Should I Push My Autistic Child to Take Part in Typical Activities?

You enroll your autistic in a preschool soccer program and watch as your child wanders off while the other children happily kick the ball and run toward the goal.

You carefully dress your child up for Halloween to look like his favorite TV character, only to find that he can't stay in the costume for more than two minutes without having a sensory meltdown.

You invite a friendly classmate over for a play date. Your child abruptly leaves the playroom and heads upstairs on her own -- two hours before the play date is supposed to end.

All of these are common experiences for autism parents. In fact, many autism parents experience far more dramatic challenges with typical social experiences: their child actually bolts out of the room, hits another child, or falls apart emotionally when asked to participate.

There are many reasons why typical social activities are difficult for children on the spectrum--particularly when those children are very young, have severe sensory challenges, and/or have significant difficulties with receptive and expressive language. For example:

  • The noise and chaos of a team activity like soccer can be a sensory nightmare for your autistic child.
  • "Playing together" with another child may require levels of social engagement, communication, and intuition that are beyond your child's capacity.
  • Activities with complex, undefined rules may be overwhelming, confusing, and frustrating for your child.
  • "Make believe" and pretend activities may require much more preparation and practice than most parents are willing or able to provide.

The reality is that many typical social activities may look easy and fun to mom and dad, but are irrelevant, unpleasant, or even upsetting to children with autism. Parents, of course, feel a desire to fit in with their family and peers -- and may believe that exposing their child with autism to typical activities and events will eventually lead to acceptance and engagement. They may also feel pressure to push their autistic children to behave "normally."

Is it a good idea, though, to push autistic children into typical activities that they clearly don't enjoy? Almost all the time (with a very few unusual exceptions that include emergency situations and special, unavoidable events) the answer is NO.

Here's why:

  1. Typical activities involve typical children, parents, and instructors/coaches. These folks rarely know much at all about autism, and can become impatient, frustrated, and even nasty when a child can't or won't cooperate or take part.
  2. Typical activities often assume a level of social intuition and engagement that autistic kids don't have. For example, peewee soccer coaches assume that every 3 or 4 year old in their group ALREADY grasps the concept that they will playing in teams, that their job is to kick the ball into the goal, that "making a goal" is a good thing, and that everyone should cheer when a ball goes into a goal. Children with autism, for a variety of reasons, may not have this information -- and thus the entire experience looks, and feels, like chaos. While kids with autism are usually capable of kicking and running, they need a good deal of small-group or 1:1 instruction and practice in order to grasp the concepts and build the skills that their peers seem to grab out of thin air.
  1. Negative experiences with typical activities are unlikely to lead to positive experiences with typical activities. Yes, "try and try again" is a good mantra in general -- but the reality is that few kids with autism actively WANT to be part of a social group or engaged in a social activity, so they have no motivation to persevere. In fact, if they are unhappy, their best option is to show their unhappiness as loudly and obviously as possible, so as to get out of the situation as quickly as possible!
  2. The vast majority of autistic children have areas of interest and preference that they, personally, enjoy. These may not be social -- or they may involve only one other person. They may not be typical, or age-appropriate. They may not earn the praise of grandparents or typical peers. But whether your child loves legos, toy trains, Disney princesses, or splashing around in a swimming pool, these are real interests that can be the basis for relationship-building, skill-building, or simple fun.
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