17 Engaging Activities for Autistic Kids
Activities for Autistic Kids | Benefits of Activities | Challenges for Autistic Kids | Choosing the Right Activities | Using Forbrain
Children learn best through activities that are fun, engaging, and geared toward their interests. Children with autism also benefit from activities that incorporate their preferences. Using preferred topics, items, and activities can engage kids with autism in learning and enhance its benefits.
Kids learn many important things during play. Play involves developmental skills like language, problem solving, and cooperation. Play also helps kids develop their coordination skills, and the ability to share attention with others on an activity and goal.
Play-based activities allow kids with autism to practice interpersonal and communication skills. And they do so in a way that feels comfortable and enjoyable for them.
Play-based therapy is an effective tool in supporting children with autism to develop important life skills.
This article will explore the use of activities for children with autism.
List of Activities for Autistic Kids
Physical activities for children with autism can build strength, coordination, and cooperation skills. Kids with autism tend to have more issues with their motor skills than their neurotypical peers. They may also struggle with their awareness of where their body is in space, also known as proprioception. This can affect coordination skills.
Cooperative group sports: tag and capture the flag
Physical activities like sports can help kids with autism work as part of a team and focus on planning and thinking strategically. Examples of sports activities for kids with autism include tag and capture the flag.
Tag can be played in groups of three or more, with one child acting as “it” and then other children trying to evade being touched by this player. Once the player who is “it” touches another player, that player then becomes the person trying to tag others.
Capture the flag involves two teams of three or more players. In this cooperative game, both teams compete against each other to locate and capture each others’ flag. These flags can be actual flags or any type of material, such as socks or clothing. First, each team hides their flag in such a way that it is able to be viewed in plain sight. Then, both teams search for one another’s’ flags. Once a flag is located, the team works together to steal the flag from the opposing team and to bring it back across the field. Typically, a line must be crossed in order for the flag to be considered captured. Each team works to defend their flag, by using blocking and misdirection.
These games offer physical stimulation and exercise. They provide a team framework to practice interpersonal skills. They also offer opportunities for following directions, planning, and using language skills.
Kids with autism can benefit from structured activities like sports. They also offer a chance to cooperate with others and work on physical coordination. Sports activities also uphold the values of inclusion. Inclusion benefits all children, not just children with autism. Sports allow autistic kids to be part of a collective, and to engage with their same-aged peers in working toward a common goal.
Tag and capture the flag are fun, active, cooperative games. They involve following rules, flexible thinking, and working together. During cooperative sports activities, it can be helpful to work with kids to promote inclusion. This can involve promoting awareness of the differences in how autistic kids may interact during group tasks.
Solo sports: yoga and swimming
Other physical activities can help with nervous system regulation, or self awareness skills. Examples include yoga and swimming. Yoga can help with calming and regulating emotions in kids with autism. It can also help enhance flexibility and following directions. Swimming can offer a wonderful sensory experience for children with autism. It can allow them to use their bodies in a different way than on land.
Autistic kids can be led in yoga poses and swimming strokes. These activities can be used to promote receptive language skills and follow verbal and visual directions. Imitation can be targeted in both these activities. Imitation is a skill many kids with autism struggle with. Imitation is an important developmental skill. It enhances learning of new skills and social engagement.
Encourage your child with autism to imitate your movements. Then, reverse roles and have them take the lead, while you mimic them.
Dance allows kids with autism to check in with their bodies and work on coordination skills. It can provide chances to cooperate and follow directions. Movement-based activites can also be a positive outlet into which to channel emotions. It can be very calming to the nervous system. Dance can reduce negative behaviors and improve communication skills in kids with autism.
Kids with autism can both lead dancing activities or be asked to follow along with an instructor. They can select music they like or be exposed to different genres of music to see how they respond. They can be led in discussions about how certain music affects their body, or makes them feel. They can talk about what colors or shapes different music evokes for them.
Dancing activities can be structured or unstructured. You can practice following specific steps, or simply move to the music as you like.
Large plastic tubs can be filled with rice, beans, or orbeez, to create a sensory activity experience for kids with autism. Items like blocks, toy cars, or squishy toys can be added, and a child with autism can be instructed to locate and remove them. Tools like toy shovels, measuring cups, spoons, and tweezers can be offered, or the child can use their hands.
