Activities To Keep Your Child Engaged
What can you do with children with ASD when they are not in school, therapies, or other classes? This is the challenging question many parents have, and the solutions are difficult to find.
Why Is It Difficult To Find Suitable Activities?
1. Children with ASD often are unwilling to try something that is unfamiliar to them; therefore, they have a very limited number of things they are interested in. They may strongly refuse new activities, toys, or food you want to introduce to them. Tantrums will likely occur if you push them to try something new.
2. Their interest is often different than a typical child. They might like music, numbers, or colors, but they will like them in an extreme manner. For example, they may like an object just because of the color and will only be interested in those things in that specific color. They may only wear clothes or only eat foods in that color. They may only play with toys that are of certain colors. If they are not given what they want, loud crying and big temper tantrums may occur.
3. Some activities require a certain level of cognitive ability that many children with ASD do not possess. This limits the variety of activities they can choose. Their level of communications skills and social skills also limits them to activities that are meant for one person. They often cannot independently participate in activities with other people.
4. Due to the reasons mentioned above, such as possible behavior issues and level of cognitive ability and social skills, the child often needs someone to supervise them in order to participate in an activity. Unfortunately, supervision is not always available or is not financially possible.
Why It Is Necessary To Find Activities
Despite the challenges mentioned above, it’s extremely important to find activities for children with ASD to do during the free time they have. If you allow children with ASD to choose any activity they want, there is a high probability they will choose to perform their self-stimulatory behaviors instead of choosing an appropriate activity. They might walk around rocking their body, gaze at the lights, or talk to themselves. These and other stims are like habits: The more you allow them to do the stims, the harder it is to stop them. Therefore, finding appropriate activities to take their minds off of wanting to stim is extremely important.
Another reason why activities are needed is that it can be very challenging for parents to constantly spend time with their child who has special needs. Behavior issues and not wanting to follow directions (non-compliance) may occur often. Due to communication issues, the child may frequently seek out attention through appropriate and inappropriate ways. If the child can participate in activities independently or participate in small group activities, it would decrease the parents’ stress level.
Give them free time vs. Not giving them free time
If your child can do some appropriate activities independently like watching videos (without stimming), playing games, playing sports, or toys, then give them the free time. Giving them a break when they are not in therapy or school will energize them. If however, they start to use their free time to talk to themselves, rock their body, or do other stims, then that is not a break. It is more like a time for them to go into their own world. The stims they do will negatively affect their attention span, memory, and ability to focus. I mentioned this above but it’s very important to remember, stims are like habits: The more you allow them to practice them, the harder it becomes to decrease them. You might think you are giving them a break, but actually, you are giving them time to stim.
Below are various types of activities and suggestions for how to teach your child to play them. Included are some videos of the activities that describe the basic rules of the games.
Types Of Activities
Why Are Games A Good Kind Of Activity
Games have certain characteristics that about them that match children with ASD:
a. There are set rules. Children with ASD are often used to being told to follow rules. This experience will help them during games. Rules can be simplified to make them easier for the children to learn.
b. Games are usually played in a structured format. Everybody takes a turn. Start the game at a certain location. If you select a certain card or roll a certain number on a die, then do another action. Generally, everybody will do the same action, so this format makes it easier for children with ASD to follow.
c. There is usually a goal to the game. In sports, try to get the most points. In a board game, try to finish first. In a video game, complete the mission. Having a certain concrete goal lets the children know what they have to do to win.
d. There is a natural reinforcer built into most games: winning! Even if children with ASD do not understand winning, when they do win, people around them (teachers, friends, family) praise them and are happy for them. This in turn makes the children happy.
e. Games are social. Children with ASD often have difficulty socializing with other people. During games though, there are the built-in structures and rules, which allow them to fit in. After playing the game for a while, they know what to expect and how to respond. For example, during card games, they know what to ask people (e.g. “Do you have the number 8). They know when it’s their turn, and when they have to wait. They know how to start the game (ask people, “Do you want to play”), and they know how the game ends (when someone wins).
Type Of Games
Suggestions For How To Play The Board Games
1. Manage expectations and decide on the goal
When starting to play a game the child has not played before, do not expect her to like it. Instead the goal should be for the child to follow the rules of the game and to play the game from beginning to the end. Doing all this while not showing any behavior issues should be the goal.
In reality, a child will not know if they like the game or not until she has played a few times.
2. Use external reinforcers
Playing the game or winning the game might motivate the child to follow the rules of the game and to keep playing it, but we cannot be sure that will happen. Instead of relying on those factors, use a reinforcer you know she will like is a more effective approach. Before playing the game, ask the child what snack(s) does she want.
