By: Kananelo Makoetlane

One time my son was hospitalized for a week; and in that ward were many children with different medical needs. I was mesmerized by two boys who had become friends over time, for they had been in that ward for quite some time. It would be safe to say they were both around four years old. One of them had diabetes and the other had respiratory problems. Another striking difference between them is that one was white and the other one was black. I would watch them with great fascination as I saw them playing together. Although each spoke their own language, they seemed to understand each other. Not only that, but they also enjoyed playing together.

A few years later, as I delved into the subject of children’s mental health, I stumbled upon an article on play therapy and its benefits. Later on, as I took a short course in child psychology, the dots began to connect.

Have you ever wondered why children would be gone for hours and sometimes even “forget” to come home to eat? Children have a short attention span. However, when it comes to play, this does not seem to be the case.

Children enjoy playing; and every child should be allowed to play. This is because it is also   very beneficial to them. Among other things, one thing that greatly took me aback was what I learned about play therapy; that it can be used to assist children to process trauma, as in most cases they do not have the right words to express how they feel. This means that play can have the same effect counselling has to adults.

So, for children on the autism spectrum, things can be utterly different. Since most of the time they hardly engage with other people and may sometimes keep repeating a subject they find interesting, it may be difficult to imagine playing with them. You will be amazed at how much your child longs for you to play with them. In a world where they are largely misunderstood by most people, it can be even more frustrating for them when mommy and daddy also do not understand them. Most times as a parent, you may feel overwhelmed and not know how to connect with your child. One of the tricks I learned as a parent is that to get your autistic child to engage, if you catch them playing something, join in. Often times I would want my child to stop what he was doing to play something that I felt would benefit him more. But I always failed dismally at each attempt. It was only after I learned that to get a child’s attention, it is easier to show interest in what they are doing than to try to divert their attention to something else.

At first it was rather awkward for me. But the more I allowed my child to lead, the more he opened up and allowed me to play with him. It got easier with time and we both ended up looking forward to this shared activity because it enabled us to bond. Not only that, I believe it also makes a child feel understood.  And if you persist, you will soon become your child’s best friend.

Recently I was watching a video on LinkedIn about a young boy who had learned how to get what he wants from his parents. I think he was about 5 years old or so, and he was teaching his 2 to 3 year-old sibling how to win with mom and dad. He realized that instead of asking his father to allow him to, he should rather ask about how his father’s day was, as his father’s need was quality time and that made it easier for him to get what he wants. His strategy worked just as well with his mother. His mother’s need was acts of service, so he offered to help his mom to fold the clothes so that she could get a chance to sleep. And on both occasions, he succeeded. This book reminded me of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

According to Eden II Programs[1], many of those with autism are visual, literal thinkers.

They retain more information when they are presented with graphic images and words. Computer graphics can be used to teach children with autism visually. They are particularly attracted to screen-based technology such as phones and tablets.

If your child is playing with your phone and you notice that, try to capitalize on that and play the game together.

Other ways to engage an autistic child to play:

  • Model the Speech or Activity Desired

According to Intergrity Inc., work with your support team, family members, or other children to model play and turn-taking behaviour; children diagnosed with autism can pick up on important play skills by watching others. By modelling the desired behaviour, you can help introduce the skill to your child and also encourage them to get involved. If the activity or toy you are using is highly motivating to the child, then getting them to interact with you and the desired object is a good first step in learning even more play skills. If other kids are not available, then watching videos of children at play can help with social skill building and allow your child to become familiar with how kids interact.

  • Support Pretend Play

Pretend play allows children to practice their social skills and have fun at the same time. Children with autism can struggle with pretend play and often play with items in different ways than what they probably were originally intended. If you choose cars or trains, you can model the vehicles driving on a track, stopping for other vehicles, and avoiding accidents. Dolls and action figures can be put to bed, fed play food, and used to model common play scenarios. You might need to break the process down into small steps, but modelling imaginative and pretend play can help your child pick up these valuable skills.

  • Meet With Other Children

While many children diagnosed on the autism spectrum seem to seek out solitary play, taking them to a play group or playground can expose them to a variety of social situations and opportunities. According to experts at Indiana University, offering a variety of integrated play opportunities can help your child get used to playing alongside (called parallel play), and eventually playing with children without disabilities. Since some kids with autism also have motor delays, playing with children who are slightly younger can also make social and interactive play more accessible as your child will be better able to keep up physically.