Offering kids with autism the experience of interacting with different textures promotes sensory integration and tolerance.
Eyes can be open or closed, depending on the individual child, their preferences and needs. Kids can be encouraged to vocalize and verbalize during these activities, to enhance language skills.
Sensory bins can support sensory integration skills in children with autism.
Fidget toys include items like spinners, pop-its, pop tubes, stress balls, and magnetic balls or tiles. These toys can be used to enhance self-regulation in kids with autism. They can reduce behaviors like hand flapping, and offer an outlet for sensory stimulation seeking. In one instance, fidget toys made a positive impact on the skin picking behaviors of an adolescent girl with autism. These toys have shown promise in promoting the attention and participation in group activities for kids with autism.
Fidget toys can have a calming, focusing effect. They can offer sensory stimulation in a way that’s not distracting to the user or others. Fidget toys can help kids with autism channel their need for tactile sensory input. And they do so without impairing their ability to focus visually and mentally. Fidget toys can be provided to kids with autism during group activities, or during tasks that require sustained focus. For example, a child with autism might benefit from using a fidget spinner while listening to a story with their class.
Fidget toys can also be used in activities that involve following directions and shared attention. An adult can ask a child with autism to imitate their movements with a fidget toy, or ask the child to give them directions to follow. Fidget toys can also be used in cooperative activities, like connecting pop tubes to form different shapes.
Shaving cream marbling
Occupational therapists love using this activity with kids with autism. That’s because it’s creative, fun, and targets sensory and fine motor skills. Speech therapists like how it addresses following directions, language skills, and shared attention.
For this activity, you’ll need a paper plate or bowl, foaming shaving cream, food coloring, a plastic knife, and paper.
Fill your child’s paper plate or bowl with shaving cream, then add a few drops of food coloring in different colors. Next, take the plastic knife and assist them with carving lines that go up and down and back and forth, spreading the food coloring in the shaving cream. Then, take the paper and press it into the top of the shaving cream. You can use hand over hand with your child with autism for this part of the project.
When you carefully remove the paper, you’ll have a colorful masterpiece! You can even expand on this activity by turning your child’s artwork into custom cards.
Creative activities are great for targeting emotional regulation, motor control, and interpersonal skills. They can channel autistic kids’ artistry and target skills in a way that’s fun and motivating.
Music activities are a great way to target eye contact and body orientation skills in kids with autism. Music tasks also involve use of nonverbal cues, and coordinated body movements.
For this activity, you’ll need small hand drums or a range of rhythm instruments. This can include shakers, tambourines, rhythm sticks, or even DIY instruments like a coffee can, or a closed cup with pennies inside.
Rhythmic music tasks are a great way to get kids with autism involved in shared attention and cooperative play. Drumming also offers tactile stimulation and can be very calming and centering for children. Participating in a drum circle also encourages focused attention. This is a great activity for a child with autism and a parent or for a group of children. For two participants, they can take turns leading and following. One person can establish a beat, and the other imitates it. Then, switch roles.
In a group setting, one person can step into the center of the circle and be the leader or conductor of the group. This person starts drumming and establishes the rhythm for the group to imitate and follow. Participants can all take a turn as the leader and as a member of the group.
Drums are a great activity for preschoolers with autism.
This activity creates an item kids with autism can enjoy and use for calming and visual stimulation after the activity is complete.
For this activity, you’ll need a plastic bottle, a glue gun, glitter, water, and small beads or plastic gems or other fun, small items. Simply fill the plastic bottle with water to about 2/3rds full. Then, add glitter, and put in the beads and other items. Add more water until the bottle is mostly full. Then, use the glue gun to seal the cap.
Voila! You’ve got a magic bottle that makes beautiful colors and reveals hidden surprises when shaken, stirred, or flipped upside down. This is a great activity for kids with autism, because making it requires focus, following directions, and fine motor skills. Afterward, the bottle, itself, can create a sense of calmness and act as a preferred fidget toy.
DIY rain sticks
Rain sticks are a classic rhythm instrument. They provide both auditory and tactile stimulation and can be very soothing for kids with autism.
For this activity, you’ll need a paper towel tube, a couple of rubber bands, and some paper or plastic wrap. You’ll also need a selection of small beads, beans, paperclips, rice, or other items to create the “rain” effect, and a series of toothpicks.
