The understanding of the importance of play is nearly universal. Through play children (and adults) build so many of the skills they will use in childhood and throughout their lives. That is how we as parents learned many of the skills we gained as children. For example, when children play games with conflict, or experience real conflict during play, they learn conflict resolution. Most play includes turn taking and give and take. This promotes social and pro-social learning. All play teaches us something.
Many parents intuitively understand another crucial benefit of play: relationship building. Parents often begin playing with their children from their infancy. Simple play like rocking, singing, and making faces are often the start of a play that grows increasingly complex over the course of childhood and beyond. As the child ages and grows, the evolving play continues to help build the connection between parent and child.
Play looks different on the spectrum
Parents of children with autism often recognize all of the benefits of play listed above, but wonder how that applies to their child. Because ASD is a full brained/pervasive phenomena it impacts nearly all aspects of a person’s life and play is no exception. Play for children on the autism spectrum tends to be more solitary, repetitive, rigid, and/or lacking in symbolic play.
Mutual play is difficult because children on the spectrum often play in ways that do not match their peer’s play, they may not be interested in playing with others, and have difficulty understanding the social cues of their playmates. So how do parents overcome these obstacles and gain the benefits of play?
First, address your expectations. To be a parent of a child with special needs is to constantly address your expectations. Because our children constantly develop and change, having fixed expectations is not realistic. Parents of typically developing children tend to adjust their expectations gradually while some parents of children on the autism spectrum experience a sudden and often significant shift in expectations at the time of a diagnosis. Either way, parents need to be flexible in their expectations of their children and their children’s play.
Play by play
Have you ever watched a sporting event and listened to the play by play commentators? Doing the same thing during play with your child can be so helpful. The concept is fairly simple: see what your child is doing and reflect it. Simple statements like, “You put that block on top”, “You picked a green crayon”, etc. Other important reflections are descriptions of your child’s reaction to what is happening. “You thought that was funny” or “You are really concentrating on this”. Providing narration can help you and your child feel more engaged in the play no matter what it is. It communicates “I am with you”.
Join with your child
Another method many parents employ is joining your child in their chosen activity. If they want to spin, you can join them in spinning. If they choose climb, climb. Watch your child’s motions and actions carefully. Listen to your child’s sounds. Do your best to imitate both as well as you can. Children have an innate understanding of what they need. Trust their intuition and join them in it. You can even narrate while you join them. “You are spinning and I am spinning.”
Areas of Intense Interests
One common symptom of ASD is a narrow area of interests. Often described as “obsessions”, areas of intense interests are actually opportunities to promote learning and connection. Rather than attempting to stop your child from their favorite area of intense interest, dive in with them. As an example, imagine you had a secret: you knew the coolest thing in the whole world. Only nobody else understood how important it was. In fact, most people told you they were tired of hearing about it all together!
If your child talks about the interest, listen intently. Try to learn something new about the area of interest. Bring new information or a new angle. Involve the area of interest in family time, play, learning, or an area where the area of interest isn’t usually included. Some may worry about reinforcing an area of intense interest, but the point is connection and connection can be healing. We all have hobbies and fascinations. It is hard to imagine we’d feel connected to those around us if everyone we knew tried to divert our attention away from the pastimes that bring us comfort.
Attunement/Accepting the silence
Finally, parents can provide their children a gift few others will offer. They can simply sit with their child and be present. In this way parents do what might seem impossible, they can relate with their children in a way that does not rely on words or touch, but on real, meaningful connection.
Jared Andes is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a graduate of the University of Utah. Throughout his career Jared has focused on children, teens, and families who experience a wide variety of mental health issues. Jared is intensely interested in assisting people to develop their natural resilience and building authentic relationships. Jared has been working with individuals on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities for 10 years. Outside of the therapy room Jared loves running, hiking, and his newest hobby, gardening. He also loves corresponding with people and can be reached at email@example.com.