One of the best feelings I have as a speech pathologist is when I am working with a child with autism and I first experience a glimmer of a connection. It feels like I just happened upon a window into the mind of that child and it is the first step to encouraging more communication. Once you have discovered that window you have your first building block to increasing a child’s communication.
The precursor to the window of communication can take many forms: a toy, a gross motor activity, a song, or anything else that a child enjoys. One thing I have learned when trying to find an engaging activity for a child with autism it is to expect the unexpected! An office chair can become a fantastic vehicle for language initiation because a child wants you to spin them again or a box of crayons becomes a fun musical turn-taking activity. More often than not the best interactions do not come through an activity that I created or planned but by observing the child and following their lead. Trying to assert what I think the child should play with or what the activity should look like just leads to an unhappy child and a frustrated speech pathologist!
When I am struggling to engage a child I try to take a step back and follow these steps:
- Provide an environment with a variety of toys and opportunities for the child to explore
- Resist the temptation to jump in and show a child how to play with a toy or activity
- Follow the child’s gaze precisely to discover their interest – what they find interesting is much more important than what you want them to find interesting
- When you discover something the child enjoys imitate their actions or make very small changes to the activity
- Make note of the types of toys and activities a child gravitates to and try to identify the common properties – musical? spinning? soft textures? rhythmic movements? – once you have figured it out you can start brainstorming similar activities that may also interest the child