If you are the parent of a child with Autism or a special education teacher, you know the struggles…difficulty with language, limited attention span, sensory processing issues, social isolation…and the list goes on. And sometimes we feel overwhelmed and at a loss for how to help our little ones. There is no magic solution, but there are things that you can do help your child be more successful. You will not see overnight results, but you will see slow and gradual growth if you stick with it. Today we are going to talk about 9 ways that you can hep your child with Austism develop those all important developmental skills needed for school…and life.
This is by no means a finite list, and it is not meant to be a substitute for professional intervention (such as OT, Speech Therapy and PT). As a matter of fact, the most important thing that you can do to help your child with Autism is not even on this list…just LOVE them!
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1. Do Crafts: to develop motor skills
When we talk about crafts and how they can help children, the first thing that usually comes to mind is fine motor skills. And for good reason…there are few things in a child’s life that can help them develop those foundational fine motor skills more than doing hands-on creative activities. While allowing your child the freedom to be creative (What I am saying is…don’t do it for them. It is ok to just let them be kids.) step in on occasion and make sure that they are using their fine motor skills. For example, instead of grabbing at the pompoms using their entire hand like a fist, encourage him/her to “pinch, pinch, pinch” and then demonstrate what you mean. You may even move their fingers for them, if they will tolerate this without increased agitation, to show how it feels to “pinch” something.
When they are holding a crayon or marker, step in and reposition it if they are not holding it with their fingertips in some fashion. I find that an easy way to do this is to present the crayon held vertically at the center of the body, with the point down and ready to draw. The natural way to grab it when it is presented this way is to hold it with the fingertips. You want to encourage fine motor skills without increasing frustration and agitation in your kiddo. If you have tried several times and your child is still holding the crayon in a fisted posture, this may be because their little muscles are not yet developed enough or lack coordination. That means we might first need to work on that to achieve a more mature grasp. Get out the play dough and clay…have your child play with toys that require fine motor skills and a little strength, such as pop beads or legos…play with toys that have Velcro elements…play games with tongs and tweezers. Here are a few of my favorite toys that are helpful for developing hand strength and coordination. (But still continue crafting even while developing that hand strength doing other things too!)
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*Put little items in the putty to be found.
*Be aware that some of these toys contain small parts and should not be used with children who put non-food items in their mouths as they present a choking a hazard.
2. Do Crafts: for improved language development
It is impossible to do crafts without communicating. For example, you might ask the kiddo, do you want white or black paper? And they will have to give a response of some sort in order to obtain the needed item. Don’t be too quick to jump in if you see that they are struggling. Instead, encourage them to ask for help before stepping in. Then reward that effort with help (just don’t take over the project. Only help a little and then let them go at it again.) Also, meet your child where he/she is in language development. For example, if he/she is using signs or a language device primarily for communicating, then don’t force him/her to speak to get something. Allow them to communicate by whatever means is appropriate. Communication does not always mean “talking”. If your child has a profound language deficit, you will want to be working with a professional speech therapist for guidance in this area.
Did you know that there is a close relationship between motor skills and language development? Research has shown that acquiring new motor skills can improve language. First words are often related to actions. Though motor skills are not essential to language, these two areas can be connected. Check out THIS article to learn more.
3. Do Crafts: to promote attention span
Sitting still and working on a project for a prolonged period of time is difficult for many children. Unfortunately it is a skill that must be learned in order to be successful in school and life. It is foundational to other skills, because if they cannot attend to a skill then they cannot hope to master it. The smartest child will have difficulty learning if they can not be still long enough to hear or see the lesson being taught. Crafts are a great way to begin working on this skill because they engage the senses, which increases the possibility of interest and participation (even if you say that your kid doesn’t like crafts…check out THIS article to learn more).
Begin by finding a craft that is motivating and will be interesting to your child (eg-if they love trains, do a train craft, etc.). If you don’t find anything on this website, surf the internet. Or, better yet, drop me a line and let me know what subject interests your kiddo. I would be happy to develop a craft just for him/her! Also, be aware of how long that craft might take. You will want to start with something simple that has only a few steps in order to keep his/her attention. Next, think about the environment. Make sure that there are minimal distractions in the area and that the seating is comfortable.