3. Decide on a rule how the child can earn the reinforcer.
Tell the child what rules need to be followed during the game. For example, take turns, follow the rules of the game, talk nicely to the other players, etc. Next tell her if she follows these rules she will get small piece of snack during the game. Then tell her she can receive two big pieces of snacks if she finishes playing the whole game.
4. Use a timer
It is hard to determine how long the child can play the game for especially if she has never played the game. Games can end quickly sometimes and last for longer periods on other occasions.
To motivate her to keep playing, use a timer to break down the time period into shorter times. Show the timer to the child as it lets her know how much time she has to wait before receiving the reinforcer.
When determining how long to set the timer, consider the child’s history of playing board games. How long was she able to play for? Were there any behavior issues like not playing correctly or not wanting to finish the game?
If the child loses focus quickly, try setting the timer for two minute. If after two minute, the child continues to play without any behavior issues, reinforce the child with a small piece of edibles. Quickly give her the snack then keep playing.
If the child has a longer attention span, try setting the timer for 3 minutes before giving her a snack.
If the child breaks the rule (e.g. tries to leave the table or plays inappropriately, etc.) before the timer rings, tell her something like, “You did not follow the rules. Let’s reset the timer and try again. If you want the snack, follow the rules.” Then quickly reset the timer.
In summary, the two reinforcers then will be:
a) Small snack – for playing the game nicely and following the rules. This will be given if the timer rings and the child is did not do any inappropriate behaviors and followed the rules of the game.
b) Larger snack – (in this scenario, 2 big pieces of snack) if the child finishes the game while following the rules and not demonstrating any behavior issues
Chutes and Ladders
This classic game is simple to play. It can be very challenging though since at some point it seems like you are first and will win the game, but then if you land on the slide space, you can slide back down and be the last person. This game can be a good way to help the child practice dealing with adversity.
Snug as a Bug in a Rug
This is a game that will give the child some practice in discriminating objects in various categories such as shape, number, and size.
Memory Game (with various pictures)
This game was mentioned already in the cards game section above, but it can be played with pictures as well instead of playing cards. Using pictures of vocabulary words the child has just learned would make this game not only fun but educational as well. In the video provided below, drawings of fruits were used. You can also use pictures of animals, letters, action words, vehicles, etc. Children with ASD often need improvement in their ability to remember things (i.e. short term and working memory). These kinds of memory games can play a significant factor in their improvement.
This is one of the first games children can play. They don’t need to know how to count in order to move the pieces. It’s great for practicing the names of colors.
This game has been around since 1963. Children like building the trap and seeing it in action. Playing this game can take over 30 minutes. Children will have a good opportunity to practice their patience during this game.
Another game that can help the child be more aware of people’s faces is the game Guess Who. In this two player game, each player has to guess the name of the other player’s person out of the 28 people on each player’s board. This is done by asking the other player questions such as, “Is your person wearing a hat,” or “Does your person have white hair?” By asking these questions, people on the board are eliminated to help the player guess the name of the other player’s person. This game is for children with a higher cognitive ability. Each turn requires the player to ask a question thus providing a lot of social interaction.
Math Related Games
For children who can do some simple math, the following two games ("Sum Swamp" and "Shut the Box") will not only be fun but help them practice their math:
The games below are not board games but my students thought they were fun and they are educational as well.
Shut the box game
The child can actually play this game by herself or with three other people. When they first start playing, you can write her a cheat sheet with
Suggestions For How To Play Video Games
Video games are not like playing card and board games, where you can set up a situation the child has difficulty with and focus on that (e.g. On a board game, move the child to a specific place on the board and then teach her what to do next several time). Since it would take too long to go back to a particular screen on a video to practice it, use video modeling.
There are many videos on YouTube of people playing various video games. Watching them will show the child what to do in a certain situation. Seeing others complete a level in a Super Mario game may help your child complete that level too. Below is an example of one of those videos:
Some things to keep in mind about these videos:
1. Pick the correct video. No commentary videos.
There are generally two kinds of videos: one shows a person playing the game and another kind which shows the same thing, but the person playing the game will talk during the video. They are usually commenting about their play and not giving instructions about how to play. Often times they are trying to make comments to sound funny, or they yelling at the game. These comments are not appropriate for children and not something you want them to model. I recommend watching the videos without the commentaries. If you cannot find a similar video, try muting the sound and just watch the video.
