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It’s an unsettling statistic: more and more kids are showing symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder, with no concrete cause in sight. Autism is a mental condition that leads to difficulty in communicating, building relationships and using language. It is a condition with no cure yet and is something that doesn’t necessarily get better with time. Lately, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases of autism, resulting in immense anxiety for parents and leaving them worried that their child could be at risk…
Some children show signs of autism in their very early years. But some may not exhibit any symptoms till quite late in their childhood. From organic diets during pregnancy to moving to cleaner environments till birth, parents are going for extreme measures in their pursuit for a healthy baby. However, none of these methods have been proven to negate the risk of autism. Your baby could be at high risk, despite precautions, if the following hold true for you:
- The older child has been diagnosed with autism
- The parents are older than 40 years of age
- There is a wide age gap between the parents
What’s even more distressing is that autism can be confirmed only after 3 years of age. Which means your doctor cannot make a definite diagnosis before that, and you will not know whether your little one could be susceptible to this risk before a diagnosis is made! However, there IS some good news, thanks to extensive research in the field of cognitive and social development in children:
There are some simple steps that can be taken at home to help lower, if not eliminate, autism risk in children. These steps also help with children who have already been diagnosed with autism at an earlier stage. And all these steps have one simple activity central to them: Quality Time.
Quality time is essential for every child, regardless of whether they are at risk for autism or not. However, infants susceptible to autism require additional quality time with closer attention on their needs and gestures – or lack thereof. This time lets parents recognise warning signals through minute signs that might not be common, such as making strange sounds or fidgeting. It is also this special quality time and close attention that encourages kids to engage and interact, thus lowering their risk of cognitive and social impairment. Experts who have been working in this field confirm that following these steps in the developmental years will help normalise your kids’ life as an adult.
A great way of spending quality time with your little one is through the following types of play. Not only do these play ideas help in overall cognitive and social development, they also help in encouraging motor skills, sensory skills, speech and language, focus and attention, and thinking and problem-solving.
Essential Play Activities To Lower Your Child’s Risk of Autism
1. Sensory play
In the beginning, kids explore objects and toys rather than play with them. They stare at them, pick them up, feel them, taste, sniff them or rattle them to see if they make noise. They enjoy toys with their senses. However, their fascination with the senses is not just limited to toys – they will do the same thing with food, or whatever object comes into their hands. Thus, sensory motor play is important for your child as it helps him to learn about taking turns, explore his senses, and pay attention. Additionally, sensory toys help children process sensory information. All of these benefits help in decreasing the risk of autism. Toys like balls of different textures, blocks, bubbles, play dough, crayons, bath toys, rattles, squeaky toys, etc. are ideal for this.
2. Constructive play
At this stage, children build or make things. For example, they will complete a jigsaw puzzle, make a Lego design, or draw a picture. Usually, children with Asperger’s syndrome or high- functioning autism might excel at these skills, whereas other children with ASD might struggle in this area of play. Encourage your child by showing what to do. You could show him a picture of the Lego design or how to complete a jigsaw puzzle.
3. Cause and effect play
Children like to play with toys that need an action to produce a result. For example, pressing a button will make the toy dog bark or the drummer start playing the drums. This will help your child understand cause and effect. It will also teach your child that his actions have effects and will give him a sense of control. He gets encouraged to explore the different functions of the toy. Thus, this play ideas engages him and ultimately reduces his susceptibility to autism. If your child isn’t interested initially, you might have to show your child how to operate the toys. Musical toys are the best example of cause and effect play where pressing a button will make a sound on say, a toy electric guitar.
4. Pretend play
At this stage, children learn to pretend and use their imagination during play. Encouraging pretend play is important for developing the skills required for language, communication and social interactions. Encourage them to participate in pretend play before they turn two and do so by participating in it yourself. For example, while narrating a jungle story, you can get down on the floor on all fours and pretend to be an animal or modulate your voice and gestures accordingly. Gradually, you can change the theme and characters and ask your child to pretend to be a character of his choice. You can even use props to help his imagination. Your child might hesitate at first. Encourage him by taking the lead and slowly drawing him into it. This kind of role playing reduces autism risks by guiding your child towards independent, creative, make believe play. ||
5. Physical play
All children enjoy physical activities like rocking, bouncing, and rough and tumble play, and while outdoors, they enjoy swinging, sliding, or climbing. As per your child’s interest, encourage him to indulge in physical play as it is great for all kids at any age.
6. Social play
While most children start enjoying social plays at a very young age, it can be very challenging at times for children susceptible to autism spectrum disorder. Initially, your child may enjoy solitary play or playing alone with his toys and games. Don’t worry much about it. The phase shall soon pass. However, try to draw him into play with others from time to time. Indulge your child in social plays like peek-a-boo, round and round the garden or pat-a-cake and see his reaction. If he enjoys, you may slowly encourage him to progress to the next level. Arrange play dates with children of friends and family and encourage him to play with other kids or just let him observe other kids playing together. Ask him to share his blocks, crayons, etc. with other children, if he doesn’t take initiative. This will promote interaction with other children like giving, taking and sharing.
How to Encourage Your Child With Autism to Play
Despite your best precautions and efforts, it is possible that your child could still be diagnosed with ASD, especially if you ticked the risk factors at the top. However, please remember that this in no way means your child is “disabled” in any way; he has the strength and ability to reach all his developmental milestones, and will only need extra guidance and understanding from your end. The play ideas above can come to your aid here too; children with autism spectrum disorder are no different when it comes to enjoying toys and games!
However, they may play differently from other kids or use unusual objects to play with. For example, your child might like to watch the toy train chug on its track again and again or might build an elaborate Lego design only to repeat it in the same order every time. Also, while playing with other kids, he might find it difficult to understand instructions, copy simple actions, share things or respond to others. Here are a few tips on how you can encourage your child with autism spectrum disorder to play and learn:
- Give your child a change of scene from time to time. Playing in different places and with different people will help him develop his social interaction skills.
- Always offer two or three toys to your child to play. This is a good number of choices for your child without being overwhelmed.
- Wherever possible, join in the play with your child rather than only guiding him to play. You can start by imitating what your child is doing, then build on to the activity. For example, if your child is clapping, clap with him, if he is making gestures like an animal, you also do the same.
- While pretend playing, if your child doesn’t copy you, you can guide him to play. For example, while you are acting like an animal, tell him, ‘Now it’s your turn to become an animal. Which animal you want to be: horse, elephant or lion?’
- Keep a close watch on your child while he is playing to catch the signs of boredom, tiredness or irritation before it blows up into a tantrum. Stop the play if necessary.
- During play dates, instruct other children to go slow with your child or not indulge in difficult games.
- Always reward and praise your child for a good job done. You may also reward him with extra playtime with his favourite toy. Don’t forget to tell him what he is being praised or rewarded for.
- Don’t wait for the perfect time or opportunity to play with your child. Use anytime or opportunity you get over the day to play with your child. For example, you can play with your child while you are giving a bath to him.
Gradually, as your child’s play skills develop, you can introduce various forms of play to tackle situations that he finds challenging. For example, most children with autism spectrum disorder find it difficult to understand social rules like give-take, sharing, turn-taking, compromise and negotiation. You could build social games particularly to address those difficulties of your child.
Our children are delicate little humans and we want to hide them from any harm forever. While we have little control on destiny and how things eventually turn out, it is in our kids’ best interest that we spend as much quality time with them as possible. This is really the best healing and protection we can extend to our children.