10 Engaging Activities for Children With Autism
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 44 children across the country are estimated to have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
As a parent, watching your child receive an ASD diagnosis can be frightening. You might be worried about how you will support your child, what you can do to help them grow and develop, and what it means for their day-to-day life.
At ParentEducate.com, it’s our mission to help parents like you more easily navigate the challenges of parenthood.
We know how important it is for families of autistic children to have the knowledge and resources they need to help their little ones thrive.
That’s why we’re breaking down ASD and sharing our favorite at-home activities for children with autism that you and your family can easily implement.
What is autism spectrum disorder?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism spectrum disorder is defined as “a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn and behave.”
While ASD can be diagnosed at any age, its symptoms often appear within the first few years of a child’s life (causing it to be classified as a developmental disorder). These symptoms can last throughout the child’s life, though some may improve over time.
Some of the common signs and symptoms of ASD in infants and toddlers include:
- Avoiding or not maintaining eye contact.
- Not responding to its name (by nine months).
- Not showing facial expressions (by nine months).
- Using few or no hand gestures, such as waving (by 12 months).
- Not noticing when others are hurt or upset or noticing other children (by 36 months).
- Not singing, dancing, or acting (by 60 months).
Other signs that might show up later in life include:
- Having difficulties maintaining back-and-forth conversations.
- Talking at length about a subject without giving others a chance to respond.
- Having an unusual tone of voice.
- Having trouble understanding another’s point of view.
Children with ASD may also display unusual behaviors (often referred to as restricted or repetitive behaviors). Those include things such as:
- Lining up their toys — and then getting upset if the order is disrupted.
- Hyper-focusing on parts of items, such as the wheels of a toy car.
- Repeating words or phrases over and over.
- Getting upset by minor changes.
- Having unusual reactions to how things smell, sound, look, feel or taste.
- Having obsessive interests or routines they must follow.
Finally, because autism is a developmental disease, children with ASD often also have other related characteristics, including:
- Delayed movement and language skills.
- Delayed cognitive abilities.
- Unusual eating or sleeping habits.
- Anxiety, stress, and excessive worry.
- Enhanced fear or a lack of fear.
- Epilepsy or seizure disorders.
- Hyperactive and/or inattentive behavior.
While Autism has been reported in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, it is four times more common among boys than girls.
How is ASD diagnosed?
Because there isn’t a medical test for autism spectrum disorder, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose. Instead, doctors rely on a multi-step approach to examining a child’s developmental history and current behaviors.
The first stage of diagnosing ASD often involves developmental monitoring or the active process of watching how a child grows and comparing their development against typical milestones. This is often done as a joint initiative between parents, teachers, caregivers, and medical professionals. Thankfully, the CDC has developed a number of tools to help with milestone tracking, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)checklist and their Milestone Tracker app.
Monitoring can also take place during formal developmental screenings done by your child’s pediatrician. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), these should occur when your child turns 9 months old, 18 months old, and then again at 30 months.
If during a child’s monitoring or formal screening check-ups, medical professionals spot an area of concern, a formal evaluation will likely follow. These evaluations are typically performed by a team of healthcare professionals, including child neurologists, developmental pediatricians, child psychologists, and more. The result of the evaluations is usually a specific diagnosis and a plan for how to move forward — including early intervention services.
What are early intervention services?
Early intervention is an umbrella term used to describe any services that help babies and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities. They can include speech therapy, physical therapy, and other similar services. According to research, early intervention programs can greatly improve the development of children with ASD, as well as result in better long-term outcomes. To learn more about early intervention services — and find programs in your area — visit the CDC website for further information.
What can I do to support my child?
Now that we’ve gone over what ASD is and its diagnosis, it’s time to turn our attention to what you can do at home to support your child after diagnosis.
First, take the time to learn more about autism spectrum disorder and the different treatment options. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to support your child and anticipate the challenges that might be awaiting you both. Additionally, you’ll learn what your little one needs to grow and thrive.
When it comes to your home life, one of the easiest things you can do to help your child is to provide structure and safety. Children with ASD often do best in highly structured schedules, so set up a consistent routine they can follow daily. This includes regular times for meals, school, play, and bedtime. If it looks like something is going to interfere with your regular routine, try to give your child a heads up as early as possible to give them time to prepare.
It’s also important to ensure you’re constantly practicing positive reinforcement. Rather than just calling your child out when they do something wrong, make an effort to praise them when they do something well, learn something new or display growth in a certain area. Pairing your positive reinforcement with physical rewards can be especially helpful.
Finally, because autism can often affect how children communicate, finding nonverbal ways to connect with your kid is key. Be on the lookout for nonverbal cues about your little one is feeling and react accordingly. Additionally, schedule downtime where you two can be together and bond over different activities. Regular playtimes can be a great way for your child to come out of their shell, learn and bond with you.
What are the best activities for children with autism?
There are a number of activities you can do with your child to help them grow, develop, and bond. We’ve included some of our favorites below, broken down by category.
Sensory Activities for Children with Autism
For kids with ASD, sensory play can retrain their response to sensory information by engaging all brain areas. Some of the best sensory activities for children with autism include:
Shaving cream painting: Help your kiddo build fine motor skills by grabbing a can of shaving cream and a “painting surface” (our favorite is an outdoor window). Pump out a large amount of shaving cream and have your child draw pictures, practice writing letters, or just swirl their fingers in it along the surface. For a different sensory experience, place some shaving cream in their hands and have them press it against the surface. They’ll love playing in such a creative way, and you’ll love how easy the activity is to execute (and clean up).
Sensory bottles: Use old plastic bottles by filling them with a mix of water, glitter, and food coloring. You can add small items such as buttons or marbles for additional stimulation. While you’re crafting, work with your little one to select the colors and items they like best. Then, once it’s created, hand it to them to play with.
