By Elizabeth Reeve, coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)
Raising a healthy child with a wide range of interests and the curiosity to learn new things is a challenge for all parents and caregivers. Children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) pose special problems for even the most energetic and creative parents. Children with ASD often have behaviors or characteristics that get in the way of successfully participating in or exploring new activities. For example, sensory issues may prevent activities that occur in places with loud noises or certain smells. Changes in routines may result in meltdowns or resistance that can be hard to manage for both parent and child.
Despite these difficulties, it is important to expand the world for our ASD children and give them opportunities to safely explore, experience, and, hopefully, enjoy a wide range of activities. Below are some tips to help you get started!
Use Obsessions as Rewards
If your ASD child has a specific interest or obsession (rock collecting, collector cards), use the obsession to reward attempts at other new or more difficult activities. You might consider making a chart of time spent in alternative activities that allows your child to earn time with a favorite obsession. For example, one hour spent at swimming lessons earns an equal amount of time spent with collector cards.
Limit Using Screen Time as an Incentive
While screen time can be a powerful motivator, consider limiting screen time as an incentive. Online games are very addictive for all children, and for children with ASD, the allure of the screen can be very powerful. Things can quickly escalate and get out of hand if children are constantly preoccupied with getting more screen time by doing other activities. Often, worries develop about whether they will be able to succeed in getting enough screen time each day. Instead of using screens as a reward, make a daily schedule that allows for specific times for children to choose activities, including the option for screen time. Keep that time set for the same amount each day to avoid screen time getting out of hand.
It Is Okay to Use Passions to Relax, Transition, and Decompress
If your child has a hobby, collection, or strong interest, it’s okay to use that passion as a distractor at stressful times. Coming home from school is a good time to let kids with ASD indulge in a favorite activity. Allow them time to sort through their card collections, watch (and rewatch) their favorite video, or do their favorite stimming activity. This allows a gentle way to move from the structure of school back to home. Of course, stopping this preferred activity may be difficult, so countdown timers and frequent reminders that time will soon be up may be needed.
Use One Skill to Advance Another
You may be tired of hearing the same lines of the same video over and over again, but there are ways to use that interest/obsession to teach a new skill. You could write out a favorite phrase or sentence from the video and use it to teach letters or sounds. A treasured picture can be reproduced and cut into pieces to make a puzzle for kids to reassemble. A preoccupation with maps is easily expanded into a geography lesson. Be creative!
In order for children to enjoy new activities, they need to be able to tolerate change and transitions, and this takes practice. Set aside time to purposely practice making changes. Only practice this when both you and your child have the energy to deal with the potential problems if things do not go as expected. For example, Monday morning on the way to work is not the time to get out the new lunch box for school. Instead, pack a picnic on the weekend and fill the lunch box with a special treat in order to help your child become more familiar with the new lunch box. Let the old lunch box take on a new purpose, perhaps as a container for a favorite toy. Practicing small changes in a thoughtful manner will make bigger changes more tolerable.
Expand a Passion
We all want our children to enjoy extracurricular activities at school or community events. Choose new activities by expanding on interests that children already enjoy. A passion for Legos at home is easily broadened by joining the Lego League at school. Your car enthusiast child may be able to volunteer at a local car club or be taken under the wing of a community member who enjoys restoring old vehicles. Do not be afraid to seek out organizations related to your child’s interest, and ask if they may be able to include your child in some meaningful way. Most communities are teeming with adults who have a passion they are willing to share. The local herpetology society would probably love to have your lizard-loving son or daughter attend a monthly meeting.
What About Sports?
If you have a busy child interested in physical activities, choose wisely when considering a team sport. Sports that depend on your child’s performance for the whole team’s success might be stressful for you and your child. The loud noise, sensory issues, and unpredictable physical contact of some sports may be overwhelming. Team sports such as soccer, hockey, baseball, or basketball may not be the best choices. Instead, look for activities that allow children to advance at their own speed while still belonging to a team. Consider skiing, tennis, track, or swimming as possible options. Your child will be able to interact with other team members without worrying that his or her individual performance will impact the outcome for everyone else.
What Else Should I Know?
Other roadblocks to your child’s success may exist. Make sure you communicate openly with coaches, teachers, or anyone involved in your child’s activities about special needs or concerns. Find out ahead of time if a helper or assistant is able to attend an event or a class with your child. Make sure you understand financial obligations before signing up for a class or team activity. Always start new events with a backup plan; in the event that things do not go as expected, you can leave or end the activity without difficulty.
As you work through the struggles with your child’s first day in karate or art class, just remember . . . we all struggle sometimes, too.
Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., is a child psychiatrist in Minnesota, and her clinical work focuses primarily on children and adults with developmental disabilities. In addition to her research and patient care, Elizabeth is involved in teaching, speaks in the community to educate others in the field of developmental disabilities, and helps young adults with ASD transition into college and the workforce.
Elizabeth Reeve is coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)
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