The first step is to poke toothpicks through the sides of the cardboard, all over the tube. Next, cover one end of the paper towel tube with plastic wrap or paper. Secure it around the end with a rubber band.Then, add rice, beans, beads, or other items to the tube. When you’ve added enough, simply repeat the covering on the other end. Then you can play with your rain stick by turning it upside down over and over and hearing the “rain” fall. You can experiment with adding and removing items to see how this changes the sound.
Many children with autism struggle with their social skills. Activities that can help them develop and practice social skills are a great way to address these skills in a way that’s fun and motivating.
Emotion identification card game
Children with autism often struggle to interpret emotions in others. Emotional recognition can be trained in activities for kids with autism.
Photo cards or drawings with people expressing overt feelings are shown, and kids are asked to pinpoint the emotions they see. For example, a woman crying may depict sadness. A man yelling may indicate anger.
Kids with autism can play this game, and earn points for each emotion they guess correctly. A prize can be given once the child reaches a certain threshold of correct responses. Teachable moments can also be taken, whenever needed, to promote a child’s ability to identify key facial features of common emotions.
Cards that need more work can be set aside, and targeted during a bonus round. You can deepen this activity by adding an imitation component. The autistic child can show their version of the emotions, to enhance their understanding of how feelings are expressed in the face and body. Modeling and feedback can be provided by the adult leading the activity.
Kids with autism can work with adults to create their own books to help them navigate social situations. Social scripts offer kids with autism a narrative roadmap to improve their social skills.
Social scripts can be multimedia items. For example, they may include words, illustrations, or even videos. They can mimic storybooks, or even comic strips.
An example of a social script is a story that helps a child with autism to understand and take active part in greeting others. Social scripts can provide guidance in making introductions and using appropriate body language. They can also help with recognizing common social cues.
A social script is a personalized story that walks a child with autism through these interactions. They offer a chance to plan and practice for common social situations.
Meditation, deep breathing, and music can help to calm and regulate the nervous system. These can be powerful tools for children with autism, who may struggle with emotional regulation skills. Meditation has shown promise in harmonizing the emotional and physical systems of kids with autism. There are many free meditation apps out there. These include offerings like Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace, among others.
Meditation improves social skills by calming the nervous system and improving awareness skills. Anxiety issues are common amongst kids with autism.
You can guide your child with autism in a medication activity, prior to a social situation that may cause them to feel stress and anxiety. You can also medicate alongside them, using a guided meditation recording. YouTube is another source for meditation recordings.
Activities for brain development
Brain activities help to promote the development of important skills. They also help kids with autism to interact with the world, and participate in school.
This is an activity that combines the physical with the mental in a way that’s fun and beneficial.
You can select an autistic child’s preferred interests for this activity. For example, if your child is interested in dinosaurs, it could be a dinosaur scavenger hunt. For this activity, toy dinosaurs could be hidden around the house, classroom, or outdoor area for your child to find.
Clues can be given both verbally or in written form. They can offer your child known facts about each dinosaur they’re seeking. The dinosaurs could be found in places that may mimic their actual surroundings. For example, Diplodocus was a water-dwelling dinosaur, so maybe he’s found in a creek or even in the bathtub or sink.
Gear the hunt toward your individual child, their preferences and capabilities. You can start with five items and build from there. Kids with autism may find lists very motivating, so giving them a list of items to find can offer a source of fun and engagement that’s also beneficial.
Scavenger hunts involve problem solving, deductive reasoning, and planning skills. They also involve working memory and language skills. Focus and concentration are other important developmental skills you can target with a scavenger hunt.
Sort it out
Sorting is a way many kids with autism self-regulate. A feature of autism is also repeating tasks. You can co-opt this preference to target additional skills in selecting sorting activities for your child with autism. This type of activity can also offer a chance to engage in parallel play.
Another benefit of sorting games for kids with autism is they help teach relational concepts. This important developmental skill means understanding how different things relate to one another. Big and little, short and tall, heavy and light are all relational concepts. So are behind and in front of, on top and beneath, on and in. Understanding these concepts can improve language skills and the ability to interact with the world.
A fun sorting game can include basic to complex items. For example, you can create a sorting game around grouping toys by their characteristics. This can involve sorting toys by color, size, or texture. This can be a great preschool autism activity.
