I just finished watching a video of one of one of my private clients, Patty, playing with her son, Eric. What I saw was a devoted mother trying to help her child stay on task with a variety of activities: puzzles, matching cards and reading books.
She was working hard and it looked like she was “trying to pull teeth.”
Any time there was physical contact, he began to giggle (the cutest giggle I have ever heard, by the way). Then he began throwing cards and tried to climb on her back. I watched with interest and it became very clear to me that I was not watching a child who was behaving “badly,” I was watching a child who was seeking interaction. I was watching a child who wanted to be tickled and tossed — a child who wanted to play with his Mom.
The funny thing is that I see this dynamic over and over again — a parent/therapist trying to get a child to stay on task and do an activity while the child wants to play. The child is told to stop being “silly” and stay on task.
You might say it is your job to help your child stay on task since that his where his skills will grow.
What if I told you that interactive play is what your child needs MOST to help him grow?
The core challenge with any child on the autism spectrum is INTERACTION and the single place your child will be willing to stretch himself most in acquiring specific skills is in the context of fun-based play with YOU.
So not only does focusing on interactive play help you return to the delightful parent-child relationship that might have gotten lost since the diagnosis, but it also creates the most powerful and meaningful context for your child to grow in his skills.
So how do you do it?
Here’s how to cultivate fun-based play that your child will both love and grow from:
Spend 1:1 time with your child in a distraction free environment.
Find a room in your home that has the least distractions (this can be your child’s bedroom). Make a commitment of spending 20 minutes 3 times a week with your child in this room.
(Note: Schedule this time in your calendar or it won’t happen!)
Create a laser sharp intention.
This time with your child is not about getting your child to complete a task — this time is dedicated to cultivating the CONNECTION.
Go with (not against) your child’s interests.
What makes your child light up? Does s/he love tickles, squeezes, balloons, bubbles, singing songs, bouncing on a ball? The more your child is motivated, the deeper the quality of the interaction will be. Identify what it is your child loves to do and do THAT — together. If you feel like you are pulling teeth then that means you are not working with your child’s motivations. Once this fun, interactive play is created, you have achieved your primary goal: to offer your child the positive experience of BEING with people.
Not only that, once your child is motivated and present with you, you now have a child who is available to stretch himself, like communicating (because he wants that tickle), participating (giving you the bubble wand so you can blow more bubbles) and following directions (like doing the hand movements to some of his/her favorite songs you are singing).
However, these are your secondary goals. Without the fun-based interaction first, your child will simply not be available or motivated to stretch himself and you are back to “the same ole” pulling teeth routine.
As you and your child prepare for a new school year ahead, the goal of creating fun-based interaction is more important than ever. School is often heavy handed on the task-oriented skills. This is your opportunity to carve out time and focus on deepening your relationship with your child and his love of interacting with others.
It is from this relationship that all other skills will grow.
Tali Berman is an autism specialist, developmental play expert and author of “Play to Grow! Over 200 games to help your special child develop fundamental social skills” (with foreword by Jenny McCarthy). She is also the founder/leader of the Autism Empowerment Telesummit, gathering top autism experts on her elite panel, reaching thousands of families around the globe. You can learn more at: www.meirautism.org.