Children with autism find it difficult to socialize with their peers and many of our children with autism lack appropriate play skills. The ability for our children to play is important because it can develop language and encourage imagination. Play can also lessen our children’s isolation and create opportunities to interact with their peers. Children often connect through play and having similar likes and dislikes. My typical child Hayden will identify friends by what they like to play with and talk about on the playground. I’ll find myself associating his friends with the connections they have with my son. I remember Hayden running up to a boy on Halloween and asking to take a picture with him because he had on an Iron Man costume, just like Hayden’s costume. He did not know this boy, but there was an instant connection due to them liking the same things.
Lately, Hayden and I have been talking a lot about Broden’s autism because he has been bringing up some great questions. In return, I’ve tried to ask some questions to Hayden to encourage him to describe his feeling about Broden’s autism and to find ways to create situations where they can connect. I asked Hayden the other day, “What do you not like about Broden?” Hayden was very quick to answer. He said, “I don’t like Broden because he doesn’t like to play with the same things that I like to play with.” Broden is only 20 months younger than Hayden. Hayden knows Broden is going to be 5 years old soon and he remembers very distinctly what he played with when he was that age. Hayden said, “Mom, I played with GI Joe and Star Wars. Broden doesn’t like that stuff.” A light went on in my head.
I spoke with Broden’s BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) and relayed to her the discussion I had with Hayden. I asked her if there was any way that we could take a look at the toys we were teaching Broden to play with at his ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) clinic. Instead of teaching Broden to play with a barn or an alphabet game, we decided to create our own list of toys for Broden to learn to play with and ask Hayden for help. With Hayden’s help, we could assure that Broden would learn to play with toys that Hayden would like and this, in turn, would help Hayden feel included.
Once Hayden and I sat down together we started to talk about all the things that Broden should try. One thing on the list was teaching Broden how to play a Wii game. Hayden said, “Broden just watches me play Wii. It would be fun to be able to play a game with Broden.” What was so wonderful about this process was that I realized that we were not only going to be creating new and exciting experiences for Broden, but also providing connections for our two boys.
Last week was the first week of implementing our new approach to play. Broden brings his own bag of toys to clinic and we plan to add new toys to his toy bag once he masters his first bag of toys. There may be toys that Broden has no interest in, but the hope is that there might be a few things that may connect Hayden and Broden. I caught a glimpse of it this weekend when Broden grabbed a foam sword out of his bedroom. A few minutes later, Hayden picked it up and started to play with it. I thought, “Ah! Both of them seemed interested in the same toy.” I acknowledged this as a step in the right direction. It may be a small step, but in the world of autism, we’ll accept any type of step as long as it is in the right direction.
Being in the military, there are many programs available to give your children with autism opportunities to try new things and to create situations where your child can socialize and play with other children. Remember that each experience is allowing your child to grow. At Fort Hood, TX, the EFMP (Exceptional Family Program) has a program called the Sea Dragons. This program allows families with special needs children to swim together. They create a safe and welcoming environment for families that may not be available at a public pool.
Programs, like the Sea Dragons, are provided at military installations to ensure families with special needs have opportunities to grow. I encourage you to reach out to your EFMP at your installation to see what is provided in your area.
Again, appropriate play for children with autism can be quite difficult to achieve, but there are ways to tackle this obstacle. If your child with autism has siblings, ask for their help. Make this a team effort so you can allow the entire family to feel connected to their sibling with autism. In many ways, if the siblings are a part of the process, they may be more inclined to ensure their sibling with autism succeeds because if their sibling with autism succeeds, then they have as well. They will remember that there is more hope with every small victory.
WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine