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5 Ways to Include Kids on the Autism Spectrum During Playtime

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I have two kids, 11 and 8, a girl and a boy.

My daughter is 11 and in her own words is a “sassy goody two-shoes” and an absolute dream child. She is warm, funny, kind, friendly, compassionate, diligent, responsible and an all out delight. She has an enviable “girl gang” and is Little Miss Congeniality herself.

My son is 8 and the happiest little man I’ve ever known, and he also has autism. While he has limited speech, he is a friendly fellow and now loves playing with kids. In our world that’s a big win since one of the defining traits of autism is lack of social and communication skills. While his communication skills need a lot of work, he is so ready to be social. Herein lies the challenge!

He wants to play with other kids his age, but doesn’t have the neurological buildup to help himself. Luckily your kids do, and here’s how you can help.

1. Enter the circle yourself.

Kids learn by example, especially younger ones. When you see a child with a disability try making an effort to say hi, encourage a little interaction and try and find something to engage with the child. Very often it’s the first approach that is daunting for adults, and definitely so for kids. Initiate interaction yourself and hopefully your kids will follow suit.

2. Modify expectations.

Neurotypical people tend to assume that when we say hi or make eye contact with someone, it will be reciprocated. This is not necessarily the case with kids on the spectrum. My son has fairly good eye contact and loves saying hi, but appears distracted when he does so. It doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in you, it just means he doesn’t know how to show it. Adjust expectations and you will find our kids will surprise you. If you change your expectations, especially in a social context, it makes interaction that much easier for our kids.

3. More doing, less talking.

My kid loves playing catch with kids in the park and prefers being the “catchee” rather than the “catcher.” Its a game he can join in fully and his lack of language doesn’t seem to impede the game. However, a game that involves a lot of rules and chatting to set the game up is frustrating for my child. If you find yourself in a setting with kids with autism, act out the game instead of just talking about it out loud. Many kids on the spectrum are visual learners, which means they follow instructions better when they are presented visually rather than verbally. This small change could be the magic mantra in helping include a child with ASD in group games.

4. Ignore the meltdowns.

As with most autistic kids, when my son is overwhelmed or upset he will have a meltdown. Over the years we have learned to manage the meltdowns, and what’s worked for us is actually ignoring them all together. When we withdrew all interactions, positive or negative, we found he settled down fairly quickly.  So when you see a child on the spectrum having a meltdown, just try ignoring it and stay calm yourself. You cannot imagine how helpful this will be to the parents of the child and the child himself.

5. No pity party please.

Parents of kids on the spectrum usually don’t want sympathy. We would like empathy, kindness, space to parent our kids without comment and mostly just the same things anyone would want for their kid: Love, laughs, friends and the environment to achieve their maximum potential. If you genuinely want to know how to interact with our kids, please ask us. We would be more than happy to point out their special vocabulary or interests and help you engage with them meaningfully.

As I end this piece, I’d like to just say that autism is a spectrum, so if you’ve met one kid on the spectrum you’ve known just one ray of sunlight of this glorious sunrise. Each of our kids is an individual and has a unique personality which takes a little bit of time and patience to get to know. Give them a chance and I promise your life will be enriched.

Getty photo by OMG Images.

Originally published: April 8, 2019
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