Home-Based Behavioral Activities For Kids With Autism

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Even under the best of circumstances, keeping autistic children who have behavioral challenges happy and engaged can be difficult. Add the coronavirus pandemic to the mix and addressing children's needs with stimulating activities day in and day out demands some creativity.

"This is a difficult time for kids, especially kids with autism," says Sarah Porter, M.A., BCBA, a behavior analyst at Henry Ford Health System. "Children with autism require routine. They're used to going to school or therapy appointments. Now, all of a sudden those activities are gone."

Structuring Your Child's Day

In the absence of a "regular day," children may wonder why they're not able to participate in their usual activities. Unfortunately, this sense of bewilderment can lead to anxiety and feeling overwhelmed, which impacts their behavior.

The good news: There are plenty of strategies — and activities — you can use to help prevent challenging behaviors.

  1. Stick to a schedule: If you do nothing else, create some sort of structure for your child's day — and keep it consistent. "Make sure they eat meals at the same times each day, and go to bed  at the same time," Porter says. "If you establish that structure, they know they can expect certain things during the day." Then, plan activities to keep them active and engaged.
  2. Get outside: A change of scenery can be a powerful antidote for behavioral challenges. Maybe you ride bikes in your neighborhood or go for a 15-minute stroll down the street. You can even just prepare a picnic lunch and lay a blanket outside. Structured outdoor activities, such as playing in the sand and going on a scavenger hunt, can be fun.
  3. Play simple games: You don't have to plan your day down to the minute, but it's a good idea to block out time for play. Simple games like checkers, puzzles and memory games can help create learning opportunities while also allowing kids to have fun. Just be sure to choose games that are developmentally appropriate.
  4. Get creative: If your child is resisting formal game play, mix things up by building a fort, playing hide-and-seek or creating a scavenger hunt. "Just put together a short list of items — things like a leaf, a rock, a flower — and give your child a basket to collect those items during a nature walk outdoors," Porter suggests.
  5. Be messy: Sometimes kids just need to get messy. Some kids like playing with water. Others like sand or tools like Theraputty and Play-Doh. You can even introduce your child to the art of finger paint and clay. In every case, using different tools can give kids an opportunity to express themselves and pretend play.
  6. Alternate activities: If your child loves tablet time , save it for after they do something they don’t like, such as getting ready for bed or brushing their teeth. It can be difficult for a child to break from an engrossing activity, so make sure to give a warning a few minutes before transitioning to another task. "That way, they can prepare themselves for the change," Porter says. The best tool for this: A timer. "When the timer goes off, the parent is not the one asking the child to stop; the timer is telling the child the activity is over."

Keeping Kids Happy During Quarantine

With parents navigating summer schedules (or lack thereof), self-care is especially important.

"Right now, parents are having to be the caregivers, teachers, therapists and babysitters. That's a lot of responsibility," Porter says. "The only way to be effective under these conditions is to take care of yourself first."

Need to put your child in front of a television for an hour? Don't beat yourself up. Frustrated by increasing demands? Give yourself a time out to breathe deeply. Most important, reach out for help. There are a variety of resources available to parents, including telehealth services with board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs).

"Even if you have simple questions like what to do when a child is throwing items or rolling around on the floor screaming, we can help," Porter says. “Autism is more common now than it has ever been. Having that community of people to talk to can be really beneficial.”


Want more health and wellness advice? Subscribe to our newsletter to get all the latest tips. To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Sarah Porter is a certified behavior analyst who sees patients at the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (CADD) in Clinton Township.

Categories: ParentWell