By Monique Simpson – Founder and Speech Pathologist
I clearly remember watching my 3 year old daughter Siena playing with her dolls house. Back then she would put each of her little people precisely into bed with their blankets neatly folded before taking them all out to repeat the idea again and again.
Siena does not have ASD but she used to be quite an anxious child. Her need for repetitive play and predictably was merely a reflection on her internal world and needing to control her outside world. She felt comfortable, safe and motivated by playing in this way especially since so many other aspects of her day were not as black and white.
Take this example and then multiply it by hundreds for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. There is SOOO much about life that does not make sense to them and this will certainly be reflected in their play on lots of different levels.
Many of the families that I treat understandably can be driven nuts by the repetitiveness of their children’s play because at times it can be an in your face reminder of your child’s challenges and basically because it can get boring!
There are so many things to consider when building the variety in play of children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. I have tried to simplify this into three key steps:
Step 1 – Identify the ideas that motivate your child
Observe your child and write a list of ALL the objects, characters, actions and attributes that motivate them in play.
- Objects – mirrors, water, umbrellas, balls, mango, trucks etc
- Characters – Minnie Mouse, Wiggles, Tinker Bell, Toy Story etc
- Actions – collecting, pouring, running, blowing, connecting etc
- Attributes – fast, wet, dirty etc
I refer to this list before every client I see so that I am tapping into the unique ideas that motivate them.
Step 2 – Respect your child’s ideas and allow them to control the thoughts that they want to develop
It is critical that we focus on building the child’s ideas and not ours so that each new thought that they develop is meaningful and well connected with their other ideas.
The first step is allowing the child to take the lead and helping them understand that we respect and value their ideas. We can let them know that we acknowledge and like their ideas in play by;
a) Copying/mirroring their actions
b) Commenting on what we see them doing (commentating)
c) Using appealing facial expressions and tones in our voice that suggests that we are enjoying their ideas. For example if Joshua is pouring water from one cup to another then I might grab another couple of cups and do the same action. In addition, using an interesting tone in my voice, I may sing a song about pouring or make a noise that reflects the action (e.g. “weeeeee”, “ooooooo”, “splash”) or tell him what he is doing Joshua is pouring. Basically doing whatever it takes to share some attention with him and make him feel that his ideas are valid!
By adopting this approach you will also be helping your child to remain as calm as possible in the play because you are not forcing but rather allowing the ideas to grow naturally.
Step 3 – Develop your child’s desire for exploration of ideas
Once step 1 and 2 have been established our aim is to see what new ideas can evolve in the play. This can develop in the following ways;
a) The child accidentally stumbles upon ideas through their own exploration
b) You suggest an idea that is very closely related to their own idea. For example with Joshua I might pour the water down a funnel rather than into a cup or perhaps pour the water down a tube. In this example I am still sticking to the main theme of pouring but varying it slightly. I would not push Joshua to have to carry out the idea but instead just entice him and build his curiosity for novelty ever so slightly!
Being highly aware of Joshua’s motivators list can also help me in suggesting ideas. Let’s assume he also loves umbrellas. I may decide to pour water into an opened umbrella because there will be a pretty good chance that he will like that idea and possibly imitate it!
Various studies, including one done by Ingersoll and Schreibman (2002), similarly found that children with autism learn imitative play by an adult copying the child’s actions to elicit an imitative response.
Building upon your child’s ideas in play can be likened to a growing tree with multiple interconnected branches. Loving and supporting this tree along its journey will eventually lead to a healthy and natural outcome!
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