will improve your child’s fine and gross motor skills, their social communication and language abilities, as well as thinking and problem solving.
The simplest way to encourage children with autism to play is to have them explore various objects in their surroundings. This way, they will naturally become familiar with different shapes, colors, sizes, and textures around them.
This type of play teaches children that their actions have effects and gives them a sense of control in the play. For example, you can show your child how pressing a key on a piano produces sounds. Cause-and-effect play will help develop your child’s curiosity, shared attention, and communication abilities.
Toy play encourages thinking, problem-solving, and creative skills. And if you play together with your child, he or she will also get an opportunity to practice social skills, such as imitating actions, taking turns, and sharing.
Constructive play involves making things, like stacking blocks to build a tower and doing a jigsaw puzzle. In addition to nurturing your child’s creative side, constructive play is an effective means of developing their fine motor skills and concentration.
Physical play provides full-body exercise while helping your child improve gross motor skills and social behavior. Engaging in physical play can be a great opportunity for your child to explore their surroundings while communicating and interacting with others. In addition, regular physical activity has been shown to be an effective way to reduce repetitive behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorder, such as body rocking, spinning, and head nodding.
Pretend play helps children with autism develop the skills they need for engaging in social relationships and improving language and communication. Although they do have the ability to understand and participate in pretend play, children with autism rarely develop pretend play skills on their own.
For example, your child may enjoy arranging toy trains on a track, but still be unlikely to enact scenes or make sound effects unless you actively teach and encourage them to do so. To help your child engage in pretend play, you should model some simple actions, such as driving a car, riding a horse, or playing drums.
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