A fun activity can be a powerful tool for helping children with autism navigate their environments. We have compiled a list of our 5 favorite activities. You may already be familiar with them, but below we have outlined some ideas on how to turn these ideas into learning experiences, from improving social skills and communication to working through emotions and senses.
Music and songs offer children with autism an alternative way of expressing emotions and learning. Many parents recall the alphabet by quickly singing the “alphabet song,” which has been embedded in our memories since childhood. In this vein, songs are especially conducive to “teachable moments.” Does your child have a routine in the morning? It’s easy to come up with a tune (although YouTube likely has some recommendations) for covering all the items in your routine. Choose a song that your child can “hum” while brushing their teeth. Maybe a song to sing while cleaning up after playtime? You can also integrate movement into songs and music, like dancing, tapping, or drumming to practice motor skills, body awareness, and add physical activity.
A classic game can really come to life for parents and their children with autism. Because individuals with autism often struggle with descriptions, particularly putting different kinds of descriptors together, I Spy is a perfect solution for practice. (And it doesn’t cost anything!) The traditional scenario can be played between parents and children using everyday items in your house or when you are out and about (it’s a great game to play if you want your child to focus). I Spy can be tailored too. For children with processing difficulties, try limiting the object options to just 2 or 3 and have your child pick the correct one. You can also use it as a way to practice specific vocabulary by limiting descriptions to colors or shapes.
In general, children love puppets. This is great news because puppets allow parents to incorporate teachable moments into fun play. Expressing thoughts and working through emotions are daunting tasks for children, and particularly for children with autism. Often it is easier for children to express themselves if they do it through a “third party” like a puppet. Aside from using puppets in this communicative capacity, they can also be used for practice role-play to work on social skills and being in new environments. Parents find them useful before life-changing events like going to a new school or moving; in this way, you can work through what to expect via the puppets, which hopefully alleviates some of the anxiety beforehand. For added creative fun, make your own puppets.
Play-Doh/Air-Dry Clay/Moon Sand
Another childhood staple, Play-Doh (and other variations) allow you and your child to create just about anything. These various “doughs” are especially helpful for children with sensory issues because they are moldable, squeezable, and come in many colors. While you can create figures, tea sets, dragons, or anything else your child’s heart desires, Play-Doh can also be a useful teaching tool (practice creating numbers or alphabet letters). Moon Sand is a popular new alternative to Play-Doh that offers a more sensory experience because it is grainier, easier to push through, and fun to grip. Since it’s not as tough as Play-Doh, it’s a wonderful option for children with limited fine motor function. You also don’t have to spend a fortune on it—check out an easy online recipe for Moon Sand here.
Otsimo’s free educational games are an easy way to get your child learning in a variety of ways. While working through Otsimo’s large catalog of games, your child is also practicing fine motor movements and focus. There are many reasons why Otsimo stands out from other special education apps, but the first reason people likely notice is that it is free. While there is a premium version available via subscription, Otsimo’s base app (with over 50 games, an AAC communication function, progress tracking for parents, and individualized education via their specialized algorithm) is available at no cost and with no ads.
Otsimo also covers a lot of territory. The games teach and reinforce new material by drawing on different learning styles and incorporating multi-sensory stimuli. Discover animals and the sounds they make. Do jigsaw puzzles (or better yet, make your own!). Exploring daily life topics, like colors, weather, emotions, food, along with many others is never a chore because Otsimo approaches education from the perspective of having fun. It’s a multi-function app that grows with your child and allows them to, independently, discover the beauty in learning.