How to Engage Autistic Kids

April is National Autism Awareness Month. How can we better understand and engage children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
By Michael Rhattigan



If it seems like you hear a lot more about autism these days, you're right. Its prevalence has grown significantly (an estimated 10-fold growth over the past 40 years). The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimate that one in 68 American children are on the autistic spectrum. Chances are, you know a child with autism. What might be even more surprising is the significantly higher numbers in boys; it's estimated that 1 in 42 boys are diagnosed with autism versus 1 in 189 girls.

Why is autism so prevalent?
Part of the rise in autism has been attributed to increased awareness and improved diagnosis. Techniques have been improved and more professionals have been trained to properly identify autism. This, however, only explains part of the rise. Research suggests a combination of genetic and environmental causes, the latter including factors like problems during birth, parents having children at older ages, or mothers taking prescription drugs like valproic acid and thalidomide during pregnancy.

What can parents do?
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have problems with social interaction, emotions, and communication. The challenges depend on their specific condition and its severity, but early intervention can significantly improve children's conditions. So, it's important to work with a doctor or trained expert as soon as possible to confirm the condition and develop a specific plan. In many cases, therapy and other services are available from local and state organizations.

How can we engage autistic children?
For Communication Skills:

  • Children typically begin to talk about the future and past, and in conversational formats once they reach their preschool years (3 to 5 years old). Kids also grow their vocabulary size immensely during this time.
  • Provide children with the opportunity to create their own story narratives, perhaps focusing on a favorite book or TV character.
  • Teach children how to ask questions and listen to others, such as a pretend interview game.

For Social Skills:

  • Provide children with opportunities to mimic appropriate behavior from adult role models. These opportunities can take the form of live conversations and activities with parents and other adults, or through role-playing games and programs where a role-model "character" helps kids navigate various challenges.
  • Focus on all-inclusive, team-oriented activities in environments where children have the opportunity to work with and befriend other children.

For Motor Skills:

  • For gross motor skills: obstacle courses, dance games, and balancing and jumping games can help develop muscle tone and coordination -- begin with least-threatening activities, and introduce new activities gradually.
  • For fine motor skills, coloring and tracing games can help kids develop pencil grasp and hand-eye coordination.

For Sensory Integration:

  • Children who are sensory seekers tend to be attracted to physical activity, such as jumping, moving, lifting, pushing, and pulling (trampolines, obstacle courses).
  • Children who are sensory sensitive can benefit from calming activities that avoid triggers (strong smells, lights, and sounds) and help kids feel more grounded, as well as smooth transitions.
  • For example, have kids help with preparing meals or baking, like mixing and rolling dough.
  • Consistent routines and activity schedules can help children feel more secure.

People with ASD can be found in every area of life. Many of the specifics conditions -- attention to detail, deep knowledge, highly-developed skills in a specific area, and strong memories -- can be strengths for particular fields and professions. Again, much depends on the severity as well as how quickly it is diagnosed and treated.

Do you have a story to share? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the Scholastic Parents Facebook page!

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