What types of games do children with autism prefer?
A new study found that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to gravitate toward games that stimulate the senses and provide a lot of movement.
“Children with ASD chose to engage in play that provided strong sensory feedback, cause-and-effect results, and repetitive motions,” said Kathy Ralabate Doody, Ph.D., assistant professor of exceptional education at SUNY Buffalo State.
For the study, Doody set out to observe different play options to determine those most likely to appeal to children with ASD.
For the study, children with ASD were free to select any activity of their choice.
The research was conducted at a monthly event, “Au-some Evening,” at Explore & More, a children’s museum with exhibits that are designed to engage children through play. The special event was open to children with ASD, their families, and their guests.
The most popular activity chosen by ASD children was an exhibit called “Climbing Stairs.” Children would climb a short staircase, drop a ball, and watch it descend. Another popular choice was the windmill, in which children could push its arms, causing it to spin.
Finally, a table filled with rice completed the top three exhibits of the night.
Children with ADS preferred activities that involved the vestibular and proprioceptive senses as well as other senses, noted Doody.
The vestibular sense helps us keep our balance and know where we are in space; proprioception has to do with the way our joints respond to movement and pressure. “It’s the sense that makes deep-tissue massage pleasurable,” she said.
“Children with ADS sometimes tend to crave motion, and if they can’t be moving, they like to look at moving objects,” said Doody, adding that motion engages the vestibular, proprioceptive, and visual senses.
“So just watching the windmill engaged them. When the windmill turned in response to their push, it also provided cause-and-effect play. And the repetition of the spinning movement provided a third level of satisfaction.”
Climbing the stairs and playing with rice satisfied multiple senses. By knowing the kind of play that children with ASD prefer, educators and clinicians can use these types of games as positive reinforcement in educational and treatment settings.
“This information is especially helpful for children with ASD who have difficulty communicating their preferences,” said Doody.
Parents can also benefit from the information.
“A child who is playing alone is developing a degree of independence,” said Doody, “and that can enable the parent or caregiver to engage in other activities, like making dinner or attending to another child.
“Parents might use a snow globe so the child can observe movement. Aquariums or water sculptures provide movement, too.”
Some of the behaviors exhibited by people with autism, such as hand-flapping, may demonstrate a need for sensory stimulation. “Sometimes just giving a child a string of Mardi Gras beads to swing and watch will help the child sit still,” said Doody.
Doody hopes that options for children with ASD will be incorporated into recreational facilities, after-school programs, and playgrounds. Inclusion, however, is not the only benefit.
“It also encourages social interaction between children with ASD and their peers,” said Doody. “Some children with ASD are academically successful, but they struggle in social situations. So opportunities to play with their peers are really valuable.”