2. Find the correct level for the child.
Many of the game videos are very long lasting at least 30 minutes to a few hours. If your child does not know how to find the level he wants to watch, find that level for him. You can write down how minutes into the video it will show the part that you are focused on. This will allow you to easily go to that exact part next time.
To help you find the video you want faster, type in all the keywords in your search. To demonstrate, type in the name of the game. Be sure to type the correct version since games keep upgrading. Then type in the specific level you want. You can even type in the character you want to use in the game like Mario or Luigi. Many of the game videos are titled with very specific information to help people find what they want.
3. Don’t get distracted
It can be very satisfying for children to watch someone play the same game they have been playing, but that person can pass through all the levels. They also may like to watch the levels they have not been able to reach. As mentioned earlier, these videos can be very long. Tell the children clearly when they can watch the video for fun, and when the video is being used to teach them how to improve their play. If you are focusing on teaching a certain part, focus on that part.
4. Make your own video
If you cannot find the exact video you want, ask someone who knows how to play the game play it and then video record the process. You can even video record exactly what buttons on the controller the child needs to press. Ask someone the child knows to play the game. Suddenly seeing someone he recognizes in the video would probably get some laughs.
5. Set the rules. Use reinforcers and a timer.
Some children may not initially like to play the game, or they may like to only play certain parts. When they first start to play, set the rules: have to play correctly and not in a “funny” (children sometime don’t understand the work “inappropriate”) way, play until the timer rings then playing has to stop. If there have been behavior issues in the past, you can also include them into the rules as well: talk nicely during the game (“indoor voice”), no stimming, don’t get angry, etc...
Give a reinforcer if they follow the rules. You can give a snack or more playing time with that game they just played. Sometimes children only like to play a certain game and not try others. If this is the case, you can tell them, “You have to first play this game, and then you can play your game.”
Some people may think too many video games or too much “screen time” is not good for a child. For typical children, this is true. For children with ASD though, you have to consider what options you have. It can be very difficult to find activities for them to do. They prefer to do self-stimmulartory behaviors like playing with their fingers which can lead to injuring their fingers to the point where they will need surgery in he future. They may want to talk to themselves which is similar to day dreaming and living in their own world. This leads to not being focused and not being aware of their environment. Therefore, if the child likes video games, and you do not have better options, letting them do that is a much better option than stimming or doing inappropriate behaviors.
Parents do need to consider what kind of games their children play though. Certain games are violent or graphic and not appropriate for certain ages. Check the game's recommended age before playing.
There is a vast variety of games now that can be played on many different kinds of devices. For the computer, games can be installed on the computer, or they can be played online. Below are a few websites that offer free games. Some sites will show ads since the games are free. Children learn quickly how to close the ads. When introducing these websites to your child, monitor them to make sure they are playing appropriate games. The websites do not categorize the games nicely so a young children’s game can be put next to an adult violent gun shooting game. There are sites like the first two (PBS and cartoon network) that you can trust will have all their content appropriate for children.
PBS Kids: Cartoon Network (Asia)
Ipad or Android app games provide children with another option. There are a lot of free android games but they sometimes require you to watch ads, which can make for an unpleasant experience. If you install a game with ads, monitor your child to make sure they are:
a. Playing appropriate games
b. Know how to get rid of the ads
c. Know not to click on ads which can lead them to other websites
Instead of seeing those ads, you can also pay a monthly fee to allow your child to play games online without the ads. Steam, Apple Arcade, and Google Play Pass are some of the most popular options.
There are also game consoles like PlayStation, X-box, Wii, Game Boy, Nintendo DE, and Nintendo Switch just to name a few. Before buying the games, go to Youtube.com and type in the name of the game and you can find videos of people playing that game. Watching these will help your child determine if he likes the game or not. There is also the option of going online to places like www.gamefly.com and renting the console games you want. You pay a monthly fee and they will mail you the games
There are also websites that offer monthly subscription service that allows you to play many consoles games. Some of the more popular services include PlayStation Plus, EA Play, and Xbox Game Pass.
Paid Websites and Console Games
Suggestions For How To Play Card Games
1. Use vocabulary your child will understand.
Saying, “Deal the cards,” or “Put the cards in order,” might be difficult to understand. Instead, maybe say, “What comes after one?” If she answers correctly, then ask, “What comes after two?” This will show her what “putting the cards in order mean.”
2. Teach the terms associated with the game.
Make sure the child knows all the name of all the suits: hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. Also teach words like “shuffle,” “deal the cards,” “suit,” etc.. Knowing these terms will make it easier when explaining how to play the games.
