Help Your Autistic Toddler Learn with Four Key Activities

by Kevin B. Doyle Autistic Activities

The CDC estimates that 1 in 68 children in the United States have been identified with autism spectrum disorder by the age of 8.

Since 2007, pediatricians have been told to screen 18-month-old children for autism.

Recent research indicates that brain scans can detect brain changes in at-risk babies. Infant brains are quite malleable.

With early diagnosis and intervention, the child is given the best chance at benefiting from interactive therapies.

What tools are available now since pediatricians can identify children with autism earlier?

Can these same methods help detect autism in our toddlers and preschoolers, too?

One therapy is the "Early Start Denver Model." It was designed to address the needs of toddlers as young as 12-months-old. ESDM blends the rigor of applied behavioral analysis with play-based routines that focused on building a relationship with the child. If you were to look in on a session, you'd see therapists or parents sitting on the floor playing with a child.

It's not just any play session, however. Many learning opportunities are embedded in the carefully structured teaching and the relationship-based approach. If your toddler has been diagnosed with autism, it could be worth your while to discuss this opportunity with your pediatrician and find an early intervention program. While you wait to get your answers, you can try these four key activities outlined below.

Communication Skills

Expressing themselves and understanding spoken language can be a problem for children with autism. Your toddler might not talk yet or might say words and phrases but not use those words to ask for something or talk with you.

What You Can Do

Speak to your child directly and deliberately. Keep sentences short and eliminate extra words. Lean into his or her field of vision. Touch your child to indicate that you're talking to him or her. Some children respond better to speech reinforced with gestures. Include your child in interactive games and fun play time.

Putting Theory to Practice

Put a bucket of balls on the floor. When your child picks up a ball, you pick one up, too. Then empty the bucket. Throw your ball in the bucket and say "ball." When your toddler throws, say "ball" again. Pick up a ball and ask, "Do you want another ball? Say, "ball," and hand it over.

Each time your child says something, give him or her the ball. You're playing a game of "throwing balls in a bucket." You might throw to each other, bounce the ball or roll it. You're using your child's interest to focus on saying the word and working on throwing skills. While this is going on you're also practicing social play and taking turns. If your child isn't interested in a ball, play with whatever brings on the smiles and engagement.

Social Skills

By the time children hit the year mark, a typically developing child will do the waving gesture. They make eye contact regularly and enjoy your company (generally speaking). A child with autism on the other hand, might be very introverted and enjoy playing alone. You might notice a lack of eye contact and when you get close and try to engage, your child could tell you, in his or her own way, that you're invading his or her space.

What You Can Do

Toddlers and preschoolers who learn to imitate adult actions seem to have a broader range of social skills. Look for opportunities to share your expertise. Model how to ask for things and how to point and name items.

Putting Theory to Practice

Now is the time to use visual aids. At snack time, point to a picture of an apple and model the response, "I want an apple" or for a younger toddler, "want apple." Repeat a few times, pausing longer each time before your verbal prompt, encouraging your child to mimic your words.

Motor Skills

Not every child with autism has problems with motor skills, but it is common that gross motor skills or fine motors skills can lag. A toddler with autism might struggle with manipulating small objects or might have problems with balance and coordination.

What You Can Do

Make it a game. Children learn through play, so introduce games and activities that involve your toddler's imagination and body.

Putting Theory to Practice

Sit with your toddler in your lap. Play a game like "drop the block in the bucket." First show the game. Then place your hand over the baby’s hand and guide that hand to the block and then to the bucket. Take turns. Encourage your child to sign or ask for more with questions like "Do you want another block?" Don't be afraid to "change the rules" and simplify the game. Eventually your toddler will be able to manipulate the game on his own.

Sensory Integration

A child with autism usually has problems with their sensory system. Bright lights, noise and even wearing clothes can be painful. They might not perceive touch or taste the same as you. A bear hug might bring a smile when a loving stroke goes unnoticed. Children with autism love massages, bouncing, swinging and jumping. The deep impact seems to help them feel more grounded.

What You Can Do

Try to avoid crowded, noisy places if you can. The noise and commotion at movies, plays or restaurants could trigger a meltdown.

Tantrums might be sensory related -- a scratchy shirt, tight clothing or a fragrance. Lowering the instance of triggers can be the best autism treatments for overly sensitive toddlers.

Putting Theory to Practice

"It's bedtime!" Transitions can be tough for autistic kids. Get your child's attention and then say the words with a gesture, like laying your head on your hands. Follow your usual bedtime routine -- snack, bath and story. Some parents find that following up with a toddler-style, deep pressure massage calms their child and helps them get to sleep. Others say that weighted blankets and white noise machines help their toddlers with autism get a good night's rest.

Have you found a game or activity you and your autistic toddler enjoy?

[Editor's Note: This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Please work closely with the health professionals involved in your child's care.]

Updated: 5/18/2016