How to Teach Children with Autism How to Play Independently

Do you ever wonder how you make it through each day, getting your child dressed and to school?  What about shopping, laundry, house cleaning, and dinner? Somehow you do it, and that is enough for anyone to be proud of.  We want to provide you with some additional techniques that may help with the time when your child with autism is home and needs to be looked after, but you also have things to accomplish.

Preparing dinner is a great scenario that many parents have difficulties with.  The solution for many parents is to put a movie on, give the child the iPad, or to allow the child to engage in whatever self-stimulatory behaviors they enjoy most (e.g., running around the house repeating phrases, flapping objects up and down, or rolling cars back and forth on the floor while lying down staring at them).  Although these may be activities that make your child happy and allow you to get dinner ready, there are additional techniques that foster appropriate independent engagement by your child with autism during times you cannot provide your full attention.

Activity schedules work wonders for this purpose. Activity schedules are visual guides that lead a person through a series of activities, leading to an ultimate prize.  Visual schedules help with transitioning from one activity to another with minimal prompting.

There are some pre-requisites to being able to utilize schedules although these can be worked on in the meantime if your child does not have them.  Your child should be able to independently play with some objects, even if the object is as simple as a peg board, or as complex as a 100-piece Lego structure.  Laminate pictures of these activities and velcro them to a vertical strip hanging on the wall.  At the bottom should be a picture of what your child really wants to do in the moment, even if it’s dinner!  If your child has never had experience with an activity schedule, guide them through the process of pointing to the first picture, finding the activity, playing with the activity, putting the activity away, taking that picture off the schedule, pointing to the next picture, and so on and so forth until the ultimate activity or item is achieved.

Some tips: start with only one or two activities until your child can independently utilize the schedule and transition from activity to activity.  Also, remember that the activities should be somewhat preferred by your child, as this is their independent time and we want to increase the success of them playing independently.  If they dislike activities, this increases the chance of challenging behaviors and the need for more of your attention.  It may take a few days, or even weeks to develop this skill. Over time, your child will be able to complete this task with increasing independence, practice decision making and pursue the activities that interest him or her and it will give you some much needed time to get things done while at the same time knowing that your child is being productive.