3. Make sure they have the perquisite skills.
They have to know their numbers at least up to 10 and as well as the letters J, Q, and K. Knowing how to match numbers, colors, and symbols (e.g. heart to heart) is a required skill in many card games.
Being able to understand instructions about what to do once he picks a certain card is important. For example, the child will need to know where to put the number 3 card? Depending on the game, sometimes the 3 card is placed on top of the 4 card. Sometimes the 3 card is placed on top of the 2 card. Knowing where to put the card is a key to winning a game.
4. Break the card game into a series of “rules.”
In the Classic Solitaire game, one rule is what card can you put on an empty space? The answer is only a King. Another rule in the game is what is the maximum number of columns you can have during the game? The answer is seven columns. Break the game up into these various rules and then teach each rule separately.
Using the Classic Solitaire game as an example, first, directly ask the child the rule, “How many columns can you have?” Once he responds correctly on a consistent basis, use the cards to set up a specific scenario in which he has to demonstrate to you he knows the rule.
To illustrate, create six columns of cards. Then give him a King card to see if he will create another column. If he does create another column, that is a correct response. Next create seven columns of cards and then give him a King card to see if he will create an eighth column. If he does, then that would be incorrect because you can only create a maximum of seven columns in the game. Teach the child this rule about the columns until he has mastered it. Keep teaching the child to master all the rules of the game, and he will eventually know how to play it.
5. Teach how to set up the game.
For Classic solitaire, teach how to put out all the cards in the seven columns. If it is a multiplayer game, make sure she knows how many cards each person is supposed to have.
Shuffling the cards is also very important; otherwise, she will have a very difficult time winning. If it is difficult for her to hold all the cards, teach her to put all the cards on the table and then moving them around in a circle.
6. Modify the rules.
Sometimes a rule might make the game too difficult for the child to play. If possible, modify that one rule to allow her to enjoy the game more. This is true in cases in which the game is too challenging and the child rarely wins. For example, a rule might say the cards can only be placed together if they are of different color (e.g. black on red or red on black). To make it easier, allow the child to place the cards together even if they are the same color (e.g. black on black, red on red).
Modify the rules only for one player games. If you change the rules for multiplayer games for when you are playing with the child, she may be confused when playing with other children who are used to play with the original rules.
Playing cards are inexpensive and portable so you can play in various places. The rules often require matching numbers and colors as well as putting the numbers in order. These are skills children with ASD can learn. Below are some card games that require at least two people to play:
This game requires the child to match the card in the pile by either color or suit (i.e. diamond, hearts, etc.). The number 8 card is wild meaning the player that has it can change it to any suit they like. The person who puts down all their cards first win.
The short video below will teach you how to play the game. You can watch it with the child, but don’t rely on the video to teach your child how to play the game. Look down at the end of this section to get some suggestions about how to teach your child to play card games.
Similar to Crazy 8, but there are extra cards like skip a turn, draw four extra cards, reverse the order, and more. Learning the Crazy 8 game first will be easier for the child. Once it’s time to learn Uno, he will already be familiar with the rules.
This game requires the players to find all four suits of a certain number. Players do this by asking other players, for example, “Do you have number 7?” If the player has 7’s, he must give all the 7’s to the other player. The player that has the most cards at the end of the game wins. This game is great because it requires the children to directly ask other people questions.
Below are card games that can be played with only one person:
Memory (aka Concentration)
This is the classic game in which you put all the cards face down on the table and then you have to find two cards that match such 5 and 5. If they match, you can take the cards. The object is to keep finding the cards that match until all the cards are removed.
Playing this game requires putting numbers in order and matching certain colors and symbols. These are skills children with ASD can learn and from my experience, they tend to like matching colors and symbols.
Other popular one player card games are variations of the solitaire game. Below are some of the more popular ones:
Streets and Alleys
Suggestions For How To Use Educational Websites
Some children may like the education websites more than playing video games, but for many,
reinforcers will need to be used especially at the beginning.
1. Teach them how to navigate the website
The goal is to ultimately let them go to the education website and use it on their own. To do this,
they have to learn how to start the lesson and how to possibly end or save the lesson. They need
to learn how to move around within that lesson or page. Also, teach them what not to press.
Pressing the exit button may cause them to lose all their work.
2. The website material is for practice
It depends on the child, but many children with ASD have difficulty learning new material from the
education websites. The websites may use language they do not understand, or they talk too fast, or do not explain clearly. Going to a website and then not knowing what to do or frequently
responding incorrectly can make the child stop using the website very quickly. Education websites are best used for giving the child more practice with a task he already knows how to do. For example, the child is already familiar with the names of colors, but needs more practice. Education websites can show pictures quickly and in various ways to help him practice these color names. Another example, the child knows what an adjective is. He needs to learn more though to improve his vocabulary. Websites can offer many examples and often in a fun and interesting manner.
