This week’s post comes to us from Stephanny Freeman, PhD and Kristen Hayashida, MEd, BCBA, and Dr. Tanya Paparella, our partners on the Play Idea Cards app. Play Idea Cards is a full curriculum on teaching play – right in the palm of your hand! Check it out on the Apple App Store!
Parents of young children with developmental disabilities are truly tireless. At times when one would think a break could be had – the time when they get to enjoy watching their children play, enjoy a conversation with another adult while their children play, or even relaxing by playing and having fun with their children – instead they are working with and teaching their children…and rightly so!
I’ve spent a good part of my career watching parents play with their young children with a variety of developmental disabilities (severe intellectual delay, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorder). Across the board, parents are remarkable. In a beautiful coordination of grace and direction, they work on controlling behavior, developing language, teaching concepts, maintaining attention, and building fun and relationships. Parents of children with disabilities are more directive and more instructional – yielding evidence of tremendous benefits for their children’s development as a result of these tireless warriors.
Children with autism in particular, have a significant and very specialized deficit in their ability to play with toys. Sometimes it can be in the functional domain but it is always difficult for them to think symbolically and abstractly about play. Teaching play to children with ASD is incredibly important and parents know this – they try!
For parents of children with ASD, here are 10 mistakes that are commonly made during play that can really disrupt their child’s growth in play.
1. Thinking that play develops on its own and randomly. Play in neurotypical children develops generally in a sequence and children with ASD do not naturally follow or progress through that sequence. Most books you find on children’s play show a fairly consistent developmental pathway for play. Skills build upon skills. Children start with very functional and constructional acts and develop into symbolic and creative play.
2. Forgetting to use play to actually teach play. Parents often use play to teach other skills (e.g. language or early concepts). Children with ASD have a core deficit in play so take time during your play with your child to actually teach them how to play with the toys regularly.
3. Thinking that your child will love play right away. For children with ASD, symbolic play is very difficult and likely your child would rather do other things than play. For example, a child with ASD may rather roll a car down a ramp repetitively then have the car “feel hungry” and go to the gas station for some “food.” It actually falls on the parent, at first, to convince the child that play is fun! This means you must have high positive affect (e.g., show excitement in your body language and in your words), work through difficulties with a huge smile, and laugh and enjoy using positive language.
4. Playing at a level that is way too difficult. Knowing what your child can do will help you teach them what comes next. If you child is just starting to put puzzles together, asking them to pretend to be Buzz Lightyear and talk like him is much too difficult.
5. Forgetting to imitate. It is critical for engagement building to imitate your child’s appropriate play behavior. Directiveness is still great but integrate imitation in your play. You should have a good balance of both. If your child is building blocks, grab a few and copy your child.
6. Constantly shifting your child’s attention. Sometimes it is necessary to move your child away from something that is a perseveration or a repetitive interest but in general, try to stick with what your child is doing. Sustained engagement with toys and people in coordination is a great skill and something children with ASD need to work on. It’s not a race to see how many different things you can do during a play time. Be patient and tolerant and build off of their interests rather than shifting their attention. Enjoy playing similar routines every time you play – just slowly build off of them.
7. Prompting intrusively. Starting off by hand-over-hand prompting or being very verbally directive (“put that block here and the train here”) your child is forced to shifts their attention without their own consideration. Instead, focus on what they pick up or are interested in, then move them forward by showing them something related to what they are doing, or general verbal comments (“Boy, that doll is super hungry!” as your child is holding a piece of play food).
8. Being concrete. If your child wants to do something a little imaginative, don’t bring them back to the concrete. If a child grabs a block and starts to eat it like a burger, please don’t tell them “It’s not food it’s a block!” Instead, imitate and say, “You have a burger, I have a hot dog!”
9. Missing the surprise factor. Every play session, even if it’s pretty routine and organized, should include something surprising by the parent. Parents should throw in a fun “wrench” and make a huge facial expression that indicates surprise. It’s called “violating” a routine or a play scheme. So if Mickey Mouse always goes to his top bunk in the play house, make sure one day the top bunk has cats in it! Your child will laugh and you can laugh too. This makes for enjoyment and further eye contact and engagement. It also facilitates problems solving.
10. Allowing your child to get away from play. Although the prior points suggest to following your child’s lead and imitate, the line should be drawn when your child doesn’t follow through with play. So if you are playing with your child’s interest (e.g. play food) and you make the suggestion of showing him dolls or plates or cups, then you verbally request his participation, he must follow through. Don’t allow your child to not follow through on play. Remember it’s a core problem for them so it’s hard!
Although play is still a “work” time for parents, hopefully these tips will help make it smoother and more enjoyable for everyone. This builds interest, sustained engagement, longer schemes and ideas for play, and positive practice of play skills. Ready Set PLAY!
About The Authors
Dr. Stephanny Freeman is a clinical professor at UCLA, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Co-Directs the Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP). For 20 years, she has educated children with ASD and other exceptionalities as a teacher, studied interventions for social emotional development, and designed curriculum and behavior plans in school and clinic settings.
Kristen Hayashida is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the UCLA Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP). For the last 10 years she has served as a therapist, researcher and educator of children and families living with autism spectrum disorder through the treatment of problem behavior.
Dr. Tanya Paparella is a specialist in the field of autism having spent more than 20 years in intervention and research in autism. She is an Associate Clinical Professor in the Division of Child Psychiatry at UCLA, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Co-Director of UCLA’s Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP), an internationally recognized model treatment program for young children on the autism spectrum.