What is autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition of early childhood development. It is characterised by difficulty with social interaction, communication, sensory processing issues, repetitive behaviours and stereotype interests. The early signs of these are noticed as early as 14 to 18 months of age during the child’s development. The child fails to respond to his name, has difficulty with giving consistent eye contact, address his parents, difficulty with imitation, delayed or absent speech and express needs or wants.
How to diagnose autism?
There is no laboratory test that can help to diagnose this condition but only clinical observations by an expert and standardized paper pencil test comprising of caregiver questionnaires administered by a developmental psychologist. There is no cure for Autism but Early Intervention is very crucial to decide the child’s progress curve. Early Intervention typically includes Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Special Education. These are all evidence based practices which shows consistent improvement in a child. Autism is typically diagnosed by a child psychiatrist or a developmental paediatrician by age 3 to 5 years old.
Therapeutic activities are those activities that help to meet a particular therapeutic goal for the child with autism. These activities typically target at improving speech, language , communication, ease transition issues in a child , improve gross and fine motor skills, improve sensory processing and academic skills.
Therapeutic activities for autism
1. Sensory Play
Most autistic children show numerous sensory processing issues. They may show hypo or hypersensitivity to particular sensory stimuli. They may have touch hypersensitivity, movement seeking, deep pressure seeking, oral sensory defensive or seeker etc. Giving them structured touch based sensory play activities help to reduce the touch hypersensitivity. The various textures like
- Dry rice or wheat grains
- Corn Kernels
- Shaving foam
- Kinetic sand
Can be given along with small manipulatives hidden inside it like beads, buttons, small puzzle pieces. This is a very engaging and self motivating activity for the child. However, it is recommended to do it under supervision always to avoid ingestion of any non edible items.
2. Heavy Work Activities
These are proprioceptive activities that help give muscle and joint stimulation. These activities release a calming neurotransmitter in the brain that helps to calm a child. These activities are the ones including large muscles of the body in activities like pulling, pushing, lifting and carrying. The child can help in daily household chores like
- Pushing a bucket with wet clothes
- Wiping the windows or the dining table
- Arranging utensils in the rack
- Carrying shopping bag
- Pushing the grocery cart in a store
Perhaps the child could also be involved in activities like swimming, jumping with counts, cycling, playing tug of war, running etc.
3. Gym Ball Activities
The exercise or gym ball is an excellent resource for a child. A child can do various activities on it. It provides both proprioceptive and vestibular stimulation. An add on benefit of this resource is that it can be deflated and carried with the child even on a long holiday. The activities that can be done on a gym ball include bouncing on the ball, rocking on the ball, rolling the ball up on the wall to improve shoulder stability, and deep pressure by rolling the ball on the child.
4. Visual Schedule
Most autistic children have difficulty with transitions i.e. to move from one situation to another. Due to delay in expressive and receptive language skills, the child sometimes doesn’t understand the start and end of an activity or situation. When this happens, it comes as a surprise for the child making him upset. Also, autistic children love patterns or predictability. This helps the child to know what’s coming next. A visual schedule is usually a vertical long strip of sturdy material with Velcro stick ons. On this various activity are stuck in the sequence it would happen. Various schedules can be made for the day called mini schedules for school, morning routine, study time, dinner time etc.
5. Animal Walks
Its fun for children to do various kinds of animal walks as its a sensory stimulating activity meeting their needs and helps to build the muscle tone, shoulder stability and body coordination. They can do
- Bear Walk
- Crab Walk
- Commando crawl
- Snake crawl
- Inchworm walk
- Frog Jumps
- Jump like a kangaroo
6. Calming Zone
Sometimes autistic children get overstimulated and find it difficult to calm themselves. In such an instance, they can end up hurting themselves or others. A calm sensory corner at home and in school (if possible) would be very helpful. It can be enclosed like inside a tent or a huge cardboard box with pillows, cushions, stuff toys, visually calming sensory bottles, weighted blanket, lap pad or their favourite smell box, sensory figet toys. It helps the child to wind down and minimises the need of a caregiver to help the child calm down.
7. Outdoor Play
Its extremely important for a child to have outdoor play time in a park on swings, slides, hanging bars and merry go round. The intensity that these equipments provide can have a lasting impact on the child’s sensory system and give them even good sound sleep. Also, it provides an extra opportunity for socialising and adapting to other children in their group play. During monsoons, the parents can consider having a lycra swing, indoor swing or a rope ladder so that the child doesn’t miss out on the sensory diet.
Its worthy noting that these therapeutic activities are not one size fits all activity. Its highly recommended that the child gets a customised plan of such therapeutic activities from their occupational or speech therapists to maximise its benefit. They also should be reviewed on a regular basis and the plan be upgraded for increasing the challenge level according to the child’s progress.