To start you will likely not have him/her complete the craft in one sitting. Instead, allow for movement breaks. This is best done by using a timer and verbal warnings. Here’s how that might look…set the timer on your phone for 30 seconds of work time. Tell your kiddo that you will be crafting until the timer goes off before taking a break (you may even want to say what exactly will be the break activity) and allow them to press the start button. When the timer goes off, set it again for the break time, giving 3 minutes for the first break. Again review with your child what will happen and allow them to press the start button. Be clear that they will be expected to come back to the work area when the timer goes off. I also give several warnings as the time is getting closer to come back to the project (30 seconds left…10 seconds left…countdown 5, 4, 3, 2, 1). Continue with this pattern, increasing the work time and decreasing the break time until no break time is needed at all.
Also, who says that crafts have to be done sitting at a table. Ultimately that may be the goal so that it is closer to a school type environment and that skill is learned. But this may not be where you start. HERE is an article on how to make crafting more active and better suited to our more hyper little ones.
4. Do Crafts: to replace some of that screen time
I know that this is an incredibly unpopular subject, especially for parents of children with Autism. It seems that when I bring it up, I often get a lot of push back. And I get it! Sometimes we just need a moment in the day where our child seems at peace and a time when we can get some things accomplished other than parenting. It is an easy go to. And, don’t get me wrong, I am not going to tell you to never give your children screen time. That is just not the world that we live in.
But here are some things that you should know about screen time and children:
- Children under the age of 2 are more likely to learn from a live presentation than from a video
- Unstructured play time is more important than screen time for all areas of development
- As your child grows, too much screen time has been linked to obesity, behavior problems, irregular sleep schedules, loss of social skills, violence and less time for play
- Increased screen time is associate with language delays
- Too much screen time can stunt social and emotional development
*I found THIS article to have some great information about little ones and screen time.
Children on the Autism Spectrum are particularly vulnerable to the negative affects of screen time. In addition, they are less likely to recover from those affects. Learn more about this phenomenon HERE.
So, what are we to do? Our kids love their devices. But we are seeing more and more kids just not ready for kindergarten or struggling in school because they have not developed the needed skills. And some of that is being attributed to increased screen time. There is even a name for it in the world of education…they are called “iPad babies”. I would encourage you to gradually reduce the amount of time that your child is spending in front of screens. It will not be easy, I know, but it will be worth it. One way to do that is to replace that time with things that will promote learning and growth but that your child will enjoy. Crafts are just the ticket. If you think that your child will never take to crafts and is just not “that kind of kid”, read THIS. Even the most active child can learn to love the creative process. And, added bonus, you may even see them improve in school (and life) because of it!
5. Do Crafts: to develop sensory processing
Children with Autism have a much higher frequency of sensory processing difficulties. At times they may be hypersensitive to something in the environment, such as a certain smell, noise, texture, light, etc. And at other times they may be seeking out sensory input, such as through movement, pressure, climbing, banging on a toy, etc. Both of these states offer their own set of problems and make learning a challenge. If you are sensitive to certain sensations, you may avoid tasks and retreat or isolate. On the other hand, if you are constantly seeking out sensory input, you may have difficulty focusing on a task long enough to master it. Keep in mind that we may not be talking about two different kiddos. The same child can experience sensitivities to sensory input one moment and the next be seeking out sensation. It is a complex issue. But we will at least touch on the highlights for a moment.
First, let’s talk about hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli…This means that a child might not like certain sounds, textures, light, light touch, etc. We call these kiddos “avoiders”. A common area of concern is tactile sensation. I often hear parents say that their kiddo does not like their hands to be messy or the feel of certain textures. To get them used to textures, introduce them a little bit at a time, even setting a timer for how long they will participate and make it an activity that is motivating (eg-if they like dinosaurs, pick a dinosaur activity, etc.). If they are creating and making a project that they enjoy then they will be more likely to want to engage. Do not push so hard that the child is agitated and upset so that they do not want to participate. If needed, adapt the activity (eg-use a paint brush instead of fingers). Give them time and space when needed. It is better that they are participating with an adaptation in place than not participating at all.
Now, let’s look at a need for increased sensory stimuli. We call these kiddos “seekers”. They always want to be moving, and that is ok. A lot of times this increased activity is seen as “bad behavior” but this is definitely not the case. “Seekers” are moving so much because it is a neurological need. They must have sensory input to feel centered and calm. Without it, the inside turmoil builds. So, let’s help them get that input that they so desire in a healthy way, learning gradually the skills needed to sit and pay attention when they need to. HERE are several ways to make crafting accessible for the “seeker” in your life. There is nothing that says you must sit and sit and sit in order to participate in a creative task. Let’s mix it up and make it more active! Again, it is better they participate with adaptations in place than not participate at all.