Older kids with autism may enjoy sorting items like coins. If you have a toy kitchen, sorting toy food items can also be fun. You can sort these by category, which can include size or features (such as if they’re fruit, meat, or veggies).
Creating a picture schedule
Children with autism often struggle with transitions and disruptions in their daily routines. You can proactively involve them in addressing this issue with a picture schedule activity. A picture schedule can help them anticipate and plan for any transitions, so they’re prepared instead of thrown-off by surprise.
Picture schedules can be created on a computer, or with drawings on paper. For this task, you’ll want to think about their daily routine. Then, create a series of pictures that depict parts of this routine. For example, math time may be a picture of numbers or equations. Recess could show kids on a swing set. Reading time could show a child with a book.
Your child can help select and create appropriate images and participate in organizing them. When any changes are planned for their routine, you can work together to modify their schedule and review the upcoming changes.
Include written labels, as well, to help your child use written language skills. You can even create a moveable marker that shows your child where they are in their daily schedule. They can be involved in moving the marker to help start each transition.
Teachers and school staff can also be involved in using this item, in addition to parents. A picture schedule can be used both at home and in school to help your child with autism to make successful daily transitions.
What are the Benefits of Activities for Kids with Autism
Activities, games, and play-based tasks benefit the development of all children. Children with autism can learn and practice important skills through play-based activities.
Activities benefit kids with autism in many ways, including:
- Stimulating the brain and promoting development
- Improving social skills
- Improving motor skills
- Decreasing stereotypical behaviors, hyperactivity, and aggression
- Promoting inclusion
- Fostering self-expression and creativity
- Promoting emotional regulation and expression
- Enhancing language skills
- Improving attention skills
What are the Challenges Children with Autism Face when Playing
Children with autism have brains that develop differently than typically-developing kids. This affects how they interact with and experience the world.
- Autistic kids often have restricted interests, and struggle to grasp how to engage in cooperative play with others. They may prefer to repeat the same task over and over.
- Kids with autism often have difficulties with sharing attention during structured activities. They may also have sensory sensitivities, which could complicate tactile play activities.
- Autistic children tend to have challenges with adaptation, including changes to their routine. This may impact their ability to follow the flow of imaginative play. They may resist actively participating in activities, at least at first.
While these factors may complicate the use of activities for kids with autism, it’s vital to push through. That’s because the use of activities for kids with autism is very important to encourage their growth and development.
Parents and educators may face challenges when incorporating activities into autistic children’s routines. But autistic children greatly benefit from tasks that help them expand their comfort zone and enhance their skills. They can also support their ability to engage with others and the world around them.
Play-based activities can help kids with autism learn to channel their emotions into more positive outlets. This can help reduce aggressive, destructive, or antisocial behaviors.
Regular activities mean more chances to engage in this vital avenue of childhood growth and development.
Choosing the Right Activities to Play with Autistic Kids
Children with autism are individuals. They have unique personalities and preferences.
When selecting appropriate autism activities, it’s important to consider the following factors:
- Personal needs
- Child’s interests
- Child’s strengths
- Child’s problems and challenges
- Communication skills
- Developmental level
- Child’s preferences
- Severity of autism
How can you put these factors into action when creating an activity plan for a child with autism?
Take into account where they are, developmentally, and what skills they most need to build:
- A child who is a good reader but doesn’t understand how to play with others should focus on cooperative activities and shared attention tasks.
- A child who loves trains can stay motivated and engaged when these are used in their activities.
- A toddler with autism who doesn’t understand joint attention is not ready for activities that involve cooperation.
- A child with behavioral issues may benefit from activities that promote self-regulation.
It’s always important to consider the individual child when creating an activity plan that will benefit them. This is especially important for kids with autism.
Using Forbrain as a Complementary Tool
Forbrain is an auditory stimulation headset. It can be used to enhance auditory processing and speech production.
Therapists have used Forbrain in activities with children with autism with positive effects. Forbrain can encourage participation in activities by enhancing focus and attention. Forbrain can also help autistic children to more effectively self-regulate. Some children with autism vocalize more while wearing Forbrain, as it allows them to hear and process their own voices.
For some kids with autism, the Forbrain headset can offer a positive complement to their activity program. It may encourage and motivate them to participate at a higher level.
Here is a video that shows the benefits of Forbrain for kids with autism in action.
