If you have an autistic child, you might be interested in supporting their development with activities you can do at home.
Autistic children have differences in how they communicate and interact with their environment. This is why autistic and allistic (nonautistic) children sometimes need different types of supports from adults.
Because there are more allistic kids than autistic, your autistic child will enter a society that may not be fully tailored to their abilities. You can help them navigate the world with skills gained from autism therapy at home.
The goal of autism therapy
There is no cure for autism, and many people in the autistic community don’t feel the need for one. Instead, they recognize autism as a neurotype rather than a disability or condition that needs to be cured.
Like any cognitive profile, autism has strengths and areas of developmental potential. The therapies summarized below represent learning opportunities for caregivers to explore. The goal is to offer skill-building opportunities for autistic children to be more comfortable living in a primarily allistic world.
Floortime is play therapy, and it’s exactly as it sounds: An adult sits on the floor with your child. It can be a therapist, a teacher, or an education assistant in a clinical or classroom setting. At home, that person can be you or another family member.
Floortime is one-on-one interaction with your child at their level.
You begin by quietly observing and then copying the actions of your child. After a while, you add something new to the play, such as a different toy or a few simple words.
If you add language, there are several ways you can increase its impact:
- Be relevant. It’s a good idea to wait and watch, then label what your child is paying attention to. For example, if your child picks up a toy truck, say “truck.”
- Keep it brief. Using fewer words helps your child not feel overwhelmed.
- Allow time for processing. The silence between each word is just as powerful as the words themselves, because it gives your child time to process what you’ve said.
The goal of floortime is emotional engagement and interactive behavior. It should be enjoyable and child-led.
A therapist specializing in floortime can train you and oversee your child’s program.
PCIT is coaching therapy consisting of in-office sessions and homework.
During the office sessions, you and your child interact in a playroom while a therapist watches from another room through a one-way mirror or a video feed. Your therapist observes how you communicate with your child and offers real-time coaching using a small device in your ear so only you can hear.
The goal of PCIT is to teach therapeutic strategies to the most influential person in the child’s life: the parent or guardian.
PCIT is designed for children between 2 to 6 years of age. It has two stages:
- Child directed interaction (CDI): Parents follow the lead of the child while they are behaving appropriately.
- Parent directed interaction (PDI): Parents learn to take the lead as necessary.
Treatment is complete when parents master specific skills and when the child’s behavior has reached clear goals. Treatment isn’t time-limited and can last for as long as you need it.
Even though PCIT includes therapist sessions outside of the home, parents learn skills they can use in multiple settings after the office sessions are over.
Preliminary findings from a 2016 study revealed that autistic children were better able to respond to their parents and regulate their behavior after PCIT. The study also indicated that PCIT improved parenting skills.
ABA is the practice of teaching skills by repetition and reinforcement, or by breaking them down into smaller steps and teaching one step at a time. It’s the most widely used autism therapy and also may be the most controversial.
Advocates of ABA point to its effectiveness at teaching valuable skills to autistic kids. For some, it’s a highly useful approach that enables them to learn independent living skills.
Critics of this therapy object to how ABA traditionally focused on hiding or eliminating behaviors rather than trying to understand them. In the past, practitioners used punishment to discourage those behaviors. In addition, autistic children spent many hours each week sitting at a table with a therapist, engaged in highly repetitive tasks during discrete trial training (DTT).
Punishment isn’t part of current ABA practice, and instead, therapists ignore unwanted behaviors. They also use a variety of activities, such as playtime and activities of daily living, and not only DTT.
You can use ABA at home by taking a teachable skill and breaking it down into small steps. Then teach each step one at a time, praising success or repeating the instruction as needed.
It’s a good idea to collaborate with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) on programs to work on at home. Some common goals for home therapy include:
- self-help skills such as dressing and toothbrushing
- requesting and labeling items
- improving food-related problems
Several resources make working with children at home easier, including these books:
A speech language pathologist (SLP) can offer many suggestions to help your autistic child increase their communication skills. Sessions in the SLP office can assess and enhance your child’s progress, but most of the development happens between appointments. Speech therapy is truly an at-home intervention.
The activities you try will depend on your child’s level. You might have a highly verbal young person who needs some guidance with social language like figures of speech. Alternatively, yours might be a nonspeaking child using computer software or picture symbols to communicate.
There are many ways to include language learning in each day. Some things you can try include:
- reading to your child
- singing with your child
- naming the things your child notices
- explaining what you’re doing
- playing games and creating art together
- trying role playing or acting out stories
- matching pictures to words
Regardless of where you’re starting, you can help your child progress in their communication development with regular and structured learning times and spontaneous teaching moments.
Autism is identified more now than in the past. According to the
The autism community has grown, and there are more families in your situation than in the past. This means more people you can connect with who share your perspective.
Your child’s pediatrician or therapist is a good place to start if you’re interested in autism therapy at home. They can offer suggestions or referrals to help get you started.