If you would like to learn more about sensory processing, HERE is a great article from the Inspired Treehouse to get you started.
6. Do Crafts: for working the hands together
So much of what we all do every day requires us to coordinate our hands together, and this is a skill that we are not born with. It develops over time. The activity that most comes to mind when we talk about using our hands together is cutting with scissors. HERE is a great article on the progression of scissor skills.
Most of the crafts on this site require using scissors to some degree. And when that skill is required, meet your child where they are, while giving them the opportunity to push to the next level. What I mean by that is, let them try and don’t take over just because it isn’t perfect. If they need to learn how to open and close the scissors, use self-opening scissors or help them by putting your hands over theirs. Let them feel what it is like to open and close. Let them snip at first and then move on to progressing the scissors across the paper. This should be fun and not frustrating. If your child is becoming agitated by the entire process, take a step back. HERE is one of my favorite crafts for working on cutting on lines.
If your kiddo is just not ready to play with scissors, choose crafts that require things like tearing and crumpling paper or pulling cotton. The same craft referenced above (HERE) can be adapted so that the child who is not ready to cut just pulls the cotton for the clouds, while the parent demonstrates how to cut the lines. It is even more fun to learn cutting if you make up a little song to go with it. (“Take your time, cut on the line” in a sing songy steady rhythm.) Just have fun with it! Kids learn with all of their senses…seeing, hearing, touching…
7. Do Crafts: to increase social participation
Crafting is not done in a bubble. Even if it is just you and your kiddo, there is a give and take that happens. Socializing is happening. Better yet, have your child craft with a friend or a sibbling and let him/her learn from their peers in a positive and motivating environment how best to share, ask for things, respond to requests, and be in a communal space with greater awareness of the other person. “Timmy, you need the red crayon? Sally is using it right now. Maybe you can ask her to pass it to you when she is finished?” Oh, and did I mention learning patience? And when they are done, they have something to show for their time and effort that they can be so proud of…a refrigerator worthy craft! You could even do a craft like THIS paper bag cityscape with a comic book theme or THIS dominoes game which leads to interactive play when it is done!
8. Do Crafts: to promote brain health
Right off the bat when doing crafts, we can begin to work on learning colors, shapes, letters, and numbers. Even with the most basic of projects, we can count out how many pompoms we are using, for example. We can begin to write our name on the back of crafts, even if it is with hand over hand help, to begin to get familiar with what the letters look like together and eventually to write it themselves. Check out THIS craft which is a great way to begin to learn shapes and colors in such a fun way!
Other cognitive skills encouraged when working through a crafting project include listening to and following directions (much like they will have to do in school every single day), initiating a task, problem solving when something doesn’t go perfectly, working through the steps in the correct order, decision making (red or blue?, etc.)…and so much more.
Beyond that, there is a proven link between motor and cognitive development. A child learns best by exploring the world around him/her. When motor skills are delayed, children have difficulty getting that crucial input which leads to learning.
9. Do Crafts: for greater coordination
If you have been around this blog very long, you have probably heard me talk about something called “crossing midline”. It is a skill that is foundational to so many other things and something that we don’t really give a second thought to most of the time. Imagine an invisible line going vertically through the center of the body. When we go about our day, we cross this line, moving one side of the body into the space of the other, over and over again spontaneously, without thinking about it. This is a skill that develops by approximately age 3 or 4. When crossing midline does not develop naturally, it can impact so many activities, such as reading, writing, throwing a ball, etc. But there are ways to help it along.
If you are wondering if your child is struggling with developing the skill of crossing midline, watch them when they are playing. Are they reaching only with their left hand to pick up toys on the left side and right hand for items on the right side? This does not mean that they are ambidextrous. It likely means that they are not crossing midline spontaneously.
The best way to practice this skill is to build it into things that the kiddo is already doing in their day by setting up the activity differently. For example, if they are having a snack of fish crackers, instead of placing them in the center, place the snack to the far left and encourage your child to reach across to get each cracker using his/her right hand. This will not happen naturally and will require you to remind them frequently to “use righty”. I have even lightly restricted movement of the hand that I do not want them to use, in a playful way (“no thank you, lefty, it’s not your turn”). For a craft project, place the little items, such as tissue paper squares or beads, opposite the hand that is to do the work. HERE is a great craft to start practicing crossing midline.