Come Play With Me

There is Both Science and Art to Play

All children need to play. Play organizes things that children learn in the brain so that new words, motor skills, social ideas, feelings, and skills of all kinds are integrated and more under the child's conscious control.  As neuro-scientists and developmental specialists explore the nature of play, it becomes more and more apparent that play is the most efficient way for children to learn and that many of the drill and practice systems that we, as therapists and educators have come up with are no where near as effective.  Unfortunately, play does not come so easily or naturally to children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Supporting the development of play in children with ASD is challenging. Most children will spontaneously play given almost any kind of an opportunity.  Adults don't need to teach them how to do it.  Adults, in fact,  have often forgotten how to play like a kid and instead slip into a kind of bossy school teacher role--which is not anything like the kind of play that children with autism need to learn.  Add to this, the special challenges of teaching play to children who have trouble understanding language, have difficulty imitating what others do, get stuck in narrow and often unusual interests--well the list goes on and varies child to child but the issue is that it is hard to pull a child with autism into all the rich and varied kinds of play that are important to learning.  

Learn as Much as You Can and then Just Do It

There is no way to master playing with a child who has ASD except by jumping in and playing.  You can't learn to steer a parked car, my dear friend Khosrow always says. This whole website is meant to make the process easier and more successful but here are a few important concepts that you should consider as you invite a child you love to Come Play.

We All Want to Know What to Expect

YouTube Video

Use Video Models
Even more than most kids, children with ASD want to know what will happen before participating.  One way to let a child know what to expect in new play activities is to explain with a Video Model.  A Video Model is a little video clip that demonstrates the game.

 At the clinic where I work, the Scottish Rite Clinic for Childhood Language Disorders, we use many systems to let children know what to expect--photographs, line drawing, written words, demonstrations, and most recently, Video Models. We know that children who have language disorders are not able to picture what we expect if all we do is tell them what to do. We should understand this, as Speech Language Pathologists, but even we have been surprised at how well video models work with children who have ASD.   We know that children with ASD struggle not just with language comprehension but also with anxiety in social situations, and difficulty filtering out extraneous sensory information (background noises, desirable toys sitting in the room, the smell of a cup of coffee, the light flickering outside as a tree moves in the wind).  Apparently, many children with ASD have learned how to focus attention on a computer screen and watch with full attention.  Video models have worked far better than live demonstrations for these children.  Since many families have a video camera, even if it is just in the cell phone, it is possible to make video clips such as those on this website to show your child what a new games will look like.  This will make it much easier for you to invite your child to Come Play.

What is the Plan?

You don't have to use a video clip to show your child what to expect, and it is not always easy to do this but your child will want to have some idea of what you expect.  Some Autism Specialists suggest that you "follow your child's lead" and this eliminates the need to communicate your expectations first.  The problem with this approach, in my opinion, is that children with autism do not tend to have a plan or even if they do, they don't vary the plan enough to make play the kind of rich learning experience that play is for other children.  Many times, children with autism do not make a plan for play that involves two or more people either.  So, while it is possible to "follow a child's lead" and then add new elements and ideas, sometimes you may want to show your child altogether new ways to play.  Here are some of the things that I often demonstrate for a child before asking him or her to play when I am introducing something altogether new.
  1. Here is where you are suppose to be.  I often give kids a choice if they can make a choice on location: Do you want to play on the carpet or the table?
  2. Here is what you are suppose to do. If one person is suppose to send blocks to the other in a truck and the other person is suppose to take blocks out of the truck and construct a tower, then I say I will be the Sender and you will be the Builder. 
  3. These are the steps.  I often demonstrate the whole game with another person or by myself before asking a child to participate
  4. This is how long we will play.  At the end of every round of a game, I offer a child the opportunity to be done if he or she wants unless a child is truly so involved in the game that there is no question that the game should continue.
  5. What do I do if I don't like the game?  If is see any signs of a child not enjoying a game, I offer the choice of All done or More.  As children get to be more competent players, I often prolong the play a bit longer by saying One more and All done as I see a child getting ready to be done.
  6. What will happen next after we are done this game?  If possible, a picture schedule showing the upcoming activity is provided.  For a verbal child, it is possible to just tell the child what is coming next but pictures work best. In my clinic, we play for 45 minute sessions and many children simply know when the whole play session is over because of some kind of mysterious inner clock.  Still, ending with some ritual (a goodbye song at our clinic is popular) tends to makes play sessions easier to end.
If you do not explicitly set up ground rules on all the important aspects of a game, your child will let you know he or she is confused by taking control, leaving, having a meltdown, or ignoring you altogether.  Sometimes your child may take control, leave, have a meltdown, or ignore you anyway (thus communicating that he or she does not want to play the game you have suggested) but consider the possibility that you have not communicated all the important information that your child needs.  Try a different way of communicating the nature of the game you want to play.  Simply thinking it over and trying to find a new way to communicate may help you figure out what information is missing from your child's perspective.  You may discover that your game has too many steps, is poorly thought out and is confusing, has no clear beginning, sequence, or end, or just does not sound fun.

