Play, learning and autism – accessible play opportunities!

Learning to look at things from the child’s point of view is going help us to get play and communication going in kids on the spectrum. 

Play and learning are the same thing. When kids are playing they are using, combining and developing skills such as movement, thinking, attention, seeing, listening and, of course, communicating. Kids with a skill gap in any of these areas are going to have a harder time playing and learning. 

There is an increasing recognition that sensory differences are a part of autism. Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, places, people, sounds and sights. It’s not uncommon to find a child with autism exploring the world in a very unusual way e.g. smelling the carpet or you! It’s also pretty common to find kids who just can’t stand the touch or sound of something. Refusing to join in messy play or covering their ears with their hands might be clues.Tuning into possible sensory differences is the key to presenting accessible play opportunities. For kids with unusual sensory systems get them sniffing things, stretching stuff – feeling, swinging, spinning things that are fun to feel, swing or spin. Now you’re rocking! Oh yeah, don’t forget to try rocking. It’s fun. 

Youngsters with autism like a system. Having autism means you have an enhanced need for order, pattern and predictability. If your play opportunities are too chaotic or spontaneous it might be just too much. Break play down into bite size pieces with clear beginnings, middles and ends. Contain whole play “systems” in a shoe box maybe. Let the child show you which shoebox they are ready for today.Take turns on who gets to select. Let’s learn about waiting and choosing while we do it. Yay!!! 

If you have the kind of attention system that just has to process everything. If your mind likes to hoover up every available bit of data. Imagine what the typical play environment, preschool or nursery setting does to your brain! Try just having one toy/play opportunity at a time in front of the child. Find a way to screen out most of the stimuli that is not part of the game. Frames are a great way of focussing attention. Put a hoop, line of wool or string round what you want the child to focus on and play with. 

Slow up. Allow plenty of ‘child time’ for processing and getting ready to make her next move. During this time what should you do? Keep quiet! Focus your attention away from the child and the play object/area. Let the child lead. 

Sometimes kids with autism just don’t get the “Let’s Play” signals. Our face and voice might not be enough to “give the game away”.Try developing a signposting system for what game or toy is coming next. Announce the arrival of the elephant with the water squirter trunk by putting on a sou-wester. 

As with all things – practice and patience will pay off! Have fun. 

Chris Barson.

Positive about Autism.

Chris will be presenting workshops at our forthcoming Big Autism Play Day in Manchester (10 March 2017) and London (17 March 2017.)