3. Set the rules. Use reinforcers and a timer.
Demonstrate clearly to the child what buttons he can press and which ones he should not. Sometimes the websites will play a funny sound or a short song the child likes. He may try to keep hearing them. There also may be a certain scene the child wants to keep watching. Be aware of this kind of behavior and include that into the rules (“must watch the video correctly and not in a funny way” or “you cannot keep pressing that button”).
To teach the child to keep playing, you can tell them they have to finish a certain level or play for
a certain amount of time before they receive their reinforcer. Praise them every few minutes if they are using the website correctly. As mentioned previously, a. Ask what reinforcer they want.
b. State the rules clearly. Confirm they understand by asking them questions (e.g. “Can you keep
pressing that bell many times,” or “can you keep watching that cow scene many times?”).
c. Set up two reinforcers and two time periods:
Small snack – for working nicely and following the rules. This will be given if the timer rings and the child is did not do any inappropriate behaviors and followed the rules of the game. Knowing your child’s history, consider how long the child can sit to do this task when determining how long to set the timer.
Larger snack – (for example, 2 big pieces of snacks) if the child finishes the assignment or if he plays for the specified time while also following the rules and not demonstrating any behavior issues.
Give verbal praise to reinforce his positive behavior and to also remind him of the reinforcer he is
working for (“good job working on the computer. You will get your snack soon.”)
If the child doesn’t follow the rules before the timer rings, reset the timer and tell him to try again.
If he keeps having difficulty earning the reinforcer, decrease the amount of time he has to work
before getting the reinforcer. Also increase the amount of social praise you give to him (instead of
giving social praise every 2 minutes, give it every 1.5 minute). This will serve as a reminder to
follow the rules.
4. Monitor the child frequently
Some children know how to use a computer and may try to go to YouTube or play video games
online when you are not monitoring them. You can set up parent controls on the computer to
prevent them from going to other websites. Go to YouTube to find videos like the one below that
will teach you how to set up the parent controls. The video below is for a version of the Windows
11 operating system. Find out what version of Windows you have. Type that version name plus
the keywords “parental controls” in YouTube to find the right video for you.
For Apple products, type in the keywords “parental controls” and the type of Apple device you
have (e.g. Ipad, MacBook, etc.).
There are many kinds of education websites. The one for children with ASD are called personalized learning oriented educational websites. Most require a monthly fee. If you pay yearly, they will give you a discount. Most will give you a trial period to let you test it to determine if it is right for your child. Some of the popular ones include:
There are also websites that focus on reading. Some will allow children to read many kinds of books. Some have videos of people reading the books out loud so your child can listen while also looking at the pages of the book. There are free websites or free options like Epic that allows you to get one book per day for free while others require a fee.
The Indianapolis Public Library
Doing something physical is a great break from therapy which requires the child to sit in a chair. Going outside to do some exercise could wake up a child and give them more energy. Some popular outdoor activities to try include:
Jogging, riding the bike, swimming, as well as sports like basketball, baseball (playing catch or hitting the ball), and soccer. Playgrounds also offer slides, swings, and various climbing structures. Even a walk in the park or to the supermarket would be a nice change of pace than sitting inside.
For indoor activities when the weather is not good, try the activities below:
Running on the treadmill, ping pong, badminton, playing catch with a soft ball, dart board that uses soft darts or Velcro balls. There are also many exercise videos online that are catered towards children (some will dress up as Spiderman or Mario while they are teaching). The videos are about 10 minutes long. They encourage the children to follow what they are doing in the video. It’s like having an exercise teacher in your house. Check out some examples below:
Gyms for children where various classes are offered and led by trained professionals can also be a great option. They often have equipment that you cannot find in the typical playground. The children’s gym may be a better option for younger children who tend to fall more since there are usually soft mats everywhere.
Warning Regarding sports And Exercise
When doing exercises, sports, or outdoor activities, be sure to not allow the child to do stims like rocking her body or flapping her hands or gazing at objects (looking at things in an awkward manner). It can be very challenging to stop the child from doing these stims because they are done in the middle of the activities; for example, the child may rock her body during the running or while playing in the swimming pool. It’s been mentioned on this website how important it is to stop the stims if you want significant progress. If the activity provides an opportunity for the child to stim frequently, and you are not successful at decreasing them, then consider choosing another activity.