As speech and language therapists, we work with a wide range of children, of different ages and with different needs. Some children love every game that you offer them, happily join in with most activities and are easy to keep focussed. Others take a little more creativity and get bored more easily! Some children (particularly, but not exclusively, those on the autistic spectrum) can be very difficult to engage in any activity, and often seem to take very little notice that there is an adult there at all. Today’s post aims to offer a few ideas of how to work with these children.
First of all, I don’t claim to be an expert on this at all! I just thought it was worth sharing what I do. Hopefully others will chip in in the comments and offer some suggestions too of the many things I am sure I will have missed!…
- Watch the child. This is such an important starting point. See what the child is doing now. If given a free choice, what do they choose to spend time doing? Can you incorporate this into your session?
- Ask parents. Find out what the child does at home. Do they have particular toys they play with or keep returning to? A favourite programme or film that they watch repetitvely? Some children actually play very little, but find out if there is anything they will engage in with a parent. This might be tickling, jumping, being swung round in circles, singing the same song over and over again. Whatever it is, it gives you a starting point.
- Copy what the child does. If I am working with a child who is very difficult to engage in activities, I don’t expect them to sit down and listen to me for half an hour! (or even 5 minutes!) It is great to do sessions at home or school/nursery if I can, and I will follow the child’s lead instead. Let them choose the toys and activities and join in and copy them. Some children can be very repetitive in their play and get very upset if someone else tries to join in. I won’t take their toys, but I just sit alongside them with a similar set of toys and copy what they are doing. For example, if they are pushing a car back and forth across the floor, I will sit a little distance away with another car and copy what they do. Usually the child continues to ignore me, but that’s ok! Be persistent and keep trying.
- Make sure the child can see you. If a child is reluctant to engage with an adult, they may not be keen on you getting down and copying them either! Sometimes the first thing the child does is to turn the other way so they can’t see me. I try to move round into their line of sight again, but a little further away. If they turn away more than a couple of times, I will stop, wait a little while and then try again.
- Add something to what they are doing. Once the child will tolerate me copying them, I try to add a little to what they are doing. Go slowly with this, and just add a little thing in each time. For example, I worked with a child who loved Peppa Pig and spent a lot of time saying “jumping up and down in muddy puddles” and making the toys jump up and down repetitively. I joined in with this for a while, then gradually got each one to do another short action after they had jumped up and down in puddles – going to sleep, sitting down, making a noise etc. I named each thing as we did it. Although the child was not happy about this initially, she tolerated it and watched and eventually started to copy. We were interacting with each other and playing the same game – fantastic!
- Be very exciting! You need to be really over the top. Make your voice and your face exciting. Have lots of really exciting toys. You need to look like you are having the best time ever to entice the child to try and engage! Multi-sensory toys are often great for this – things that flash, move, make noises, are interesting to touch etc. can work really well. Again take note of the individual child and what motivates them – some children love things with flashing lights for example, and for others they are either not interested or become over-stimulated by them. Try a variety of things and see what works. Aim to get the child watching you playing with the toy and enjoying it as well, as that way they are engaging with you, not just the toy.
- Have separate toys for session times. This can work either in speech therapy sessions or at home. Have a bag or box of particular toys which the child is only allowed to use with someone else. They may be identical to toys they use at other times, but it can be helpful for enabling them to accept that they are doing different things with them. One child that I work with won’t play with any toys with me now unless they have come out of my big green bag, but as long as they have, she will sit and have a go and let me take a turn occasionally too!
If you want more information on this topic, here are a few fantastic resources I have found for ideas for having fun with children who don’t want to engage with you.
- The Attention Autism programme by Gina Davies is fantastic. I won’t try to describe it myself here as she does a far better job. Watch her 5-minute lightning talk on the approach here and check out her website here. There is also a great post by a teacher using Stage One (the attention bucket) here.
- Playing, Laughing and Learning with Children on the Autism Spectrum, This is an amazing book that is written by a parent and packed full of ideas about how she taught her own son to engage with other people.
- Teach Me to Play with You by Laura Mize. I am hesitant to recommend this book. It is great, but you can only buy it in America currently, and the postage is really expensive. It is very good though and full of ideas for both SLTs and parents.
What else do you do to help children engage with you?
Thanks for this great post. I will be coming back to look at some more posts. It was heartbreaking when my son was younger and almost impossible to engage. Everything in your post really worked for us, now my son is very engaged and always wanting tickles!