Saturday, December 15, 2007

What a Child with Autism Can Do with Grandpa

I get asked by grandparents and aunties and others for tips on how to play with a relative who has autism. They tell me that they feel standoffish and uncomfortable but actually want to play and interact with their young relatives. I believe, if they work at it and they get a little help, Grandpa or any loving relative can create a meaningful relationship with a youngster who has autism. If you are the parent and you have learned how to play and interact with your child, the next step may be to help other willing relatives learn a way to be part of your child's life.

Identify a Starting Activity

One trick is to help important relatives find an appropriate starting ritual or game to do with your child each time they are together. If your child is young, one of the games from may be just right for the two of them. Or maybe your relative already has a good starting ritual, but has not identified it as such or does not use it consistently. "You know, Dad, how you often take your hat off and put it on Emily's head and then accuse her of stealing your hat? Emily loves when you do that." Explain that your child likes things that he or she can predict--that have happened before and will happen again. Tell each important relative that you are trying to find some activity that will become a bond between them and your child.

Think Simple, Brief, Unique

Simple: If Grandpa is a singer, help him find a unique song that he will sing to your child each time they are together. If Grandma paints (or even if she is willing to paint) encourage her to sit down next to your child at the kitchen table (your table or hers) and pull out the water color paints. They don't have to talk much, if your child is not too good at conversation yet. Your child does not even need to paint with grandma until he or she is ready. But in your child's mind, Grandma becomes the person who paints with me.

(Here is a unique painting activity that anyone can do with a child on the computer. Just start moving the cursor around and click to get a new color.)

Auntie can create a bonding ritual each time she comes by bringing a sticker for your child if your child loves stickers. Encourage your uncle who is an airplane mechanic to email pictures of "Cool Airplanes" to your child, or just parts of the airplane like the tires or the engine--particularly if your child likes mechanical things. A teenage cousin might engage your child in a simple board game or a wrestling match every time they come together.

Brief: You know how long your child can interact with others. If it is two minutes, then create a one minute routine for your child and the important person to do together. A one minute song for Grandpa to sing. A one minute art project for grandma to do next to your child. Tell Auntie to present the sticker with a flourish and then smile and move away. Find longer activities for your child to do with relatives as your child is able. Let relatives know how long to continue and when to quit.

Unique: The trick to this strategy is that your child associates each person with one enjoyable but unique activity. Maybe one cousin throws socks down the laundry shoot with your child. Another plays a tickle game. Or one grandpa fishes with your child and the other takes him to the library, each person becomes a unique but predictable source of pleasurable social interaction.

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