Preschool is part of the golden window of opportunity for working with children on the autism spectrum. During the early childhood years, kids are growing and developing at an amazing rate, and this is the ideal time to help your child learn to connect with others, regulate his or her senses, improve communication, and practice many other skills. Whether you're a parent of a child with autism or a teacher of a special needs classroom, there are activities that can help.
Preschool Activities that Target Autism Challenges
You can use lesson plans for children with autism or create your own lessons covering a number of essential concepts. The following activities are perfect for the preschool classroom or home setting.
Delayed, unusual, or absent pretend play skills are especially common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a study by McMaster University. Working on these skills during playtime can expand a child's ability to interact with others. Specifically, try some of these fun games:
- Pretend to be dinosaurs, roaring at each other and looking for food.
- Use a dollhouse and pretend that the dolls are going through their daily routine.
- Use blocks to make buildings, and drive toy cars around the "city" you made.
- Build a train track and create scenarios in which the train must pick up and drop off people and supplies.
- Make an animal hospital for stuffed animals and help fix them up when they get hurt.
- Use toy food and a play kitchen to cook and serve a meal.
- Play school, with one person assigned to be the teacher and everyone else pretending to be students.
If you can choose a pretend play routine that matches the child's special interest, it can help to retain his or her attention. You can also reward participation with stickers, candy, small toys, or another little treat.
Explore with Your Senses
Sensory difficulties affect a great majority of children with ASD, according to a study published in the journal Autism. Children may feel that noises, proprioceptive feelings, textures, visual inputs, tastes, and other sensory experiences are too overwhelming, or they may seek out even stronger sensory input. This type of sensory integration dysfunction will change over time, but gently exposing kids to various sensory stimuli during the preschool years can help make this less debilitating.
Try some of the following sensory experiences:
- Fill a large storage bin with beans and bury small toys inside. Allow kids to play in the beans with their hands.
- Spread shaving cream on a tabletop and let kids smear it around.
- Create a water table where kids can pour water into different containers.
- Set up drums so kids can practice banging at different tempos and volume levels.
- Experiment with different foods, involving a variety of tastes and textures.
- Use a spinning chair to twirl kids around.
- Have a small trampoline for jumping fun.
Remember, some sensory experience can be too much for some kids. If the child seems especially anxious, don't force the issue. Often, working with an occupational therapist can help the child overcome these difficulties.
Taking turns is important for social development in preschool, and it's also a huge part of language. Turn-taking can be challenging for any preschooler, but it's often especially hard for those with autism. Formalizing the behavior and making it fun can help it become a natural part of the child's life. Try these ideas for activities:
- When the child with autism is playing with a toy, step in and ask for a turn. Don't wait for the child to say "okay." Simply take your turn and hand the toy back. When the child learns that the toy will come back, he or she becomes less anxious about giving it up.
- Play a simple board game like Candy Land, rewarding each child for taking a turn.
- Bring in a new, very interesting toy, especially one with sounds or lights. Play with it yourself for a few minutes, and then offer it to the child, saying "your turn." Include other children as well, passing the toy around the classroom.
- If the child is verbal, take turns sharing toys or facts during circle time.
"Joint attention," or the ability to share an experience with someone else, is a common impairment in children with autism and an essential skill for future success, according to an article published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences. Fortunately, there are lots of fun ways to work on sharing experiences and attention:
- Set up a show-and-tell program in the classroom, where kids can bring in items from home or tell about experiences they have had. Immediately after the sharing, ask the child with autism to describe what he or she saw and heard.
- When the child is playing with a toy, take it away and point out a specific aspect of the toy (like the teddy bear's ears). Then return the toy.
- Play games like "I Spy" that require both people to look at the same object.
- Bring a selection of small instruments or noisemakers. Use one to make noise, and then ask the child, "Do you hear the same thing I hear?" Talk about what you heard.
- Ask the child to show you what he or she is making or drawing. Reward showing with a special treat. Eventually, have another adult facilitate the child showing you something, and reward that behavior.
Imitation is a huge part of child development, and it can be very challenging for children with autism, according to the University of Washington. To encourage imitation, try some of these fun activities:
- Play a game where you randomly pretend to be a different animal. Kids must mimic your animal behaviors and sounds.
- Imitate what the child with autism is doing. Continue imitating until the child notices.
- Pair children up, and have them pretend to be a mirror for each other. When one child moves, the other must move the same way.
- Make a game of having the child imitate you, moving your body in silly ways or making silly noises. For each imitation, give a reward.
Fun Activities and Lots of Rewards
For many children with autism spectrum disorder, the preschool years are an excellent time to interact with peers and develop the social and communication skills necessary for school success. Keeping the activities light and fun and offering frequent rewards can help to keep the child engaged. In time, you can phase out the reward or increase the desired behavior required in order to earn it.