5 Simple Ways to Engage Children with Autism in Active Play.
Posted by: Sue Atkins
As a parent of a child with additional needs you are probably very aware, and focused, on developing their social & verbal skills but one very important aspect to balance is your child’s physical activity too.
Lots of parents I work with, or parents who chat in my Parenting Online Club Forum certainly feel frustrated when their child is demanding more “screen time” than “green time” outside in the garden or park & that’s quite a challenge to handle if you’re exhausted.
I understand that for parents of children with Autism, Asperger’s or with (ASD) spectrum disorders these challenges can really be intense, and sometimes seem really challenging and overwhelming.
But it’s important find the time for physical play, recreation and outdoor adventures to create a healthy balance in your routines.
Often, children with ASD also have some gross or fine motor difficulties, making many activities a bit more challenging. Studies have shown that children with autism are less likely to be physically active than their peers, but it also shows that children on the spectrum are just as capable of engaging in physical activities as their peers given support.
Of course, no two children are the same, but there are some common strategies that can help your child become more active and engaged in new activities.
Here are some ideas to help.
- Make the “unknown” a bit more familiar & less scary.
- If you’ve decided to sign your child up for swimming lessons at the local Sports Centre go and visit it when it’s not so busy to familiarise your child to the sights and sounds inside the swimming pool.
- Take a couple of photos on your phone to refer back to a few more times at home to ‘Talk & Teach’ them about what to expect.
- Explore the Sport Centre’s website and look at photos there too & talk about the structure of the lessons and the layout of the changing rooms. One little boy I was working with recently, found that he didn’t like changing when all the other children came out of the pool at the same time. So, we worked out a slightly different routine for him to go first with his swimming teacher so he had the changing room to himself & he relaxed & began to enjoy his swimming lessons as he had started refusing to go beforehand.
- Another simple tip is to look up video clips of children’s swimming lessons on YouTube and chat with your child about them.
- Take your child to splash around & have fun in the shallow area of the pool a few times with you before the lessons begin to familiarise your child with the environment – again choose your time carefully.
- Practice wearing swim suits and goggles around the house in the weeks leading up to the start of lessons as the more preparation your child has the less overwhelmed they’ll feel.
- Work “favourites” into their activity
Many children with autism have characters, toys or animals and other repetitive things that they are particularly interested & focused on. Instead of fighting their natural way of being, go with the flow and take advantage of these “favourites” by putting them into their activities as it will cut down on their anxiety.
- Celebrate the small successes, then build on them
Don’t compare your child to your other children, or other friend’s children. Stay focused, positive and upbeat about your child’s successes and triumphs no matter how small. It will build on their confidence, help them feel competent and moving forward. Create realistic, low-risk opportunities to get your child used to the expectations you hold for them. This could be walking up the road before going on a more robust walk or hike to the park. It could mean visiting a playground early in the morning when there are no other children about before school, before coming back when it is likely to be crowded later in the day.
Celebrate all these little magical moments & build on them. Be patient and expect there to be 3 steps forward and 2 steps back sometimes. Life is messy & unpredictable sometimes kids will experience setbacks. Take a deep breath and come back another day.
But the more positive you can be the better it is for your child, as they will feel your enthusiasm and support for them and be willing to try again the next time. Help them feel a ‘Can Do Kid’
- Work together with instructors & talk to the Activity Centre
Lots of Sport Centre’s and Activity Centre’s from soft play to swimming pools, have people specifically employed and trained to support your additional needs child no matter their age or ability. If you have found an activity that you think your child might enjoy, don’t be afraid to talk to staff at the centre and let them know what you think might be needed in order to allow your son or daughter to participate. They are there to be helpful and supportive & will welcome your advice and expertise on your child as instructors may not automatically know how to adapt a particular class, but often they are more than willing to take your suggestions or advice in order to make things accessible and successful so long as your tone is friendly !
- If at first you don’t succeed – don’t give up.
Sometimes, the best laid plans don’t go according to the rule book, do they? It’s finding that fine line between sticking with something and letting it go – between ‘Grit’ and deciding this activity isn’t working for your child.
Press your ‘Pause Button’ and step back to reflect on went wrong, or didn’t work. As that will help you learn from the experience and plan for a better one next time or next activity.
For example, was the swimming pool too loud and echo-y? Were the other children a bit too rough? Were your expectations a bit too low or a bit too high? Were the social demands of the busy playground a bit too overwhelming on a busy and packed Saturday afternoon?
Think about how you can adapt or change those small aspects of the activity, and then have another try.
We all know the really important benefits of getting kids active – from reducing obesity to less screen time, as well as the positive mental health and wellbeing aspects, and all of these are great reasons for children with autism too.
But there are additional benefits for children with ASD getting active as it can also help with sensory self-regulation, developing fine and gross motor skills, learning to adapt to new activities, and providing natural environments for social skills practice as well as learning to relax, have fun & feel good.