Updated: Sep 26
By Dr. Shoshana Levin Fox
Summertime! What a great time to be out playing with your child! Yet, for parents of young children with special needs associated with autism, the very thought of trying to play with one’s child can be frustrating. Parents often feel discouraged: “My child seems uninterested in contact with me. How can I play with him/her?” Or “Ben is busy lining up all his tiny cars in a row, so how can I possibly create a playtime out of that?” Or “Chloe doesn’t speak, so I can’t imagine how to begin to play with her.”
Fortunately, there are ways to play with a young child who, at first glance, appears not ready for--or not even interested in--a fun play experience with you, the parent.
In coaching many hundreds of parents how to play with their autism-diagnosed child, I share play strategies drawn from an effective Developmental model that is attuned to each child’s Individual differences and focuses on building a sense of Relationship (DIR)
In this model, you start where your child is developmentally, sensorily and physically present, which means you just may be on the floor! This is why its originators, Drs. Serena Wieder and the late Stanley Greenspan, called it DIRFloortime.
DIR reminds us: Think senses! Each sense can serve as a channel for connection and shared playful experience. You will want to pay attention to whether your child’s threshold for sensory experience is low (that is, your child reacts intensely to the mildest stimuli) or high (your child needs intense stimulation to prompt a reaction).
With that information in mind, observe the impact your words, tone and actions have as you launch into sensory-based play with your child.
Adjust your energy, voice, and physical interaction level accordingly, in a way that encourages a sense of contact and connection, without overwhelming your child.
Your goal in this kind of play is to reach, not to teach. You are aiming for a sense of energy flowing between you and your child. Even if that warm flash lasts for only a few seconds at first, that’s positive! You can build on that with time.
Following are a few DIRFloortime-inspired play ideas and strategies that can be used to create some enjoyable play times with your child this summer.
At the beach? Take advantage of the many textures there. Sit opposite your child and try to create a sense of turn- taking as you and s/he dump handfuls of wet or dry sand into the bucket. Dig a hole and take turns pouring water or dropping shells into it. If your child hates the gritty sand, lie on a towel on your back with your knees up, and let your child slide onto your stomach. It’s great for eye contact, too.
Too hot? Jump in the water. Hold your child facing you and have fun safely bobbing up and down together, as you count, sing, or describe what you are doing in order to expand the experience. Or as you run along the shore, hold your child facing you, creating a “Run, Run, STOP” game. Run hand-in-hand with an older child. Does your child indicate s/he wants to run some more? Does s/he get the “Run, Run STOP!” rhythm? That’s play involvement!
Use a watering can to sprinkle your child’s hands, arms, legs or tummy, as you describe what you’re doing. Invite involvement by asking (not demanding) your child to show you what part s/he wants to get wet next. Or move to the shaded playground and help your child onto a swing. Stand facing your child (for that eye contact again) and count, hum, sing or just use relevant words (“hello,” “so high,” “up, up, up”) as you push your child in a rhythm that suits him/her. Don’t demand a response like “say ‘more’” or “say ‘please’”—just pay attention to that ever-precious sense of contact and shared enjoyment.
Relax and check whether you are enjoying yourself. If so, ask yourself, “What did I just do that created that nice sense of connection?” Whatever it was, that’s great, so repeat!
At home? Try a bathing suit slime event on the porch as you sit opposite your child, stretching the slime, or taking turns smearing slime on each other’s hands or feet. Don’t demand language from your child but add your own comments to make this a fuller interactive experience: “I’m putting green slime right on your tummy...now on your nose.” Sit opposite your young child in the wading pool and create a sensory- based pouring, splashing or silly shower game with the hose.
If your child leaves you out of the play or ignores you, insert your turn in a playful way to gradually expand his/her sense of turn-taking and the presence of another. If this upsets your child, you can still maintain the sense of contact by softly acknowledging, “Oh, you didn’t like that splash.” Wait a bit, take another turn later, then patiently, verbally acknowledge the child’s frustration, sadness or anger. Chances are he or she will come to accept the departure from his or her expectations very gradually. That’s progress!
Mirror play! Hang a non-breakable mirror (available at kindergarten suppliers) that is long enough so your child can see his/her reflection when sitting on your lap or in a chair beside you, and, also, if you are both seated on the floor, facing the mirror. Position yourself behind or beside your child to make the most of the reflected eye contact potential and think “imitation opportunities.”
At first, you be the respectful imitator! Did your child just stick out his/her tongue? Make a face inadvertently? Great. Your turn! Do the same and make a nonverbal conversation out of it! Did s/ he babble a syllable or two? Say a word? Wonderful. Your turn! Did your child start humming or singing? Your turn! Did your child just run his/her fingers spider-like up the mirror? Or clap? Your turn!
Add action to the mirror play. Stand behind your child as you both face the mirror, then gently and safely pick up your young child and set him/her down gently as you count these “pseudo-jumps.” I have observed many children whose energy and sometimes even language were “uncorked” by this combination of mirror play and jumping.
Follow your child’s lead rather than demand that your child imitate you (frustrating for both parties) until you feel that your child is starting to understand the sense of reciprocity. Patience! Achieving this kind of understanding can take anywhere from minutes to months.
Blanket fun! You and another strong adult can hold a blanket like a hammock. A blanket hammock provides a nice snuggly place from which your child can look into your eyes, as you gently (or energetically, depending on your child’s sensory preferences!) swing the hammock while counting, singing or humming to your child. A blanket is also wonderful for rocking or cuddling your young child, or even for a game of peekaboo. Variation: Put the blanket over your head and let your young child discover you!
More action? While holding your child carefully, gently help him/her climb onto a desk, table or safe, secure surface. Now you can make better eye contact, because you’re both nearly the same height! Announce, “One, two, three, JUMP” and then help your child land safely. If you’re feeling strong, twirl your child around before landing or give the gentlest of respectful tickles on landing. Repeat safely as long as you have the energy and if your child is into it!
The key takeaways here:
• Whenever you can, position yourself so that you can give your child ample, warm eye contact as much as possible. Don’t demand eye contact. Seek it out.
• Add sounds, songs, rhythm, or descriptive language to whatever you are doing with your child. (For more pointers on the Talk-Aloud method, see the May 2022 issue of Autism Digest.)
• Add genuine emotion to your play, so that your child senses the warm outreach in your eyes, voice, and touch.
• Aim to reach rather than teach.
• Mute your phone and ignore it and other screens. Try not to let other distractions take you away from this important developmental playtime with your child.
• If your child needs shorter sessions, try to make them more frequent.
• Always give your child advance notice when you need to stop playing—even if you are convinced that your child does not understand language.
• Keep any nonverbal, preverbal, musical and/or verbal imitation conversations going as long as you can without pressuring your child and as long as your child is involved. In DIR terms, you are opening and closing “circles of communication,” and they are important!
There are many more ways to have fun playing with your child, while at the same time helping your child progress developmentally. If you would like to learn more developmentally sound play strategies for young and older autistic children, check out the website of the International Council for Development and Learning (ICDL) to locate a DIR expert near you. Many specialists come into the home to help parents in real time become more proficient developmental players for change.
Above all, have fun, and enjoy the contact and the process!
Shoshana Levin Fox, EdD is a child psychologist, play therapist/supervisor, autism specialist and the author of the parent-friendly An Autism Casebook for Parents and Practitioners: The Child Behind the Symptoms. She has shared her wealth of experience in numerous worldwide conference presentations and professional publications based on her work using play-based methods to assess and treat young autistic children.