Play Provides Happy Social Engagement

You are inviting your child into active social engagement with you when you play together.  I believe that this is what a child with ASD needs most--they need play as a way of exploring the world around them but they need a social guide.  Each time you say come play with me, you will be adding to your mutual collection of games or modifying games that you already know.  Dedicated play sessions, lasting fifteen minutes,  thirty minutes or an hour are incredible learning experiences for both you and your child. As your child becomes able to play with other children, you may still need to be available to guide these play sessions and make them successful.

Play Throughout the Day

Maybe weekends are the only times you can spend with your child in sustained play time.  Luckily, you need not confine yourself to long play sessions.  Short play sessions do not entirely fulfill the same purpose but they are just as important to your child's well-being.  If you think of little routines that you do with your child all day long as little play routines, it will put you in the right mind set to enjoy and teach your child.  Many activities that would otherwise be difficult will be easier if you use a play mindset.  You already know that you must demonstrate or show your child what you expect when presenting new games and likewise, new community activities require that you show your child ahead what the expectations and social roles will be. Show your child each step and help your child understand when events will be over.

Invite your child to play little games in the car which will help your child pay attention to things in the world.  Play games with your child in the bath, and
even when you are going to get on the phone and talk to a friend, hand your child a play phone and say Time for phone calls!  Invite your child to play laundry while really doing laundry and play shopping, while shopping for food or school materials at Target. 

If you create little play routines that involve roles for both you and your child all through the day--these small playful moments of interaction will be just as important, perhaps more important than the sit down on the floor and play for an hour sessions.  Children with ASD are not good passive learners and being present in the shopping cart does not insure that your child is learning or even making sense out of the event.  Many children create their own routines of social engagement at the store and it is not happy social engagement.  Pretty soon, parents are trying to find ways to avoid going to the grocery store with a child who has autism at all costs.  If you have already created little play routines that involve your child in these potentially difficult places, your child will know how to enjoy these places with you.  Perhaps, in the grocery store,  it is a picture shopping list where your child crosses out items as they go in the cart.  Perhaps, in the kitchen, your routine is three kisses every time the timer goes off at five minute intervals while mommy makes dinner--because these kisses will keep a child tuned in to Mommy and paying more attention to what she does.  In between kisses, hand your child a pan and a wooden spoon.  Take time to show him or her how to stir between pounding on the pan.  Turn on the music and dance with your child a bit as you cook.  Perhaps, at bedtime, your routine is a Thank-you God, review prayer where you go over all the good things that happened during the day.  The game of remembering what has happened in the day can be as simple as saying I like playing with daddy.  I like Pizza for dinner.  I like seeing Grandma Anna.  I like bath time.  The game can be religious or not but this kind of ritual will promote language development, strengthen your relationship with your child, and help your child go to sleep.  These little games--some exciting, some calming, some challenging, some relaxing all anchor your child to the world you live in together.  Invite your child to play little games with you throughout the day and these games will keep your child actively engaged in the social world for most of his or her waking hours.  For a child with ASD, that is the most important goal of Come Play With Me.