Sensory buckets: Give your child the chance to let out their inner explorer with one of our top activities for children with autism. Start by filling up a bin with rice or dried beans. Then, put a mixture of items (such as small plastic animals) into the bin. Finally, have your child “fish out” the items using their hands or tongs.
Edible sludge: The only thing better than homemade slime? A sludge that’s taste-safe for oral sensory seekers. This recipe from And Next Comes L can be customized with your little one’s favorite colors and uses items you likely already have around the house. Your kid will love being able to squish, stretch and pull the sludge to their heart’s desire.
Frozen water beads: This sensory activity from Busy Toddler is one of our favorites because your little one can be involved every step of the way. First, “grow” the beads with your child and watch as they get larger and larger throughout the day. Once they’re ready, drop them into a large plastic tub with lots of room for your little one to play. Once the beads are in the bin, encourage your kid to pick them up, roll them around and squish them. You can even give your child a squirt bottle of warm water to use on them.
Social Skills Activities for Children with Autism
Playtime can also be a great way to help your child develop and hone their social and emotional skills. A few of our top social skills activities for children with autism include:
Emotions sorting: Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out! does a great job of breaking down emotions — and this game from Mom Endeavors is the perfect activity to help your little one learn about each. In this activity, your child will practice matching different emotion words with smiley faces and Inside Out! characters. It also allows you to talk through each emotion and how to deal with it. For an added bonus, watch the movie together before starting the activity.
Staring contests: For most children with ASD, making and maintaining eye contact can be difficult. To help them overcome this issue, try mini-staring contests where you encourage your child to stare into your eyes for at least 5-10 seconds. As they complete the task, gradually increase the time. When it’s over, reward them for a job well done.
Face acting: This charades-inspired game is one of our favorite social skills activities for children with autism because it’s easy, engaging, and effective. Put pieces of paper with different emotions written out on them (or with different facial expressions on them) into a hat and let your kid pick one out. Then, both of you can act out different things associated with the emotion. For example, if your kid picks out a happy face, you can have them act out smiling, laughing, and other related actions.
Self-control bubbles: Love, Laughter & Learning in Prep’s bubbles activity is a fun way to teach your kids self-control while also engaging their senses. Sit on the ground with your little one and blow bubbles. For the first round, let them know they can pop as many bubbles as they’d like. Then, for the next round, let them know they’re not allowed to pop any. After that, select a specific number for each of the following rounds. As you play, explain to them the concept of self-control and why it’s important.
Therapeutic Activities for Children with Autism
Children with ASD can often get overwhelmed or overstimulated. As a result, it’s important to have a few activities on-hand to help them relax and destress. That includes:
Calming corner: If your child is feeling stressed or overwhelmed, set up a corner full of relaxing things (including soft pillows and a heavy blanket) and go together. Put on calming music and practice deep breathing together.
Shadow puppets: Turning off the lights and creating a dark space can also be calming for children with ASD. Once you’ve created a dark space, turn on a small lamp and encourage your child to make different shapes with their hands to cast shadows on the wall. For added fun, have them make sounds that go along with the puppets.
Theraputty play: Theraputty is a non-toxic, brightly colored putty made with an autism spectrum disorder in mind. If your child seems stressed out, give them a few sets to play with in a calming environment.
Books for Children with Autism
Another way you can support your child is by reinforcing the notion that their autism doesn’t define them (and that they’re not alone). Storytime is the perfect place to do this. Some books to include in your repertoire include:
- “Benji, the Bad Day, and Me“ by Sally J. Pla
- “Ty the Dinosaur and the Substitute Teacher” by Marcus Tallberg
- “Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged” by Zetta Elliott
- “Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap: NT is OK!” by Clay & Gail Morton
- “I See Things Differently” by Pat Thomas
- “A Boy Called Bat” by Elana K. Arnold
- “A Friend for Henry” by Jenn Bailey
- “It’s Hard to Be a Verb” by Julia Cook
What other resources are there for parents of children with autism?
As important as it is to let your child know they’re not alone in their ASD diagnosis, it’s just as crucial for parents like you to know you’re not alone, either. In fact, there are a number of resources available to help you in your parenting journey, such as:
- Autism Speak’s 100 Days Kit: This easy-to-follow kit has everything parents need to navigate the days immediately following a child’s diagnosis. In addition to receiving an online version, you can also claim a free print copy to be picked up at a FedEx Office location near you.
- Autism NOW: Autism Now is a joint initiative from The Arc and The Administration on Developmental Disabilities. Their hub is full of resources and information for the families of children with ASD. They also offer tips for different stages of life so that you can learn how to support your child as they grow.
- Operation Autism for Military Families: This web-based resource was created specifically for military families that have children with autism. Their site includes information on programs you can join as well as tips for day-to-day life.
- Sound Advice on Autism: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) put together this collection of interviews with pediatricians, researchers, and parents to help families answer their biggest questions. Their hub is constantly being updated, so be sure to bookmark this for later.
- MyAutismTeam: Find and connect with other parents via this social networking site. In addition to offering social support, the site also has a resource hub full of relevant blogs.
- Autism on the Seas: Traveling with autistic children can be difficult, but Autism on the Seas makes it easy for parents to plan and navigate vacations — including cruise trips, resort trips, and more.
- ParentEducate.com: At ParentEducate.com, we have a number of online courses aimed at helping parents navigate their child’s autism journey. Two of our most popular courses include Introduction to Autism and Strategies for Children with Autism (which is filled with even more activities for children with autism).
Want free access to the two courses above — and over 100 others? Visit ParentEducate.com to sign up for a free seven-day trial and unlimited access today!