By Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA
Creating opportunities for interactions is key when working with any child, but it is especially important when working with children with autism. ABA often gets a bad rap for being staid or leaving a kid stuck at a table doing discrete trials for hours on end. In reality, it should be neither! While I do discrete trials in my practice, my biggest priority is always focused on increasing learning opportunities by taking advantage of the child’s natural motivations. This typically means leaving the table, so I alternate between discrete trials and lots of teaching through games and activities. Here are a few of my favorites:
Toss & Talk
For this activity, I usually use a large ball, a soft ring, or something else the child can toss. I name a category, and we take turns tossing the ball (or other item) and naming an item from that category. The game can be easily modified for whatever you’re working on: counting, skip counting, or even vocal imitation. I like the game because it’s simple, it provide a back-and-forth that is similar to a conversation, and it can easily be modified to include peers, siblings, or parents. This is particularly great if your learner likes throwing balls, but I’ve also modified it to push a train back and forth or take turns hopping towards one another.
Play Dough Snake
This game is one I saw a preschool teacher use years ago and have had great success with. In this game, I simply create a snake out of play dough. I make a large opening for the snake’s mouth, then roll up little balls of dough that will be “food.” I tell the child that we are going to pretend the play dough is food. I have a silly snake voice, and I tell the child “I’m so hungry. Do you have something I can eat?” The child picks up a piece of the rolled-up play dough, tells me what kind of food it is, and then feeds it to the snake. I pretend to love it, and the little ball of play dough becomes incorporated into the snake’s play dough body (which is great, because the more “food” the snake eats the bigger it gets.)
I can expand the game to have the snake dislike certain foods or tell the child he is too full. On several occasions, the learner has asked if they can be the snake, which is fantastic! This is another great game for peer play, sibling play, and modeling.
Pete’s A Pizza/You’re A Pizza
One of my favorite books for young learners is Pete’s A Pizza by William Steig. In this book, it’s a rainy day and Pete’s parents entertain him by pretending they are making him into a pizza: they roll up the “dough,” toss him in the air, add toppings, etc.
This is another game I saw a preschool teacher using during play time, and one I’ve used with many, many students. Sometimes I read the book beforehand, but if my learner’s level of comprehension or attention span is not appropriate for the book, I can just introduce it as a standalone game. I say, “It’s time to make a pizza!” Then, we get into the fun part of rolling the learner around, tossing him on a couch or mat, etc. This can generate a lot of language, work on sequencing, and provide a lot of opportunity for requesting activities.
Anything with a Parachute
My parachute is one of my best purchases of all time. I use it often and it allows me to play a wide range of games. Besides just having the learner lay on the floor and have the parachute float down onto his/her body, it is a highly motivating toy for a range of activities. Many of my learners love just pulling that large item out of its small bag. I’ve already written about three games I frequently play with the parachute. You can see that here.
Repeating rhymes and songs with motions that your learner loves can provide anticipation of an activity that may increase eye contact and manding. One of my favorites is shown in a video here. While this video is shown with toddlers, I’ve used it with kids up to 6 or 7 years old. Similar activities might include Going on a Bear Hunt; Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes; and Animal Action.
It’s important to note that none of these activities is beloved by every learner I encounter. The idea is to have a range of possible activities to learn which ones are motivating to your learner, then use those to create opportunities for language and interaction.