How to choose activities for children with autism
The most important factor in choosing activities is what the child likes to do. Play should be child-driven and not adult-driven.
There should also be opportunities for exposure to many different things to find the most fun and engaging activities. The more activities a child is exposed to, the better they can get to know what they like to do.
Taking frequent breaks during activities is a great opportunity to keep the activity fun and take time for relaxation.
Activities can help get the recommended amount of physical activity daily and build essential skills like body awareness, motor skills, and self-regulation.
Sensory activities for children with autism
Many children with autism have trouble processing sensory information. They may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to sensory information. This is sometimes referred to as sensory processing disorder (SPD).
Scheduled sensory breaks can help children with autism avoid sensory overload. The type of sensory activity will depend on the child’s preferences. Children who feel understimulated may seek exciting activities. Children who feel overstimulated may seek calming sensory activities. A calm sensory retreat may be helpful for children who frequently feel overstimulated or have sensory overload.
When taking sensory breaks, you should use a visual timer, so the child knows how long the break will be. The frequency of sensory breaks should be based on the needs of the individual child.
Sensory activities that are calming for children who feel overstimulated include:
- Calm down bottles filled with glitter
- Sorting activities
- Sitting in a dark room
- Listening to music with noise-canceling headphones
- Sensory bins filled with different textures
- Using lotions with calming scents, like lavender
- Eating a favorite food
Sensory activities that are stimulating for children who are understimulated include:
- Physical activity
- Playing with toys with flashing lights
- Playing a musical instrument
- Eating a preferred snack
Physical activities for children with autism
Children need different levels of physical activity at different ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children aged 3 to 5 are active throughout the day. Children aged 6 to 17 should be active for at least 60 minutes daily.
Physical activity can have many benefits for children with autism, such as:
- Improving motor skills by strengthening muscles—up to 80 percent of children with autism have movement impairments.
- Preventing obesity—studies show that adolescents with autism are twice as likely to be obese than individuals without autism.
- Improving focus and reducing aggression—studies show that exercise can improve symptoms of autism.
Choose activities that involve the whole body to start with. Examples include walking, jogging, and riding a bike. Always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.
What are some challenges of adding activities for children with autism?
Children with autism may not enjoy learning new activities, preferring to stick to activities they are already familiar with. They may also have trouble learning the steps involved in a new activity.
Physical therapists or occupational therapists can help teach the steps for new physical activities.
Caretakers, therapists, and teachers can use positive reinforcement principles of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) to encourage new activities. Positive reinforcement might look like verbal praise after completing an activity, such as, “Great job running around the block!” It may also look like allowing the child to do a more preferred activity after completing an activity they may not want to do. For example, a child may get to play a video game for 10 minutes after running around the block.
Sensory processing disorders can prevent some children with autism from enjoying certain sensory activities. Activities should be customized based on the child’s unique preferences. It can also be helpful to have a backup plan.
Play is essential for healthy development. Play activities should be chosen based on the child’s unique interests and strengths. Activities for children with autism can help improve symptoms and be fun at the same time.
Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.