Activities for Autistic Kids FAQs
When it comes to implementing activities with autistic children, you may have some questions.
What Do Autistic Children Like To Do?
Just like neurotypical kids, children with autism have a wide range of interests and preferences. It’s important to consider the individual child when you’re developing an activities program.
Many kids with autism are very interested in one or two subjects. These can become a focus of your activities, in order to engage them and motivate them to participate.
What Is The Best Sport For Autism?
This depends on the individual child, their needs, skills, and interests.
A child with poor motor skills and coordination might not benefit from a game of team soccer. Children with autism may find it easier to participate in sports where they work alongside others, such as bowling or swimming.
They may benefit from a dedicated buddy to support them in participating in team sports. This person can help them understand the rules and participate effectively. This person can also check in with them, and help them regulate if needed.
The ideal sports for kids with autism may be individual recreational activities. These include sports like skiing, swimming, running, biking, golf, and hiking. Some kids with autism enjoy competing against another person in tennis.
Individual sports help to provide recreation opportunities, without the added stress of social interactions.
Is Swimming Good For Autistic Children?
Swimming can be a very calming and positive activity for autistic children. It can help with body awareness and coordination, and offer opportunities for sensory integration.
Swimming involves gentle, repetitive motions. This can calm the nervous system and enhance motor coordination and control.
Can Children With Autism Play Football?
This depends on the individual child. If your child shows interest in this game and has the motor skills and ability to engage with others on a team, it may be possible. Your child will also need to understand the rules of the game and be able to show some flexibility.
Football isn’t at the top of the list of activities for autistic kids. But it’s important to support your child with trying out activities they’re interested in.
What Is The Best Age For Play Therapy?
Play therapy can begin when your child is a baby and continue until they’re an adolescent. This is the time your child would naturally use play as their way to learn, grow, and develop.
Play therapy can enhance the play skills and opportunities for kids with autism. Play therapy can be geared toward your child’s age and stage of development, as well as their needs. It can fold in their interests and teach them valuable skills.
Early intervention for kids with autism is the best case scenario. But autistic children of all ages can benefit from play-based therapy.
How Do I Motivate My Autistic Child?
Start by using items and topics they’re interested in. Using preferred items can also promote their engagement. If your child with autism loves stamps, use them. If they’re interested in dinosaurs, bugs, or historical facts, use those.
The great thing about activities for kids with autism is you can structure them around any interests your child has. Keeping activities interesting is the key to keeping them engaged and motivated to participate. You can build their interests into almost any activity you choose.
In addition, many kids are motivated by a system of rewards. This can include stickers, a star chart, or tokens that lead to a small prize. Many kids with autism find a clear rewards system motivating to participate in activities.
What Can A Child With Autism Play With?
Children with autism have interests that are as varied as anyone. Many enjoy playing with items they can stack, sort, order, or line up. This can be soothing and regulating for kids with autism.
Activities that satisfy this need include items like puzzles, stacking blocks and cups, magnatiles, and Lego.
Select toys and games for your child that are based on their interests and level of development.
What Activities To Avoid If My Child Has Autism?
Kids with autism don’t typically play in the same ways as other kids. They often prefer solo play to interacting in a group. They may struggle to follow the typical rules of shared play. This includes things like taking turns, sharing, and following the rules. Kids with autism also often struggle with imaginative play.
Your child with autism may prefer to participate more in parallel play than cooperative play. This means being in the same space with someone, while not actually playing together. Parallel play can engage kids with autism in learning skills in a way that upholds their play preferences. Activities that can incorporate parallel play include coloring and painting.
It can be beneficial to a point to engage your autistic child in activities that expand their comfort zone. But be cautious, because this can also cause them stress and induce them to withdraw. It’s best to approach activities that may be difficult for your child slowly and in stages. Consider why this activity is important for their growth and development and if there may be another way to target those skills.
Play-based activities are a great way to teach autistic children important skills that can help them grow as individuals. Building activities into the daily routines of kids with autism is important. This gives them many chances to practice and learn new skills, in ways they find motivating and enjoyable.
Choosing activities based on a child with autism’s preferences and needs is a great way to grow skills and motivate them to participate.
Parents, educators, and healthcare professionals can draw from the activities listed in this article. These activities can be used in therapy for kids with autism, as a way to enhance development and build important skills.
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