You can use activities as a bridge between a child with autism and his environment and the people in it. There are many activities that can increase social skills while strengthening the bond between the child and those around him. Since each child is unique, it is a good idea to have a variety of ideas to introduce and keep the child focused.
Fun Activities for Children with Autism
Working on therapy and educational goals doesn't have to be a chore for you or for the child. With a little thought, you can create engaging sessions that look and feel like playtime for children of any age.
Activities for Children from Birth to Three Years
Most children with moderate or severe autism receive a diagnosis before the age of three, according to WebMD. Even those children with symptoms of mild autism may begin therapy before getting the official diagnosis. You can use these activities to work with the youngest children on the spectrum:
- Box o' beans: Fill a large plastic tub with sensory beads or dried beans from the grocery store. Place small toys throughout and have the child place his or her hands in the box to pull out desired objects. This will help the child with sensory issues surrounding texture and touch.
- Scented bubbles: Blowing bubbles can be a fun sensory experience, and it can also work on oral motor skills. What's more, pointing to the bubbles and exaggerating your own reaction can help work on joint attention, a very important but challenging area for many children with autism.
- Finger painting: Messy but fun, finger painting can help children learn about colors and provide an opportunity to discover new textures through touch. It can also help reduce sensory sensitivity through exposure.
- Songs and poems: Children often like the singsong nature of poems or the repetition of verses in a song. You can make up songs to teach children how to dress or feed themselves, or use a favorite song as a reward after a child does a less desirable (but necessary) activity. You can also incorporate physical activities into songs, like jumping, skipping or hopping.
Activities for Preschoolers and Kindergartners with Autism
During the preschool years, many children with autism are experiencing some of their first major exposure to their peers. In addition, changing environment and routine can more challenging. This period of time is when many children on the spectrum receive intensive, targeted therapies and interventions involving floor time activities and Advanced Behavioral Analysis (ABA).
In the classroom, preschool activities for children with autism can help kids learn how to express their emotions, regulate their sensory challenges, and interact with other children. Activities for kindergartners with autism can target the skills kids will need as they move into grade school.
Activities for Grade School Children with Autism
At the elementary school level, many children with autism are beginning to stand out more from their peers, and they may be experiencing bullying and social isolation. Social skills activities can help build the skills they need to form relationships. In addition, as peers' motor skills become more advanced, some children may find they are falling behind. Gross motor activities can help them catch up with their friends.
- I spy: This activity helps a child focus on a description or follow a point to find an object. Describe the object in as much detail as you can, then have the child point to it in the room. For children with more severe processing issues, you can describe one of two objects and have the child choose the correct one.
- Guessing game: Have the child close his eyes and hand him a simple object or toy, like a block or a cup. Tell him to feel the object and have him describe it to you (if he is verbal). If the child is non-verbal, have him show you a picture of the object after he opens his eyes. This game helps children use senses other than vision to learn about the world around them.
- Draw my face: Have a child draw a large circle on a piece of paper. You can demonstrate a variety of emotions through your facial expressions. Have the child draw the face you are making and assist her in labeling the emotions, like happy, sad, or angry.
- Dance party: Put on your favorite music and have an impromptu dance party. This is a great way for children to learn about rhythm, counting, and develop physical coordination. It also helps with sensory integration, since movement can provide necessary proprioceptive input.
- Puppet show: Make sock puppets or use the child's dolls and come up with a fun theme to act out. By having a puppet show, you can teach emotions and social skills through role play. This is a great activity to do before a major life event such as moving or starting school. It helps children understand how situations play out before they happen so they know what to expect.
Activities for Teens with Autism
During the teen years, kids on the spectrum can struggle with communication, social skills, and the executive function or planning aspects of daily life. Using speech and language for teens with autism can help strengthen a kid's ability to communicate with peers and with adults, and sequencing activities can help teens plan out their daily schedule at home and school.
You can also try these fun social activities with teens on the spectrum:
- Blindfolded obstacle course - Set up an obstacle course that will require kids to move around, over, and under various objects. Have teens work in pairs, with one wearing a blindfold. The other teen must give directions to the blindfolded teen to help him get through the obstacle course. This is a great activity for working on theory of mind.
