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Dear Debi,
I have a three-year-old son who was recently diagnosed with autism. It’s been difficult getting him interested in our home activities, like painting and coloring. He seems to be more stimulated at preschool. How can I find an activity at home that interests him?
Kellee Leamy
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Autism appears during the first three years of life
  • Varies in severity
  • Impacts areas of social interaction & communication skills
  • Children with autism have difficulties in play activities
Expert Advice
Laurie Stephens, Phd
Laurie Stephens, Phd
Developmental Psychologist
Autism is a neurological, or brain, disorder that affects a child in three ways. First, children who have autism have delayed or unusual language development, often not speaking at all by the age of 2 or 3. Second, the children show difficulty in developing social skills or relating to those around them. Third, children with autism engage in repetitive behaviors.

Autism is considered a “spectrum” disorder, which means that it can vary widely in how it affects a child. For instance, one child with autism may be unable to speak, show little interest in the people around him and flap his arms over and over again, while another child may speak like a little professor and too much, wants friends but doesn’t know how to make them, and builds elaborate structures with Lego’s all day long.

It can be difficult to get children with autism to participate in activities that involve fine motor skills, such as coloring or painting. As with any activity that you are trying to get your child to participate, the first thing you want to do is try to find a way to make the activity more motivating and rewarding to the child.

One thing that may help Keelee is to try to put some texture into the paint, by mixing in flour or sand. This may lead Keelee’s son to want to feel the paint, and then she can encourage him to finger paint, or he can use the brush and then feel the textures when the paint has begun to dry.

Keelee may also want to have some favorite characters to paint or color, such as pictures of Elmo or the Muppets. This can motivate a child to participate in an activity that isn’t naturally rewarding for him. Painting can be turned into fun activities, such as body painting, painting in the bathtub, or just getting paint brushes wet and dripping water onto a piece of paper — anything that is going to get her son to feel comfortable with the materials and have some highly reinforcing moments with mom.

Keelee should look at all different types of coloring “tools” such as chalk, pencils, paint, crayons (big and small), etc to see if her son prefers one type of material over the others. Finally, it can be helpful for some children with autism to have the paper they are writing on be on an easel, rather than down on the table. Keeping the paper at eye level may make the task easier and more comfortable for Keelee’s son.

The specific strategies for helping a child with autism will vary depending on the age of the child. But for young children, the best way to integrate with other children is to begin by doing activities that the child with autism enjoys. For instance, having other children over to go in a “Bouncy House,” or to go in the pool. When at the park, allow the child to do his own thing (see what he/she enjoys doing) and then invite one other child over to join in. Often children with autism will enjoy being chased and this is a wonderful game to play with other children. Parents or caretakers can try to teach children to enjoy this game by always starting off with a phrase such as, “I’m going to get you!” Chase the child and when you catch him, tickle him or do some other highly reinforcing activity. Once the chasing takes on its own reinforcing power, encourage other children to chase the child by saying, “I’m going to get you!”!”

I think it all boils down to knowing what the child with autism can handle in terms of engaging with other children, and then slowly pushing that envelope in a supportive and nurturing manner. Peer modeling, such as teaching cousins or other children in the preschool or day care setting is an excellent way to help these children learn how to approach a child with autism and how to best interact with him or her.
Child Care provider Comments
Theresa Quary
Theresa Quary
Mother of two kids, Daughter has Autism
Repetition and consistency are key for most children in general, but especially for kids with autism. When you’re trying to figure out what kinds of activities they enjoy, much of it is trial and error. I’ve never forced new things on my daughter, Simone. If she doesn’t like something, we move on to something else and then revisit it later. My one piece of advice for parents who have a child with autism is to make sure that your child is playing with typically developing children because they model “typical” behavior for them. For Simone it’s been great for introducing new things that she would have otherwise been hesitant to try.
Susan Kaplan
Susan Kaplan
Cares for her grandson
One of the things I try to do with my grandson is engage him in a fun way. I’ll make a game out of things. If he is leaning towards not doing something, I’ll take a puppet out and I’ll be able to communicate with him through the puppet. The puppet helps us get to where we need to be.
Alma Martinez
Alma Martinez
Child care provider for 10 years
Kellee should take advantage of whatever may interest her son. If he likes the outdoors, she might try taking the coloring or painting activities outdoors. She may not be able to get him to sit and paint but she can get some bigger paint brushes, line the floor with paper and let him paint that way because he may want to use his gross motor skills instead of his fine motor skills. The key is to observe him and figure out why it is that he doesn’t seem to want to paint. It could be that he just doesn’t want to get dirty, in which case she can modify the painting activity to something like Ball Painting. It takes patience and observation to determine how best to modify activities to each child’s needs.

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