When parenting an ASD child, you can often feel like your options are limited when it comes to free time activities. In large part, this is because those on the spectrum have a tendency to repeat the same activities time and time again. What might become boring or mundane to someone neurotypical, for those with ASD, is as thrilling the hundredth time as it was the first time.
One problem this presents to parents is that many of the activities are solo – as in, you can’t partake with the hobby. You find yourself a silent watcher, on the outskirts of an activity rather than actively a part of it.
There is also some argument that the same activities being engaged in time and again is not useful, that children need varying stimuli to increase their awareness of different tasks. While this may sound like a nice idea, introducing a new hobby or activity to a child with ASD is like fighting an uphill battle. Their desire for order, for things to remain in the same way they always have, means a new suggestion of something fun can quickly become a battleground.
That doesn’t mean you have to give in, of course. It just means you have to target new activities to those that will effectively “hook” an ASD child – and with a bit of effort, that’s easily accomplished.
- Choose An Activity With A Direct Reward
One of the best ways to introduce any child (non-neurotypical or otherwise) to a new hobby is to show a direct route to what’s useful about it.
Choosing an activity with a technical, niche element is very useful in this scenario. For example, a knack for jigsaw puzzles has an obvious reward: the finished picture. This is an obvious result of the effort that goes into building the picture, and thus it can help stimulate the ASD imagination.
So extrapolate from that into a hobby like photography. Photography can be very technical, especially if you branch away from the standard point-and-shoot cameras that dominate the market. A DSLR camera can be very complicated indeed and thus catch the mind, while even smartphone cameras are catching up with the more conventional photography equipment. In this scenario, the finished picture is the reward for the work that goes into creating it – you can print it out or use something like MyPostcard App for a record of the images taken. It’s a hobby you can involve yourself in with ease – after all, who makes a better photo subject than Mom?
There are plenty of other options for hobbies that have obvious rewards. Crafting turns an afternoon’s play into a piece of wall art; even video games have trophy and points systems that have a direct impact of cause and effect.
- Make Suggestions; Not Insistence
One of the worst things you can do is to insist on a new hobby. Of course, the impulse is overwhelming – you want your child to develop, to experience new things, and their repetition of the same desires can frustrate that. But the worst thing you can do with an ASD child is tell them that they have to try something new.
It’s a problem because, firstly, they will see the new hobby as a replacement. It will seem black and white: they have to stop doing the thing they enjoy and do something they might not. It seems like an unnecessary risk.
Introduce new activities in an optional way. “Is this something you’d like to try?” is far more likely to elicit good results than: “this is something you have to do”. If necessary, introduce a reward system here: half an hour of something new = half an hour to do as they please.
- Be Wary Of Overstimulation
A lot of typically “kid” activities can be a minefield for a child with autism. Even going outside and playing with a group of friends can quickly lead to overstimulation and upset.
At the same time, learning to socialize and working on their social skills is an important step for ASD children. Introducing a new hobby can be a perfect way of achieving this, but not if it causes too much information at once.
If you’re going to take your child out of the house to try something new, then try and bookend the experience with calm, quiet living. So spend the morning relaxing and letting them do as they please. If the afternoon, take them to a soft play area or any other outing that involves socialization. Don’t stay long initially; begin at half an hour and then leave. The time you spend there can be increased over time as they adapt to different surroundings and learn to cope with the new noises and people. When you get home from the activity, keep things calm and simple. It will give your child – and you! – a chance to unwind and process what they have been doing.
If you rush them into something too big too soon, their stubborn streak could flourish and they will insist they don’t want to do something again. This might not even come from a dislike of the activity itself, but the surrounding activity and the headache (a metaphorical headache, or even a literal one) that surrounds it. Go slow, adapt gently, and then you can increase as they find their own way of going about something new.
- “No” Might Just Mean “Not Right Now”
While ornery responses are to be expected in ASD kids, one refusal does not mean a permanent refusal – so don’t give up. With time and having calmed down from their first experience of something new, they may relax into feeling more comfortable with trying it again.
If you do get a refusal, accept it rather than laboring the point. Let some time pass – a fortnight is sufficient – and then suggest the new activity again. If you get a second refusal at this point then it might be wise to move on, but you might find them opening up more to the idea of something they had outright sworn off only a few