- Movie listening quiz - It can be challenging for teens on the spectrum to tune in to the feelings and words of others, especially when there are a lot of distractions. Play a scene from a movie for the kids. Then give them a quiz to see how much of the interaction they were able to pick up. Ask questions about how the characters were feeling, what their facial expressions were, and how they expressed themselves.
- Improvisational skits - Have kids work in groups and give them a prop, such as a steering wheel, a clipboard, or a pair of pants. Kids must work together to create an improvisational skit surrounding the object, changing the scene as they go. This is a great way to break out of routines and encourage collaboration.
Finding More Games and Activities
You can find educational and fun games and activities for kids with autism at book and toy stores as well as online. There are many great sites that feature items designed to assist those with autism.
Children Succeed features several innovative games designed specifically for children with autism at the elementary school level. The following are some to check out:
- About Faces: This card game helps children learn about facial expressions and the emotions associated with each. It features a variety of fun and colorful cards that show the basic emotions. This game retails for $12.
- Emotto: This dice game allows kids to recognize facial expression by matching and mimicking the ones seen on the game board. It retails for $25.
- Let's Talk: This game is ideal for teaching social skills and conversation. It presents a variety of topics to engage the child and let them talk about favorite and new subjects. It retails for $27.
Fat Brain Toys
Fat Brain Toys offers toys designed for kids with special needs. In addition to providing a description of each toy on the site, there are ratings and customer reviews that are helpful for making a decision on what would be appropriate for a specific child and his specific needs. The following are some games to check out:
- Twig: This game puts a modern twist on the traditional building blocks. The set includes 72 wooden blocks that are colorful and fun to play with. Each block is precision-cut and compatible with one another, perfect for expanding social skills and taking turns. This toy is for kids age three and up and retails for about $50.
- Shape Sorting Cube: This cube contains 12 colorful shapes that fit into the hardwood cut-outs. When the shapes drop into their holes, they make a clinking sound, perfect for expanding sensory experiences. This is ideal for preschoolers on the spectrum and retails for about $14.
- See & Spell: Created by Melissa & Doug, this puzzle-style game will help children learn their alphabet and begin to read, especially if they learn better by using their hands. It features 20 puzzle pictures and over 50 colorful letters. It's perfect for kindergarten and grade school kids and retails for $18.
National Autism Resources
National Autism Resources is an excellent place to find a wide variety of activities for kids of all ages. Some items you will find on the site include the following:
- Let's Make Faces: This book helps grade school kids learn and identify different facial expressions and the feelings associated with each one. It uses a dry-erase marker to allow the child to draw the expression on a blank face. It retails for $13.
- Stone Soup: This board game, designed for kids age five and up, gives non-verbal kids a way to socially interact and contribute to a cooperative activity. It plays on visual strengths and ability to match images. This game retails for $16.
- Autism Conversation Starters Set - This set of flip-books helps facilitate starting and continuing a conversation. The activities are targeted at kids in older grade school as well as teens. The set of four flip-books retails for $40.
Tips for Choosing an Activity
Children with autism need challenging but fun activities they can enjoy on a daily basis. However, choosing an activity is about more than making it challenging and fun. Keep these tips in mind:
- Hand pick any group participants. Look for children that will be especially helpful to the kid or teen with autism. Be sure to monitor all of the participants and be on the lookout for children who might try to ridicule or exclude the child with autism.
- Before beginning the activity, consider any potential challenges you might encounter. If you can anticipate some of the issues that might arise, such as sensory overload, routine changes, or social breakdowns, you can ensure the child enjoys and fully participates in the activity.
- Consider toys and games that are specifically designed to engage kids on the autism spectrum because they can address specific goals. These may be goals in the child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP), goals of the parent or teacher, or areas the child himself would like to work on.
- If possible, use a child's special interest to help keep her in the game. For example, if a child loves outer space, give the activity a space theme.
Engaging a Child with Autism
No matter what activity you choose, engaging a child with autism can be challenging for the parent or teacher. With practice and lots of great activity ideas, this type of interaction will get easier. Remember, every game you play will help the child learn how to connect and communicate with other people in the world.