5 Ways to Help Connect With Your Autistic Son

In America, dads typically connect with their sons through a combination of roughhousing and chase games, sports, and coaching. If a boy enjoys Boy Scouts, Dad helps build a car for the Pinewood Derby. If a boy loves Little League, Dad teaches skills, tosses pitches and, perhaps, helps to coach.

It can be tough to see how those activities can work well with a child who has sensory challenges, difficulty with gross motor skills, problems with spoken language, and few imitation skills.

Does that mean that American dads need a whole new set of skills to connect with their autistic son? The answer is yes...and no.

Yes, parenting a child on the spectrum does require some out-of-the-box thinking, a little creativity, a willingness to try, fail, and try again. It also requires an ability to make some changes—even when those changes don't reflect your own personal strengths or interests.

Dad teaches baseball to son
l. Getty Images

Using Fathering Skills

But no, parenting a child with autism may not mean giving up your dreams of typical fatherhood. Depending on the situation, it may be possible to bring the same ideas to the table—but tweak them for a child who thinks and acts a little differently.

Here are a few ideas for using those all-American fathering techniques to connect with a son on the autism spectrum:

  1. Roughhousing. The good news is: your autistic son may absolutely love roughhousing! That's because many kids with autism feel the need for intense pressure or sensation in order to feel calm and centered. "I caught you" games, swinging games, and other forms of roughhousing, therefore, can be a real treat for a youngster on the spectrum. The bad news, however, is that kids with autism may find intense pressure overwhelming. You'll need to try different types of physical play to determine what is fun—and not overwhelming—to your autistic child.
  2. Chase games. For many kids on the spectrum, for whom symbolic play and verbal communication are challenging, chase games are the first, best way to really play WITH rather than NEAR other people. What may be difficult for your son, however, are chase games with very specific rules. For some kids on the spectrum, the rules of games like tag or Capture the Flag may be too open-ended to make sense. For others, the rules may become too restrictive. Play it by ear: you and your child may be happier just "being monsters" together than playing rule-based games.
  3. Sports. It's rare—though by no means unheard of—for a child with autism to become a really skilled, enthusiastic team sports player. Team sports are extremely challenging for a child who has a tough time with gross motor skills, can't readily read body language, and is unable to figure out a social code unless it's explained to him in detail. On the other hand, many kids with autism are very good at (and really enjoy) more independent sports such as running, biking, bowling, and swimming. You may also find a shared interest in spectator sports: kids with autism are often extremely detail-oriented, and may wind up knowing more about your favorite team than you do!
  4. Coaching. If you have a son with autism, it's unlikely that you'll wind up coaching the winningest team in middle school history. On the other hand, you might wind up coaching a team of kids who really need a dad like you to help them get out there, throw a ball, and enjoy the thrill of running bases, making a goal, or just being part of the team. Special needs athletic groups are always looking for parent coaches—and the job is surprisingly fulfilling.
  5. Finding a Common Interest to Enjoy. Perhaps the most important way for a father and son to bond is over an area of shared interest. In the vast majority of cases, kids with autism HAVE interests (and even passions). If you're interested in connecting with your son, the best course to follow is to figure out what he loves—and share it. No, you may not already have a fascination for, say, model trains or Disney movies. But by digging deep and finding a way to enjoy a hobby or interest with your child, you'll build a foundation for the rest of your lives.
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